Teaching Kids about Race and Ethnicity

Embarking on the journey of teaching kids about race and ethnicity requires initiating meaningful anti-racism dialogues with your children. Begin by comprehending the difference between race and ethnicity, using this overview to assist you in facilitating these vital discussions.

As a mother, it has long been a focus of mine to teach my daughter that “not seeing color” is insufficient when it comes to diversity. But, I recently became confused about the distinction between race and ethnicity as I attempted to explain racism to her.

I recall being perplexed when filling out the U.S. Census since Hispanic or Latino was not listed under race. My state of confusion caused me to experience wrath, grief, and defeat. Why was my race not a choice? Since I can remember, I have always believed that my race was Spanish, but I was mistaken. It turns out that my ethnicity is Latino.

It has taken a great deal of effort and emotion to remove certain beliefs I was raised to believe. I am continually unlearning and educating myself so that I can have purposeful dialogues with my daughter about racism.

If you have experienced similar mistakes, you can rest confident that these two common terms are frequently mistaken. Learn the distinction between these concepts and simple ways to explain race and ethnicity to children by reading on.

What Is Race?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, race is a self-identified social category and is not defined by biology, anthropology, or genetics. Merriam-Webster defines race as a classification based on physical characteristics shared by persons of the same ancestry. In other words, it is determined by looks.

According to Traci Baxley, Ed.D., creator of Social Justice Parenting and mother of five mixed children, “race is frequently determined by the external physical qualities of an individual.” This includes the following:

  • Skin color
  • Eye color
  • Hair texture
  • Facial features

“Individuals do not pick their race. It is ascribed (socially created) based on these bodily characteristics,” she continues. In other words, race is decided by appearance. The U.S. Census Bureau defines five racial categories:

  1. American Indian or Alaska Native
  2. Black or African American
  3. Asian
  4. White
  5. Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander

All five races are determined by physical appearance. Race is a social construction, implying that it only exists because humans agree it does. Nonetheless, the fact that it is a construct does not negate its real-world significance. For instance, racism exists because people are classified and treated differently based on their grouping.

What Exactly Is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is variable and self-determined based on the social and cultural groups that a person identifies with based on life experiences. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ethnic as pertaining to large groups of individuals who share the following characteristics:

  • Racial
  • Religious
  • Linguistic
  • Tribal
  • National
  • Cultural origin or background

“Ethnicity is the taught and shared cultural practices, conventions, and traditions of a group of people, including language, nationality, heritage, religion, attire, and customs,” adds Dr. Baxley.

In a 2003 PBS interview for the program Race: The Power of an Illusion, sociology professor Dalton Conley of Princeton University discusses the intricacy of race and ethnicity as follows: A person who was born in Korea to Korean parents and later adopted by Italian parents would feel ethnically Italian because they eat Italian food, speak Italian, and are familiar with Italy’s culture and history. On the basis of their appearance, though, they would be considered Asians.

My mother is also from Peru, whereas my father is from Mexico. Still, my race is socially classified as white, despite the fact that I identify as a brown Latina with Incan and Aztec ancestry.

Ethnicity, like race, is a social construct. Ethnic classification can provide a sense of identification and belonging, but it can also impact how individuals within a group are regarded and treated.

Teaching Children Differences

Dr. Baxley offers the following definition for the distinction between race and ethnicity: “Race is what you see (physical qualities), and ethnicity is what you learn (culture practices).”

There are numerous approaches to assist children in comprehending race, ethnicity, and what it means to be anti-racist, depending on their age. The UNICEF recommends the following:

  • Respecting and recognizing differences.
  • Being receptive to your children’s inquiries regarding race.
  • Asking children about what they learn about race at school or on television.
  • Encourage participation in activism.

Teaching your children about race and ethnicity can begin at any age. According to research, youngsters often initiate dialogues about race when they observe differences in their appearances. This can begin as early as kindergarten.

My explanations about race and ethnicity to my 3-year-old daughter began when she was two years old. While she was learning to recognize colors, she observed that my skin was darker than hers.

You may celebrate diversity with younger children using children’s books and toys. Search for children’s books and dolls that portray children with diverse hair, facial features, and skin tones. There are many effective anti-racism books for children of all ages.

In addition, varied skin tone markers have made it easier for my daughter to sketch photos of her parents, grandmother, and great-grandmother. And as a result of our recent discussions about race and ethnicity, when she plays with her brown-skinned doll, a recent birthday present, she remarks that it resembles her mother.


The terms race and ethnicity are sometimes used interchangeably, yet they have distinct meanings. A simple approach to remembering the distinction and explaining it to your child is that race is what you can see (such as people’s complexion, hair, and eyes), whereas ethnicity is what you learn about your culture from the people around you.

You may weave these dialogues into everyday settings by fostering diversity with your children. Toys, books, and media that celebrate diverse skin tones and experiences are one method to investigate this concept consciously.

Meaningful articles you might like: Things People of Different Races and Ethnicities Shouldn’t Say To Each Other, Do’s and Don’ts of Discussing Race with Children, How to Discuss Racism and Race With Children