Race is not a topic Samantha Kemp-Jackson wanted to discuss with her children. But the Toronto parenting writer and mother recognized it was necessary.
Kemp-Jackson, who is black and whose children are bi-racial, says she was horrified when she saw the viral video of a Baton Rouge, La., police officer fatally shooting Alton Sterling, 37, in July.
The next day, she watched the video of the death of a second black man, Philando Castile, 32, who was also shot by police last week in St. Paul, Minn., and later learned of the killing of five police officers in Texas.
"I was talking on and on about it with my husband," Kemp-Jackson says. "I was really upset."
Kemp-Jackson has four kids, three of whom live at home, seven-year-old twin boys and a 12-year-old daughter. So it was the younger three who overheard her conversations with her husband about the news events.
Further contributing to her distress, Kemp-Jackson had a racist encounter days later with a store employee while she was with her son. The employee told her the store was closing and that she had to leave, even though other people were still shopping.
"He said, 'It's nine o'clock, the store is closing. They don't pay me overtime to sit here,' and, you know, basically, 'You have to leave.' And he said it over and over," she says, adding that the way in which he looked at her and spoke to her brought her to tears.
"You just know. As a minority, you know [the difference between] when people are just not nice people and you know when it's a racist thing," she says.
Even though they wished they never had to bring it up, the string of events prompted Kemp-Jackson and her husband to have a conversation about racial injustice with their children.
"It's a very ugly thing, and it's an ugly, ugly discussion that you have to have with your kids if you are a person of colour, and unfortunately, you can't avoid it," she says. "The reality is that my children, they are going to experience things that other people might not experience and they have to have the tools to deal with them."
Kemp-Jackson offered the following suggestions on how to prepare your children to face racial discrimination and how to teach them to be racially sensitive:
Don't sugarcoat. "Lay the ground rules out and say, 'It's an ugly discussion, but it's a real discussion. And the sooner I tell you about these facts of life, in terms of being people of colour or people who are minorities, the sooner you'll be able to deal with it,'" she says. "I don't know one person of colour – not just black, but South Asian, Asian, it doesn't matter – I don't know one minority person who has not dealt with some level of racism, whether it's subtle or overt."
Talk to them at their level. "You know your child best … and you know what your child can handle," she says. "It may be very facile and very simplistic when you speak to them if they're young. As they get older you can get more complex about it." Young children, for instance, may express questions about differences in people's skin colour. That can be an opportunity to talk to them about diversity.
Be upfront about your own feelings. "As a parent, you want to seem like a super-person. You don't want to reveal to your kids that you're vulnerable." But, she says, when her own children saw her cry after her encounter with the store employee, "I couldn't hide it. I had to give them an explanation."
Give them strategies and specific tactics. "It's not wholly a bad idea to maybe go through situations with your children, and say, 'Okay, if somebody called you this name, what would you do? How would you respond to it?' " she says. It also helps to talk to your children about who they can turn to for support – for instance, teachers or principals – if an incident occurs at school.
Encourage them to have an open mind. "I always give people the benefit of the doubt. I assume that people are good unless they show me otherwise," Kemp-Jackson says, explaining she extends this to how she talks to her children about police and other authority figures. "I've taught my kids that the police are there to help you," she says. But, she notes, if her children feel they are not being treated in a fair manner, she wants them to know they have the right to stand up for themselves and to ask questions, such as, "Is there a reason why you're asking me to do this? Or is there a reason why you're speaking to me like that?"
Expose them to different cultures. It's important to explicitly tell your children that every culture brings something positive from which they can learn. But, she adds, "I think it's important to immerse them in the different cultures as much as you can." For instance, Kemp-Jackson brings her children to various cultural fairs and neighbourhoods and introduces them to foods from around the world.
Lead by example. "We have friends of all different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, religious backgrounds. So when your kids see it, they will replicate it and think it's the norm," she says.
Address any discriminatory comments or behaviours from your children right away. "Say, 'What did you mean by that?' or 'Why are you asking about that person?' or 'Do you think it's strange that that person is wearing a sari? That's not strange, that's how people in India dress and this is why,' " she says. "Really confront it right when it happens and normalize the fact that people might look different and people might have different cultures but there are positive, rich and good things that can be taken from every culture."