This spring, over 2,000 Washington insiders, journalists and Hollywood elite filtered into the ballroom of the Washington Hilton to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner.
The first comedian to perform for the group was Mark Russell in 1983. His political songs were full of puns, satire and mugging to the crowd. He was funny and sharp, but hardly biting.
The same cannot be said for this past weekend’s comedian-in-chief, Larry Wilmore, the black host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show.” Wilmore began his routine by dubbing President Obama’s opening act and his own “Negro Night.”
Wilmore ended his routine by emotionally describing the historical significance of the first African-American president before saying, “Words alone do me no justice. So, if I’m going to keep it 100 – Yo, Barry, you did it my n-gga.”
Some in the audience shrieked, others laughed and many murmured. To use the term to refer to the president of the United States was a huge risk, and The Twitterverse lit up seconds after Wilmore uttered it.
Former White House staffer Van Jones said the comment was “disgraceful” and he’d never appear on any show hosted by Wilmore.
Meanwhile, activist Al Sharpton called it offensive and in “poor taste.”
As a person who studies media representations of diverse people across time, I generally find the term objectionable. Still, in this one case, I’m OK with it. And it’s not simply due to the standard trope “He can say it, he’s black.” I excuse Wilmore because in this case, the “n-word” triggered a rare code shift for Obama – a breath of blackness that we have rarely seen from the president over the past eight years.
In this brief moment, Wilmore was able to connect with the president in a way that no previous headliner had. He also highlighted a type of tension that all African-Americans – including President Obama – can relate to: that being black and “being black” are two different things.
Navigating tricky terrain
Afterwards, Wilmore pounded his chest and pointed at the president. In response, the president thumped his own chest. With this gesture, Obama acknowledged his brotherhood with Wilmore, another black man from Chicago.
Black America has long had its own lexicon of coded language and symbols. But people of color that succeed in corporate or political life tend to pick up and drop the mannerisms, symbols or words that they have grown up with.
The phenomenon, known as code switching, can be thought of as acting differently in different situations. And to assimilate with those who wield power, we often feel pressured to be like them.
For example, historically, blacks in the workplace have felt pressure to change the way they dress, do their hair and even greet each other to make their presence more palatable to coworkers.
Sociologist Chandra Waring has noted that the ability to code switch can be an asset for black Americans. It’s part of how many blacks navigate American society: yielding to the expectations of the dominant culture, while still retaining credibility with other blacks.
While it’s unfortunate, there is a comfort that people of color give to white America by temporarily eliminating the affectations that can come with our culture. Since ascending to the presidency, Obama has rarely been seen connecting with his black constituents this way. After all, as president, he’s supposed to represent all of America. Regrettably, that has tended to mean defaulting to the white majority.
Being president while black
Every now and then, however, we’ll see President Obama being black. There was, of course, the famous campaign trail fist bump with Michelle in 2008. Then there were the different handshakes he deployed during a locker room meet and greet – one for a white guy and one for black basketball star Kevin Durant.
Certainly Obama’s singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser at Harlem’s Apollo Theater was far more soulful than it would have been in a different setting, with a predominately white audience. And the president’s speech that culminated with a touching performance of “Amazing Grace” could have happened only in a Charleston church touched by racially charged violence.
Wilmore knows what all black men know: There are at least two guys lurking under the surface.
And after more than seven years, Wilmore wanted to be honest about it in a way that, while toeing a line between acceptable and objectionable, was culturally familiar.
Of course, the president had pulled off his own code switch at the end of his standup routine.
“Obama out,” he said, kissing the peace sign and dropping the mic.
In the final year of his administration, he reminded the room that even though eight years in the Oval Office may have aged him, he was still the cool black guy from Chicago.