Obama killed it at this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, showing off his comedic chops yet again in the annual speech to reporters and media elite. Watching the president poke fun at himself and his peers is a good reminder of what was so appealing about the young, electable senator in 2008, and how far he has come as a speaker on behalf of the American public. His WHCD speech offers a glimpse not only at the diversity of his experience but also at the diversity of his rhetoric.
In December 2008, just a few weeks after the first election of President Barack Obama, British writer Zadie Smith delivered a lecture at the New York Public Library that has since been published under the title, “Speaking in Tongues.” Smith begins by comparing the language of her youth in working class West London with the language she soon acquired at Cambridge University. One was an English that was big, brazen, and colorful. The other was an English for social climbing and intellectual discussion, for professional acceptance as a writer and thinker. She describes her Cambridge English as “an exotic garment” she put on in college, hoping that this gown could continue to exist side-by-side with her West London way of speaking.
However, Smith soon finds that her upper-class Cambridge English replaces the working class English of her youth, almost without her noticing. She could not last long bridging these two polar opposite versions of herself and her language. Instead of balancing these two identities, she found herself rejecting her old ways of speaking. Part of the reason why people find it very hard to bridge identities and cultures, she argues, is that our society pushes for assimilation. “Proper” English is a language of power and civility, and to perform language differently would imply that the speaker is disadvantaged, uneducated, or—worst of all—dumb.
It is also difficult for people to exist in a hybrid state, such as the one between a working-class girl from Willesden and a Cambridge-educated, best-selling author. It is almost like controlling the identity of a secret alter ego. How do you keep track of which identity to perform? How do you not confuse or cause discomfort to the people around you? The amount of psychological effort it takes to balance these personas becomes just too much to handle.
The practice of using different rhetoric and language in different scenarios is commonly referred to as code-switching. I first learned this term in my college education classes. Before code-switching, “proper” English tended to be strictly enforced in the classroom, and other variants were supposed to be rejected. For example, a student from a working-class or immigrant neighborhood might never have been exposed to the standard English of 19th-century novels or National Public Radio. That child’s English might be derogatorily referred to as slang or ghetto. That child would be made to feel like his community and his family is less civilized and less intelligent than the other students in his class who come from white, educated, wealthier families.
When we approach the same child from a code-switching perspective, we still enforce standard English as the language of the classroom and of the professional world. But it is seen to co-exist alongside the student’s other dialect(s), not to replace it. Students are told that the way they talk with their family and friends is perfectly fine, but that a practice of standard English is necessary to succeed in the professional world. Code-switching is not only a more compassionate and realistic approach to language acquisition, but also founded on various linguistic studies dating back to the 1960’s that “slang” or “ghetto” dialects are governed by a complex set of grammatical rules just like standard English, and are just as syntactically intricate.
Everyone performs some level of code-switching in their daily lives. Think about the way you talk to your friends versus the way you talk to your parents. Would u send a txt to ur boss that ur running late =( like this? Probably not. I will never forget the time I accidentally referred to the hiring committee at a job interview as “you guys.” I didn’t get the job.
The way we speak varies differently based on who we are with and what situations we are in. To put it more plainly, language depends largely on relationships of power. We typically employ “standard” English to show-off to people in power, to make ourselves seem intelligent and capable.
This is why so many people enroll in public-speaking classes or train themselves to lose their regional accents. Code-switching is invaluable to success in our society. But the ability to code-switch is not equally attainable by all.
Linguist Max Weinrich popularized the phrase, “Language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” The socially-acceptable way of speaking in any country (in our case, standard English) is dictated by those in power. No version of English is intrinsically better than another. Rather, the English spoken by white, rich people has been arbitrarily designated as “proper” because it was the language spoken by the people in power. Poor populations, minorities and immigrants are therefore more vulnerable to the instability of code-switching, largely because they are not typically immersed in “standard” English on a daily basis. Their daily way of speaking deviates from the norm much more widely than those already born into white, successful families. The burden of code-switching is unfairly placed on them to adapt.
As Zadie Smith shows, this vacillation between two cultural identities can prove too difficult for many speakers. Some may simply reject the new way of speaking, and some may assimilate completely.
Which brings us back to Barack Obama. Smith ends her lecture by pointing to the newly elected president as an example of someone who has achieved this hybrid state she so desires. Obama successfully bridged his many different cultural identities and has adopted a multi-voiced approach to his relationship with the American people, which is partly why he emerged so quickly as a leader on the political stage. Just look at this excerpt of dialogue quoted from a college dorm room scene in Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father:
“Man, I’m not going to any more of these bulls*** Punahou parties.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said the last time…. ”
“I mean it this time…These girls are A-1 USDA certified racists. All of ‘em. White girls, Asian girls–shoot, these Asians worse than the whites. Think we got a disease or something…”
“Maybe they’re looking at that big butt of yours. Man, I thought you were in training.”
“Get your hands out of my fries. You ain’t my b****, n****…. Buy your own damn fries. Now what was I talking about?”
“Just ’cause a girl don’t go out with you doesn’t make her a racist.”
I’d expect this piece of dialogue to appear in a hilarious American page-turner, not a politician’s self-promotional piece. This dialogue shows not only Obama’s incredible ability to represent the vernacular of his youth, but also the multiple facets of Obama’s racial and cultural identity: we get young Obama as perceived by old Obama. We get Obama the friend, Obama the insult artist, Obama the dater, Obama the analyst.
Obama is a code-switcher, but not in the way traditionally perceived. He does not completely turn off his African American language identity when addressing the nation in order to turn on his Harvard-educated, politician voice. Rather, he switches between them in the same space. He can deliver a campaign speech at the Apollo Theater, and then break into “Let’s Stay Together.” He can promote his platform while appealing to young voters and insulting Zach Galifanakis with a devious grin. Over his eight years as president, we have seen Obama the proud husband and father. Obama the playmate. Obama the meme-user. Zadie Smith thought Obama was already an inspirational example of hybridity in 2008, and it will clearly be a lasting legacy of his presidency.
Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech is another example of Obama’s unique code-switching ability. Obama took advantage of this last opportunity to deliver a vigorously funny and wryly pointed speech on the state of media, the election, and his presidency. Obama needed no anger translator this year; his message was loud and clear. Noting the presence of a few Republican senators in the audience, he threatened to bar the doors and hold Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination hearing right there, “like the Red Wedding.” Obama mentioned last week’s popular photo of Prince George meeting him in his bathrobe, saying with the best straight-face of the night, “that was a slap in the face.” But his most scathing moment of the speech was his irony-laden critique of Trump’s campaign coverage. He cut the Trump jokes short, saying “I don’t want to spend too much time on the Donald. Following your lead, I want to show some restraint. Because I think we can all agree that from the start, he’s gotten the appropriate amount of coverage befitting the seriousness of his candidacy. I hope you’re all proud of yourselves.”
We also saw Obama tap into his black identity a bit more than usual. Referencing the accusations plaguing the Clinton campaign, Obama announced that he’s practicing delivering speeches for Goldman Sachs–“Earn me some serious Tubmans… That’s right.” Earlier in the speech, Obama referenced another Clinton blunder: “I was running on CPT, which stands for Jokes That White People Should Not Make.” After guilting the audience for their heavy Trump coverage, he took about half-a-minute to shake his head and make condemning, incredulous sounds, the way a friend might after hearing a dirty story about another. And that’s not even mentioning that epic mic drop, accompanied by “Obama, out.”
It was a great night for the President, but also a great night for code-switchers everywhere. In the span of thirty minutes, we saw a multi-faceted President embracing his many voices and using them in his position as leader, citizen, commentator, and comedian. We saw him use popular vernacular alongside strategic rhetoric. We saw him talk to a largely white audience of Hollywood and media elite in language that wouldn’t typically be found in the press room or the Oval Office. Obama’s easy transition between voices shows that we need to rethink our stratification of language along professional or class lines. This is a country of multi-voiced people, and as such, our voices should be just as varied, not only in our homes, offices, and schools, but in our politics and public sphere.