The Mouths of Babes

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[Hampton Stevens]

My friend in San Francisco emailed a little story. He was watching World Cup with his daughter—Spain vs. Switzerland. The girl, a 9-year-old, asked her daddy a question.

"How come there are African-Americans on the Swiss team?"

Yikes.

How does a parent answer something like that? Does she think that only the United States has black people? Is she innocently asking why Americans are playing for the Swiss national squad? Is she using "African-American" reflexively, simply because she has never been taught another term for darker-skinned people?

For the record, judging from the Swiss roster, the kid was probably looking at Blasé Nkufo, born in the Congo, and Gökhan Inler, of Turkish descent.

The right answer then, might have been something like, "They aren't Americans, dearheart. That fellow is from the Congo. That chap over here comes from Turkey."

My friend didn't know that at the time, however. Nor did I, in fact, until looking it up online just a few moments ago.

While the little girl can be excused, grown-ups can't be. When British racer Lewis Hamilton won his first Formula 1 race, a bunch of news outlets had to issue corrections after calling him the "first African-American" to win an F1 race. Boxer Lennox Lewis and Naomi Campbell, also British, often are similarly mislabeled. So is Iman, born in Somalia, for goodness sake.

How best to answer his daughter's question started a debate in our little email group still raging. The funniest line though, came when yours truly was making the point that globalization—and good ol' American Melting Pot-ness—was making simple racial classifications harder and harder with each new generation.

For instance, what about NBA star Tony Parker? He was born in France, the child of a black man from the U.S. and a Dutch model. What do we call him? "Dutch-African-American" seems a little too long. And what about his wife, Eva Longoria? She was born in Texas, to a very old family of Latin-American descent.

"When Tony Parker and Eva Longoria have a kid," I wrote triumphantly to the group, "What will it be?"

"Rich," my friend wrote back. "And very, very good-looking."

True dat.

How about it readers, how would you have answered the little girl?


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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