News & Politics

Code-Switching: Obama's 'Nigga' Moment Makes Civil Rights History

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Comedian Larry Wilmore ended his tribute to President Obama at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner by saying, “Yo, Barry, you did it my nigga!”

While the verboten “N word” raised eyebrows in the room, and ire on Twitter, our friends over at Vice.com stepped up to soothe any ruffled feathers (a term which has nothing to do with American Indians — a people who were neither American nor Indian).
Vice writer Edward Wyckoff Williams acknowledges the awkward nature of the quip, but then explains the context — historical and cultural — in a way that made me realize this may have been the greatest moment in civil rights history since the president threw his white grandmother under the bus to protect his black pastor.
Now, I don’t expect the vast majority of my readers to understand this, since you’re likely white. In fact, I’ll probably fail to explain it correctly because I’m likely white. But the upshot of it is that “nigga” is more than just how a heinous racial slur sounds when pronounced with a Boston accent.
It’s a term that signifies deep bonding between black men. The fact that Wilmore said it to Obama in front of a room full of white people makes it even more meaningful. O, sure, it was meant to be humorous, but at a deeper level it was a “fiercely political moment” and the quintessence of “code switching.”

I had not heard that last term before, so I assume it’s another thing that black guys say to each other when caucasians are out of earshot.

Edward Wyckoff Williams helpfully explains that “code-switching” is a way to indicate that you’re part of a culture, free to manipulate language any way you want, without being constrained by it. Obama and Wilmore, says Williams, are both “upper-middle-class African American men who, despite their mainstream success, identify with the broader culture and speak its language.”

Note how Williams astutely observes that “mainstream success” is not to be expected of African American men– it’s counter cultural — but Obama and Wilmore are cool, nevertheless.

Obama’s response—pumping his chest in solidarity before rising to hug and thank [Wilmore]—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.

One can almost hear the booming voice of joyful James Earl Jones exclaim: “I’ve found you Kunta Kinte! I’ve found you!”

Apparently, calling a fellow upper-middle-class black man a “nigga” is one of the best ways to make it clear that you’re no longer in bondage to any man, nor trapped in a white man’s world.

By taking a word that the white slave-holder spat at your ancestors, and using it as a term of endearment and brotherhood, you practically turn the lash on the “massa” and whip him with it.

I told you that I don’t expect you to understand this. But I do expect, and hope, that you will begin to doubt your own judgement, and stop mindlessly following common sense. Just accept it.

Code-switching, by the way, is not to be confused with Stockholm Syndrome, in which the captive comes to defend and identify with his captors. It’s totally different, because…it’s code-switching. See, it’s not even spelled like Stockholm Syndrome.

Of course, a moment of deep cultural and historical significance like this must ripple throughout the nation — starting in the African American community.

Elementary school teachers will add units on code-switching to the curriculum. They’ll drill their young charges on how to pronounce “nigga” without an “r” sound at the end.

Doubtless the president and the first lady will produce an educational video for classroom use, in which they salute “my young niggas.” They’ll encourage them to stay in school, get a college degree or two, then a doctorate, and earn a lot of money, so that when they’re grown up and they say “nigga” it won’t be considered crude, ignorant, self-deprecating street talk typical of drug dealers, but rather genuine code-switching, replete with historical and cultural significance.