Nina Turner to Bill Maher: It’s Never Okay To Use The N-Word

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. On June 2nd, Bill Maher used the N-word during his HBO show, “Real Time.” It created outrage across the nation. Here’s a clip.

BILL MAHER: Got to get to Nebraska more.

BEN SASSE: You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work on the fields with us.

BILL MAHER: Work in the fields? I’m a house n*gger. It’s a joke. Thank you.

EDDIE CONWAY: Joining me to discuss this is former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner. Senator Turner, thanks for joining me.

NINA TURNER: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

EDDIE CONWAY: Can you explain what this controversy is about? The use of the N-word, and so on.

NINA TURNER: Well yes, as you mentioned at the top the introduction, Mr. Bill Maher used the N-word term in his conversation with an elected official, who had made reference to inviting him to work in the fields. Mr. Bill Maher decided to say that he would not join anyone in the field, because he is a house N, and it did start an uproar. It’s unfortunate that the people in the audience were laughing, and you know, it’s a moment that I think we can use in the country as a teachable moment, and what really gets to me more than the use of the word, the casual, cool, calm nature by which these words rolled off his tongue, and he declared himself to be a house nigger, I’m just going to say what he said, is the fact that in the United States of America, and this is bigger than Bill Maher, in the United States of America, African Americans still face other pressures and the impact of folks in this country not understanding and not respecting the struggle.

My message to him and to any other person, especially white people who want to declare themselves, is that it was just as if African slaves, African American slaves that worked in the house on a plantation, were at a country club chilling, instead of chattel slavery which they were, and chattel slavery is you are an object, you are a thing. It’s like your dog, your car, your washing machine. You are a thing, and African Americans were owned in this country. Hopefully this will turn into a teachable moment that we should not, even though yes, First Amendment, free speech, all of that stuff, I get it, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do something. The way he framed that was absolutely wrong and deplorable.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. I guess one of the things that leaps out at me is that within the black community, and I guess I myself is guilty of this, we use those terms frequently. What’s the difference between us using those terms and a white person say using those terms?

NINA TURNER: Well, I personally don’t think anybody should use the term as a term of endearment. You may remember, Eddie, a few years ago, Dr. Cornel West did a spoken word CD, and in that spoken word CD, he addressed the use of the N-word, and basically what he said was that this is not a term of endearment. How about brother? Sister? Doctor? Why must we continue to use a word that was created to dehumanize African Americans? I mean, this word was used when African Americans were beat. This word was used when they were made to feel “less than.” It is absolutely not a term of endearment, and yes, I do get African Americans use it. I don’t like it when they use it, but it has an extra special sting when white folks use it, knowing full well what the history is in this country.

I wish that no one would use it, so to me, there really is not much of a difference, although I know within the black culture it is used, especially in popular culture, especially with the onset of gangster rap. There are some African Americans who believe that they can take the sting out of that word. As a historian, I would argue that they cannot take the sting out of that word, that African Americans by far have been the only ethnic group in this country for a longer period of time, less I say our Native American sisters and brothers, for the longest period of time have been fighting to define themselves, have been fighting to show their humanity, and even in the 21st century, we still fight to show that we are equal to and deserve as much respect as anybody else.

Again, I want our viewers to understand it’s not just the use of the word, but it’s the context in which the word was used, and not really even giving a thought to what it meant to be a slave in America, that slavery existed in this country for over 250 years. Then, we had to endure another 100 years of Jim Crow, segregation, “Let’s continue to treat them like second class citizens,” and another 50 years of in-between status. That is a lot. That is a heavy burden for the African American community to have to bear, and the descendants of slave are still enduring in different ways, institutional racism in the United States of America. That is why someone, especially of that stature, should never use those words in that context.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. One of the things, and I think a lot of people don’t even recognize or realize that the conditions inside those plantations, the big house, were horrendous also. One of the accounts I was looking at was George Washington, the first President, at the end of his term in Pennsylvania, he had a slave working in the house as a cook, named Hercules. Hercules was an excellent cook, but he was in slavery throughout the whole administration of George Washington. When George Washington decided to go back to Mount Vernon, Hercules ran away. Hercules wasn’t just the first slave of George Washington to run away.

When they asked Hercules’ daughter, was she going to miss her dad because he was gone, his daughter said that she was so glad he was gone because he was free, which indicates the conditions even for men in the big house was bad, but certainly the conditions in the big house for women was even worse. I don’t think people realize that just because you’re in the house with somebody that owns you, don’t make you safe and don’t make the conditions any better.

NINA TURNER: Absolutely. In some cases, it was worse. Some historians, and even psychologists, even social scientists in this field would actually argue that the house slave had to endure more of the psychological torment. Not really being able to even get a mental reprieve, if you will. Slavery was harsh. This was not a game, this was harsh. Folks died. They were used, they were insured like property, they were worked hard, they were beaten, they were killed, and you just shipped some more in. Then, after the international slave trade closed in this country in the early 1800’s, the domestic slave trade began. Slave masters would get two, a male and a female slave, and mate them like they were animals, and they would try to get the biggest ones, so that they could try to get the strongest litter, if you will.

I know that’s about cats, but that is just how they treated African Americans. You are absolutely right. The psychological trauma that went along with slavery, but especially if you were a house slave, and in many cases, the slave, the female slave that took care of children for example, took care of the mistress, sleeping on the floor by the side, never getting a reprieve, black women having to leave their children to suckle the babies of their owners, and meanwhile neglect their own children. Slavery was harsh. It was cruel, it was inhumane, and it didn’t matter whether or not you were in the house, or you were in the field.

Women were always in fear that they would be raped, and that didn’t matter whether you were in the house or in the field, but the slave owners and overseers and their sons, and their relatives could get to you a lot quicker while you were in the house. Had to walk a little distance to get to you in the field, but rape occurred of women, rape occurred of men, families being separated, sold on the block. This is the essence of slavery in this country, and so for anybody to make light of that, it’s just wrong.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, and one of the things that I noticed this past week, a study came out of the Oakland, California City Police Department, how they interacted with people, based on the use of the body cams. They looked at the language and the disrespect, and the language between the races and made a determination that whether the office were white or black, they disrespected the black population several times more than they did the white population when they made stops, when they made inquiries, et cetera. Basically what it was saying was that there’s something about the use of language in how you see people that diminishes how you respect them right from the beginning.

I think maybe, and your point taken that nobody should use this word, maybe that is a very valid point, because language is very important in terms of how you see people.

NINA TURNER: Absolutely. Words do matter. There was something I just read in the USA Today. It was called “The Five Things You Need To Know,” and they were making reference to another study that has just been completed that shows that black soldiers, for example, or black military personnel receive stiffer penalties, two times harsher penalties than their white colleagues. I’m talking about the military right now, in the 21st century, not the 20th century, not the 19th century, but in the 20th century, right now today. Just read that today, two times harsher penalties. We know that black children, especially black males, are suspended at higher rates, out of school suspensions at higher rates, are penalized more.

Again, it really is in the DNA of this country, which is so much bigger than Bill Maher, but we can certainly use this moment as a teachable moment. He did apologize, Eddie. He did apologize. I think his apology was about him not having had enough sleep, and what I will say with that, because some people rushed and said, “You guys, let it go. Accept his apology.” They have a right to their opinion, but it really got to me. I started feeling some type of way, especially the white folks telling black people to get over it. We’re the only group, again, that are asked to get over stuff really quickly. A day hadn’t gone by, it hadn’t even sunk in, he hadn’t even had time to realize his transgression before folks are running out there saying get over it.

Now, I’m not necessarily of the school that says that he should be fired for this. I think people rush and they want folks to be fired. Anybody can have a human moment, but the way in which, and I hope when our viewers see, that the way in which that just rolled off him like that, gave me the impression that this was not necessarily the first time. For the folks that think that we should get over it, I absolutely disagree with him, and I wish that he had given a stronger apology, Eddie.

I wish his apology had have went something like this, in only the way that Bill Maher can do, because we know he’s raw, but he should have something like, “I F’d up,” and he would say the word, “And I want to apologize to my colleagues, I want to apologize to the producers, I want to apologize to my audience, but most importantly, I want to apologize to African Americans for this moment that I had where I took for granted and didn’t quite understand the weight of my words, in not really capturing the essence of the human suffering that African Americans had to endure, generation after generation.”

“And I, although I am not a black man, and I am not a black woman, I will never, ever fully understand the weight of racism, the weight of institutional racism, the weight of knowing that if you are a black mother in slavery that when you birthed a child into this world that that child would be a slave because you are a slave, although I will never, ever truly understand what it means to have your relatives on a block, and you guys are sold, you are sold like cattle, you are treated as less than human, and even when we made gains in this country, with this 13th and 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, you were still treated like second class citizens in this country for a 100 more years.”

“Even though we’ve made many, many gains in this country, you are still treated differently in this country. I want to apologize for the fact that I did not quite get that, and moving forward, I want to be a champion to try to do everything in my power to eradicate institutional racism, and I ask the larger community, but I especially ask African Americans, to forgive me for my transgression.” See Eddie, that’s the kind of apology the brother should have gave, not this, “I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.” I’m over it.

Eddie Conway: Yes. I think this has been very informative for our audience, and thank you for sharing, and we will keep an eye on this and see what happens.

Nina Turner: Thank you, Eddie. Thank you so much, and thank you to our audience.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, and thank you for joining The Real News.