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President Obama Waves

Source: Mark Wilson / Getty

By now you’ve heard about that terrible thing that the president said on that podcast. Yes, Obama said “nigger,” and many pearls were clutched.

Unfortunately, some people were so horrified by the admittedly-caustic word that they paid no attention to the context in which he said it, which was in service of describing our country’s trouble with racism.

When I first heard that President Obama would be sitting down for an episode of WTF with Marc Maron,  I was excited as a fan of Maron’s comedy. Marc Maron began WTF back in 2009 and is one of the defining presences in the podcasting game, recording his honest and enlightening interviews in his suburban California garage. He traffics in uncomfortable truths, in both his stand-up and on his podcast. His brilliant special Thinky Pain  is as much a meditation on anxiety as it is a comedy show. Marc Maron’s garage is a place where truths are told.

Which is exactly what President Obama was doing when he said our country is “not cured of” racism. He continued, “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

I’ve seen some media outlets refer to it as a “slip,” but it wasn’t a “slip,” it was a statement. President Obama speaks authoritatively, yet casually throughout the interview, exhibiting what I think of as his trademark mixture of stateliness and swagger. At certain moments, he sounds like he’s truly chatting extemporaneously, but there are other times when he discusses policy or invokes statistics, that sound a bit more like prepared statements.

Despite my imagination and regular viewing of Scandal, I really don’t know Presidential Procedure Regarding Podcast Participation. Maron describes, in his separately-recorded episode introduction, the roughly week-long security events that had to occur in and around his home before the president’s arrival. Just as the president can’t just randomly pop up somewhere, when he’s seated for a scheduled interview with a mic in front of him and a sniper on the roof, he’s savvy enough to not have things just randomly pop out of his mouth.

“Nigger” is a word that President Obama has heard. He’s used it in his writing, and goodness knows he’s been called one too often to count. His use (or lack thereof) of the word in his personal life or when he’s not being recorded is none of my business; his use of the word in the context of this interview was brilliant and real, and context is what so many of his detractors are sinfully ignoring.

I don’t imagine that any of those saying such preposterous things as it “soils the dignity of the Oval Office”  or that the president is now “the rapper-in-chief” could be bothered to listen to the entire podcast episode or absorb the message in what the president said. Or perhaps they did, and they’re so terrified by how right he is that they’d rather engage in this charade of hand-wringing and language policing. To run a continual diversion from progress over this word, and who can and cannot say it, is so easy; it’s pathetic. (Sit down, Piers Morgan.)

An insightful statement was made about a rampant societal ill that you and your cronies perpetuate, but you’re now ranting because you can only think oh my God the President said ‘nigger.’

You now have a “Get Out Of Thought Free” card, shaking an angry fist at the sky in outrage because he said a bad word. You get to revel in your flabbergasted gobsmacked-ness and ignore every word but one, not pausing your furor to see the truth in the statement the president made, or contemplate your contribution to it. No, no—never contemplation, never introspection. Those are worthless endeavors that don’t land you airtime on Fox News.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, many of us heard (or read) the quote in question and had the very same response: oh my God the President said ‘nigger!’ Of course, those of us who hear him and are SO here for this statement are shocked for a different reason; we’re not used to hearing such truth from power.

Even President Obama’s longtime fans accept that he is inherently hindered by his position when it comes to talking about race in America. No one needs me to remind them that President Obama is our nation’s first Black president, but I’m not ashamed to admit that on some days, it hits me as though we had just elected him to his first term. MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK, Y’ALL!

At times, when navigating and succeeding in largely or exclusively White spaces, I’ve been deemed “one of the good ones” by well-intentioned, yet painfully ignorant folks. In certain circles and at certain levels of achievement, it’s a radical act simply to be Black and be allowed in.Multiply that heinous baggage and respectability politics by a trazillion, and I think we might approach the rarified air that President Obama breathes on the daily. His position and the accepted boundaries of public policy prevent him from engaging in what I would call “real talk” about race publicly to the extent that I think (hope?) he would like to. And this WTF appearance wasn’t even that raw, if we’re being real about it.

But he said “nigger.” He’s not the first president to say it; he’s just the first president to speak it while making a salient and necessary point, as opposed to denigrating Black people with open, virulent racism.

And, being that he’s the first Black president, anything he says about race is met with extra scrutiny, and his conservative critics pounced on this word, frothing with ignorant fervor. They even get hung up on the podcast itself being titled with an acronym for “What the Fuck,” so horrifically unable to process certain words they are.

I’m not a fan of doing or saying any old thing to get people’s attention or “start a conversation,” and I think shock value is for the birds. But I don’t see this as a cheap shocker or a wild linguistic stunt on the president’s part. I see it as accurate use of a volatile term to help illustrate the volatility of racism, even when it’s masked in gentler parlance.

I understand the feelings of people who felt triggered by hearing the word as an undoubtedly painful slur, although my personal feeling is that sometimes we have to say and do (and hear) some painful stuff along the way to societal progress and enlightenment.

I say something some people don’t like on the internet and suddenly I’m being called “nigger cunt” in multiple browser windows. Most White people are as aghast at this, as anyone with a conscience would be, but those same people will reply to a statement that #BlackLivesMatter saying #AllLivesMatter, blissfully unaware of how they contribute to systemic racism when they deny its very existence.

These perpetrators of casual, everyday racism are exactly who President Obama was speaking to, including the “good” White people who argue that they never owned slaves and they “didn’t do anything!” Your inaction in a time that calls for action is tantamount to contributing to the evil.

He said the word because he meant the word, not as insult but example. To say “the n-word” is to describe the word, not use it, and indeed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed my suspicion that it was not a slip and also not regretted by the president.

We needed to hear this message, and I applaud the president. Hopefully we can expect more truth telling as his second term comes to an end, and I look forward to what kind of honesty he’ll unleash with his affable stammer once he’s out of office.

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