Category Archives: Social Studies

Once gun violence hits close to home, what comes next?

I flew to Chicago early on a recent Thursday morning but rode the train home the next day. I needed the space, the spotty WiFi, the long, lonely stretch of eight hours on the Amtrak Empire Builder to steady myself after the whirlwind of the past week.

The shocking news came initially via voicemail and text message and, later, in person amid sobs of disbelief. Then there was the rearranging of schedules, the packing and the journey, the reunion with familiar faces, and finally the funeral of a young woman I have known since her toddler days.

Numbers best describe this memorial service, in a funeral home filled with the sweet smell of flowers and the bittersweet concoction of tears and laughter that always accompanies death.

  • 37, the age of the gunshot victim struck in the back by a bullet intended for someone else on a street in Chicago, during the early evening of Juneteenth.
  • 5, the number of people who asked me in the immediate aftermath whether the violence occurred on the city’s largely Black south side. (For the record, it did not.)
  • 125, the number of minutes the victim’s mother — my oldest friend — had to walk past or sit directly in front of the open casket that held her only daughter.
  • 50, the estimate by my friend’s older brother of how many people traveled to the funeral from New York City, where the victim began her career in the food-and-beverage industry, lauding her in tributes as a caring and generous friend and manager, a vibrant woman who had other people’s backs. Other friends came from the victim’s hometown of Mankato, Minnesota; from her time in college in Rhode Island; and from her three years in Chicago. “It was very clear that this community lost a shining light,” her uncle said, “a term many used to describe [the victim’s] impact on their lives.”
  • 2, the number of times the young widower stood at the podium during the service, visibly stunned, audibly grieving, and described how a bullet had shattered his life, too.

I quit counting the number of sniffles, air gulps, flowing tears and outright sobs by Millennial-age adults too young to be memorializing one of their own.

As we were walking down the street, we heard 3 gunshots. Nichole collapsed into me while grabbing her back, screaming in pain.

The victim’s husband, describing the tragedy on a GoFundMe page

‘I don’t know what to say” was the most common attempt at condolence that my friend heard in the days following her daughter’s murder. For me, a wordsmith, words ceased to matter. My husband and I drove to Janey’s house in a torrential rainstorm, four hours after hearing the news. I didn’t give a thought to how I would greet her. Instinct took over, and I hugged my friend tightly — wordlessly — till she let go.

  • 52, the number of shootings in Chicago over the course of that stormy Father’s Day weekend in June.
  • 15, the number of friends and family members my friend texted the day after the funeral to say an arrest had been made, the detectives had done their work, the omnipresent video cameras in our daily lives, for once, had served their purpose.
  • 5, the number of charges — one count of first-degree murder of my friend’s daughter, four counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting into a car of visitors from Milwaukee — against the young man who has been arrested as a suspect.
  • 1, the number of times that random, unintended but horribly consequential gun violence previously had pierced my circle of friends and colleagues. My safe middle-class bubble. “This violence is close to home now,” a friend wrote on Facebook. The day we heard the news, the Star Tribune carried a banner headline: “Rising Gun Crimes Defy Answers.” The story described the May 22 death of Charlie Johnson in downtown Minneapolis, a graduating senior at the University of St. Thomas, where I work. Shot in the back, like my friend’s daughter; caught in gang violence, like my friend’s daughter; white and middle-class, like my friend’s daughter, with a promising life ahead.
  • 5, the number of letter writers who decried the easy sale and exchange of guns in our society and “the culture of poverty that produces the despair that fuels violence.”

Prosecutors charged Angel Ayala, 22, with shooting a tourist and murdering a passerby during last weekend’s Puerto Rican Day festivities.

CWB Chicago, June 26, 2021

After a suburban cop shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man and school cafeteria supervisor, during a traffic stop in 2016 only miles from my home, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wanted to comprehend the particular anguish and protectiveness that Black parents feel for their Black sons, a fear and an urgency that I don’t have to experience — even though my older son, the tall blond one, the rebel who sees the underbelly of American society for what it is, was arrested protesting Castile’s murder. Several years later, an officer from the same police force pulled over my son for speeding along the same road. No guns were drawn this time. In fact, the cops apologized for having to impound his car.

Reading isn’t action. It doesn’t change anything. I understand that. But as a college-educated woman reared to revere books, and employed in higher education for the past 20 years, reading is my starting point.

Three days after the funeral, safely home from a city I have vowed never to visit again, I dog-walked by Next Chapter Booksellers, my neighborhood bookshop in St. Paul, and saw historian Carol Anderson’s latest book in the window: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. I came home and ordered it online, for same-day pickup.

Then I read my friend’s keenly felt message of hope, in a text exchange that has been ongoing since she broke the news to me of her daughter’s death.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

“This has nothing to do with politics, religion or anything else but a senseless murder,” my friend Janey said. “My platform now is grief. I’m going to get the word out about gun violence. I’m not sure how, but it is being clarified in my mind today.

“I’m not angry,” she went on, with an eloquence anchored by a mother’s unconditional love. “Nichole’s murder will not go unnoticed. This violence has to stop. Any murder of a son, daughter, mother, father or grandparent has to be honored and noticed by people.”

We notice you, Nichole. We grieve the loss of you. Rest in peace; because the people who loved you — who invested in you, who cared and care about you — will never rest until the streets of our cities are safer for everyone, and until everyone in America, of every color, has a home, an education. And a chance.

Why privileged people must keep talking in troubled times

White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.

This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)

As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:

  • How white names have erased other cultures.
  • How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
  • How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.

And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.

Here’s what I am learning:

Lesson 1: Do your homework.

During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.

A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.

“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.

The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.

I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.

Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.

I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.

As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?

A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.

I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.

This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.

Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.

Three ways to wring some good from the grief of 2020

It was the year we couldn’t wait to see end, even though most of my siblings and friends and I are so deeply into middle age that we’re not sure we can call it that anymore. We’re supposed to savor time, at this stage of life, not wish it away.

But this was 2020, the year of Trump. Of COVID-19. Of a nearly recalled election. Of George Floyd getting murdered and Twin Cities businesses getting burned. Of debates about policing as armed car-jackers were targeting and terrorizing women. Of we white people talking earnestly among ourselves about privilege and our overdue awakening to racial inequities. A year when food lines, tent encampments and rising unemployment brought those inequities to public consciousness and squarely to our doors.

“What will you miss about 2020?” someone asked me on (of course) a Zoom call just as the year was about to turn. “Is there anything you’ll want to take with you?”

Outside Fireroast Coffee and Wine in south Minneapolis

My facility for thinking on my feet failed me (“COVID brain”). I couldn’t come up with an answer. And so, as experience has taught me, I turned to the wisdom of trusted friends. Since we’re all going to be masked and socially distanced for a while, their insights can apply equally to 2021.

1. Isolation can also yield peace

“Everyone’s narrative is so negative with COVID,” one friend told me. Instead, consider how working from home, enforced isolation from family and friends, watching movies on Netflix and concerts on our computers have “slowed things down,” he pointed out. During a recent medical appointment, a nurse told him she had gone sledding with her daughter, that COVID restrictions helped her be a more present mom. “We’re not rushing,” she explained.

More time for family was a theme of my friends’ responses. “One thing I will miss when it is all over is time with my kids,” said a member of my weekly women’s group. “I would not want this to go on forever — it would not be good for any of us. But I am very aware that I will never spend this much time with them again.”

Stay-at-home orders “brought a forced simplicity due to isolation,” said a woman who was widowed last year. Another woman, mother to 4- and 5-year-old girls, has enjoyed being released from the pressure “to do-do-do: swimming lessons, gymnastics, dance, soccer, birthday parties, church.”

My most culturally connected friend filled the empty space with reading. “I will miss the luxury of being able to spend time with authors I love and ones I’ve just met,” he said. “I have never read so many books in one year in my entire life!”

Dogs and being outside in nature are even more important than I had thought (and I had already thought they were very important).

Northfield, Minnesota, volunteer and civic activist

2. You get to reframe your own world

A woman who describes herself as an “extreme introvert” would like the less chaotic version of Christmas 2020 to continue. “There was so much less commercial onslaught,” she explained. “I didn’t go to stores with cheesy music, nasty people and buy-buy-buy messages, did not have to navigate the food and drink and noise at parties, and could just be with my little family.” This year’s downsized Christmas reminded her of Chanukah, celebrated by her husband’s side of the family.

The “low-key social life” that comes with COVID restrictions were a blessing to a friend who gave up alcohol more than a year ago after some months of struggling to stay sober. “No pressure to fit in and no drinks to turn down,” she said. “Instead of feeling left out for not being invited to the bar or the club for drinks, I feel like everybody else.”

One woman described “an emotional flash of thankfulness” every time her furnace clicks on. It reminds her of the creature comforts she can enjoy while she cocoons. “I hope I can keep that visceral association with that sound,” she said.

As for me: Aside from running shoes and Smartwool gloves, I haven’t updated my wardrobe in nearly a year. Dresses and dress pants gather dust in the closet. I maintain a skincare routine but rarely wear makeup. I am now so accustomed to dressing for warmth and movement first that I can’t imagine reverting to dressing for professional appearance, for someone else’s notion of what women are supposed to wear. I want that liberation to continue.

I’m feeling connected to the world in a scary but important way.

Minneapolis writer, mother and naturalist

3. Getting rested but staying woke

One friend answered my email query on January 6, the afternoon of the armed insurrection — the revolting revolt — at the U.S. Capitol. “We’re so ready to move on from 2020 that it would be easy to leave behind what we can learn,” she said.

Here are her lessons:

  • “What I do impacts others and they impact me. COVID has brought that message home. Who knew as simple an action as wearing a mask could literally save someone’s life? Or livelihood?”
  • “I’ve learned that a significant part of the population sees the world very differently than I do,” said this woman who, like me, was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood with quiet streets and good schools and assumed safety. “It’s more than having differing political persuasions or religious beliefs. They are working with a different fact set and underlying assumptions about the nature of our society.”
The author, distracting herself in nature before the election last November

Another woman, a former politician who remains civically engaged, said that George Floyd’s “public, brutal, coldly cruel and unnecessary” killing makes her want to work harder for civil rights in 2021.

My strongest memories from 2020 relate to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25: seeing billowing smoke from a torched Walgreen’s less than a mile from my house during the civil unrest, walking through the Floyd memorial at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis on my birthday, biking past the destruction on East Lake Street in Minneapolis and the Midway business district of St. Paul, alerting neighbors to wheel out their hoses and put their garbage bins away after a Speedway in my neighborhood got firebombed.

I finished a book in December about historic and contemporary racism in Minnesota, my home state, the place I have always lauded as progressive. I’ve been donating more money to more diverse causes, watching as the neighborhoods around me reboot and rebuild.

“What I want to take with me is the awareness of how the year demonstrated both the fragility and the resilience of human beings,” a friend said. For me, 2020 threatened to upend everything I once believed in. I guess that’s how a more enlightened perspective starts.