Why Is Obama Our First Black President?
Kids' questions about his victory, and their parents' attempts to answer.
Posted Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, at 4:00 PM
Garth and Christy Ross supported Barack Obama from the start. They raised money for him and knocked on doors to rally voters in Northwest Virginia. They involved their 7-year-old son and 5-year old daughter as much as possible, so when Obama won, it was a family celebration. And then, after the election, their son asked during dinner, "Why was he our first president with brown skin?" For the next 45 minutes, the couple, who are white, carefully described America's racial history, trying to add to what they'd already taught them without giving their children more of that history than they could handle. "We didn't want to give them an explanation that was laden with all of our baggage," says Garth.
For the Rosses, us, and we're sure other parents of young children, the tension in describing Barack Obama's victory is not whether to explain the racial context. If kids ask why Obama looks different from the parade of presidents before him, there's no sense pretending he doesn't. The challenge is just what to talk about—how intensely to focus kids on the historic nature of this moment and how deeply to delve into the legacy of racism that preceded it.
The Obama victory is a teachable moment (to use a piece of jargon we think Obama should outlaw if he's any kind of president at all). It gives parents a chance to talk to their children about judging people by the content of their character.
For older kids, there have been reports like this one that suggest the election helped black and white eighth graders bridge the racial barriers in a way countless talks on diversity never could. For younger kids, though, or those who live largely segregated lives, to make the lesson stick, parents might have to introduce ideas about division and hatred that young kids so far haven't confronted.
A lot of white parents aren't hugely comfortable in this terrain: It's ugly, and sometimes we're not really sure of our own relationship to this past. And even if the parents are more sure of themselves, answering certain questions gets complicated quickly. Obsessed with logistics, young kids may want to know exactly how slaves were restrained and kept from escaping. Or how long a sit-in actually lasted, or where black marchers slept if they weren't allowed into white-owned hotels. And then there's the larger question, especially for white families: When framing the issue, do parents teach it as a triumph for African-Americans or as a story about the capacity of evil in whites?
The Ross kids go to class with kids of all different ethnic and racial backgrounds and so far haven't much experienced racial tension. Which is why their parents stepped lightly. Other parents, nonblack and black, see no reason to talk about what's been overcome, because their kids didn't frame Obama's victory that way. "I'm pleased to see that they find the election of a black president to be something that's not especially remarkable," says D.J. Hoek, the white father of 5- and 7-year-old girls. "As my daughters grow up and learn more, they surely will come to a fuller understanding of what Obama's election represents. But now, in their eyes, it's completely reasonable that an African-American, or a woman, or anyone could become president, and I can think of no better indicator of just how far our country has come."
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. She is also the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Her new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Frank Polich/Getty Images.