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Shades of gray

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Here we are, two months past the inauguration, and if the honeymoon has waned in Washington, it certainly hasn't for one of President Obama's biggest fans—my son, Joey, age 2. We walk past a local bookstore and a magazine display catches his eye. He can't read the headlines, so there's nothing to tarnish his joy at finding an adored familiar face. "Look, Mommy! I see Obama!"

I squat down, teachable-moment style. "Yes, sweetie, it's Obama. Who is he?"

"My president." He's beaming with pride.

Of course Joey has no idea what it means to be president. He's just parroting the pride. It started after the election, when my mother collected commemorative issues of news weeklies. "Save these for him," she said. "When he's older, he'll know he was a part of something big."

And then we lucked out on Inauguration Day. I was supposed to work, but we got that freak snowstorm and everyone stayed home. It was a magical day of firsts. Joey tasted snow for the first time, and we amazed him by giving him a cookie sheet to sled on. We ate lunch in front of the television—which had never, ever happened—and Obama and Michelle kept waving, and Joey waved back.

So here we are gazing at photos of Michelle and Barack. Joey is lost in a reverie when out pops the zinger: "Obama's all black, Mommy."

In the millisecond it takes me to catch my breath, I recall the countless self-contented conversations I've had with other moms, Democrats and Republicans alike, about how glad we are our kids will grow up seeing that face as our leader. As a white American, imbued with transferred guilt, I think of my pride in my country, finally proving that we can get over it. That, at least in the voting booth, most of us really are colorblind.

And I wonder, where has he heard this? We don't talk about the color of people's skin at home. Joey has African-American and Latino friends, and of course there's never any reason to single them out for their race. But then there's Peter, from The Snowy Day, and Harold, of purple crayon fame; they're some of the few dark-skinned protagonists in Joey's literary world, and he mixes them up. Was I fostering a biased kid who thinks all black people look the same?

So maybe we should talk about it. Maybe it's OK to notice the color of skin, just as we talk about Mommy's blue eyes and Daddy's black hair. Maybe he's just observing: Obama is black. I feel relieved, even elated. Yes, he is black, I want to shout, isn't it great that, not only do we have a president who is capable, intellectual, articulate and charismatic, but he also just happens to be black?

"You're right, sweetie," I say, buoyant and satisfied. "Obama is black."

"And Michelle is all pink!" He returns triumphantly.

Pink? That's when I notice the fuchsia gown Michelle is wearing on the cover of the next magazine over—and the black suit on Obama, on the cover Joey's been contemplating. No, Joey is not colorblind. Maybe I shouldn't try so hard to be either.

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