This year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner made one thing clear: Sometimes it’s good to feel uncomfortable.
Measured by that standard alone, the remarks from US president Barack Obama and Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore surely exceeded expectations. Obama set the tone for what was an at times painfully funny—if not completely incisive—roast of the presidential campaign, its news coverage, and the racial issues that have emerged during his time in office. Playing off Obama’s speech, Wilmore ended the night with an exclamation point that had some guests squirming and Twitter exploding.
Wilmore’s usage of the perennially fraught “n-word” may have been controversial, but we shouldn’t let it overshadow his underlying message. In front of an elite, mostly white crowd, both Obama and Wilmore delivered material that sought to authentically address issues of blackness on their own terms. Whereas many black people routinely face pressure to consider the sensibilities of the dominant culture, the remarks on Saturday evening didn’t pander, even if they drew blanks from some audience members.
Obama began his bit by playing off an old stereotype about black people being habitually tardy. It was the same punchline that got New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton into hot water a few weeks prior. “I do apologize if I was a little late tonight. I was running on CPT—which stands for jokes white people should not make,” Obama quipped, referring to “colored people time” while poking fun at de Blasio. While meant in jest, the joke was a reminder of the way minorities must negotiate the perceptions of white observers who may racialize or misinterpret their actions.
Obama’s musings about race continued with one-liners about whether he was “black enough,” a sketch where a white receptionist gawks at his full name and questions the legitimacy of his birth certificate, and a moment where Wilmore gets mistaken for “the South African one,” a nod to Daily Show host Trevor Noah. All for laughs, to be sure, yet the indignities of life for many black people in America could be sensed just beneath the surface.
But whereas Obama played to the audience in front of him, Wilmore’s irreverent monologue seemed geared more for the folks in the cheap seats—those who were watching from home. Dubbing the evening “Negro Night,” Wilmore built on some of Obama’s own self-deprecating jabs about aging in office, noting that the president’s hair was “so white it tried to punch him at a Trump rally.” He skewered mainstream news outlets for their lack of diversity, called out Ben Carson’s opposition to Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, and took a swipe at Al Sharpton that would only be funny for those who understand the complexities of black hair care.
As his speech wound down, Wilmore paused to express his appreciation for Obama’s tenure, and what it meant for him to see incremental progress on racial issues. “Yo Barry, you did it,” he said, before invoking an inflection of the n-word used by some black people to express affinity or kinship. The two men shared a grin and physical embrace. If Obama was upset with Wilmore’s language, it did not show. (Perhaps tellingly, Obama noted in a podcast last summer that the n-word shouldn’t be viewed as the measure of whether racism still exists.)
There shouldn’t be any public debate about whether Wilmore can use the n-word. However, plenty of people seemed to question whether such an event was the appropriate time and place, even for a comedian. Amongst black people on social media opinions varied, with some arguing the word should never be used, and others arguing it has been reclaimed. It’s a debate that might never be resolved within the black community, where it remains a matter of personal choice. What everyone seems to be able to agree on is that white people should resist the urge to weigh in.
Still, Wilmore’s moment of boundary pushing shouldn’t be the story here. In the midst of a forum, and an institution, that wasn’t built to include black people, Obama and Wilmore dared to put their blackness on blast. They allowed a fuller essence of their humanity to shine. That itself may still be cause for palpable discomfort in America—but it’s a discomfort that should be reckoned with, not laughed or jeered away. In that sense, Wilmore may have written the perfect finale, leaving his audience with a very personal reminder that the American public has much more work to do when it comes to dealing with its racial history.