Sen. Ben Sasse’s Struggle To Confront Bill Maher’s Racism Was Understandable But Disappointing

Sen. Ben Sasse’s Struggle To Confront Bill Maher’s Racism Was Understandable But Disappointing

My grandmother used racist language constantly when I was a teenager. Watching Sen. Ben Sasse's response to Bill Maher reminded me of my struggle to respond.

Visiting my grandmother’s house was always awkward. I don’t remember the first time she said something racist, but I knew that at least one comment would be forthcoming every visit. I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill old people racism like calling Asian people “Orientals” (though she did that too), but honest-to-God, jaw-dropping racism.

There was the African priest who took over her parish, “forcing” her to find a new one. Or her theory on evolution: Black people were descendant from apes; Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish people from chimpanzees; and white people from Adam and Eve, of course. I can only imagine how awkward it was for my mother to bring home her Jewish boyfriend, who then became her husband. Actually, I can imagine—because I did it 30 years later.

Over the weekend, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska appeared on Bill Maher’s show, “Real Time.” Sasse walked into the lion’s den to talk about his book on raising American kids past perpetual adolescence. He likely prepared a great deal for the appearance, ready for any number of liberal talking points on both his book and matters of politics and policy.

What threw him off, however, was an unexpected comment from Maher which included a word now banned from the popular American vernacular, n****r. While some African Americans use the word with an -a suffix, it’s otherwise become so verboten, it’s simply called “the N-word.”

Watching Sasse respond reminded me a great deal of how I would handle my grandmother’s use of the same word and the hate behind it. Sasse’s smile dropped, he pulled back reflexively, and winced. A point many liberals made when the incident went viral the next day was the fact that Sasse stayed silent instead of speaking up about Maher’s use of the most controversial epithet in our culture.

Do I wish Sasse had spoken up? Yes. He would later tweet his own disappointment in himself for neglecting to do so.

But I do understand why Sasse was paralyzed in the moment. For Sasse, the incident came out of left field. In my grandmother’s house, racist remarks weren’t surprising in the sense that I knew they were coming, but I was always shocked at how they’d rear their ugly head. As a guest in her home, as Sasse was a guest of Maher’s, I also felt conflicted as to how I should confront the situation while respecting social norms. How does one tell their host that their words and views are abhorrent, while avoiding awkwardness for the rest of your time in the home (or on set)?

As a fan of Sasse who is interested in the focus of his book, I found the senator’s silence disappointing. After writing a book on values and child-rearing, what message does it send to American kids when he is silent when confronted with racially-charged language?

But Sasse has mentioned in every media appearance I’ve listened to (and as a fan, that’s a number) that his family is far from ideal and falters daily. Sasse’s silence was one of those times. In addition to wanting to raise my children to stand up to racism and racist speech, I also want to raise them with empathy, grace, and the ability to both apologize and forgive.

I understand why Sasse reacted as he did; I’ve been there. I also understand how profoundly unfair it would be to hold him responsible for the words of another and to continue to rake him over the coals after his sincere and immediate apology. In his book, Sasse attempts to dissect how we can raise and be better adults. On the latter, we can learn from Sasse how to make a personal reckoning with our own failures, and how to extend our forgiveness to others.

Bethany Mandel is a stay-at-home mother of three children under four and a writer on politics and culture. She is a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward, and a contributor at Acculturated. She lives with her husband, Seth, in New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @BethanyShondark.
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