Surprise Toddler Conversations About Race

“I want ponytails!” Gabriella told me one morning. I gathered her “fine as frog’s hair” locks into pigtails.

She looked in the mirror. “NOOOOO!” she cried out in typical three-year old overreaction. “I want a LOTTA ponytails!” She paused, then offered by way of explanation, “Like Lola at the library.”

I have often thought about what it will be like to discuss race with my kids. I expect living in diverse environments will create opportunities for these conversations.

Even several months back, the topic emerged while we were making my culinary specialty (read: "ordering pizza at Papa John’s"). She pointed directly at the cashier and announced, “He’s brown.”

Now I know that this comment holds no racial meaning, and I don’t want to talk about race when my child is not. She was discovering colors. We were always asking her name the color of everything in our path… why not people? She currently has little to no framework for understanding race.

Still, I feel pretty strongly that I do not want to brush conversations about race under the rug. And even though it makes me incredibly uncomfortable, especially when we were the only non-black people at the Papa Johns, I don’t want to shush her in public.

I don’t want to convey to her that we don’t talk about the color of people’s skins or that we don’t talk about it in the presence of people different than us or that it’s polite to pretend like we don’t notice.

So at Papa John’s I responded, “Yes. And what color is the phone?” The man ringing us up kept his head down and pretended not to hear. Since subtly is not in Ella’s repertoire, I imagine he very much did hear.

Looking back, I wish I maybe hadn’t treated skin color like it’s the same as objects having different colors. But I didn’t really know what to do. In a lot of ways, all that was going through my mind was not to shame her for talking about skin color and to try not to make those around me uncomfortable.

In regards to Lola, I simply told her one truth. “Lola has different hair than you.” I suppose I could’ve put her hair in a lot of ponytails. It still wouldn’t have looked like Lola’s and she may have gotten funny looks at preschool. Maybe that’s part of the process. I’m not really sure.

I’m certain these conversations will continue to happen. I thought I’d include a couple links of sites I’ve been checking out. There’s also a lot of great book recommendations, which I may pursue to encourage some of these conversations at home. 

Please feel free to share any links or resources you’ve found helpful on this topic. I’d love to check them out!


  1. Love this! My white daughter continues to ask for beads in her hair like many of her friends. Hair lends itself to great conversations about race.

  2. This makes me smile. :) <--- A digital image of what that looks like!


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