I recently saw a picture of a young boy, just three years old, standing behind the rope line at the White House, looking up in awe at President Obama. The president put a gentle hand on the boy’s face. According to news reports, the President of the United States of America bent down and spoke a few words to the boy, and straightened his tie. The boy is African American, just like our president.
That little boy also met Rep. John Lewis, an African American who was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and has been fighting ever since.
There’s another photo, from a few years ago, that’s more famous. It shows President Obama bending down so another young black boy, five years old, could touch the president’s hair to see if it felt the same as his own closely cropped African-American locks. And, indeed it did.
Powerful images both. No one pretends that race tensions and discrimination have disappeared in this country because we have a black president. Indeed, the backlash against him and his has been as fierce as the backlash against the women’s movement. But the imagery is just as powerful as the office itself.
In this election, we have, on one side, a woman and a Jewish man from New York vying for the Democratic nomination. Either one will be a first. On the other side, there are two sons of Cuban immigrants in a tight race for the Republican nomination. Another first.
Feminists and other civil rights activists have long since said that having an advocate in the room is not the same as being in the room. Sure, Sen. Ted Kennedy did lots of great things. And, I’ll even concede that it was probably easier, for him at least, to get it done while he was only dealing with other rich, white men.
It’s easier because they understand each other, they speak the same language, they like each other, they don’t make each other uncomfortable.
But they miss stuff.
They miss lots of stuff.
No matter how hard they try, and no matter how well they do with their advocacy, they don’t “get” certain things. They just can’t.
We all have experiences influenced by how we are perceived in the world. And those experiences shape us.
Who hasn’t heard that George Eliot was a woman, and used a man’s name so she would be taken seriously?
I remember being a young girl and being so disheartened when I would always hear “he.” It was so clear I did not stand a chance for certain things I might want to do.
The commercials would start out saying, “Do you want…?” and I would think, “yes,” and then they would make a reference to “your” wife or girlfriend, or otherwise make it clear the “you” was a man, certainly not me. And I’m quite sure they weren’t targeting the gay community.
It matters to be in the room.
It matters for people, especially young people, to see someone who looks like them in the room.
When little girls saw Sally Ride, they knew they could fly.
When black boys see President Obama, they know they can achieve the highest office in the land, arguably, the world.
When young people see anyone who looks like them doing awesome things, it makes them feel that they can do awesome things too.
So tell me, please, as we head to the polls on March 1 to pick the champions from each party who will head into the final ring to debate their way to the top job in the world: Who does Donald Trump look like?