Explaining “race” versus skin color to my three-year-old

BlackWhite-300x225-300x225by Sachi Feris

Since we often talk about skin color, I wasn’t surprised when my daughter, while sitting on a bench in San Cristóbal, Mexico the other day, noted that her baby brother’s skin color is pinker and paler than her own.

“But when he’s older,” she told me, “he’ll have skin that’s more brown like me.”

As I have mentioned in other posts, we have often described my daughter’s skin tone as the color of a brown egg.

“Right,” I agreed. “His skin color probably will be more like yours when he gets a little older and has spent more time in the sun…and your skin is the color of a brown egg, but it’s not brown like the color of Beba’s skin (referring to her doll who happens to be Black).”

“Beba’s skin is a darker brown,” she responded.

“Right,” I agreed again. “And you know, it’s interesting because Beba’s skin is brown and we call her Black. If she were real, her ancestors would come from Africa. But here in San Cristóbal, the people who we see with brown skin like Beba’s aren’t called Black, they are called Indigenous which means their families have lived here for a very, very long time…they didn’t come here from Africa like Beba or from Europe like Columbus or the Pilgrims.”

“And like us,” she told me. “We came here from Brooklyn.”

“Yes,” I agreed once again, smiling.

A few weeks prior, I had referred to the race of a character in a book my daughter and I were reading, as I usually do, and my daughter responded:

“But we’re White?” (Nosotras somos blancas?)

“Yes, because of our skin color, we are called White,” I told her. “But it’s confusing …look at this piece of paper.” I showed her a white piece of drawing paper. “This piece of paper really is the shade of white. Does this look like the color of our skin?”

“No,” my daughter affirmed.

“But people with a lighter skin color, like ours, are called White even though we don’t look like the real shade of white. And it’s the same with Beba (her Black doll). Look,” I showed her one of her black long-sleeved shirts, “this is the real shade of black. Is this the color of Beba’s skin?”

“No,” my daughter said, again.

“Right, Beba has more of a brown skin color…but people with Beba’s skin color are called Black.” I then qualified: “But remember, some people with brown skin identify as Black and but other people with brown skin might be Indian like Sara or Dina,” (two of her friends whose families are from India).

Later that day, we were baking brownies and happened to have one “white” egg and one “brown” egg. My daughter and I have always talked about her skin color looking like the color of a brown egg and, indeed, when we held it up to her arm, it blended in quite well.

“It’s confusing,” I told her again. “Because this brown egg looks just like your skin color but we are called ‘White.’”

I don’t expect my three-year-old to understand that race is a social construct. But, just as she knows there are (at least) two ways to say every word (one in English and one in Spanish!) I use language that describes both her skin tone and her “race.”

It is confusing, but she can take it.

For a related post: “Why I use the words “Black” and “White” versus “Brown” and Peach”


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.