We were standing in line at the supermarket when le Petit pointed at a store employee standing nearby.
"O-ba-ma!" he said loudly, overjoyed and ready to jump out of his stroller.
I've mentioned before that le Petit is a huge fan of President Obama. Every week he flips through our copy of The Economist looking for him. He recognizes his picture on Parisian billboards and can pick him out in a photo of G20 leaders. I somehow managed to transmit my joy and optimism over Obama's election, and now le Petit idolizes him, or at least searches for him everywhere. Recently he's started mistaking most of the black men he sees for Obama.
Much to my embarrassment, the employee overheard le Petit, but he just smiled with amusement and said, "Ah, so he thinks all black men are Obama, huh?" He exchanged a look and a laugh with the cashier, a black woman.
"Yes, well..." I said hesitantly, "He loves Obama and looks for him everywhere." After all, I decided, being mistaken for the handsome American president, who's uniformly admired in France, may not be such a bad thing.
While bagging my groceries, I explained to le Petit, no, that man isn't Obama, but yes, his skin is a similar color. The cashier complimented le Petit's language skills, and I proudly explained that he was learning to speak both English and French (and, it went without saying, some American patriotism, too -- after all, he can name our president.)
We paid and said goodbye, le Petit with a big wave and an "au revoir." As we walked back home, I started into my standard speech for such occasions.
"You see, people come in all different colors. Some people have darker skin, like Obama. Or like M [le Petit's nanny]. Or like mommy's friend R. Other people have very light skin, like Mommy's friend A. A also has blond hair. Mommy has brown hair. Mommy has blue eyes, and you and Daddy have brown eyes. Some people are tall, and some people are short..." and on and on, listing people he knows, in my stock, matter-of-fact explanation of the diversity of physical appearances.
I have no idea if I'm going about this the right way. My goal is to confirm what he's starting to observe, that people do indeed look different, believe different things, and speak different languages. That families come in different configurations. That what we have in common is far more important than these differences. I use every opportunity I can to teach this. I was on Facebook last night when he crawled onto my lap and we looked at a friend's pictures together. "See, that's Baby L. She has two daddies. See, there she is with J, her daddy. And there's B, her other daddy..."
I was thinking, if this approach seems natural to me, why am I so uncomfortable when le Petit mistakes someone in a store for Obama? Why does it make me feel like somehow I've failed? I guess that's because it shows that talking can only make up for so much. Le Petit clearly lives in a world that is smaller and more homogeneous than I'd like. Most of the people I list in my great explanation of diversity live far away: R in New York, J and B in Chicago, A in Delaware. Le Petit only knows them from pictures on the computer or tacked to the refrigerator, and to him they're about as real as President Obama.
Of course, this says a lot about my hermit-like existence in Paris. After six years of life here, I can count my close friends on (a couple fingers of) one hand, and I still don't have any mom friends with toddlers for play dates. For many reasons, we need to get out and meet more people. But still, that feels like an inadequate excuse.