How to Teach the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity to Your Kids

In order to start conversations with your kids about anti-racism, you need to understand the difference between race and ethnicity. Here's a primer.

child coloring
Photo: Courtesy of the author Sandra Burciaga Olinger

As a mother, it's long been a priority to teach my daughter that we must go beyond 'not seeing color' when it comes to diversity. But recently, I found myself confused about the difference between race and ethnicity when attempting to explain racism to her.

As I was filling out the U.S. Census, I recall being baffled that Hispanic or Latino was not listed under race. My confused state caused me to have feelings of anger, sadness, and defeat. Why wasn't my race an option? For as long as I remember, I have always thought my race was Hispanic—but I was wrong. It turns out that Hispanic is my ethnicity.

It's taken a lot of time and emotion to undo certain ideas I was raised thinking to be true. I am constantly unlearning and educating myself, so I can have conversations with my daughter about racism with intention.

If you've had similar misunderstandings, rest assured that these two common terms are often confused. Read on to learn the difference between these terms, plus get some tips on how to explain race and ethnicity to kids in a simple way.

What Is Race?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, race is a self-identified social category not defined by biology, anthropology, or genetics. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines race as a categorization based on physical traits common to people of shared ancestry. In other words, it's based on appearance.

According to Traci Baxley, Ed.D., creator of Social Justice Parenting and mother of five biracial children, "Race is often defined as the characteristics that you can see, the outward physical make-up of someone." This includes things like:

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

"A person does not choose race. It is assigned by society (socially constructed) based upon these physical features," she adds. In other words, your race is determined by how you look. The U.S. Census Bureau outlines five categories of race:

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

All five races are determined by how you look. Race is a social construct, which means it exists because humans agree it exists. However, just because it's a construct doesn't mean it doesn't have real implications. For example, racism exists due to classifying and treating people differently based on their grouping.

What Is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is fluid and self-determined based on the social and cultural groups you identify with through learned aspects of your life. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ethnic as relating to large people groups with the following commonalities:

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

"Ethnicity is the cultural practices, customs, and traditions that are learned and shared by a group of people—including language, nationality, heritage, religion, dress, and customs," Dr. Baxley explains.

In a 2003 interview on PBS for the program Race: The Power of an Illusion, Princeton University sociology professor Dalton Conley explains the complexity of race and ethnicity this way: Someone born in Korea to Korean parents and then adopted as an infant to Italian parents would feel ethnically Italian because they eat Italian food, speak Italian, and know Italy's culture and history. However, based on their appearance, they would be treated racially as Asian.

Similarly, my mother is from Peru, and my father is from Mexico. Still, my race is socially categorized as white even though I identify my ethnicity as a brown Latina with indigenous Incan and Aztec roots.

Like race, ethnicity is also a social construct. And while ethnic categorization can offer a sense of identity and belonging, it can also lead to consequences for how people within a group are perceived and treated.

Teaching Kids the Difference

When it comes to explaining the difference between race and ethnicity, Dr. Baxley shares a simple way to define things: "Race is what you see (physical traits), ethnicity is what you learn (cultural practices)."

Depending on your child's age, there are various ways to help kids fully understand race, ethnicity, and what it means to be anti-racist. UNICEF suggests the following:

  • Recognizing and honoring differences
  • Being open to your kids' questions about race
  • Asking kids questions about what they hear about race at school or on TV
  • Encouraging involvement in activism

It's never too early to teach your children about race and ethnicity. Research suggests conversations about race often begin when children notice different characteristics of their appearances. This can be as early as preschool.

For me, explaining race and ethnicity to my daughter, who just turned three, started when she was 2-years-old. As she was learning to identify colors, she noticed that my skin was brown and her skin was white.

With younger children, you can celebrate diversity through children's books and toys. Look for children's books and dolls featuring kids with different skin tones, facial features, and hair. There are a lot of powerful anti-racism children's books for kids of all ages.

In addition, skin tone markers in various shades have made it easier for my daughter to draw pictures of mommy, daddy, grandma, and Abuela. And because of all our new conversations about race and ethnicity, when she plays with her brown skin-toned doll, a recent birthday gift, she points out that it looks like mommy.

The Bottom Line

Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. An easy way to remember the difference and explain it to your child is that race is what you see (people's skin, hair, and eyes, for example), and ethnicity is what you learn about your culture from the people around you.

You can work these conversations into everyday situations by cultivating diversity with your kids. One way to explore this intentionally is through toys, books, and media that celebrate different skin tones and experiences.

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