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.”