What do I look like to you, white senator?
What do I look like to you, white senator? YouTube

It happened like this on the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. The host is interviewing his guest, Republican senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. At one point, the senator recommends that Maher visit his state and work in the fields. Maher looks at the senator quizzically, raises his hands, and then says: "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house nigger." Some in the audience laugh. Maher laughs at what he perceives as his exceptional wit. The senator stares at his host blankly. And Maher, maybe realizing he has said something that might be deeply offensive, attempts to brush it off with "It's a joke." But it's not at all funny because what he did at the awful moment he uttered those words was leave his own race (hands raised) and enter blackface.

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Maher played a black person who is offended about being confused with a common slave and wants to be recognized by the white master as a slave who has the honor of working in the master's house. The fact is a black person would never have responded to or, more accurately, twisted the senator's comment in that way. It would have been deeply shameful and self-hating for a black person to laugh it up like that—laugh about the slave class system with a white person. Meaning, there was no context in which Maher could have made that "joke" but a racist one.

But the most disturbing thing about Maher, and what is revealed by his facile use of this racial slur, is that he clearly thinks he is above race. And there are many white liberals who actually think this way, who think that because they could never be racist, they can say whatever they want. But in truth, this is a delusion because there is no position in this society, which was built on uncompensated black African labor, that's above racism. It is no historical accident that millions of the people who descended from the plantation system's source of labor are today being displaced in cities and filling our prisons.


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