President Barack Obama used the n-word during an interview released Monday to make a point that there’s still plenty of room for America to combat racism.
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public,” Obama said in an interview for the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron.”
“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.”
The jarring comment comes as the nation is engaged in a debate over the role of race after a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans last week in a historically black church in Charleston. They also reflect a growing willingness for Obama to discuss race during the final years of his presidency.
I have seen that a few people are upset by this, and I really can’t imagine why. As a personal matter, I don’t think I’d be able to use the word — unless, maybe, I were reading a book out loud. But that’s my private squeamishness at play. As a general matter, I think that Christopher Hitchens got it absolutely right when he suggested that it is acceptable to use the word in two — and only two — situations, and that we shouldn’t crucify people when they do. The first circumstance in which it acceptable, Hitchens proposed, is when one is discussing the questions of race and language in the abstract — as Obama was. The second is when one is reading older literature that uses older language (Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example). Had Obama used the word as descriptor or as an insult, I would of course feel differently. But he didn’t. He was discussing at length his views on race in America. To my ears at least, delploying the full force of the epithet helped to underscore his point.