David R. Henderson  

Celebrate Diversity, But Don't Ever Talk About It

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In a blog post earlier this month, Bob Murphy told of his dilemma with his 5-year-old son and race. Rather than repeating the short story here, I'll let you click on the link. The one part I'll repeat is that his 5-year-old referred out loud to a black man in a supermarket as a "brown man." Bob felt embarrassed and asked his readers for their advice. Many of his readers had my attitude, which is: What's the big deal? Your son simply noted something obvious. I want to say more, first by quoting from my book, then telling a story from Russ Roberts, and then quoting from Steve Sailer's book.

Here's what I wrote in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:

I remember when my daughter Karen, then about four years old, asked my wife and me why people with brown skin are called black. Good question, and not one for which we had a satisfying answer. Karen then took the next logical step. "What are we? Pink?" she asked. When we told her that we were called white, she looked puzzled and asked, "Why?"
"Now that I think about it, there's not a good reason," I said, thoroughly confused myself. This 4-year-old's ability to see clearly and to ask good questions had shown me what an absurd structure adults--black and white, or brown and pink--have built around the issue of skin color.

Russ Roberts, when I told him Bob Murphy's story and my story about Karen, told me the following story:
When his daughter was two or three, she had some dolls. One of them was brown and she called it "Brown Baby." She had a lot of affection for Brown Baby. When Russ would go to the supermarket with his daughter, she often brought Brown Baby along. They would often deal with the same woman at the checkout counter, a woman who was what we adults call "black" or "African-American." The woman delighted in asking Russ's daughter about Brown Baby. What was obvious to her was Russ's daughter's affection for Brown Baby.

Steve Sailer, a frequent commenter on this site, in his book America's Half-Blood Prince, in which he analyzes Barack Obama's book, Dreams from My Father, points out that Obama described a group at a nightclub in Kenya as being made up of "tall, ink-black Luos and short, brown Kikuyus, Kamba and Meru and Kalenjin." Obama said his own father was "black as pitch." Sailer gives credit to Obama for his willingness to discuss color and points out that we just don't see clear discussions of color because "That kind of thing just isn't done anymore." He ends his discussion with this line, which I think is the best in a thoughtful, profound book: "We're supposed to celebrate diversity, but not notice it."

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Elvin writes:

I remember my little brother noticing a football player and saying, "Hey, he's chocolate!"

FXKLM writes:

When I was 5 or 6, my parents took me to visit some relatives who lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. On our way back, they took me to a nearby toy store where they bought me a globe. While we were waiting in line, I passed the time by reading out the names of different countries.

Eventually I got to Niger. Being 5 or 6 years old, I didn't know how to pronounce it, but I gave it my best shot. Sadly, I guessed wrong.

David writes:

My 5 year-old said "Brown-American" the other day. Close but no cigar.

David R. Henderson writes:

Great stories, guys.
FXKLM, When I moved to Washington in the summer of 1973 to be a summer intern at Herb Stein's Council of Economic Advisers, I remember looking quickly at a marquee for a play called "The River Niger." I read it too quickly and said to myself, "Gee, I guess Washington isn't as far along on race as I had assumed." I couldn't quite believe that and so I reread it and figured it out.

bob writes:

This might not be right (or appropriate), but perhaps the labels black and white came about at a time prior to significant inter breeding between the races. That is, many of the brown skinned american "blacks" are actually mulattos (e.g. great great grandfather was a rapist slave owner) to some extent, whereas those blacks with little interbreeding with whites have much darker skin.

Alternatively, perhaps the label came about at a time when many blacks worked/slaved in the southern sun throughout the day. Presumably a black person's skin color can darken from prolonged exposure to the sun just like any other person's skin, and thus american slaves were much darker skinned than modern day american blacks. Add to that English aristocracy went to great lengths to prevent their skin from being exposed to the sun because tanned skin was a sign of low class. So, you compare very pale caucasions to african-descent field workers, and you are probably much closer to black and white than you would see in modern society.

razib writes:

you nerds are so literal (or childlike). darker-skinned people are regularly called blacks by those who are lighter than them in a comparative sense. darker brown south and southeast asians have been called blacks by lighter brown west and east asians. highland peoples of ethiopia may refer to themselves as red or yellow, but that doesn't mean they think they're literally red or yellow.

anyway, you guys shouldn't be talking about this. the main issue with not discussing race applies to white people. it's totally fine for colored people to explain race to white people. that's what's meant by having a "discussion about race." :-)

-brown man out

lol@ razib


It would be more substantive if you discuss what Steve Sailer has to say about children recognizing race. He has an article on it in his archives and has a different take from yours. Can't find the link right now cos i'm at work. its blocked.

Troy Camplin writes:

There's a scene in "Everybody Hates Chris," where they get a dog and it's brown and Chris asks what they're going to call the dog. The father says, "Blackie." Chris replied, "He ain't black, he's brown." To which the father responds, "You're brown and you're black." Loved how that little scene pointed out exactly this absurdity.

Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks. Here's something I wrote a few years ago for VDARE.com:

When my oldest son was starting preschool, he informed us that his new friend Orville was "brown." Orville is what American grown-ups call "black," but my son had never heard that, so he used the more chromatically accurate term "brown."

When we asked our son what he was, he replied, "I'm pink."

"Well, how about your friend Diego?"

"He's … pinkish-brown," he announced decisively.

What toddlers think about race has been studied extensively in controlled experiments. In his book Race in the Making, the liberal U. of Michigan anthropology professor Lawrence A. Hirschfeld sums up his findings:

"As comforting as this [social constructionist] view may be, children, I will show in this book, are more than aware of diversity; they are driven by endogenous curiosity to uncover it. Children, I will also show, do not believe race to be a superficial quality of the world. Multicultural curricula aside, few people believe that race is only skin deep. Certainly few 3-year-olds do. They believe that race is an intrinsic, immutable, and essential aspect of a person's identity. Moreover, they seem to come to this conclusion on their own. They do not need to be taught that race is a deep property, they know it themselves already."

For instance, if you show preschoolers pictures of women and children and ask them to match the kids with their mommies, on average they will correctly tell you that the skinny white child belongs to the fat white mommy, while the fat black child belongs to the skinny black mommy (or vice-versa).

These toddlers have already figured out that race is a better predictor of family relationship, a subject that concerns them deeply, than is body shape. They have already begun to grasp a truth that eludes almost all adult intellectuals: that racial groups are extended families.

So your children will notice racial differences, no matter what you do.


Bill Drissel writes:

Children do see colors without convention. When our oldest was about four, he announced the color of everything in sight. Once he looked at a painting of a herd of wild horses under a dark, threatening sky. The leader was a "white" horse.

He proudly announced "blue horse." I'll bet every adult who looked at that painting saw a white horse.

Peter writes:

Ja this is pretty obvious to anybody who still let's their infants play in the park and don't live in a gated community. Here in Hawaii (not picking on Hawaii, I noticed it in the Midwest also) the browns play with the browns, the whites with the whites, and everybody ignores the token blacks. If my daughter goes to the park (she's three) not a single brown will play with her even if she goes over and attempts to make friends. Some times it's the parents but most of the time it's simply the kids. Seems to go: race then gender then language then culture (lets say Asian v. Islander) then age with body type not in the equation at that age.

My daughter has noticed other races and cultures but haven't had her vocalize anything in particular negative other than a recent hesitation to even try and play with the brown kids after four months of constant rejection by them.

Ryan writes:
Aren't we all just brothers!?
... exclaimed one of my computer science professors who had strong Christian principles as I completed my thesis proposal on facial recognition software which I built on the premise of real-world own-race bias. .

He didn't want to have anything of it; to me a clear example of a Celebrate Diversity, But Don't Ever Talk About It moment.

Arthur_500 writes:

I had a hard time using the term "Black" because it was not only false but had been associated with derision. When I finally came around to using that term we are to use the term African-American, which I despise. Barak Obama is indeed African-American but the average black person in the US is more American than I am. After 200 - 400 years I feel someone should either become American or go where they feel is their home.

Curiously, black people have been using the term "Colored" for quite some time. In fact, it is normal to reference not only colored but light, dark or other shade. It would be considered Politically Incorrect for a white person to say such a thing.

What to do? Ignore color as it really does not matter.

Recently a poll was taken of black people and the results showed that education was the biggest impediment to opportunity. In other words, in spite of those who are truly racist, most black Americans have every opportunity to succeed in life.

The time to move on from politically correct terminology has past. Just as an injured individual eventually must get rid of the crutches, so too must we delete colorization.

johnleemk writes:


I don't know how far one can generalise about these things. I'm Chinese by ethnicity but growing up in Singapore, my best friends at the playground when I was a toddler were mostly Indian and white. I didn't care, my sister didn't care, and my friends certainly didn't care. I'm reluctant to extrapolate much from this, but overall I think race is just too complicated an area to make very sweeping statements in.

Nikki writes:

Isn't it the rule in the U.S. that everybody should pretend different races don't exist? It varies across the world. In Seychelles, for example, stating someone's skin color is no more offensive that stating, say, their hair color. It is part of a description of the person's appearance, not an indirect status signal.

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