In the long history of Bill Maher on TV there has never been a more real time moment on Real Time than last Friday’s episode. I struggle to think of another major TV host who responded to a national firestorm by allowing people to come on his show and beat him up over his own transgressions. It’s like Maher went to the town square, locked himself in the pillory, and let people have at him for an hour. But strangely, the courage to have Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Ice Cube and Symone Sanders take him to the woodshed did not lead to the best version of Maher. He was contrite—at least early on in the show—but he was also defensive, excuse-heavy, mentioned the omnipresence of the n-word in culture (as he’s done before), Kathy Griffin, a litany of America’s historical atrocities (groan), and the fact that we’re all evolving. What?
Maher’s conversation with Dyson was weird; at times, it seemed like they were speaking different languages. My friend Dr. Dyson missed the mark by over-intellectualizing in a moment of pain—Dyson surrounded some solid questions to Maher with so much verbal cogitation that the comedian was able to avoid really answering them. On the other hand, Ice Cube was direct, emotional, and powerfully plain-spoken. He forced the conversation to its true center as Maher grew grumpy. But Cube is right: the problem is that Maher thinks he has a pass.
By “a pass” I mean he feels that he can do things that other white people can’t—things that are culturally reserved for Blacks. The pass is both I’m unique among whites and I get special privilege from Blacks. Many of us have known someone who thinks they have a pass. That guy who dates only Black women, or has lots of Black friends, or really, really loves hip-hop, or mastered some Black cultural skill (dancing, hooping, rhyming, whatever) and thinks that means he’s an honorary Black person. Cube alluded to this right off the bat: “there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they a little too familiar… Guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two that made them Kool-Aid every now and then, and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t.”
Cube’s talking about bad ally behavior. Maher’s sin may be rooted in loving Blackness too much but it is still a cultural sin because there is no such thing as a pass. There’s nothing that a white person can accomplish that makes them become Black. The notion of a pass—of over-identifying with Blackness—is so problematic and so painful because it objectifies Blackness. It posits Blackness as akin to something one can learn their way into. Blackness cannot be earned like a Boy Scout badge. And people who think they have a pass use it only to access the fun and joyful side of Black culture. They want Fun Blackness: The parties, the style, the rhythm of mama Africa. They don’t want to grapple with the fact that Blackness also comes with a whole lot of pain.
Don’t tell me you’re Black without having felt the pain of having ancestors who were enslaved and cousins who are imprisoned and brothers and sisters who were named Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile. Don’t tell me you’re Black without having had to navigate a system designed to crush you. Don’t tell me you’re Black without knowing what it is to think your country hates you, without knowing how it feels to have doors shut in your face, without knowing that any basic traffic stop could be the end of your life. Black people know what it is to fear what white privilege will do to you or your family. Black people know what the lash of white supremacy feels like. People who think they have a pass never use it to access that stuff.
Maher offered the notion of comic privilege as one of his many excuses but I don’t think that’s what this is about. Yes, comics often craft jokes that are meant to offend and it’s valuable for society to allow comedians to explore taboo subjects. But this wasn’t that. This was a knee-jerk reaction that showed that Maher, given just a second to think, would reveal that he sees himself as analogous to a house slave. This rich and famous white man may be over-identifying with Blackness a bit much. I am not in the camp that believes Maher should be fired but I do think he should spend some considerable time engaging in introspection and find the space to support racial justice, love Black culture and be a true ally without seeing all that as a path to becoming Black.