President Obama is different from any president we’ve ever had before. For one, he is a relatively young Commander in Chief. At 47 years old, he was only the fifth youngest president to ever take office, and the first in recent times to be unaffected by the Vietnam War. He is the only president to be born outside of the continental United States, and to spend his childhood in a non-Western nation. In his distinct multicultural way, Obama hosted the first White House Passover Seder and the first official White House Diwali celebration. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the first year of his first term in office, an honor unprecedented by almost any world leader.
He is also the only black man to ever serve as President of the United States.
Under the weight of Obama’s other accomplishments, his rich and complex identity as a Hawaiian, a former Illinois Senator, a father, a husband and a community leader, we often forget the significance of this fact. We tend to focus on his identity as a man but rarely as a black man, erasing the significance of his rise to the presidency in a country built upon hundreds of years of institutional and social prejudice against people who look like him. As a country, we reluctantly acknowledge that these forms of racial discrimination existed in the past—and we are even more reluctant to admit that they exist still today. Since the 2008 election, the term “post-racial” has been thrown around with alarming frequency, suggesting that in our naïve optimism we may become even more blind to the racial inequalities that still pervade our social system.
However, these complex interactions of race and identity, of the politics of shame and responsibility, were lost on five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia. The youngest son of a former Marine and White House employee had only one question for the president during their brief encounter in the Oval Office three years ago. In a touching display of raw innocence, Jacob asked the most burning question on his young and curious mind.
“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.
Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” He lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.
“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.
As Jacob patted the presidential crown, Mr. Souza [the White House photographer] snapped.
“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.
“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.
This is the coarse hair that kept even the lightest of men from sitting in public streetcars. It’s the coarse hair that women have had to relax, straighten, burn, twist, curl and perm until it’s unrecognizable as their own. It’s the coarse hair that many of Jacob’s classmates and many of his public representatives have never felt, because they know what soft hair feels like and that’s enough. The fact that this coarse hair now occupies the Oval Office, making some of the most important decisions in the world, is revolutionary. Of course, Jacob, at five, doesn’t know any of this. All he knows is that there’s someone who looks like him in the White House, and that when he feels his head, he is touching something familiar.
The Obama administration has tactfully avoided discussing the issue of race, leaving it to analysts and pundits to draw their own conclusions. In politics, some issues must go unresolved for the sake of public appeal. But this moment, captured forever in a snapshot hanging on the wall in the West Wing, speaks the volumes that the Obama team never did. It reveals how important it is for the new generation of children to have role models with whom they can identify, and who represent a challenge to the historical American status quo. To many black children, Barack Obama is a symbol of possibility. While having a black president does not mean we live in a post-racial society, it does mean that many children looking up to him are inspired with a greater sense of agency, opportunity, and potential for achievement than those of their parents’ generation could have ever hoped to be.
The Obama administration will probably never address the issue of race head on. Fear of being accused of playing the “race card” has lessened in the post-election season, but still permeates through American politics. But so long as moments like this continue to play out, in the Oval Office or across the nation, young people will continue to be inspired by the shifting norms of our nation’s politics, and will carry on challenging those structures we take for granted.