How to talk to your child about race

Talking about race with your child can be challenging, but it's important. Here's how to answer questions that might come up.

A mother and child sitting and talking at a table
Photo credit: / staticnak1983

There's nothing wrong with talking about race and racial differences. In fact, the opposite is true: Teaching kids not to talk about race can contribute to the problem of racism. It's never too early to begin cultivating a healthy awareness of diversity in your child.

Young children don't understand the social meaning of race the way adults do. But they're not colorblind, and they do notice physical differences – research showsOpens a new window babies notice skin color as early as 6 months old.

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Studies also showOpens a new window that children can show racial bias as early as preschool. As they get older, children are also increasingly curious about what groups they and others belong to. Conversations they hear both inside and outside the home, as well as what they see in the media, will begin to shape their notion of race – especially how people of different racial backgrounds are seen and treated differently in society.

As with other complicated topics, it helps to talk to your child often about racial diversity. They'll probably have a lot of questions. How you respond to their curiosity will lay the groundwork for more sophisticated conversations as they get older.

Being silent gives your child the impression that the topic is off-limits or that an insensitive remark is accurate and acceptable to you. Children look to their parents for moral cues, and they'll learn from your actions as well as your words.

How to talk about race with your child

Expose your child to racial diversity. Before your child even utters the words "black" or "white" in reference to skin color, be sure they see plenty of people of different ethnicities. If you don't live in a racially diverse area, surround your child with books, media, and artwork featuring people of various races.

All of this will help your child understand that a normal environment includes people of different races, says Marguerite Wright, author of I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children.

Talk about differences. Hair, skin, eyes – children are noticing all these distinctions and beginning to describe them. It's normal. If your child points out that someone has curly hair, you can say, "Some people have curly hair, and some people have straight hair – isn't that cool?"

Don't overreact to comments on race. If your child comments on someone's color, first find out what they're really saying and why. When one BabyCenter mom's 3-year-old son noted in public, "That's a black man," she felt uncomfortable. Then he said, "That's not a blue man," making her realize he was talking about the man's uniform, not his skin.

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And when your child makes an observation that is clearly about skin color ("Eve's mom is white"), don't freak out. Just say, "That's right. What made you think about that?" Whatever the context, don't read too much into it. Your little one is learning a lot about the world, all the time, and they might just be making a comment about what they see.

Stick to the facts. When children ask questions about differences in skin color, keep your answers to the point. "Addison's skin is brown, and yours is lighter."

Watch your words. Do you or other adults in your child's life tend to refer to people in terms of their race – "that Black lady" or "that white man"? If so, your child will pick up on the habit. When a child makes a negative racial comment, it usually reflects something they've heard at home or in school.

"To reduce people to their race diminishes them," says Wright. Find other ways to describe people, besides their skin color, and teach your child to do likewise.

Aim for "color fairness," not "color blindness." If you don't acknowledge differences, you fail to prepare your child to live in a multiracial society. Instead, teach your child that everyone is different, but no one skin color is better than another.

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Filter the media, and talk about what your child sees. Media often perpetuates stereotypes and distortions regarding race, so be mindful or what your child watches. Introduce them to shows and movies that feature diverse actors and inclusive themes. Kids pick up on subtle messages about race and culture, so step in to challenge any racial stereotypes you see.

Some books you can read with your child to spark conversations about race and diversity include:

  • Separate is Never Equal, by Duncan Tonatiuh (ages 6 and up)
  • IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, by Carolyn Choi, Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, and Ashley Seil Smith (ages 6 and up)
  • Let's Talk About Race, by Julius Lester and Karen Barbour (ages 3 and up)

Answers to common questions about race

"What color am I?" Use a nice big crayon box to explore colors and find the shade that most closely matches your child's skin tone. Since your child isn't asking about race, it's okay to give an answer like "tan," "brown," or "mahogany." Some parents use ice cream flavors to talk about skin color with their child.

Expect that your child might wrongly identify their own skin shade and that of others, or that the shade they pick might change over time. It's just part of the process.

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"What race am I?" Others might ask your child this question, or it could come up as part of a school project about where families come from. Use family photos and a globe or map to talk about where your child's ancestors once lived, what they looked like, what language they spoke, and so on. Children can process the idea of belonging to more than one group, so don't feel like you have to leave any part of your family's background out.

"Mommy, are you white?" Find out why they're asking (possibly they heard someone else referring to you by your color) before responding with a simple yes or no. Remind your child that people have different skin, eye, and hair colors, and that's just great.

"Why is that girl brown?" A good general answer for this age group is simply, "Everyone's skin is different." When one BabyCenter mom's 4-year-old asked, "Why is everyone brown?" while visiting a city with a large Black population, she simply responded, "Because a lot of brown people live here."

Whatever the context, the key is to embrace diversity with your tone and words. One BabyCenter mom says her daughter's teacher, who is Asian American, tells her daughter that she is "cream" and her own daughter is "coffee" – mix them together and they make great friends.

"Why is his mommy white and he's not?" Tell your child that not all moms and kids "match" but that they're still a family. Point out any examples in your family or neighborhood – Uncle Jamie has red hair and his kids don't; Matthew has blue eyes and his mom doesn't.

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"Can I be white?" This question might come as a shock, but try not to show it. Kids want to fit in – if your child is in the minority in their school, they may want to be part of the majority group. First find out why they're asking, then calmly talk about their heritage and what it means to your family, using family photos, books, art, or music to reinforce a positive image.

The bottom line is, no, you can't be white, but here are all the wonderful things about being the color that you are.

What else you can do

Educate yourself. You're less likely to pass on biases (even unconscious ones) to your child if you identify and work to overcome them. Read and talk about the histories and cultures of a variety of people yourself so you can have constructive conversations with your little one.

Make your child's toy box a melting pot. Buy toys like dolls and action figures that represent people of different ethnicities. Stock your family's bookshelf with books with many different kinds of main characters.

Broaden your child's social circle. Arrange playdates with kids from all kinds of families.

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Be proactive about teasing and excluding. In elementary school, the first conflicts involving race may arise.

When Wright's daughter came home to say another child didn't want to play with her because she was "brown," Wright talked it over with her, then invited the other girl over for a playdate. She also spoke to the school about the incident, and the teacher brought it up in class without mentioning which children were involved.

Encourage diversity at school. Find out what books are in your child's school library. Suggest diversity where there is none, with books like Let's Talk About Race, The Story of Ruby Bridges, and White Socks Only.

Parents at some schools form diversity committees to organize workshops, trips, and multicultural potlucks or festivals.

Read more about having difficult conversations with your child:

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PBS. 2020. How to Use Children's Books to Talk About Race and Racism. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

PBS. 2020. Why and How to Talk to Your Child About Racism. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Nationwide Children's. 2020. How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Nemours Foundation. 2022. Talking to Kids About Race and Racism. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

EmbraceRace. Undated. 10 Tips for Teaching and Talking to Kids About Race. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Perszyk D., et al. 2019. Bias at the intersection of race and gender: Evidence from preschool-aged children. Developmental Science 22(3). a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Ziba Kashef
Ziba Kashef has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, NPR, CBS, NBC, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, and TIME.