The White Folks Bothered by POTUS Using the "N-Word" Only Proved His Point

by Anna Gibson

This week, President Barack Obama came under fire for saying the N-word while guest starring on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. In the podcast, Obama states:
The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, [and] discrimination in almost every institution of our lives—that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on… It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n***er’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism exists or not.
After his statement, many commentators on social media and television were outraged at his use of the N-word. Arguments against his use of the word ran the gambit: some argued that the President’s use of the N-word was wrong and, ultimately, unprofessional. Others felt that if the President used the N-word, he was essentially giving white people permission to the word as well. Still, others wondered why he was just now using the word, and why he hadn’t used it when previously discussing issues of race.

For a President traditionally known to shy away from addressing race-based issues altogether, seeing him speak so candidly, even to the point of using “controversial language,” appeared to cause much concern for various reasons. The only problem is: most of these arguments completely missed the point.

Obama’s use of the N-word in his interview was genius. As a matter of fact, the outrage at his use of the word proves his point. Major news outlets were so preoccupied with his overt use of “racist” language, they failed to see the underlying message. This is a direct microcosm of what constantly occurs in America. White people will debate the frivolous point of whether it's OK to use the N-word, in a frantic effort to ignore the uncomfortable structural oppression that underlies the word itself.

From there, white people can convince themselves that we live in a post-racial society. The general line of thinking is that if you’ve taken care to denounce the public face of racism—lynching, hate groups like the KKK, segregation, etc.—you’ve taken care of the “racism problem” in the United States.

Of course, none of these things are true; these issues have simply become more covert. For example, the last public lynching occurred in 1981; journalists have confirmed that quite a few Klan members have joined the police force; and segregation still occurs in urban communities through corrupt housing practices, gentrification, and redlining. These are just a few layers of what constitutes systemic oppression against black people in the United States.

To dismiss these things as non-existent is cognitive dissonance: the inability to accept aspects of reality that don’t fit in with your worldview. This is the real reason why people are focusing on a word the President used, rather than the deeper problem he was speaking to.

This isn’t to say that fighting overt racism is a bad thing. For instance, it’s amazing that even a few major news outlets are finally able to confront the reality of the recent terrorist attack that took the lives of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, even passing legislation that would require harsher punishment for hate crimes.

However, policing words that make white America uncomfortable won’t stop black people from being systematically killed and brutalized by the police. It won’t keep our children from being slaughtered because they are wearing a hoodie, or knocking on a door, or holding a screwdriver “threateningly.”

It’s undoubtedly hard for white America to face the fact that their ancestors set the stage for the privilege they continue to enjoy everyday. However, white America’s discomfort doesn’t take precedence over our lives. It doesn’t trump the fact that we are killed everyday by racist brutality, only to defend the humanity of our people after their deaths. To deny and divert attention from these issues while arguing semantics is a slap in the face to black people. True bravery and anti-racist action would engage the message that the President tried to convey, rather than a word he used.

It seems that the President has only begun engaging issues of race in such a direct manner more frequently in his last term in office. This points even more deeply to how aspects of structural racism have a stranglehold on our socio-political landscape. The fact that our Commander-in-Chief—a man who holds the highest office in the US—can’t even begin to discuss race on a deeper level until he’s on his way out of office, demonstrates he must pander to popular opinion (as is expected), one that apparently is still uncomfortable speaking about issues of race and how it affects our society as a whole.

Avoiding the messy realities of race will only aggravate tensions that will, eventually, boil over. Healing comes from confronting uncomfortable issues, not burying our heads in the sand and acting as if these problems don’t exist. The sooner that people—whether white, black, or brown—can face these issues together, the sooner healing can begin, so we may rebuild our society.

Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University who majors in Journalism. She seeks to create a safe space for the marginalized to tell their stories. If you want to catch up with her, because you think she’s an amazing human being, you can follow her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook under the name Anna Gibson.

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