No gunsMy husband and I were hiking in the Alps with a group of Australians shortly after Dylann Roof murdered nine members of a Bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina. We felt like we were on a different planet trekking all day among towering peaks and wildflowers as at night we kept abreast of the horrific news on our smartphones.

The stark racism behind the Charleston shooting makes it almost beside the point to zero in on guns; a massacre so intertwined with America’s long and sorry history of racial oppression, particularly in the South, has understandably made this the prevailing focus. Nonetheless, although the why of Roof’s violent bigotry is deep-rooted and complex, the how is simple: easily obtained guns and ammunition.

Our Australian hiking companions were incredulous about America’s failure to do anything about gun violence. These were not our usual crowd of Bay Area liberals for whom guns arouse a knee-jerk suspicion. Our fellow trekkers were arrayed across the political spectrum. Several were ranchers; one talked about getting his first rifle as a kid. Yet Australia chose a different path from the United States after its own traumatic experience with a mass shooting.

In 1996, an Australian gunman killed 35 people in what came to be known as the Port Arthur massacre. Instead of sorrowful hand-wringing and inaction, John Howard, the newly elected conservative prime minister immediately passed with bipartisan support strict gun control laws throughout the country.  Private sales were banned, and only a narrow range of reasons were valid for ownership (self-defense, fear, and gun “rights” were not among them). Gun owners had to pass a safety class, could not carry their weapons around, and had to register and store them properly.

Some legislators paid a political price, but almost 90 percent of the population favored the new regulations. As our Australian friend who had grown up with guns explained, there were initial misgivings, but after a couple of years everyone saw that life continued to be fine, and the resistance disappeared.

The new laws were extremely effective. In the next decade, Australian gun homicides declined by 59 percent, the suicide rate by 65 percent. The rate of home invasions also declined. And there have been no mass shootings since Port Arthur.

As we listened to our hiking companions’ stories, they listened to ours:

  • About how even after 20 first-graders were shot to death in Sandy Hook in 2012, Congress could not summon the courage to mandate universal background checks supported by 90 percent of Americans.
  • About how the NRA’s response to gun violence is to advocate arming more people; “The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” an NRA spokesman said after Sandy Hook.
  • About how men armed to the teeth swagger around advocating open-carry laws.
  • About how restrictions on guns have loosened rather than tightened since Sandy Hook.

“You’re kidding! That’s insane,” one of the Australians exclaimed over and over.


We hear a lot about insanity in conjunction with America’s mass shootings, which now occur at the rate of about every other week. The mental instability of the killers is inarguable, as is the need for more effective mental health screening and treatment. Yet scapegoating the mentally ill (who are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence) misses the point of a widespread cultural insanity. It also misses the point of doing something about the delivery system if not the root causes of our national pathology.  As Australian’s John Howard recalled about the Port Arthur massacre in an op-ed he wrote following Sandy Hook,  “The fundamental problem was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun.”

We left the Alps much rejuvenated by the scenery and much enlightened by our Australian friends. Because we were on vacation, I didn’t write about it at the time. When we returned, we were gripped and heartened by the sea change that finally brought down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol in the aftermath of  Dylann Roof’s rampage. Guns, again understandably, took a back seat as we celebrated this important if symbolic milestone in tackling racial oppression.

But I knew it wouldn’t be long before gun violence was in the news again. Sure enough, this week Chattanooga and Lafayette were added to the roster of communities shattered by a gunman. More gun deaths will surely follow—those that make headlines and those that don’t. As glad as I am about the Confederate flag’s downfall, I wish we could take a page from the Australians, and see our gun insanity follow suit.

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.)

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.

Benefit of the Doubt other night I walked out of CVS without paying for photos I’d just printed. By the time I realized my mistake, I was back home and too exhausted to return to the store.

I confessed my inadvertent shoplifting to my husband.

“If you were a black man, the police would be here hauling you in,” he remarked. “You might end up dead.”

This was the same day a grand jury failed to indict a white policeman for the choking death of an unarmed black man whose crime was selling individual cigarettes. Less than two weeks earlier, the Ferguson grand jury let another white officer off the hook for killing an unarmed black teenager who had recently stolen a pack of cigarillos. Two days before the Ferguson decision, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun was shot to death within seconds by the responding white police officer. Earlier this summer, a black man who was inspecting a toy gun while browsing in Walmart was shot to death after alarmed shoppers called the police.

Each situation is different, of course. But the key difference is that they were black, and I am white. I do not have to think about clerks tailing me in stores. I can come and go without arousing suspicion. Even if I were somehow caught in the act with my purloined photos, I would be given the benefit of the doubt. I could buy a toy gun for my child and count on not being killed.

But Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and so many boys and men whose skin is darker than mine cannot. That’s the real crime.

I returned to CVS the next morning to pay for my photos.

“Thank you for your honesty,” said the clerk, smiling as he handed me the change.

I continued on with my day–another key difference between me and those whose days have been cut short.



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.