In the second episode of Barack Obama’s joint Renegades: Born in the USA podcast with Bruce Springsteen, the former president took listeners back to a moment in his childhood where he made a friend learn the painful way after calling him a racial slur.
The 59-year-old, who was born in Hawaii, recalled that encounter when he was discussing race relations in the United States and how racism has been molded to be perceived as an “assertion of status over the other.”
“Listen, when I was in school, I had a friend. We played basketball together,” he started, according to Variety. “And one time we got into a fight, and he called me a coon. Now, first of all, ain’t no coons in Hawaii, right? It’s one of those things where he might not even have known what a coon was. What he knew was, ‘I can hurt you by saying this.’”
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Obama said he did not allow his friend to freely walk away after using the slur against him and decided to teach him a two-way lesson. “I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose and we were in the locker room,” he told Springsteen. “And suddenly blood is pouring down. And it was just reactive… And he said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ And I explained to him – I said, ‘Don’t you ever call me something like that… But the point is that what it comes down to is… an assertion of status over the other. right?”
He continued: “The claim is made that ‘No matter what I am… I may be poor. I may be ignorant. I may be mean. I may be ugly. I may not like myself. I may be unhappy. But you know what I’m not? I’m not you.”
Obama then went ahead to explain how that chain of thinking becomes “institutionalized” and is used to justify other systemic discriminatory vices.
“And that basic psychology that then gets institutionalized is used to justify dehumanizing somebody, taking advantage of ‘em, cheating ‘em, stealing from ‘em, killing ‘em, raping ‘em…” he said. “And in some cases it’s as simple as, you know, ‘I’m scared I’m insignificant and not important. And this thing is the thing that’s going to give me some importance.’”
Also in the interview, the two touched on activism, with Obama saying he is okay with people taking to the streets to push for reform so far it’s done lawfully and legally.
“As long as protests and activism doesn’t veer into violence, my general latitude is, I want and expect young people to push those boundaries and to to test and try the patience of their parents and their grandparents…,” he said, Variety reported. “I remind young activists that I meet with, I said, ‘Look, if you want my advice about how you can get a law passed or get enough votes to put in power people, I can give you some practical advice. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that should be your goal. Sometimes your goal may just be to…”
“Stir sh*t up,” Springsteen reportedly chipped in, with Obama agreeing and citing how that even goes a long way in opening up “new possibilities.”
“Even though I was convinced that reparations was a non-starter during my presidency. I understand the argument of people I respect, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, that we should talk about it anyway. If for no other reason to educate the country about a past that too often isn’t taught… and let’s face it, we’d rather forget,” he said.