A Little Obama Effect

November 4, 2009 | Blog

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?


  1. Reply

    Sherman Dorn

    November 4, 2009

    Take joy in the fact that your son will grow up in a world where no one wonders if the country will ever elect a Black man as president. Oh, yeah, and memorize the phrases, "Honey, his name is '[whatever his name is]," or "I don't know him. Shall we introduce ourselves?"

    Life will put more demographic diversity in his way than it put in my way growing up in an almost-lily-white suburb of Los Angeles. And apart from the incredibly expensive deprogramming I had to undergo as a young adult, and the tics I constantly have from thinking about the Newport Beach police department circa 1981,* I became a perfectly normal adult. There is hope yet for your son.

    * When I was a teenager, one of the police department officers told a reporter that he thought checking the immigrant status of any nonwhite beachgoer was perfectly fine. I think I still have wrinkles from a months-long cringe at that embarrassment.

  2. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    November 4, 2009

    I've written those phrases on my palm. I'll get it right next time....

  3. Reply


    November 4, 2009

    I'm sure Stoughton is nice, but the quality of life in Madison is great, and there is an ethnically diverse student population in the public schools. My kids have had a great experience at Lincoln Elementary (which is 25% white students), and although we are caucasian and our residential neighborhood is not very diverse, their schools and school friendships have been blessedly diverse. To me, that is as important as any other aspect of their formal education.

  4. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    November 4, 2009

    Hi Kay,

    Conor's not yet old enough for public school, and honestly the housing prices are double in Madison compared to Stoughton. But I sure do bring him up there often...


  5. Reply

    Julie P.

    November 7, 2009

    My son (now 3.5) went through a phase last summer where he did the same thing. Mortifying, right? I was encouraged to read and learn from this article in Newsweek on the newest research about race awareness in very young children. It's tantalizingly titled, "Even Babies Discriminate."
    Check it out:

  6. Reply

    Buy Essay

    November 16, 2009

    This is an excellent written article, Thanks for yet another insightful post, as always!

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