Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Little Obama Effect

This is awkward. My 2 1/2 year old son is paying attention to politics and presidents, and as his parents we couldn't be more proud. Except for one problem. He's begun to call every non-white male he sees, "Obama!" As in (pointing) "Look Mama, there's Obama!"

Awkward. Sometimes the man is African-American, or in some cases Indian, or even Latino. In not a single instance has he actually been Barack Obama. (Yes, Obama comes to Madison tomorrow-- but Conor will be on his way to Washington so the two will miss each other.) But that doesn't stop Conor from being ever-so-proud to identify his neighbor, fellow airplane passenger, or even my co-worker as our current president.

Now what? (Seriously, now what?)

There's been plenty of talk about a positive "Obama effect" on America's children, the effect of a highly accomplished role model from a non-majority group. The President himself aspired to this when he decided to run for the country's highest office, telling his advisory team that this is what distinguished him from other candidates:

"When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don't really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be...and I think the world will look at America a little differently."

Well, as a white child of privilege (including two parents with graduate degrees and full employment) I have no doubt my son would've come up believing he could be or do anything-- regardless of who was president. But, living where we do-- in near lily-white Stoughton, Wisconsin-- I do worry about his lack of non-white role models. Sure, he'll be indoctrinated as a card-carrying liberal (after all my husband's a former executive director of Vermont's Democratic Party), but so what? Even the most hopeful and tolerant adults tend to have stereotypes formed by an absence of figures, as well as the presence of others.

Raised on the East Coast in a community full of Vietnamese and Latino families, it's often occured to me that my decision to work in Madison and live in Stoughton affects the quality of our life. In so many ways, it's completely a joy-- this place is affordable, quiet, and pretty. But when Conor shouts "Obama" I have to wonder...now what?

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