Springsteen, who collaborated for decades with the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons in his integrated E Street Band, relayed a story to Obama about an incident in which Clemons was called a racial slur.
Reflecting on his own youth, the A Promised Land author recalled a time when one of his white friends that he played basketball with similarly levelled an awful word at him. The former president explained that he swiftly punched his mate saying, “Don’t you ever call me something like that.”
And then, because he is Barack Obama, he went on to explain exactly why that sort of language is insidious and unacceptable.
“What it comes down to is an assertion of status over the other,” he began.
“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.”
He continued “And that basic psychology, that then gets institutionalised; is used to justify dehumanising somebody, taking advantage of them, stealing from them, killing them, raping them — whatever it is. At the end of the day, it really comes down to that.”
Obama completed his thoughts with, “in some cases, it’s as simple as ‘I’m scared I’m insignificant and not important. This thing is the thing that is going to give me some importance.'”
His words are a powerful reminder of why language is important and how it can be weaponised in the blink of an eye against people who historically have less power.
It’s a similar concept to calling someone “gay” as a pejorative or telling a man to “stop being a p—sy”. These verbal transgressions firmly establish “us” and “them” boundaries while villainising parts of people’s identities that they are likely discriminated for in other areas of their lives.
Renegades: Born in the USA, which consists of eight episodes, was recorded over a few days in Springsteen’s converted farmhouse-studio in Colts Neck, New Jersey.
The two friends explained in their first episode that they bonded over “a shared sensibility” about life, including work, family and America.
Listen to the full episode here.