Friday, January 25, 2008
Imagining a Different President
Let’s consider the importance of this year’s Democratic presidential primaries. I’m not talking about party politics, so don’t touch that dial! This is about our children.
I’m a white guy, and that fact comes with a distinct history. By the time I was four years old, I knew the score. My father was powerful, my mother less so. On TV, the main characters, the heroes, the cowboys, were white men. They fired guns and took charge. The President of the United States and the nightly news anchors were white and male, like me. Maybe they droned on boringly, but people listened to them with respect. From my vantage point on the couch beside my sister, the world looked wonderful, a golden realm of possibilities whose limit was the highest peak. In the race for recognition, I would start several steps closer to the finish line, and my course was a little straighter than the girl’s circuitous route, a little smoother than the boulder-strewn lane of the dark-skinned kid.
At least that’s how the world might have appeared to me had I thought much about it; but another luxury of my condition was that I didn’t have to think about it. The clear message was that nature had intended me to enjoy my advantages, not to question them.
I could hardly have imagined a different world, one with Martha Washington on the dollar bill. (Imagine the Founders saying, “Sure, George was a great general, but we really need a woman to run the government. And Martha has 30 years of experience at Mount Vernon.”) But in another sense, because most white men can easily identify with the powerful, the idea of a female or black president might seem to us uninteresting in itself. We’ve been there, done that. Why make such a big deal out of it? In other words, we can’t easily identify with people who need the cultural boost and for whom it really would be a very big deal.
Admit it, fellow white guys: it means a lot to see yourself in the image of the President and to sense your own experience reflected in the President’s phrases, facial expressions, gestures, and cultural references. For Americans, the president is the universal public representative. His is the face that appears on the dime, the quarter, the dollar bill. His face signifies cultural value. And that face has always been my face. I’ve always been included in that picture, that narrow mirror. Not everyone has been.
The young girls who wake up on January 21, 2009, and see the image of a female president in the newspaper, if that is the result of our elections, will also see themselves in that gilded mirror of praise. Similarly, the minority children, especially African Americans, who see a poster in the classroom featuring our recently elected black president, or who hear in our president’s speech intonations that echo voices in their neighborhood, an accent from the South Side of Chicago, will know, in their very bones, a different future than the one we knew as children, when such images were merely dreams, at best.
All this is to say that reality matters. We are all Americans, and in theory it shouldn’t matter whether our president is male or female, white or brown; but in reality it matters deeply, because not mere chance but instead a history of forceful exclusion has forestalled such a day. It was always coming (we all might admit), but even so, didn’t it seem as though this day would never come?