What It Means When Larry Wilmore Calls President Obama 'My Nigga'

What we witnessed Saturday night were two black men who did not care that white people were present.

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May 4 2016, 12:00am

President Barack Obama laughs as he listens to Larry Wilmore on Saturday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Barack Obama laughs as he listens to Larry Wilmore on Saturday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Comedian Larry Wilmore ended his marquee White House Correspondents Dinner speech on Saturday, the last of Barack Obama's presidency, with a heartfelt tribute to the first family.

"I've always joked that I voted for the president because he's black," Wilmore said. "Behind that joke is a humble appreciation for the historical implications for what your presidency means. When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn't accept a black quarterback... And now to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.... If I'm going to keep it one hundred," Wilmore concluded as he pounded his chest with a fist bump. "Yo, Barry, you did it my nigga!"

That last word seemed to sway uncomfortably over a room mostly filled with white journalists acutely accustomed to staying within the fine lines of political correctness. But it was an important moment in American history, even if it made many people (both black and white) cringe. At its most pure, this was an example of "code-switching" for both Barack Obama and Wilmore, upper-middle-class African American men who, despite their mainstream success, identify with the broader black culture and speak its language.

Obama's response—pumping his chest in solidarity before rising to hug and thank him—was actually far more significant than Wilmore's words, and explains, in part, why he and his wife Michelle are so beloved: They are widely seen as a man and woman of their community who have not lost track of their roots.

...for a brief moment, what we witnessed Saturday night were two black men who did not care that white people were present.

The mainstream media and Twitter-verse responses were, of course, visceral and speedy: Had Wilmore gone too far? Was it disrespectful? Or did the comedian's race offer him a kind of immunity?

But for many African American men, it may have been the most natural thing in the world: Reflecting the tacit signs of respect given to one another everywhere from the barbershop to the boardroom.

During the 2008 election cycle, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was caught on tape saying that Mr. Obama spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Former President George W. Bush and incumbent Vice President Joe Biden both referred to Senator Obama as being "articulate." (The latter famously also used the word "clean.")

What their statements reflect is an ignorant but mostly benign prejudice that plagues many white conservatives and liberals alike: They implicitly expect middle- and upper-middle-class black Americans to mirror their own linguistic norms.

Yet for a brief moment, what we witnessed Saturday night were two black men who did not care that white people were present. For Wilmore, it may well have been for comedic effect, but even he would acknowledge that it wasn't all that funny—at least not in a conventional sense. Instead, this was a fiercely political moment.

In the Obama era, critics and supporters alike have drawn attention to the idea of code-switching—the phenomenon racial and ethnic groups practice worldwide, where an individual modulates how they speak depending on with whom they are speaking.

Notable moments include one scene captured on Youtube, when Obama declined to accept the change from a black cashier with the statement, "Nah, we straight." Or another moment when he shakes the hands of a white coach before distinctly addressing NBA player Kevin Durant in a more casual, brotherly way. And no one can forget his statement that "folks wanna pop off" when addressing the G20 Summit last year.

Of course, Obama is not the first president to change his cadence depending on the audience. But there has been a particular public fascination with Obama's instances of code-switching in part because he is black, and also due to his mixed heritage. The question that appears to never be fully asked (but always hinted at) is: "How black is Barack Obama?"

At his first Correspondents' dinner in 2009, Wanda Sykes famously reminded Obama that he would continue to be beloved by African Americans—unless he did something to embarrass the community. "You're the first black president," she said. "I'm proud... unless you screw up. And then it's going to be, 'What's up with that half-white guy? Who voted for the mulatto?'"

Last year, Obama invited Keegan-Michael Key of Comedy Central's Key and Peele to play the character of Luther: Obama's alter-ego and anger-translator. Key, as "Luther," indignantly addressed the attacks Obama has endured throughout his tenure—racial and otherwise.

Both men have climbed their respective professional ladders and been met with a success uncommon for black men of their time.

This year, the president went so far as to apologize for his lateness by saying he was running on CPT time—which he explained stood for "jokes that white people should not make." It was a genius comedic rebuke of the gaffe performed weeks ago by presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about "colored people's time."

Obama's own comedic timing is formidable, making him an especially tough act to follow. But what was different about Wilmore's approach was a sense that these two men—who both happen to be 54 years old—share a unique camaraderie. Obama and Wilmore were born months apart in 1961, a tumultuous time in America's racial history, coming less than a decade after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and before the assassinations of JFK, RFK and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They were children when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 68 became law.

They came of age in the 1970s, when shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons reflected the realities of racial tensions surrounding integration and white flight. Their relative youth captures how, not too long ago, the battleground for equal rights in America (based on race) was still fertile and untilled.

Both men have climbed their respective professional ladders and been met with a success uncommon for black men of their time. They naturally relate in ways that are familiar for African Americans, but which might not translate to the broader body politic.

"Welcome to Negro Night here at the Washington Correspondents dinner, " Wilmore opened following President Obama's dropping of the mic. "Or as Fox News would report, 'Two Thugs Disrupt Elegant Dinner in DC.'"

Their cadence with each other was an extension of the ability to relate across racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines—all while remaining genuine.

There will always be disagreements about use of the word "nigga," because of its more destructive and demeaning antecedent. Questions of whether it should be used at all—in music, on street corners, or on playgrounds among white, black, Latino, and Asian youth alike—are legitimate.

"The fact is that code-switching is a pretty common phenomenon, especially among middle-class black folks," wrote journalist Adam Serwer just before Obama's election in 2008. "This isn't a hallmark of anti-intellectualism, rather it's a way to signify that you're part of a particular culture. The point is that you're supposed to be able to manipulate language to your own ends, not be trapped by it."

All debates aside, this much is clear: Somewhere between being born in Hawaii, reared in Indonesia, nurtured by Kenya, educated between California, New York, and Boston, and then maturing in Chicago and Washington—this Barack, this Hussein, this Obama has learned to speak many languages. He's learned to translate many stories, and lead us all to a deeper understanding of the post-racial fairytale, and what it means to be black in America.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a television producer, correspondent, and writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.

*Correction 5/4: An earlier version of this article said Obama was raised in Kansas, when in fact his mother was.

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