The N-word: When to use it?
The correct answer for most of us is probably "Never." But just to be sure, we asked an expert, comedian W. Kamau Bell, who will bring his standup act to Theatre 99 this Saturday. Here's his answer to the burning question:
"When you're willing to accept the consequences of using it."
Simple enough, right? Bell elaborates:
"That goes across all racial lines. People say, 'Well, black people can say it' — uh, President Obama can't say it because he can't take the consequences of saying it. If President Obama drops the N-bomb today and Eminem drops the N-bomb today, I think one of those stories is going to be bigger in the news. I've got my bets on the Obama one."
Bell has a fairly informed opinion on the topic of slurs. The American Civil Liberties Union has dubbed him an Ambassador of Racial Justice. His FX TV show Totally Biased, which dealt frequently in the touchy topics of race, sexuality, and politics, earned a 2013 GLAAD Award nomination for "Outstanding Talk Show Episode." In his original traveling show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, he offered two-for-one tickets to audience members who brought a friend of a different race.
Besides all that, Bell has been talking about race in his standup act for years. But he uses the N-word very sparingly.
"I don't use it disposably," Bell says. "I only use it when I need to use it; I don't use it as an adjective or an adverb. I use it when I'm like, 'I am about to use it.' I have a bit right now where I have my daughter dropping an N-bomb on me, and for me, in that situation, it's funny and charged because of how I'm using it, not just because I'm using it cavalierly. I'm not trying to rhyme anything with it."
Now, before you get your Dockers in a wad about double standards and reverse discrimination, hear the man out. In Bell's mind, not all words are created equal:
"Words are like knives, and some words are like a Ginsu knife or a samurai sword, where you've got to be really careful when you take it out of the sheath because it can cut you and everybody else. And some words are like the plastic knife in the back of your drawer, where you can use it, but it ain't gonna hurt anybody. People act like every word is the same — 'How come you can say it but I can't say it?' Because I know how to use the samurai sword."
Having a Beef with Samuel L. Jackson
Bell is no stranger to controversy, despite his generally gentle demeanor. While he prefers not to refer to his comedy as "political humor," he frequently wades into waters that a more timid comedian would stay out of.
On Totally Biased, which was yanked from the airwaves (far too soon) after its second season ended in the fall of 2013, his man-on-the-street interviews included questions like, "Anything you want to say to a white guy?" and "Who would you gay-marry if gay marriage were mandatory?" In a segment about NYPD's Stop-and-Frisk policy, he asked, "What if every time they stopped you, they gave you a soda and they called it, like, Pop-and-Frisk?"
If words are knives, Bell strives to keep his point sharp — and to aim it well.
"My act is to only attack the targets I think need to be attacked, and to make sure your attack is sharp enough, you only hit those people," Bell says.
Inevitably, though, some of his attacks miss the mark. A good example from Totally Biased was when he criticized director Quentin Tarantino for portraying his slave-revenge fantasy Django Unchained (which included about 109 N-bombs, by the way) as a historically realistic film.
"I was just like, 'Look, man, it was a good movie, but we can't call it historically accurate,'" Bell says. "Jamie Foxx wore aviators, his hair was done with an electric razor, and he looked like a member of New Edition."
Months after airing that segment, Bell received a surprising backlash: Samuel L. Jackson, who played a supporting role in Django, fired back in an interview with Playboy, saying of Bell, "He's a young black man with nappy hair and very dark skin, but he also has a very white wife and an interracial child."
"It literally made my stomach hurt," Bell says. "One of the hardest days I ever had on the show was the day we did my response [to the Playboy interview]," Bell says. "It was weirdly emotional for me. Like, suddenly I'm having to have beef with Samuel L. Jackson? There's no part of me when I entered the entertainment industry that was like, 'And when I make it, I'm gonna tear down Samuel L. Jackson.' I have nothing but respect and love for him."
But the media moment was upon him, and it demanded a response. Bell fired back with wit. "Yes, I do have a white wife," he said on the subsequent episode of Totally Biased. "I don't know if she's very white. She's only used the N-word once, and it was right after she read this article."
Ultimately, Bell and Jackson patched things up on Twitter ("Apparently that's the new walking seven times around Mecca and asking for forgiveness," Bell says). According to Bell, Jackson even promised to do an interview on Totally Biased.
And then FX pulled the plug on the show.
"He still owes me a conversation," Bell says, "a public conversation."