The controversy of the non-controversy of President Obama saying “nigger” is truly, a non-motherfucking factor.
But we’re talking about it because pundits like Todd Starnes of Fox News are claiming Obama “disgraced the office of the Presidency” for stating bluntly that there is far more to racism than the words WE use. For context, this is what President Obama actually said in a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron, as transcribed by Politico:
The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it,” Obama said in the interview, posted in full on Monday. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n——-’ 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 2-300 years prior.”
Let us not pretend that this isn’t a PSA that must still be made. South Carolina placed a judge to preside over the Charleston terrorist’s trial who had repeated a racist joke while on the bench and speaking to a black defendant. This went completely unchecked until social media got wind of the event. If a judge that has been appointed to use his bench to dignify both law and life doesn’t know that repeating racial epithets in a joking manner isn’t acceptable, how low is the bar for everyone else? What’s disgraceful about the outrage over Obama’s highly specific use of the word isn't the fact that he said it in an interview - it's that that the bar for racial tolerance and nuance in polite white society is set so low that racism is often excused or explained away.
There are a few reasons as to why pundits and commentators like Deneen Borelli, Steve Doocy and Bill Hemmer are seizing on Obama’s specific language in the podcast and ignoring his larger message. Though there are some Black people that resent Obama’s use of the word (Deneen Borelli being one of them), the uproar is mostly from those that are White. Aside from grouping White people collectively as a demographic when talking about race, I can’t think of anything that gets said demographic more upset than being told that they can’t say “nigger”.
Piers Morgan’s continued tantrum about his inability to say the word without being racist comes to mind. After declaring that the n-word should be “whipped into submission” and debating the meaning of it in Black culture with real-life Black people, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and John Legend, Piers took to Twitter today to declare that n-word was used “500,000 times a day” by mostly “young Black Americans”. And yet, Piers and too many have nothing to say about the “young Black Americans” that are killed by police brutality and are victims of racism because too many White people think that they’re just “niggers” and the lowest class of Black life, if the Charleston judge’s use of the word is to be allowed.
The rage of Piers Morgan and conservative pundits about Obama using the n-word is simply because they can’t say it and there’s no other way to gain access or use the desired term without looking racist. Considering the reasons why White people can’t say that word without complications - the history of White people saying “nigger” has never been a nice, empowering or re-claimed thing – is where the misguided rage should be re-directed. The affront to White privilege that too many feel is far more offensive – and racist - than Obama’s employment of the word to describe that having enough common sense to not use racial epithets in public does not make you not racist. To not understand and respect this is racist. It is racist, if one is White, that not being able to say “nigger” in anything but a highly nuanced and situational circumstance is an affront to you.
But to speak of the history that Obama points to, there’s 200 to 300 years (at least) that White America, collectively refuses to acknowledge. Make no mistake; when Obama says, “societies don’t overnight erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior,” he’s speaking to White people. He knows that Black people know this history, because he knows that we live it every day. Obama’s PSA is not really for America. It’s for White America.
And some things have to be said to the White delegation because in the wake of nine Black people losing their lives to domestic and racial terrorism, The Wall Street Journal publishes an unbylined, collective op-ed declaring, “…today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism…no longer exists.” As though the institutional denial of a masthead of mostly White men making that statement after a massacre that was carried out for the explicit purposes of starting a racial war isn’t itself a form of institutional racism.
While white people across the nation are fighting for their right to police the term “nigger” and declaring that the racism of the past is dead, a Black Spring has risen in which Black people must actively campaign, fight and protest for the right to live and breathe. It is still a reality, in 2015, that people are regularly killed for being the wrong race. Meanwhile, White people think that the idea that Black Lives Matter is up for debate, a just one nice idea to consider of many. While we as a nation wait with bated breath to see if any (White) cop will ever be convicted of murdering an unarmed citizen after a spate of such shootings in 2014 and 2015, I realize this is really no different than the debate of the Slave Codes that volleyed back and forth as to whether it was legal or illegal to kill a slave. Are we people or property? Citizens or nuisance? America still doesn’t know, nearly 150 years after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Obama using the word “nigger” to articulate in a rather polite way that White America’s low bar of expectations for its racial progress is unacceptable is not the problem that should lead tonight’s news broadcasts. The true disgrace is that in its intolerance and reluctance to embrace self responsibility for its past and its present, White America remains the biggest stumbling block to racial progress in this country, what Carol Anderson called “White rage against progress.”
I know that most White people have learned to be tolerant enough to not call random Black people niggers in public.
What I want to know is if the people who debate the existence of racism believe that any given Black person deserves to live in the first place.
Chaédria LaBouvier is a MFA candidate at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television, a content creator and human. She tweets at @chaedria.