Ask LIE: How do I teach my child that race is a social construct?

I am an African American mother of a precocious and wonderful 3-year-old girl. Recent events in her after school childcare setting have caused me to begin to really think about what kind of cultural appreciation/awareness I should be explicitly giving to her.

Liz Dwyer’s post titled: My son is the only black kid in his class…or is he? really struck a chord with me. I am in the midst of assembling my daughter’s summer enrichment before her next cycle of Montessori education begins in the fall, and I was wondering if Liz, or any of you, had any ideas on how I could impress to my daughter the idea that race truly is a social construct. Any suggestions or input would be greatly appreciated.


E. Williams

From co-editor Tami:

I wonder if it is too early for this part of anti-racist training. Heck, some adults can’t grasp the idea of race as a social construct. But, more than that, too often the “race is a social construct” thing becomes a barrier to people acknowledging and addressing racism and cultural differences. Of course, I’m not saying that you would encourage your child to do this. I’m really just sort of parsing aloud why something about making this the focus of a three-year-old’s anti-racist education feels uncomfortable to me.

I think the best anti-racist education for young children is simply immersion in a diversity of cultures, as often as possible, through personal relationships, media, activities, travel, etc. I think personal engagement is especially important and the fastest way for anyone to absorb that we’re really all the same underneath our skin. It also provides a path to correct the idea that all dark brown people are black.

For older kids and adults, one resource I love is National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Spencer Wells and his team are mapping the human journey out of Africa to other continents around the world. The project illustrates how humanity began as one group and evolved and changed through migration patterns. It’s heady stuff, but informative and fascinating. There is an Educator’s Guide to the project and teachers resources, which can help explain this process to children.

Readers, co-editors–what do you say? Am I off-base in my answer?


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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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