Talking (or Balking) About Race with Kids

race+is+hardIn a recent episode of This American Life, producer Chana Joffe-Walt recalls how she didn’t know how to respond to her preschooler who, in a bath-time game of running a pretend restaurant, decreed certain items off limits to Jews.

“What am I supposed to say?” Joffe-Walt muses. “I should say something, right? . . . Or is the best approach not to say anything? He’s just having a bath!”

She continues, “It’s your job to teach them about stuff that matters, but . . . they’re little . . . so you have to be careful about saying, ‘Well, let me tell you a story about a man named Adolf Hitler. He would have liked the way you run your restaurant, by the way.”

Joffe-Walt’s story brought me back to how ill-equipped I felt twenty years ago when at a playground with my daughter, Ally, who is white, and her friend, Dory, who is black. They were four years old.

“OK, I’ll be the queen, and you be the slave,” I overheard Ally directing Dory.

I was horrified. And speechless.

Omigod! Where does she get this?” I thought to myself.

I was pretty sure it wasn’t Sesame Street indoctrinating my daughter about life on the plantation. What was Ally picking up from the culture at large or from us? And more to the point, how should I handle it? A lesson about the legacy of slavery and the power dynamics of white privilege hardly seemed appropriate, nor did shaming my daughter for saying something she probably didn’t intend and Dory probably didn’t hear as racist. Would I make things worse by calling attention to what could just be innocent play?

I was at a complete loss. So I punted:

“Why don’t you be the slave and let Dory be the Queen now?” I suggested lamely to my daughter.

Taking on race with preschoolers seemed beyond my abilities, but I could at least try to balance out Ally’s tendency toward the imperious.

Maybe they traded roles, maybe they didn’t. I can’t recall the outcome on the playground twenty years ago, though I can still feel my shame and my floundering. And also how easy it was to just let it drop, something I did not then recognize as part of my privilege as a white person.

Certainly now that Ferguson, NYC, and Baltimore have pricked the nation’s consciousness, and even conscience, we are far more encouraged to make race part of our national conversation. I like to think if I were raising young kids today, I’d be better equipped. But maybe I’d still feel just as flummoxed by a game of Queen (and Slave) for a Day as did Chana Joffe-Walt in the face of Anti-Semitic Restaurant.

As she points out, “These conversations are how we make our mark on the next generation. They’re also, very often, how we learn how much we do not know.”

It won’t get any easier if we don’t try.


What quandaries have you experienced in talking about race with kids? Moments of cluelessness and awkwardness? Fortitude and forthrightness? How did it go? What have you found helpful/unhelpful? 

If you want to delve into this more, keep scrolling. Please feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!


Kamau Bell’s segment on the same episode of This American Life describes the quandary– and a possible solution–beautifully.

And watch this page for other resources from SF-based writer and therapist Rhea St. Julien and her musician husband Joel St. Julien, parents and activists who walk the walk. (“Talking with Your Kids About Race,” the June 4 event their Stay Woke Parents Collective is hosting, is sold out.)

C is for Coffee Conversations

Starbucks Race Together


Clueless. Condescending. Clumsy.

These are some of the kinder things that have been said of Starbucks’ attempt to start a conversation about race by having baristas write “Race Together” on coffee cups.

Not since has there been a more disastrous rollout. At least this ill-fated campaign was a goldmine for comedy.

Starbucks has long been the object of derision. Years ago I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.”

I must confess a guilty secret: I rather like Starbucks. Although I get my daily latte at the kind of local café that might champion those bumper stickers, I don’t mind going into the belly of the beast. For one thing, I like my lattes milky. I never have to specify “extra hot,” since their baristas seem to know there is nothing worse than having to suck down a latte in one slurp before all the heat drains away.  Plus, Starbucks pays its employees a semi-decent wage, offers healthcare coverage to part-timers, and started an education initiative to help pay for college tuition. All of this is a drop in the bucket in redressing an economic system that is way out of whack, but still, it’s a start.

So even though I understand the enraged and mocking response to Race Together, I give CEO Howard Schultz credit for trying.

I’m actually a big fan of clumsy efforts to talk about race. As a poster child for white privilege, I have inadvertently made many mistakes and committed many microaggressions. It is tempting to remain silent to avoid chastisement or embarrassment for saying the wrong thing.  But I am trying to shed my cloak of oblivion and silence. So I appreciate pioneers of clumsiness.

A few months ago I wrote about the furor that erupted last fall when Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, made a racially insensitive “joke” at the National Book Awards.

In a recent interview on KQED’s Forum, Handler was asked about the incident, and replied that he didn’t mind being “the idiot . . . or the clumsy person in the room.” Handler continued, “The subject of race in America—that’s something you have to take on. I would rather make mistakes . . . than decide that I’ll just erase it entirely as race has just been erased entirely from so many conversations. . . . If I can be any kind of example that can lead to conversation and insight, . . . that’s more than worth making a fool out of myself.”

I appreciate this, just as I appreciate Howard Schultz. Maybe he’s a mix of cynical corporate capitalist, insensitive person of privilege, and well-intentioned fool. But he did start a conversation.

Besides, as one Facebook commenter put it: “Nothing unites people like a shared joke. In this, Race Together is a success.”


Join the conversation about Starbucks and conversations about race!

No Joke

The Pain of the Watermelon JokeI’ve come to expect the blatant and dog-whistle racism routinely sounded by Fox News. But Lemony Snicket?! For it was none other than the beloved children’s author of A Series of Unfortunate Events–aka Daniel Handler—who recently made racially insensitive remarks while emceeing this year’s National Book Awards. Right after his friend Jacqueline Woodson won for Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler told an unfunny joke about watermelon. He drew deserved criticism for his racially insensitive words, and quickly apologized. Woodson wrote about the injury in an eloquent essay called, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.”

In grappling with my very different reactions when prejudice comes out of the mouth of someone I like rather than someone I hate, I’m reminded of another unfortunate event involving poor word choice from my childhood.

I grew up in an all-white, affluent Boston suburb. My parents had moved from Tennessee because they did not want their children to grow up hearing black people called “Nigger.” Civil rights activists, they worked tirelessly to end racial discrimination in housing and schools.

Life was simple because we knew who to hate—bigots like South Boston politician Louise Day Hicks, a rabid opponent of court-ordered busing to end school desegregation. Buses may have burned in working-class Southie, but racism was far more genteel in our privileged enclave. Homes for sale would just suddenly disappear from the market should the prospective buyers turn out to have an abundance of melanin. My parents were outspoken critics of this northern variant of discrimination. Apparently racism knew no geographical bounds, as my mother was reminded every time she picked up the phone to hear the whispered hiss, “Nigger Lover.”

Undeterred, my parents spoke frequently at civic and church gatherings in favor of fair housing. At one such meeting, my mother rose from her seat next to her black friend Bernie and approached the podium. Particularly furious about the latest example of redlining that kept non-whites from living in our town, my mother shook her fist and proclaimed, “Let’s call a spade a spade!”

Realizing with horror the racial slur she had just uttered, my mother prayed for the earth to open up and swallow her whole. Meanwhile, her friend Bernie threw back his head and roared with laughter.

I wonder if their friendship could survive today in light of the furor surrounding this year’s National Book Awards. Much of the ensuing commentary fell into two polarized camps: what an unforgivable racist Handler was; or an attack on black people for seeing everything through a racial lens. One commenter wrote, “I cannot imagine that they are still friends.”

My fervent hope is that they are. I like to imagine the two friends sitting down together for a good, long, honest talk. Racism must be called out, but we must also know the difference between malevolence and ill-spoken ignorance.

I am saddened by the pain oblivion causes, whether it is Handler’s or my own. I want to do better, be better, even if I am clumsy in the process. There are plenty of times my fear of offending or of being upbraided for saying the wrong thing makes me say nothing. I do not want to remain adept at this kind of silence, where no one is the wiser, and no one learns a thing.

The National Book Awards created a stir, but also offer a way forward. In a recent Fresh Air interview, Woodson spoke further about Handler’s remarks: “I’m sad that so many are not connected to the deep history [of the African-American’s experience of racism]. Daniel didn’t know. He made the mistake of thinking we’re beyond that. Friendships are complicated. But he has a good heart. A lot of people who are ignorant have good hearts, and that’s what this kind of racial mistake looks like.”

So I’m guessing she and Lemony Snicket are OK, just as my mother and Bernie were, just as I hope to be with whomever I offend.  Such unfortunate events open up opportunities for understanding, if only we keep talking honestly with one another.


Heartsick. That’s how I feel on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed, “I have a dream.”

My dreams are less inspiring. Last night I dreamed that my husband, his parents, and I were hiking in the remote countryside. Amid the beauty, we chanced upon secret military preparations for an airstrike against Syria, planes and boats amassed for war. Even though we had not come to this pastoral setting as intruders or to make trouble, we realized that we were likely to get arrested. My husband and his parents were unafraid, wanting to make a stand against armed conflict. I just wanted to get away.

My bedtime reading before falling into the sleep that produced this dream consisted of two fine articles: Rhea St. Julien’s, a writing acquaintance whose work I admire, and Patricia Williams’, a legal scholar and Nation contributor. St. Julien writes about what it is like to field constant compliments about her young bi-racial daughter’s mocha skin and gold-flecked afro, the bright happy-talk obscuring penetrating issues about race that nobody wants to address. Williams writes about how Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot to death by George Zimmerman, somehow became the one on trial in a courtroom saturated by tropes about gallant white men guarding against presumed-to-be-dangerous black men.

George Zimmerman sought trouble, and got away with murder. Trayvon Martin stood his ground, and paid with his life. In my dream, we also stumble into trouble not of our making, and are seen as intruders who must be gotten rid of. Standing our ground, or fleeing—which is the wiser course? I’m lucky that I can escape, in my white skin, facing down the menace that dreams are made of simply by waking up.

As I write this, President Obama, the man who embodies my highest aspirations and hopes and who now looks to be leading us into another foolhardy Middle East conflict, is speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate King’s speech.

I want to stand with the President, but can’t, because of Syria and the whole mess of dashed dreams. I want to stand against his foreign policy, but won’t. I do not wish to abet those who have not literally castrated and strung up this black man, but who have conducted a political lynching by delegitimizing him, hamstringing his vision and policies, rendering him impotent through sheer vitriol and obstruction. Just as an unarmed black teenager was somehow transmogrified into someone who deserved to die, our mild-mannered, thoughtful, centrist president has been contorted into the dangerous, dark other who must be thwarted.

My parents were lifelong civil-rights activists who moved away from the South before my older brothers became infected by overt racism. They worked tirelessly in the North to end housing discrimination that was every bit as hateful as the commonplace usage of the N-word they’d fled.

My parents also staunchly opposed the Vietnam War. They knew what it was like to revere their President for his domestic vision, and to break with him on foreign policy. I wish they were here now, not only to see a man they would have loved become President, but also to teach me how to carry on when faith flags.

I suppose it is something—quite a lot, really—that an African-American man has been elected twice as President of these riven United States. Just as it is something that many people at least delight in rather than revile a little girl with brown skin and golden curls. But there is so much more that lurks beneath the surface—war in the bucolic landscape of my dream; disillusionment in my reverence for my President; deep undercurrents of white-hot hatred despite real progress on race.

I would like to march, to take a stand, but I do not. I would like to embrace the progress we’ve made, and work hard to fulfill promises not yet met. Instead I lament, I mourn, I turn away from the world in crisis to the bright, happy-talk world of hair care and inconsequential blogging. In doing so, I turn away from despair, but also from hope, from determination.

I need a rally, a March on My Dispirited Soul.