A few years ago, our family visited Mount Rushmore. After walking the trail past the monument, I went to check out the bookstore with my 5-year-old son in tow. He spotted a bookmark with oval portraits of all 44 presidents lined up in neat rows, and we searched for and found the four faces we’d just seen on the side of the mountain.
“Who is the president now?” my son asked. I pointed to the last face on the bookmark, and said, “This man right here, Barack Obama. He’s been the president since before you were born.”
My son — my blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white-as-the-driven-snow boy — furrowed his brow as he scanned the faces. “Huh,” he said. “He doesn’t look like a president.”
I was gobsmacked.
We belong to a multiracial family. I’ve studied and written about race in America. I cried tears of joy on the historic night President Obama was elected. And my son had just said out loud that our first black president didn’t look like a president. I glanced around at customers going about their business as I swallowed my shock.
Of course, it wasn’t really as shocking as my educated, aware, “woke” sensibilities perceived it. It was a simple, preschool, Sesame Street observation. “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong….” The one brown face in a sea of white ones stood out. President Obama’s tiny head on that bookmark didn’t look like the 43 other tiny heads, so in my son’s eyes he didn’t “look like a president.”
That observation makes sense when you’re 5. It was an odd moment, as I recognized my son had no clue about the centuries of heinous history, overt oppression, institutional injustice, and spoken and unspoken supremacy wrapped up in his simple statement. But I knew it. And the weight of it cascaded over me as I stared at his sweet face and considered my response. Keep it simple, Annie, I told myself. Use words he’ll understand.
“He does look different, doesn’t he?” I said, forcing calm cheerfulness into my voice. “You can see that American presidents have looked similar for a really long time. But now that’s changing. We’re going to see lots of different kinds of people becoming president from now on. Isn’t that cool?”
He nodded and moved on to the candy bars. My simple response was enough for his simple statement. How lovely to be 5.
Someday, I will tell him this story, and I will point it out as his first obvious brush with his own white privilege. We’ll discuss how he can see his own skin color reflected in 98% of the most powerful men in our nation’s history and what that means for him. We’ll question what black and brown children see when they look at those rows of faces and what that means for them. We’ll dive into all the ugly realities of our nation’s racial history and examine the nuances of racism now, as we strive to understand our role as white Americans in healing our country’s deep and abiding wounds.
Too often, people misunderstand white privilege as being all about opportunity or economics. It’s not. White privilege is a kid seeing his most obvious physical trait reflected in a line-up of our country’s most powerful leaders. It’s a 6-year-old student of mine responding to our Martin Luther King Day civil rights lesson with a jarring, but ultimately understandable, “Whew! I’m glad I’m white.”
It’s the fact that we have a celebrated national monument of four white faces blasted into the side of hills that are sacred to the Lakota Sioux nation. It’s the fact that the power structure in our country has always been on our side, and that neither we nor our ancestors have ever been oppressed by our government for the color of our skin.
As a white mother of white kids, I can’t change our country’s history, and I can’t change the fact that this privilege exists. But I can make sure my kids understand how they and others are affected by these things, and teach them how to leverage their privilege to stand up for justice.
President Obama does stand out from the others, his face forever serving as a before-and-after marker on posters of U.S. presidents. My hope is that someday my son’s children and grandchildren will see a different pattern of faces on the other side of that marker. One with a whole spectrum of ethnicity and gender. One in which all kids can see themselves reflected. One where a 5-year-old can look at anyone’s face and say without hesitation that they “look like a president.”