Education in America

Race and Young Children

Susan recently wrote a piece about American-Americans and color-blindness that gave me ~*feelings*~, and it made me think, “How do we teach our children about race?”

Let me begin by saying that children are not stupid. When a child asks why someone looks different or has different color skin, you cannot respond with a hippy dippy trippy answer like, “We’re all the same inside. Color doesn’t matter. We’re all people!” No. We are not all the same. Our skin is different colors. Our facial features are different. By saying to children that we’re all the same only serves to confuse them.

Race needs to be addressed with young children. There is the now-famous doll study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark which showed that when presented with dolls that were identical in every way except that one was white and one black, African American children overwhelmingly chose the white doll as the “nice” and “good” doll. These were young children; we can’t wait until children are older to tackle open and honest discussions about race.

The first step in that open and honest discussion is to acknowledge the differences, and that is what I am focusing on here.

One way to address race with young children is to focus on skin color. Young children naturally like to compare their skin tones and this should not be discouraged; it is ok for children to notice that Lupe has darker skin than Luis. At a time when children are learning their colors, many are confused why some people are considered “white” and others “black” when that is not the color of their skin. A pre-K and primary skin color lesson staple is mixing colors to find each child’s unique color. Therefore a black child might have mahogany sepia skin and white child might have thistle peach skin instead of black and white. A necessity of any multicultural classroom is skin color or “people” crayons, markers, and paints. These are available at any teachers’ store, or off of

A box of multicolor skin tone color crayons with names like "peach," "sable," and "toast."
Our box of "people colors" that students use when drawing people.

Another diversity lesson for the pre-K crowd involves the book The Crayon Box That Talked. You begin by giving the children a box of crayons only containing the color green and have them draw a colorful picture. When they have finished, discuss if they liked their pictures; were they able to draw a yellow sun? A brown house? A blue sky? After discussing, read the book The Crayon Box That Talked and discuss how each crayon is important even though they all look different, just like people. The children can then draw a picture using all the colors.

There is also the old standby: literature. Although, I have found it very difficult to find quality fiction with a multicultural cast of characters. Two of my favorite books featuring characters of color (that aren’t about ~*diversity*~ or ~*tolerance*~) are anything by Ezra Jack Keats and Oh, Theodore! by Susan Katz (in addition to having a cast of people of color – it’s about a guinea pig!). If you all know of any other good fiction books for children featuring, but not focusing on, characters of color, I would love to hear about them.

I fully acknowledge that there is much more to learning about race than just focusing on skin color, but in order for children to be prepared for the more in-depth discussions and education about race and privilege, they must first recognize that all people are not the same and not be afraid to talk about differences.

By telling children that skin color doesn’t matter and that we are all the same we are only ignoring the bigger issue and creating a taboo subject. Race exists, as do all the privileges and discrimination that come along with it.

By Mona Se Queda

I teach bilingual special education and I like guinea pigs.

28 replies on “Race and Young Children”

I raised my kids in S. Cal. We lived in very mixed race neighborhoods. All the kids played together, giving no thought to who was what color. All the kids played together on the school playgrounds. Again, race was no issue. Then, my daughter went to middle school and her world flipped upside down. She came home the first day of school and said, “Mom, the kids are all segregating themselves.” Former friends no longer hung out together. They barely spoke. In the hallways. Around campus. Life had changed.

We’d had the straight science talk about race. My kids knew about pigment. They knew about different cultures, different peoples of different nations. They knew about immigration both past and present. So, Daughter rebelled. As did a few of her friends. She still went to their houses. They still came to ours. On Daughter’s 13th birthday, I even remember an “emergency” trip to Disneyland with one special friend in tow and that friend was not the same color as Daughter. They didn’t care. They were sisters. They’re both grown now. They live far apart. Their lives are very different. They still keep in touch.

You are so right. Children are not stupid. They just need facts. They need personal experiences wherein they’re supported in meaningful ways by adults. And I’ll bet you’re doing a fabulous job with your kids.

I thought of a book that might work! Have you heard of the novel The Egypt Game? There are six children in it–three boys and three girls–and they are African American, Caucasian, and Asian American. The book isn’t about diversity or tolerance, it’s about six kids making believe about ancient Egypt, and it is so good! It’s an older book, published in the 1960s I think, but it is a lot of fun. One of the characters describes someone else as having spotted skin instead of saying that he is white or black.

This book is on my shelves, and is one of my favorites. I’ll be loaning it to the kiddo here in a year or two, when I feel like he’s ready for that reading level, an I will be seriously bummed if he doesn’t adore it as much as I did. It’s just got everything: race and sex diversity, incredibly honest and funny descriptions of what the kids are going through emotionally, and ancient Egypt. I mean, ancient fucking Egypt!

I’d go check, but that bookshelf has been packed up already: wasn’t the “spotted skin” about someone who had freckles? And there was an “he was old” statement that turned out to just be the youngest character’s description of a young adult?

This was a really interesting read. With Juniper Junior we’ve gone down the route of the human race, colour being a spectrum and, yes, that we’re the same underneath. We have a few UNICEF and “world” books which have characters that are something other than white – the children’s channels we have tend to feature diversity in their programming, too – and the factors that have usually taken Juniper Junior’s interest have been the differences in culture, rather than skin colour. Hmn, I fear I’ve started rambling. Your article has certainly been thought provoking.

I love the idea of finding skin colors in a box of crayons to illustrate that there’s more than “Black,” “White,” and “Brown.” I can just imagine that would have been powerful for me as a child. My cousins always had darker skin than me (mostly because they tanned to a deep golden hue) and I was always porcelain white, and it seemed silly to me that we were both “White” when clearly we were not the same color.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand or convey why that troubled me as a child, so that box of crayons would have been nice!

I tried to have a race talk with Lexie the other day. We were playing Candyland, and on the game board there are four cartoon kids: a bronde white boy, a black boy, an Asian girl, and a brunette who might be Latina. I asked her to look at the drawings and asked if she noticed that they were different colors. She said yes… and then told me what color clothing they were wearing. Sigh. She’s smart but not terribly observant when it comes to people. She did tell me that a dark-skinned doll at the toy store was pretty; if she’d ever shown the slightest interest in playing with dolls I’d absolutely make sure they didn’t all look like her. I remember being crushed as a child when I finally found a Cabbage Patch doll named Hillary and my mom wouldn’t let me get it because she was black. I couldn’t understand why that mattered.

So far as kids books with POC, the only ones I can think of off the top of my head are all the Diego, Dora, and Kai-Lan tie-ins. My Princess Boy is about gender roles, but the boy in it is African-American. All of these are probably way too young for your students, though.

I let my daughters pick out which ever dolls they want, regardless of color.  I really like the Hearts for Hearts dolls they have been playing with because they go online and learn about the different cultures the dolls come from and play games with characters from a variety of nations.



1. I love those crayons! Whenever I have kids, I will definitely be getting my hands on some. That’s fantastic! :)

2. This reminds me of that song from South Pacific about how racism has to be taught since no one is born with stereotypes/prejudices/etc.

3. Whenever people say, “I don’t see race–I’m color blind!” I kind of want to smack them upside the head. How can you NOT see that someone is different from you? Instead of denying differences, can’t we embrace them? Our differences are what make us unique! No two white Americans (even identical twins) look absolutely exactly alike. Same for any two Chadians, any two French, any two Brazilians, and so on and so forth. I love that everyone looks different! If we were all one color, we’d be so boring!

I kind of am color blind – as in I’d be telling a story and someone would ask me what race someone was (as if that was important) and I couldn’t remember. But, when I told a friend of mine that I don’t really see color, she chastised me. A very proud African American woman, she told me that we all need to be proud of who we are, we need to celebrate our cultures, celebrate one another’s cultures, and stop trying to stir the melting pot unnecessarily.

I think sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Maybe it’s my frame of mind or the circumstance. I probably notice more with adults than I do with children.

And I really love faces. All different faces. I wish I could just go around taking pictures of people, but I think they’d be rather shocked and offended! But there’s such beauty in the human face. So, sometimes I think I end up staring at people, just taking in the differences – you know, the wrinkles here, the shape and shade of the eyes, the way the mouth moves when they talk. How did your nose get broken? Wow, your chin is so cool….

Plus, expressions totally fascinate me. And emotions. Do they REALLY mean what they’re saying? So many people are so adept at covering their real feelings.

There’s just so much going on in the human mind that race doesn’t always seem that important!

That’s too funny. My spouse and I went to Disneyland, one time, and it wasn’t until we got home that we realized we hadn’t done a single ride. We’d walked from bench to bench, just sitting there and watching people all day long! Yep. People are way cool.

This really is when I see it used most often: when someone wants to claim that racism is no longer a thing, and that they don’t see color, and if I’m talking about, clearly I do and am therefore the one who is racist. So. I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to that statement.

Those ‘people’ crayons are a great idea. I can remember being a kid and several of us complaining that none of the colors in our regular Crayola box were quite right. Even if a kid has never even given much thought to “people look different from one another,” it probably starts to click even more the moment they want to start drawing pictures of themselves, their friends, etc.

My parents didn’t really talk about race either, except on rare occasions, and like Silverwane said, it made for some moments where as a kid I’d be like, “Wait a minute… Oh wait, duh, I’m the one being stupid here.” A specific example – I can remember seeing a black ice skater during the Olympics — I don’t remember her name, but she could do a backflip on her skates — and she skated for France, and I said, “She doesn’t look French,” and then realized my idea of “looking French” was pretty ridiculous. (What year was that, anyway? Early 90s?)

BUT what I think helped is that I grew up on the side of town that would bus in a lot of the Air Force kids into our school (there’s only the one elementary school on base, so they would divide between that school and ours), plus there’s a rather large Native American population here, so while in school, that made it easier to understand that a person comes in many different varieties.

Having the conversation with my kids here and there when they ask questions is also perhaps a little easier because my daughter has red, curly hair, so it can sort of be used as an example, that she’s not “weird” for having hair like that, it’s just a different kind of hair. Like some of her friends have a different color of skin, like some of her friends have different color eyes, like her one friend who is albino. I know that hair color and race are not the same thing, obviously, but I started there.

Then she’s talked to me about Martin Luther King Jr., and it just horrifies her that it wasn’t that long ago that she and one of her friends wouldn’t have been able to share a water fountain, much less attend the same school. And then that actually transitions into same sex marriage, and she can’t believe that you can’t just marry whoever you want if you’re a grown-up. She’s also in her school’s Indian Club. Mostly she wanted to do it because of the crafts, but I figured that learning about different cultures (taught by people actually part of that culture) was a good idea.

Wow. This comment got lengthy. SHORT VERSION: I hope to do a good job with both of my kids, but I’m early in the process.

They did.  To this day we tease him about it, and his usual response is, “Hey!  He licked me too!”  Everyone kind of laughed it off, they were only 4 at the time, and when you’re that age, you’re trying to figure out WHY you look different.  The chocolate/vanilla thing CLEARLY made sense.

I will have to look over my children’s books lists- I’m sure ( I think) that I had some while I was teaching. I had to have them, right? Have you read the book Nurture Shock? It points to what you talk about- kids have to know that it’s OK to talk about race and how people are different. If they don’t talk about it, it’s not that they don’t notice, they just know that it’s not OK to talk about it.

Thanks for the recommendation! I definitely want to read that; I think I’d skipped it before because I’d somehow conflated Po Bronson in my mind with another author I really hate, but looking at Amazon I realized they’re two different people. I’ve read other books where they talk about the same topic but never in much depth (and of course right now I can’t remember the books).

I can definitely attest to this. My parents went with the “if we don’t talk about race, Silverwane won’t grow up making distinctions on race!”

That did not happen. When I got older, I found myself with a hell of a battle on my hands with unexamined white privilege as well as latent racism.

I don’t know for sure if things would had been different if my parents had done things differently, but I DO know that just because they didn’t talk about race didn’t mean I didn’t learn bad things. After all, racist depictions are endemic throughout society. And society doesn’t have to explicitly state it is racist or even necessarily explicitly say racist things for children to pick it up. The depictions teach too.

So, without my parents consistently trying to break that down, I didn’t have anything in my life to straighten me out until a couple years after I came into feminism. I feel like it’s a battle I’m constantly fighting with myself.

Yep, that’s basically what happened to me! Race was just something that Was Not Talked About. So, of course, that just meant I absorbed all of society’s negative bullshit.

I honestly feel kind of ashamed about it even though I know I couldn’t have changed what my parents did. But I try to direct that shame into fixing the problem, which I’ve seen some of my fellow white colleagues fail to do…

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