On the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign trail, former First Lady Michelle Obama famously said, “when they go low, we go high.” But to hear her husband talk about his earlier days in Hawaii, it would appear a younger Barack didn’t play that.
On the eight-episode podcast Renegades: Born in the USA, former president Obama sits with iconic New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen (affectionately known worldwide as “The Boss”) to explore how two guys with such different backgrounds and experiences have arrived where they are in life. The beauty of their interaction lies in unpacking the things they’ve shared in common – as well as fearlessly tackling the things they don’t.
In the second episode of the series, “American Skin,” Springsteen tells a particular story a little after the 11-minute mark. His longtime bandmate and friend Clarence Clemons, who is Black, was called the n-word by one of his white acquaintances in a heated moment. To calm him down after the occurrence, “The Boss” went to keep Clarence some company. However, instead of offering his friend something trite and cliché, he was forced to acknowledge there was nothing of credit he could say to validate why those guys decided to resort to that name.
Thereafter, Obama shares his own personal anecdote about encountering racist name-calling from someone close to him. “Listen, when I was in school, I had a friend. We played basketball together. 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 that where he might not even have known what a coon was. What he knew was, ‘I can hurt you by saying this,’” Obama says.
Then, the generally calm and unperturbed former POTUS remarks, “and I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose and we were in the locker room.”
And “The Boss” approvingly replies to Barack’s swift justice, “Well done.”
“I explained to him—I said, ‘Don’t you ever call me something like that,’” Obama stated, making it clear that racial slurs are about an “assertion of status over the other” person. “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?” he told Springsteen. “I’m not you.”
Elaborating on why some would use that language, Barack continues, “Whatever it is, at the end of the day, it really comes down to that. 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.'”
It may be the first time Obama has ever publicly shared that story. But it’s the kind of open, vulnerable exchange between the former President and “The Boss” which makes the series worth the listen. Check out the rest of the episode and the other entries to Renegades: Born in the USA on Spotify.