What language should kids use when referring to Black people?

I recently got an email asking about how what words children should use when describing someone who is Black, and I thought it was a great question. With her permission I'm sharing it here.

Dear Kristen, 
I recently heard my (white) 4th-grade son refer to another kid from a soccer team as the “African” kid.  This was simply to describe who he was talking about.

My hope is that he somehow knows the term African America, and just left off “-American”  But reality is that I haven’t taught this kiddo what to say when describing others by race, or more importantly not to.  But at this age, Mexican is the word of choice.  And now I guess African too. Help?


talking about race diversity the office

Hi Vanessa, 
This is a really good question. When kids are little, it's not uncommon for them to use colors to describe the skin color of other people, using words like peach and brown. But since your son is older, it's probably time to give him the tools to use the descriptive terms that he will encounter in the world at large.

Side note - you mentioned not teaching your child that he shouldn't describe others by race, and that's actually a good thing. Race is a pretty obvious physical characteristic. It's not an insult to describe someone by their skin tone or their race, any more than it's an insult to say "the girl in my class with brown hair."  If there is one Black child on the soccer team, honestly, that was probably the most efficient and obvious differentiator and that's okay. It's problematic when we act like another person's skin topic is a taboo thing to notice or describe. (More on that here.)

But to answer your question, we use the term "Black" and I would recommend you have your son use that term, too, because it's the term most Black people in our country use to self-identify at this point. It's an awkward word to be sure, and not exactly accurate. I've never met anyone that actually had black skin - we are usually describing people with varying shades of brown or tan skin. But it's the word society uses for the most part, and so it's the word we use. We had a really candid talk with our kids when we introduced the term, and laughed a bit about how white people aren't really white either, but that these are the words that people use to describe people with certain physical characteristics. It's also a great time to pull out the map and talk about physical differences and geography.

Ultimately it's good for kids to get used to the vernacular that they will hear out in the world, and it's also good to give them the language (and comfort in that language) to be able to talk about race and racism when they are older.

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