My daughter and two-year-old son and I were walking out of our local Trader Joe’s when she asked me which one of our regular supermarket assistants did I think was the ‘kindest.’ I told her they were all pretty cool and helpful, but of course, my daughter being my daughter, I was cornered to the wall and had to make a clear choice. So I chose the guy who had just given her stickers and helped us carry our water to the car.

“Nelson,” I said, remembering his name from the tag. Then I returned the favor and asked who she thought was the kindest.

“Easy. The black guy who gives the best stickers.”

My heart sank hearing her already referring to someone by his skin color, when she wasn’t even six.

“I remember him. He was very kind. But you know, it’s not nice to refer to someone by his skin color,” I said, not wanting to make a big deal out of this, but also fully aware that this is one of this critical parenting moments where you need to offer clear guidance on a thorny issue.

“But he was black,” she continued.

“Who cares about his skin color? Why not think of something else that you remember about him that made hims special? Just the fact that he was kind and gave the best stickers should be enough.”

“What’s wrong with remembering him with his skin color?”

“Because it’s not that important. It’s not what makes us different. What makes us different is how we behave, how nice we are, how kind we are, not the color of our skin. Whenever you want to refer to someone, try to remember something that makes them special in a good way, but not something that doesn’t really matter. For example, I didn’t tell you ‘Nelson, the white guy,’ did I?”

“What if I am trying to tell you about someone and you don’t remember, and the only thing that will remind you is the color of his skin?”

This lesson was veering towards hyper political correctness. Of course I knew in the real word it was okay to refer to people’s physical characteristics for convenience, but the lesson I wanted to drive home was that that skin color, or rather racial differences are not important.

“Only if you can’t think of something special about a person, you can refer to how they look, but always be careful with the words you use. Mommy and I don’t think the word “black” is very nice. You can say African-American when we are in America.”

“What if we are not in America?”

“Hey shall we get some Sushi for lunch?” I said, knowing I was quickly heading towards parenting quick sand.

“Sure. So, what if we are not in America and I want to remind you of someone who is black?”

“If you can’t remember something about this person or the situation in which you first met them, you can describe the way he or she looks but try to be blind to their skin color. It’s not important. It’s just like saying someone has eyes, or has legs.”

“What if someone doesn’t have eyes or legs, can I use that to refer to them? Or if they are very fat, or very thin?”

Shit. Now what I have gotten myself into…

Then fate intervenes and we all get distracted by a wailing fire truck. Secretly I hope that at least I’ve driven the point home that saying someone is black was not on. We could work through the murky details of race relations on demand, as life requires it.

Then five minutes later, she comes back with the big finale.

“Daddy, remember when we were at the Santa Monica Third Street promenade and we saw these guys dancing?”


“Well they were calling each other black? Didn’t you say it was not okay to say that?”

“Sometimes, when it’s you talking about yourself, you can say it. I don’t think it’s nice either, but remember, these young men were performing, so it was part of their act,” I said.

“Okay. I am not going to say someone is black again, daddy. I agree with you, it’s not very nice.”

I take a deep breath, knowing I dodged a huge parenting bullet, because those street dancers she had remembered didn’t just call themselves black, they also used that word. I knew there would be a day when we would have to talk about that, but I prayed it would be a very long time before she heard it and came back for clarification.

“Daddy, what if someone is an alien and their skin color is green?”