Being able to see and relate to successful people who look like you is crucial, said President Obama in a conversation with ballerina Misty Copeland and Time, but having a visible role model doesn't solve all the problems minority youth face.
"When I think about the journey I’ve traveled, there’s no doubt that young African American, Latino, Asian, LGBT youth, they have more role models," Obama said, nodding to Copeland, who became the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in 2015. "But what we also have to remember is that the barriers that exist for them to pursue their dreams are deep and structural."
To drive home the point of just how long systemic bias can linger — even if it looks like things are getting better — Obama even discussed his own experience with race and discrimination in America, and how being elected the first black president of the United States marked a big step forward for the country but was not a cure-all for racism:
"What I always try to transmit to my kids is that issues of race, discrimination, tragic history of slavery and Jim Crow, all those things are real ... they didn’t stop overnight. Certainly not just when I was elected. I remember people talking about how somehow this was going to solve all our racial problems. I wasn’t one of those who subscribed to that notion. "
Obama and Copeland's conversation is worth reading in full, especially as they discuss how hard it is to beat mere perception when you're a minority striving to succeed. Copeland spoke about her experience as a biracial woman, saying her mother told her early that even though she is Italian, German, and black, "You are going to be viewed by the world and by society as a black woman and you should be prepared for that."
Obama was equally frank, saying that as he continues to do advocacy work with minority youth — like his My Brother's Keeper program, which connects disenfranchised young men of color to bigger opportunities than they have in their immediate communities — he can't bring himself to promise any magic solutions for them in a world that is slow to change its mind.
"We’re working off of a legacy of hundreds of years of discrimination that gets passed on generationally," the president said. "If we could decide tomorrow that there was no discrimination, that we had some new drug that everybody took and suddenly nobody would be racially prejudiced, we still have a whole bunch of really poor kids who need help."
Copeland and Obama even talked about the hard road that black women in particular face — an issue close to both their hearts, and one Obama framed in terms of raising two teen daughters.
"When I was a kid I didn’t realize as much ... the enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way," Obama said. "Are you wearing the right clothes, and is your hair done the right way? And that pressure I think [has] historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women."
"Michelle and I are always guarding against that," he continued, with clear admiration for his partner in battling the tide of negativity his daughters face. "And the fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful."
You can read the full transcript of Obama and Copeland's conversation at Time.