The Black Conversation Around Larry Wilmore’s ‘Nigga’ Remark Was Really About Something Much Bigger

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White House Correspondents' Dinner Party
Whoa.Photo: Pool/2016 Getty Images

The 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner was hosted by The Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore. In his speech, in keeping with the tradition of the annual roast, the comedian made many jokes. One of those involved looking at the president of the United States, Barack Obama, and saying, “Yo, Barry. You did it, my nigga.”

Both Wilmore and Obama are black. Typically, that reality makes saying nigga in public free from controversy, but that was not true in this case. Days later the shock of the moment still lingers — Wilmore said “my nigga” to the president; holy shit, Larry — but it’s the wide-ranging commentary that followed that proved more interesting. Especially from black people.

The takes that came out in the days afterward were a reminder about who gets to draw the lines, make the rules, and declare what’s right and wrong, appropriate and disrespectful, when it comes to the use of that word. It’s a moment to acknowledge the effect eight years of a black president have had — both the things that have changed and those that remain the same. A moment in which there’s more black people with platforms than ever before, more ways for black opinions to be expressed aloud. A moment when you truly see the degree to which black people are not a monolith. A moment where the opinions are strong, passionate, and, in many cases, unwavering. And because of this, there are far more opportunities for black people to discuss, celebrate, and argue in public.

Black people discussing with other black people about how black people should talk to black people in front of white people. These are the moments you live for.

Jonathan Capehart, a black journalist, of the Washington Post was not amused. His piece was headlined “Why Larry Wilmore Is Not My N - - - -” (the dashes spell out nigga). He states, “African Americans know there are things that should never be said outside the safe cultural confines of the barbershop, beauty shop, backyard barbecue or momma’s house.”

We do know that. And he’s right.

You have CNN commentator Van Jones, also black, who tweeted, “Not that I’ve been asked to do so recently. But I will never appear on any program with @larrywilmore as a host. #Disgraceful #NerdProm.”

Jones was clearly disgusted by it. And it makes sense why.

There’s April Ryan, the legendary black White House correspondent. Also at the Washington Post, she penned an essay titled “Larry Wilmore’s n-word ‘joke’ was an insult to black journalists.” (“N-word” means nigga.) In the piece, she stated that Wilmore “displayed his utter lack of respect, not only for the president, but for the journalists — particularly black journalists — in attendance.”

Ryan went on to chronicle what has been a career of fighting for equality in the field — which includes being treated with respect at an event like the Correspondents’ Dinner. She’s a trailblazer. And after a lifetime of work just to gain access, I can see how Wilmore’s remark might make you feel exposed, just as you were beginning to blend in.

Finally, there is a woman I met just a week ago. Closer to my mother’s age than my own, she and I met on a Friday, again on that Sunday, and the bond was consummated by a Facebook friend request. Checking my feed Monday morning, I noticed an update from her. “The comedian who referred to the POTUS as My N-Word at the White House Correspondents Dinner was WRONG. I will pray for mercy for whatever price that he will pay for his moment of disrespect and bad judgement.”

It’s crazy, because all these nig— black people are right. And I don’t even agree with them. And I’m right, too.

When I was younger, I’d ride in the backseat as my mom drove the two of us around Atlanta. Not an argumentative child in the slightest, I’d sometimes simply get curious about why we were doing what we were doing. Many of my sentences began with “How come … ” When I’d ask for further clarification, my mother would look in the rear-view mirror, smile, and say, “Because I said so.”

One of the first rules I remember having drilled into my head was “respect your elders.” While this exists in all pockets of society, it’s especially true for minority groups, because in addition to seniority, there’s the reality that people paved the way so you could have a better life. There are doors open to you that would be closed had your elders not lived, fought, struggled, and succeeded. For that, they deserve all the respect, all the time.

As you get older, your relationships with your elders begins to change — while remaining true to the same founding principles. Where right and wrong were once limited to morals, now those relationships exist in the world of politics and opinions.  This is especially true with the word nigga. Many younger black people treat the word casually, while others a generation above cite the negative history of the word as reason to eliminate it from the lexicon. But the more cross-generational conversations happen about the word, the clearer it is that while on the surface we’re arguing about nigga, we’re really trying to get at something much bigger.

There’s that now-classic scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where a relatively unknown Kevin Hart appears for one scene, trying to get a deal from Jay, one of the Smart Tech employees, played by Romany Malco. Hart’s character is trying to get an extended warranty “for the price of … on the house,” but Jay isn’t having it. 

Hart: “Don’t be a negro, be my nigga,”

Malco: “I ain’t nobody’s nigga.”

Hart: “Well, I mean, you somebody’s nigga wearing this nigga tie.”

In this one brief exchange between two black men, the word nigga is used four times, in completely different ways. “My nigga” is used up-front, like Wilmore to Obama, as a term of endearment and comradeship — juxtaposed with negro, which is made to seem more serious and official. There’s Malco’s response, “I ain’t nobody’s nigga” — a response to a put-down, a phrase of disrespect. And then Hart, simply by going from “my nigga” to “nigga,” uses it to then insult him, insinuating that he’s lesser-than because he gets bossed around, told what to wear, owned.

Hart to Malco, in a fictional comedic film, is different from Wilmore to the black president of the United States in a real-life very white setting … but is it really? The argument that Obama is the president and therefore never should be addressed in such a crass way is legitimate …  but can’t Obama be my president and my nigga?

I find joy in believing that he can, even while acknowledging why someone else who is black would think that he can’t. I also know that I shouldn’t think this, and even if I do, I certainly shouldn’t say it aloud. I know that, because I — like so many of my peers — was taught how to be black in front of black people, and black in front of white people. Part of that: letting your hair down and being your truest black self in black private, and presenting the most refined black version of yourself in front of white public. It’s less “never let them see you sweat,” more “never let them see you be too black.”

What Wilmore did is only somewhat related to calling Obama “my nigga.” In reality, he hit a nerve because he went against what we were taught, challenging the understood notions of both “know your place” and “don’t fuck this up for the rest of us.” Because whenever you step outside of the boundaries of respectability, there’s a long-held sense that you put everyone else’s future on the line. It’s why the act of critiquing your black elders — this act right here — feels blasphemous. I’m supposed to be doing this very act in private, never public. Because, again, it goes against everything you’ve been taught — it’s not only disrespectful, it’s wrong.

When Jones says he’s boycotting Wilmore, you’re supposed to follow him. When Ryan says it’s an insult to black journalists, you’re supposed to feel insulted also as a black journalist. And when Capehart states that a word like nigga is only supposed to be uttered in a barbershop, beauty shop, backyard barbecue, or momma’s house, you’re supposed to echo that sentiment.

But generations fight different fights. Risk manifests itself in different ways. And putting yourself out there looks different, at different points in time.

The biggest generational divide isn’t opinions on saying nigga; it’s the ability to actively, consciously, purposefully do things you know are not “smart.” Things that run against the idea of career advancement. We’re taught that anything that could be construed as negative or taboo about yourself (or your opinions, or your actions) could — and probably will — be the thing to hold you back. Anything about you that feels less than refined, hide it. This exists because there’s never been any margin of error for black people. The smallest oversight, one off day, and it could be the end. It’s one thing to be loud, black, and proud — there’s been a space for that. But to do things thought of as crude, unsophisticated, ignorant — that’s what our black elders ingrained in us to never let surface.

Being publicly pro-nigga is an embrace of everything we’re taught to avoid. There’s an agreed-upon, passed-down code of respectability that surrounds language, actions, and presentation, with regard to how black people ought to behave in front of white people. It’s always been important to learn these things from the black people who came before you. And with that understanding seared into the front of your head, finally, it’s important to know when to completely disregard the rules.