The Talk: What Parents Tell Their Children About John Derbyshire

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A satirical re-writing of the National Review columnist's unfortunate article advising white parents on what to tell their kids about race.

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Trayvon Martin, left; writer John Derbyshire, right. AP, Wikimedia

One of the many national conversations that has followed the killing of Trayvon Martin focuses on "the talk" that many black parents give their sons. The New York Times summarized "the talk" as about "what it means to be a black teenager in a country with a history of regarding young black men as a threat" and "about standing up straight, dressing the part, keeping your hands in sight at all times and never, ever letting your anger get the best of you."

John Derbyshire, a long-time writer at National Review (which fired him over the piece, though he's been writing similar articles for at least 11 years) and other conservative publications, wants us to know that it's not just black Americans who should worry about their children's racial interactions in our white-majority society. "There is a talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids, too," he writes in a much-discussed piece in an online publication called Taki's Magazine.

The 15-point "talk" he gives his children warns of "the hostility many blacks feel toward whites," urges them to "avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally," and instructs them, "before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white." (He explains this last point, "In a pure meritocracy there would be very low proportions of blacks in cognitively demanding jobs.")

"If you are white or Asian and have kids, you owe it to them to give them some version of the talk. It will save them a lot of time and trouble spent figuring things out for themselves. It may save their lives," Derbyshire concludes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, "Let's not overthink this: John Derbyshire is a racist."


America is a racially diverse society and not everyone has an easy time with that. Whether that difficulty manifests in whatever racial assumptions may or may not have guided George Zimmerman, the police who declined to arrest him, some of his public defenders, or in the more obvious overtones to Derbyshire's essay, racism exists in America. This is not unusual: if America were free of racism, it would be the first diverse and racially harmonious society in world history. Yet we sometimes act as if, to paraphrase Teju Cole, we agree that there is rampant racism, but actual racists are nowhere to be found.

Maybe, then, it's time for a new version of "the talk," one that parents of any skin color can give their children that warns of the dangers of racism and, yes, of racists. I don't have any children on whom to develop such a "talk," so rather than take the pains to construct it from scratch, I've used Derbyshire's as the basis. Here is his actual 15-point talk, modified (and, let's be clear about this: satirized) as a new 15-pointer for parents who want to tell children about racism in America.

(1) Among your fellow citizens are an unknown number who believe that certain human races are inherently inferior or superior than others. Most likely, these beliefs manifest in ideas that people of certain races are "just different," and that these differences just so happen to provide easy assumptions about the merit or quality of a person of one race or another.

(2) Americans are descended from people from every corner of the globe. The circumstances of their arrival vary widely, part of why their treatment and status once they arrived also varied.

(3) Your ancestry is cause for celebration no matter where your family's origins, but racists will take it to be a determinant of your personality, abilities, and worth as a human being.

(4) The default principle in everyday personal encounters is, that as a fellow citizen, with the same rights and obligations as yourself, any individual of one race is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to any individual of another race. That is basic good manners and good citizenship. In some unusual circumstances, however -- e.g., racism -- some people will argue that equality must be "overridden" in the cause of, for example, "personal safety."

(5) Sometimes people will point out to you, "There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners." Sometimes people say things like this because they want to discuss, say, the inherent inequalities in our education system that tilt the playing field against black students. Sometimes they say it because they want you to believe that black people are inherently worse at math. Both conversations are partially about race, but the latter is necessarily racist.

(6) As you go through life, you will experience an ever larger number of encounters with racists. Assuming your encounters are random -- for example, not restricted only to racist convicted murderers or to racist investment bankers -- the Law of Large Numbers will inevitably kick in. You will observe that the means -- the averages -- of many traits are not so different for racist and non-racist Americans. Some people argue that less-educated or poorer Americans are more likely to be racist. This appears to be false, and is sometimes informed by classism, which is not so different from racism.

(7) Of most importance to your personal safety are the very different means for antisocial behavior by racist people, which you will see reflected in, for instance, school disciplinary measures, political corruption, and criminal convictions.

(8) These differences are magnified by the hostility many racists feel toward people of other races. Thus, while racist-on-racist behavior is more antisocial in the average than is nonracist-on-nonracist behavior, average racist-on-minority behavior is a degree more antisocial yet.

(9) A small cohort of racists -- in my experience, around 0.5 percent -- is ferociously hostile to people of other races and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm them. A slightly larger cohort of racists may go along passively if the point-five percent take leadership in some event. They may do this out of a vague feeling that the minorities have it coming.

(10) Thus, while always attentive to the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences, use common sense:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of racists not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily racist neighborhoods and clubs, especially if you want to run for public office.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with racists on that date.

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of racists.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of racists suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by politicians who implement laws that promote racism.

(10g) Before voting for a racist politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a nonracist.

(10h) This item in Derbyshire's original list stated, "Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway." It wouldn't be right to discourage Good Samaritanism toward racist people, even as satire, so we'll just strike this one.

(10i) If accosted by a strange racist in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

(11) Statistics on average test score results by race are a great starting point for conversations about how our society administers education or health care differently to different people, disparities in social services or nutrition or economic opportunities, or the degree to which institutionalized racism still effects American life. They are not evidence of racial superiority or inferiority.

(12) This bulletpoint really defies satire, so here's the original:

There is a magnifying effect here, too, caused by affirmative action. In a pure meritocracy there would be very low proportions of blacks in cognitively demanding jobs. Because of affirmative action, the proportions are higher. In government work, they are very high. Thus, in those encounters with strangers that involve cognitive engagement, ceteris paribus the black stranger will be less intelligent than the white. In such encounters, therefore -- for example, at a government office -- you will, on average, be dealt with more competently by a white than by a black. If that hostility-based magnifying effect (paragraph 8) is also in play, you will be dealt with more politely, too. "The DMV lady" is a statistical truth, not a myth.

(13) In that pool of people who are racist, there are nonetheless many intelligent and well-socialized racists. (I'll use IWSR as an ad hoc abbreviation.) You should consciously seek opportunities to make friends with IWSRs. In addition to the ordinary pleasures of friendship, you will gain an opportunity to help your new friend expand his or her understanding of race and whether it really determines a person's innermost qualities.

(14) Be aware, however, that there is an issue of supply and demand here. Demand comes from organizations and businesses keen to profit from racial resentments by employing IWSRs, especially in positions at the interface with the general public -- talk radio hosts, TV news presenters, and, apparently, also anyone who thinks tanning salons should be taxed -- with corresponding depletion in less visible positions.

(15) Fortunately, ISWRs are depleting in supply, as being openly racist in the U.S. becomes costlier and as Americans themselves become less racist. Moments such as the publication of and backlash against John Derbyshire's article are an opportunity to out one racist, and, more importantly, they are an opportunity to confront the racism that still exists in American society. Derbyshire, after all, has been writing this stuff unmolested for over a decade. Instead of focusing on why we reject his views now, maybe we should be considering why we tolerated them for so long.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

You don't have to follow my version of the talk point for point; but if you are nonracist and have kids, you owe it to them to give them some version of the talk. It will save them a lot of time and trouble spent figuring things out for themselves. It may save someone's life.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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