My daughter is Asian [East Asian]. She goes to a daycare center that has a diverse population. She started to notice that kids have different skin colors, and she is convinced that she is white. Should I correct her?

Some context: we live in the American south [A southern state of USA].

Update: We came from East Asia. My daughter has pale white skin much like Caucasians which is why she confidently classify herself white. She will say "I am like Chloe" (who is Caucasian) "...and I'm different from Ava" (who is African American). Interestingly, so far she never group herself with other East Asian kids in her class (it's less clearly why). Currently she has no concept of race, nor does she exhibit any race/color-based preference to other kids or toys.

In an ideal world, the answer is pretty simple: Peppa pig is pink and Elmo is red. Colors make absolutely no difference. That, I believe, is my daughter's current understanding. It is innocent and wonderful. I would love to pretend that is also the reality, but I don't think that could be sustainable solution.

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    Fascinating question. I think I'll raise it with some classmates in my anti-discriminatory education course. The unfortunate fact is of course that the world will tell her she's wrong sooner or later. But how she reacts to that, positively or negatively, will depend on how you prepare her! – Luke Sawczak Oct 8 at 14:34
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    Please remember that comments are for clarification, not answers, and they will be removed. Also, the OP mentions that they live in the South. While that might mean little to others, it means something specific to "white" people in the South. – anongoodnurse Oct 8 at 18:30

14 Answers 14

up vote 53 down vote accepted

While I believe @RoryAlsop's answer is the best approach, I do appreciate that things might be a little more complicated for you in the American South, where there is a strong history of discrimination based on the color of one's skin.

I don't know what it's like where you live, but there's no harm (I believe) in beginning gentle discussions of history, and that the current thought should be that we are not "better" or "worse" based on the color of our skin.

If you live in an area that still has discrimination, and you're worried that your daughter may be hearing about it/experiencing it already, the time has come to start building her moral compass about 'color'. The world is full of examples of non-white heroes. Not knowing exactly the situation, if you think there might be some talk already, start discussing (on her level) the works of great people of all races, including white. If she grows up in a loving family that doesn't care about the color of one's skin, she will better be able to ignore or answer those who do when the time comes.

"Correct her" is an odd phrase. To a child, if her skin colour is pale then she'll describe herself as white (quite correctly when seen through that lens)

Instead of correcting her, why not spend some time talking through how everyone is a different colour, but that that shouldn't matter. Yes, once she is older, a wider view will be useful, and you will be able to describe why "white" is used to mean Caucasian and not Asian, but at 3 years old, children are children, and that is the only important aspect.

You could ask her about all the different skin colours there - is she the whitest? Or people's height. Is she tall or short? Or language. Or how big their hands are - these are all interesting to children, but they do not have any determination as to role yet.

(I'm Scottish - our natural skin colour has been described as blue...)

You shouldn't correct her by only telling her that she isn't White. Use this as an opportunity to teach her about her Asian heritage. It's important to get a feel of where you come from in general, and this is a near perfect opportunity to talk about the history of your family with your daughter.

Only telling her that she's Asian and not White is fairly pointless, especially at three. She's 100% going to argue with you, and without knowledge of her heritage she's probably going to win. "Look at my skin" is a pretty solid argument when you're three.

I'm white and my wife is black, and our daughter is 3. She has in the past always been very pale, and she goes to a preschool consisting mostly of Indian children who initially had darker skin than she. My wife told me that our daughter said that the kids at school had called her white. So I asked her what color my skin was, and she said it was white. I suggested that perhaps it was actually pink. I asked her what color mommy's skin was. The answer was "brown." We had such gems as "daddies are white and mommies are brown." Being in New Jersey, we never thought to correct her. We don't speak about race in her presence. At least as of yet we don't want her to think in those terms.

This summer she went to camp and her skin darkened considerably, pretty much to my wife's shade. Now the kids at school call her brown. Notice it is "brown" and not "black." I don't think these children are talking about race at all, just skin color. And I think the same may be true of your daughter and her friends.

In a setting as racially charged as the south, it may be appropriate for you to make that distinction with her now. Presuming this is correct, you could say her skin color is white, but her race is (insert specific race here) . Explain that when most people say white, they are talking about race, not skin color. You may even go so far as to distinguish the features that other people would be looking at to say she isn't white. I don't know if you've experienced this, but our daughter demonstrates tremendous understanding and could probably fathom these things were we to explain them to her well enough. To her there would be no judgement, just an utterly innocent explanation of something that would be taboo in normal adult conversation. You may want to do this now to avoid any nasty surprises.

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    Race here = homo sapiens (sapiens), surely? There is no other. Tell her that there are people who think otherwise, and teach her how to handle that. – RedSonja Oct 9 at 11:53
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    @redsonja Genetically I'm well aware there's virtually no difference between people who are said to be of different races, but visibly there is a difference and that can't be ignored because racists do not ignore it. It is what it is. – Matt Samuel Oct 9 at 11:58
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    There is no black or white; only seven billion shades of brown. (Bill Nye) – WGroleau Oct 9 at 20:43
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    @RedSonja actually, homo sapiens is a species, not race. Race is an informal rank in the taxonomic hierarchy, lower in rank than subspecies, and higher in rank than strain. – Matija Nalis Oct 11 at 8:51
  • I, as a person with mixed parentage, am interested in what you would insert into that space for your daughter? – user33440 Oct 14 at 21:54

I think the "correction" that needs to happen is to tell her that the color names that she is used to aren't used exactly that way with skin/people. Skin "color" is used to refer to someone ethnicity, and actual skin color is just a part of that. If I say, hey look at that black guy over there, no one is expecting to see a pitch black person. They could be anywhere from light tan to very dark brown and we will call them black.

So, in her mind, she's not "wrong", she does have white skin, as many Asians do, but she needs to know that "White" is another word for Caucasian (which is pretty nondescript and used as a bit of a catch-all).

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    OP's daughter doesn't dwell on definition of "white", she says "I am like Chloe". So I think she doesn't notice any significant ethnic difference, color or other. – kubanczyk Oct 10 at 12:14

The reasoning ability of a three year old, even a clever one, is severely reduced compared to that of an older child or adult. You first have to understand that she's seeing the issue through a dramatically simplified life lens. The whole notion of "race" probably doesn't even begin to register. For her, it's as simple and basic as the colors in a small box of crayons. Understanding of the political ramifications of race is far, far down the road.

There's no correction needed (or appropriate) here. What is appropriate is timely and gentle discussion of geography, culture, diversity, etc. Shoveling a tiny person into any sort of box, be it racial, sexual, emotional, or any other, no matter how "correct", is wrong.

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    Maybe this question has it backwards. Maybe the adults are the ones who need to be corrected. Wouldn't it be great if we were all as free from racial prejudice as a 3 year old. – Orbit Oct 9 at 15:35
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    I have made a minor edit - so you don't get downvotes because of your choice of words – Rory Alsop Oct 9 at 21:33
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    Thanks, but I was happy with my phrasing. It was an accurate expression of my thoughts and an opportunity for learning by those who are rigid in their thinking. – isherwood Oct 10 at 12:37
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    @Orbit, obviously it would be great if we did not need to discuss these things at all. But for the purpose of the question as stated by the OP, it is clear that he is simply seeing realities of his surroundings, and trying to do best by his child. It is not about enforcing the more negative aspects of all of this, but educating the child (in appropriate 3-year-old terms) about how the world works; which obviously is an ongoing, livelong effort. – AnoE Oct 11 at 15:57

You might have taught your child that we don't call a person's hair "yellow", we use a different word; "blonde". In the context of hair, "yellow" is not the right word. When we use the word "white" in the context of describing a person, we don't mean they have pale skin, in the context of people, we mean most of their ancestors came from Europe, which is not true for her; her ancestors are from Asia.

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    But how to tell a 3 year old? – AnoE Oct 11 at 11:52

Don't correct someone who may be right! :)

East Asians, to many, are white and it's possible that one day this opinion will be the majority view. This is my present view.

Whiteness is like statehood: a person is white if other people consider them white. There are vast swaths of people who historically have not been considered white who now are: cameras, mestizos, Italians, and East Europeans come to mind. Others who used to be considered white who are now not: North Africans, Iranians, and Arabs.

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    The problem the OP is probably trying to avoid is that at some point in her life, the child will tell everybody around them that she is "white", and everybody around her will react in a, let's say, not-so-positive way. OP has made abundantly clear that he/she himself does not hold particular racist views. – AnoE Oct 11 at 15:57

3 is a bit young to be teaching her racial discrimination - she is obviously comparing actual skin colour rather than ethnicity.

You could use the opportunity to show her how everyone is different, hair colour, skin colour, etc. She may have the same skin colour as Chloe, and have the same hair colour as Ava.

You say it "might not be sustainable" but it doesn't have to be. The time will come later to learn that not only do different people have different physical features but they may also have different cultural heritages / backgrounds / religions / languages - but 3 is quite young to be learning about that kind of thing.

(Side note: You may be trying to teach her to be bilingual if you are fluent in the language of your origin and she may start to notice that she's the only one in her group who can speak this language, and that's fine. But that is simply a feature of her life, not a reason why she is not "like" the others.)

In an ideal world, the answer is pretty simple: Peppa pig is pink and Elmo is red. Colors make absolutely no difference. That, I believe, is my daughter's current understanding. It is innocent and wonderful. I would love to pretend that is also the reality, but I don't think that could be sustainable solution.

But it is true!

I mean, sure, some people will classify her as Asian, and as an adult, that'd be a helpful thing to be aware of. But, there's a huge difference between knowing your blood type and thinking of yourself as a member of the set of people who have your blood type; likewise, there's a huge difference between knowing your race and thinking of yourself in terms of being a member of that race.

She doesn't need to think of the world in terms of how others do, especially when those ways are undesirable. For example, some people think of adult women in terms of how large their breasts are and classify them accordingly. And while it's probably important to be aware that some people see the world that way, why internalize it or even take their perspective seriously? Would you ever want a loved one to think of themself in such terms?

Likewise, your daughter's Asian, and some people might think that that's an important fact about her. But, she doesn't need to internalize that world view just because others have it. She can learn her race as just another factoid about herself, just like her blood type or birth day, rather than as a lens through which to see herself and others.

If your daughter grows up without ever having developed an interest in classifying people by race, I'd think you'd have handled this well.

  • "If your daughter grows up without ever having developed an interest in classifying people by race, I'd think you'd have handled this well." - this repeats what OP writes. But he asks what he should do or how he should handle it... – AnoE Oct 11 at 15:59
  • @AnoE I'm not sure if I'm getting what you mean. The OP explains that they're concerned that their daughter needs to learn about race, and they're asking if they should correct their daughter. My point's that they don't need to worry about instilling a racial perspective into their daughter, such that there's no action needed on their part. Though, I should probably add a tl;dr-summary at the top; weird that I didn't. – Nat Oct 11 at 16:54
  • I mean that I do not see any advice in your answer, except confirming what OP already said (that he finds this a wonderful state his daughter is in right now). He fears what happens when her innocence clashes against reality... he does obviously (by his choice of words) not intend to artificially make his daughter more racist... – AnoE Oct 11 at 19:56
  • @AnoE Definitely, and what I meant to say as an answer was that the perceived problem isn't actually a problem. Most of the answer's text is meant to justify the argument that they don't need to worry about their daughter's lack of appreciation for racial perspective. (Separately, just to note it, I think a lot of folks don't find racial perspectives to necessarily be "racist"; a common example of a non-"racist" racial lens would be people who believe in celebrating everyone's racial heritage. Not that I agree with that position, but I'd still grant that it's not really "racist".) – Nat Oct 11 at 20:11
  • obviously it would help if OP would chime in here, as we're both awfully close to just guessing, but as I read it, he seems to fear actual racist issues (i.e., other more racist people around his daughter giving her a hard time for calling herself white). – AnoE Oct 11 at 20:14

It makes sense that she would describe herself as white. Race is totally irrelevant to young kids who haven't been taught otherwise, and she is probably just noticing and describing her skin tone as she would describe the color of a car. There is no need to "correct" her; it sounds like she is already correct and is just using the word "white" in a different sense than the one in which you are used to hearing it. I would just acknowledge her, saying something like, "yes I see your skin is pretty light", and move on.

Identify how your daughter is classifying 'whiteness'

Miscategorization is extremely common in young children. Children learn to identify categories by learning what items belong and don't belong, and forming the rules of the category from their observations.

If a child grows up with several small, four-legged furry animals which they are told are "cats", then they may decide that all small, four-legged furry animals are cats. Which is all fine and dandy until they encounter a schnauzer.

Sometimes all a child needs is a correction which they can incorporate into their categorization model. Other times, the child will fall into hysterics because they think that you're challenging their identification of the schnauzer as a "small furry animal". And since their identification of the schnauzer as such is correct, they don't know how to handle it. They don't recognize that you were correcting the connection between "small furry animal" and 'cat', and can't express themselves enough to explain why they don't understand why you're telling them that they're wrong.

What this means in your case is that rather than correcting your daughter's categorization of herself as 'white', you need to directly address your daughter's understanding of the requirements for the category. Ask her how she knows if a person is white or not, and then explain where her categorization is incomplete.

I think 3 is a good age to be deciding which things are like each other (a.k.a. object pairing).

I think that "diversity" probably implies that everyone is different, too, as well as being the same.

And "does it matter" might be a question to explore.

I'd ask her teachers too: I know that this topic (i.e. "diversity") is part of the training for preschool teachers ("early childhood educators") in Ontario, perhaps it's something that her teachers too know how to teach -- who knows, perhaps even an aspect of the curriculum.

I would not say correct her, I would prefere to explain her, in simply terms, that in case the color have more meaning, as well as moon may be the ball on the sky in one context, while in other context it is just time span of 28-31 days, where the current values came from animosities of rules of some far country many centuries ago (moths named after the rules and MY month cannot be shorter then HIS month).

Somebody would tell here soon anyway, better be it you in nice and friendly environment, then some rude, which does not know better (and just got splinter of that information) say her "you are just wrong and therefore stupid and not white at all, if you are asian" (or somethin more rude).

Going with the month paralel, I would agree, that here skin is nice white (and the ribbon goes relly well to it), but as the word moon have more meanings and some have historical roots, which does not even matter now, the white has also more meening when connected to people, which have some historical roots, when in old times peole realized, that some have white skin, some dark, some more yellow tones or red and came with simplification to call whole nations by colors, they had seen as different in majority, but does not have so much validity now, when anybody can marry anybody and there is many times not strict distinction, what exactly the supposed "color" even should be. Mainly if while her ancestry is from asia, but her skin is a lot whiter, than of some people from say europe. So that she is right that she is white as far as it goes to skin color, but also there is the ancestry, that her family goes from Asia, so she is also Asian.

And that is like if Ted's family came from Austin in Texas, so he is both American and Texasan and Austian at the same time and it is not conflict or problem. And Ava is from family, which have roots in Africa and her skin is darker, but not so dark as skin of (there must be somebody darker than Ava, if not in neiborhood, then on TV she see).

And that she is white (as per skin tone) as Chloe, but that Chloe family came from this state/city there and your from that state/city so there are also small differencies in that. As well as there are differencies in hair color and eye color and that that she prefere different color of robe/ribon, than Chloe does. And that that all those differencies of colors does not matter co much, even if they exist.

(or something like that)

You cannot prevent her from the facts in the world, but you can explain her in the terms, that she would uderstant and be not ashamed when she is confronted with it, rather to be proud. "Yes, I am Asian and I an as white as Chloe, who American and Hans, who is German. Some Americans are not even so white as I am. Why it should matter anyway?"


I am from Europe and at 3 I was aware, that in Africa live black people and that some childs around have different color and different heritage. I did not care much at that time. I owned lot of planets, where lived people and animals of all possible colors in harmony.

I remember, that around 5 I did know some basic about that people are borned, not that they are found under rose or crow brings them or so. My mother was pregnant and I know, that there is my sister inside her, but the sister is just so small baby, that she had to be protected by my mother body all the time and that when she will grow more, she would be able came out and play with me and I would have protect here. (well no technical detail, how it is exactly done, but I do not care, it was natural, that it happens somehow at the right time. I was allowed to touch the tummy, she was inside, feel her to move there and sometimes kick, but I must be gently, to not hurt or scare her. Around my 6 I was allowed to carry my sister part of way home when she was finally born (well probably hard supervised by my parents, but I was the Prince, who have little Princess in his hands and was resposible to walk steady and held her firm oh her first way home). I still remembere, ho I was disapointed, that she does not play with me ans still cry and does not grow at all, even if I checked here like 5x a day)

So maybe it is hard to believe now, when your dauther is just 3, but in two year she may even hear something about how are child born - you cannot pretend to her for long, until she get some hints from other sources. So I think, it is better to be open with her, just on the level she needs to know about world around - simple level, sure and not much details, but not lie to her and do not think, she could not discover something until you explicitly allow her to as it does not work that way.

On the other hand do not push much details and burden on her, answer her questions honestly, but with regards to her age, do not avoid difficult themas, but you need not go in too much deep and force her to know and agree on hard reality.

If you cannot totally shield her from reality, it is better to prepare her gently in loving and safe environment to the parts of reality, which she is going to meet soon, that just deny it all and try to fix results, when damage is done. With carefull approach the damage may be prevented a she can accept it as all other odities of world, she had to accept so far (why is mom so much larger than me? Well she is older so she had longer time to grow. But granny is not larger hat father, even if she is older. Well no everyone grows equally fast and older people does not gro so much ... ok, it make sence now, even if it just small part of really komplext biological science)

So she is white, as well as asian, as well as Princess of ponny kingdom - it is all true now but more important is, that she lives in loving family and is acepted as who is is without questions.

You are caring about her and THAT is important. She have safe and loving home and THAT counts much more than that in the world around are some illogical or unpleasant things.

  • +1 as this is the answer I was looking for! I have no idea what being "white" exactly implies for the OP or the child. But generally if you see the child believes something that isn't, please ask yourself if the child schould keep living with a false assumption. Somewhen she will be corrected - which gets odder with every moment that goes by. Then she will ask why nobody told her. Except if it's about Santa or something like that, these things can still last a while ;-) In the meantime teach her that a skin tone should be like hair color or shoe size - irrelevant. But keep with facts. – puck Oct 9 at 18:28

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