Some compliments are hard to take.
Take, for example, Larry King's announcement a day after President Barack Obama's inauguration that it is now "in" to be black.
In fact, the ageless CNN talk show host announced during a conversation with journalist Bob Woodward and fellow talk show host Tavis Smiley on "Larry King Live" that his 8-year-old son Cannon "now says that he would like to be black.
Woodward and Smiley burst into what sounded to me like a slightly cautious laughter. "There's a lot of advantages to being black," King continued, beaming with fatherly pride. "Black is in. Is this a turning of the tide?"
Not to me. As a black parent, I've lived through this movie, only in reverse racial roles. When our son was four, he came home from his pre-school one day to announce that he wanted to be a "white policeman" when he grew up.
His mother and I tried not to sound shocked, despite our imagined horrors of a budding racial identity crisis damaging our son's sense of self. Besides, if you react to something shocking that your kid says, they will only say it again.
Instead I quietly reached for a how-to manual by psychiatrists James P. Comer of Yale and Alvin Poussaint of Harvard on the raising of black children. The book just happened to include a response to a black parent whose four-year-old wanted to be white.
The good doctors' remedy? "Relax," they said.
It turns out that it is quite normal for children of all races to become aware of color differences at age four, but they don't attach any value to it. It is left to us, their elders to teach them to love, hate or give everyone a fair chance to prove themselves.
And the reverse also was true, Comer and Poussaint pointed out: It is not unusual for white kids to want to be black, if their personal heroes happen to be black.
Indeed at that time 15 years ago, my son's best friend was a 5-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid in our neighborhood who was firmly convinced, as his dad put it, that "he is Michael Jordan."
For Larry, who among us older dads is challenging several records for late parenting, cross-racial tourism by kids appears to be a new experience. That would explain his amazement and his apparent ignorance of a pesky unwritten rule in today's political correctness: Let no racial praise go unpunished.
It was King's casual assertion that there's "a lot of advantages" to being black that stirred the biggest uproar of Internet chatter. A writer to the Huffington Post fumed, "(A)s soon as sonny boy gets passed over for jobs, opportunities, promotions, loans snubbed, driven by, under-estimated, charged more, ignored by doctors, success looked at with surprise and asked constantly if he plays basketball he'll go right back to spending his white daddy's money."
Ah, yes, as much as the world welcomes America's first president of known African descent, it is more than a little early to declare blackness to be an advantage. In fact, if he screws up, I suspect that we won't see another black president for another hundred years.
For now, I am not shocked that King's kid would think being black might give him some sort of advantage. It is a mark of our progress as Americans that today's millennial-generation kids can grow up with images of black success models like Obama as easily as I grew up with Superman and Wonder Woman.
Ironically, the more success we black Americans show in this country, the harder it becomes for us to persuade anyone that being black is such a terrible handicap. To paraphrase an old song, nobody knows the troubles they have not seen.
By now you may have noticed, dear reader, that it's hard to joke about race these days, even when the humor obviously is good-natured and free of malice. Joe Biden could tell you that. Back when the master of foot-in-mouth surprises was still a Democratic senator from Delaware, he famously derailed his own presidential campaign momentum with a well-meaning but racially naive compliment of Obama as "clean" and "articulate." What sounded like praise to Biden sounded like condescension to quite a few black Americans.
Obama didn't hold it against Biden, as evidenced by his later choice of a running mate. Yet the episode left an important lesson: We can't move into a truly post-racial future without a vocabulary that can help us to talk more frankly about our racially troubled past.