I've talked before about how excited I was when Barack Obama was elected - not just because I thought he was the best candidate (I did and still do), but also because he's black. And he has a black wife. And black kids.
The city where I worked is a disturbingly segregated city for an area that considers itself progressive and diverse. I have often heard statistics cited to show how racially diverse Oakland is, ignoring the fact that in many neighborhoods - especially the poorest and richest ones - there is virtually no diversity.
The kids in my neighborhood felt this acutely. When I brought up the idea of desegregation of schools, one of them scornfully pointed out that black kids and white kids don't go to the same school - and in her experience, she was right.Although none of these kids - or even their parents - had ever experienced segregation due to laws, certain ideas were so foreign to them that they assumed they were legally prohibited.
I took the kids on a field trip to UC Berkeley most years, thinking it was important for them to actually see a college since most of them didn't have relatives who had been to college. I didn't realize exactly how important it was though, until one of my students stopped when I pointed out that we were on the college campus. He looked at me and said, "I thought they didn't let us come here." I asked him what he was talking about and he just kept repeating, "I thought they didn't let us come here." I finally got out of him that he had always assumed that African Americans weren't legally allowed to go to college. As someone who had always assumed that I would go to college - that it was just inevitable - this made me realize what a different world I had grown up in.
Another eye-opening experience was when we were doing a unit about money. I had the kids design their own money and aside from some nice comments about how I should be on the money because I am important and care about people, I don't remember much. The thing that stood out to me the most though, was the anger of one little boy. He wanted there to be a black person on the money and he said that would never happen. He was so angry and he told me that all the presidents and all the people on the money would always be white and that it wasn't fair.
I thought of that boy the night that Obama was elected and I wished it could have happened earlier, before this boy had lost all hope.
I saw this photo on the Internet recently and read the story behind it. The caption is: "The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own." If I were in the classroom now, kids would know that people who looked like them could go to college. They would know that people who looked like them could even be president. For a group of children who have felt so much like the "other" - apart from power and success - I think this photo says a lot.
I'm so glad he let the little boy touch his hair.