“Why can’t I play with guns again?” my 8-year-old son asks.
I can’t tell if his eyes are flickering with defiance or curiosity. For him, there is often little space between the two.
We have had this conversation many times, and today it has been brought on by his—and his little sister’s—campaign for laser guns they noticed in a grocery store catalog.
…Brown boys playing with guns is one of the moments where my ethics and mothering philosophy are held captive…
I take a deep breath and try to remember my line. It’s not that I want to be rehearsed or come across disingenuous, it’s just that brown boys playing with guns is one of the moments where my ethics and mothering philosophy are held captive by the need to protect my children from harm. These are the conversations that made my mother say she was glad she never had to raise Black sons.
Before he even opens his mouth, I can see my son stringing his thoughts together like a web. Several weeks before this conversation, he and his [white] father took a Hunter Safety course which, to my surprise, included lots of practical information on gun safety.
“I took the hunter course,” my trickster son starts. “So I’d know how to be safe even if they were real guns. Which they’re not.”
A week after the course, his father bought him a pellet gun as a birthday present. The same one that is coveted by the cherub-cheeked Ralphie in A Christmas Story. I note that the refrain in the movie is “You’ll shoot your eye out!” not “People will think you’re a danger to society and shoot you without question. Your murderer will be acquitted, if they are even brought to trial.”
Kids With Guns
In early November, we head to the woods for our weekly Sunday hikes. We greet each person as they pass by—in the Midwestern way, with a nod and a smile—and I take note of two white teenagers who pass us, dressed in camouflage and holding rifles.
The air has a customary Michigan briskness that stings cheeks and urges you to walk at a brisk trot. This week, we are walking in a small wooded area behind a mall. Twenty minutes into the hike we hear three gunshots fly overhead, leaves and branches falling around us. My partner yells in the direction the shots came from. I gather the children with a Mama Bear tone, and hurry them back to the parking lot. My face is calm, but my pulse rattles like the fall leaves on the pavement around us. The other members of the parking lot crew (hikers and cyclists who’d gathered when they heard the shots), shake their heads and murmur as the white teenagers emerged a few minutes later. I wonder how the reaction might have been different if the boys had been Black.
Bringing myself back to the conversation at hand, I sigh with exasperation, laced with fear, preparing to speak half truths.
How do you explain to an 8 year old the history of guns…?
“Remember that sometimes when people see other people with guns they become very afraid. Even if they are clearly toy guns. They get scared and they hurt the kid, or call the police who might hurt the kid.”
I don’t tell him which kids are feared. I’ve been too afraid to speak those words, knowing that they can never be taken back, that they will forever alter the way he sees himself, the freedom with which he moves through the world, like a whole flutter of sparrows.
How do you explain to an 8 year old the history of guns as a tool of colonization and genocide? How do you explain the relationship between the military industrial complex and the preschool-to-prison pipeline? How do you help mixed-race children reconcile the conflicting world views and experiences that they embody, especially when there is no unified family narrative with which to explain the world?
The teacher in me says, “One conversation at a time. One day at a time.”
After all, am I not the woman who has guided dozens of families and educators, supporting them in having honest, age-appropriate conversations with their children about race, gender, war, and violence?
But these words catch in my throat because of all the other things I have been afraid to even think. Like, will your whiteness protect you when you’re a cocky teenager who drives too fast and thinks he’s invincible? Will you perform your race in such a way that people perceive you as “ethnic” or “Cablinasian,” but not Black? Will you claim this country is post-racial even as you cross the street when nearing white women, because to admit the truth would hurt too much?
Will I resent your survival tactics? Will you be ashamed of me, of who we are?
These questions twist fitfully in my mind like a Rubik’s Cube, shifting, changing, answers always eluding me at the last moment.
“Oh yeah! That’s why we can’t play with water guns in the front yard,” he says, remembering a rule from two summers ago, one I created when he kept getting water pistol gifts from well-meaning relatives and neighbors.
With that he drops the conversation. I am more relieved than he can possibly fathom. Grateful that I don’t have to decide between an authoritative “Because I said so!” or an insincere “Maybe, honey. We’ll see.”
Grateful that, for a little while longer, he and his childhood are safe, whole and well. Grateful that I have a bit more time to puzzle through, snipping, tearing, collaging together a place for you to call home.