In conversation with comedian Marc Maron for the “WTF” podcast, and in response to the racially-motivated Charleston church shooting, President Obama used the n-word.
"We are not cured of [racism]. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'ni**er' 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."
Obviously Obama’s statement will reignite the debate over the usage of a slur entrenched in such dark history—whether white people should be able to use the n-word if black people do; whether anyone should ever use the n-word at all, and so on.
Fox News is having a field day.
So should Obama have steered clear of such controversy?
And this is why.
- People Will Talk. And Talk Is Crucial
Last week, Obama made a statement about the need for increased gun control. But we expected him to say such, because we’ve said the same. The comment was nothing new or especially noteworthy, though it was of the utmost importance that we listen, and act accordingly. And thus, it failed to engender the deserved conversation.
But this? People will be talking. We’ll be drawn to this statement like moths to a flame because we love to be challenged, discomfited. We love argument and sensationalism. If Obama’s bold and risky move gets more eyes on the issue, then more power to him.
Obama was not using the n-word to demean, but to describe. To fight racism, not to contribute to it.
A white person using the n-word is reminiscent of a violence that extends to this day. Every white individual, racist or otherwise, benefits from a racially hierarchical society.
Obama’s use of the n-word holds none of these implications, none of this historical baggage.
- The Word Was The Crux Of The Point
It was arguably imperative to his argument that Obama use the full word. He meant to strike a distinction between outward politeness and inward bigotry. Infrequent use of racial slurs does not an equal society make. If Obama had used the censored version of the n-word, one could say that he was perpetuating the “equality is political correctness” line of thinking. In truth, the avoidance of minor transgressions is a way for us to provide a nominally progressive environment, and ignore deeper, more complicated issues.