The Designated Driver

by Jerald Walker

I arrived at the faculty meeting as a few hundred students stormed the room, chanting about campus-wide racism, demanding justice. Most of the students were white, there to support their black peers as they aired grievances. After a while some of the speakers began to cry, which fueled my growing unease. The offenses struck me as minor, the kinds of slights that I, thirty years ago, as a black student who had also attended an overwhelmingly white university, merely brushed aside, things like coeds requesting to touch my hair, and faculty asking if I were there because of a racial quota. Annoying, to be sure, but not demonstration-worthy, not tear-worthy, not worthy of the bullhorn a young man kept bringing to his lips to shout, “The racism ends now!” And each time he did I responded, mentally, that the racism will surely continue, and if you expect to transcend it you will all need to stiffen your spines.

But spines could not stiffen, I conceded, without a certain weight to bear. I conceded, too, that the weight of weight was relative; perhaps having white coeds ask to touch your hair in 2014—particularly at an elite, private institution, where one year’s tuition costs more than my first home—was the equivalent of being required, sixty years ago, to ride Jim Crow. Maybe sixty years hence, black hair touching would evoke uniform outrage at how inhumanely man once treated his fellow man. I would be long dead by then, so it was a question that would have to be answered by today’s youth, including my two sons, whose spines, like the spines of the black students before me, were as soft as Jell-O.

My sons were twelve and fourteen. No one had asked to touch their hair yet, though the opportunity abounded, as the town we lived in was ninety-eight percent white. The town was also wealthy, so it was possible that some of our neighbors attributed our presence to a government program, one designed to ensure one black family per every three thousand homes. No one had asked my sons about racial quotas either. But I worried about how they would respond to questions such as those. I worried about their spines. Having been spared the impoverished, inner-city experience of my childhood, where the social and economic impact of racism was constant and brutal, would they one day find themselves shouting into bullhorns too, aggrieved, say, by the lack of minorities in the cast of La Traviata or their white sommelier’s poor choice of Burgundy?

The only racism either of them had experienced occurred a decade ago: a girl in my oldest son’s pre-school class told him people with his skin color were stinky. The comment was hurtful, but not enduring; within hours he had forgotten it. I, obviously, had not, having instantly recognized the girl for what she was: the fuse leading to the bomb of high school, where the cruelty of four-year-olds met their match in teens. And so when Adrian started his freshman year, I decided to be his designated driver. That way, I reasoned, when he was inevitably embroiled in some racial conflict, our fifteen minutes alone together in the car each morning would be ideal for talking it through.

But eight months had come and gone, and there had been nothing to talk through. It occurred to me, though, while watching the protest, that I could tell Adrian about the students’ complaints and then compare them to challenges I had faced in my youth, incidents of police brutality, for instance, or that time I was chased by white teens carrying sticks. It would be a stark departure from our usual discussion of our classes, or the silly dreams I claimed to have had but actually concocted simply to amuse him, but it would provide an important context for dealing with his conflicts to come. So the next morning, midway into our drive, I cleared my throat and said, “There’s something we need to talk about.” I glanced to my right, just as he dug his hand into the box of Cheerios on his lap, looking, for all the world, like the toddler I once pushed on the swings. And then I watched his blank expression blossom into a smile as I made up a dream about our cats fighting and defeating a vulture. I would talk about the protest tomorrow, I told myself. But I did not do it then either.

I did, however, talk about it with my colleagues. It was the talk of the whole college, it seemed, especially after our paper ran it as a feature story. Then the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post carried it, as well as a few other media outlets, each one highlighting the students’ primary demand: cultural competency training for the entire campus community. Most of the faculty I spoke with enthusiastically supported the idea, and it was fun to watch them flinch when I deadpanned that they would have to learn Ebonics. I made this joke several times during the week after the protest, and I was about to make it again at a dinner party with seven of my colleagues, but then someone mentioned how heartbreaking it was to see the students crying and the mood turned somber.

“I could have just hugged the one girl,” someone remarked.

“Which one?”

“The one who said the college had broken her spirit.”

“Yes, yes. So sad.”

“But what were they going on about their hair for?” someone else asked. “I couldn’t follow that part.”

Other than myself and a Cuban American, everyone there was white, so it fell to me to explain that, for some white people, black hair was a great curiosity, compelling them to want to touch it.

“For what purpose?”

“To see what it feels like,” I said.

“Really?”

I nodded.

“Have whites asked to touch your hair before?”

“On occasion. But my sisters were asked all the time when they were in college. It’s more of a phenomenon among females.”

One person said, “How fascinating.”

“I had no idea,” responded another.

I said, “You’ll learn more about it in your Ebonics class.”

“Pardon?”

The doorbell rang. One of the guests said it was his wife, who had planned to join us, and a moment later he returned with her at his side. I liked his wife. She was from Poland and her perspective on American culture was often unique and provocative. Right now, for instance, as expressions of sympathy for the crying students resumed, she went against the grain by calling them coddled. “That’s right,” she continued, as my colleagues gaped at her, “coddled.”

“How dare you say that?” someone exclaimed. “I mean, how dare you?

“I dare,” she said, “because it’s true. And you’re all pathetic for being moved by their petty complaints.”

“Their complaints weren’t petty,” I said, despite my view that they were. But there was something about hearing another person say it that bothered me.

“Petty complaints,” she forged on, “made by coddled babies.” Several of my colleagues rose to the students’ defense, but she held her ground. “They’ve probably never experienced real racism in their lives.”

I leaned forward in my chair. “Wait a minute. Are you saying that privileged black kids are somehow insulated against racism?”

“I’m saying what the students experienced wasn’t worth crying about.” Then she launched into descriptions of various hardships she had endured in her native land, offering the totalitarian version of the story I had intended to give to Adrian. “And yet,” she said when she finished, “we didn’t cry about it.”

“This isn’t Poland,” I said, “and these aren’t your kids.”

“Nor are they yours.“

“But they could be,” I snapped, though what I was thinking was that they were. My hands were trembling, I realized, and I tried to steady them by pressing my palms against the table. But that did not work because my Cuban colleague, no doubt recalling the communism of his youth, suddenly announced that he thought the complaints were petty too, triggering a heated argument that got everyone involved. Tempers flared, voices were raised, names were called and, inevitably, accusations of racism were leveled, which brought the argument to an abrupt end.

I rose from the table and went to the patio for some air. A couple of my colleagues joined me with the foresight to bring wine and glasses. For fifteen minutes we drank and expressed our outrage at what we had heard, riling each other up to the point where the thought of remaining at the party any longer was inconceivable. The Pole must have reached the same conclusion; when we filed back inside the hostess was handing her and her husband their jackets. Two colleagues were across the room on the couch, the stark turn of events, I assumed, the source of their stunned expressions. The Cuban was near them on a chair staring into space. He rose when he saw me and gently rested a hand on my shoulder. “Listen, Jerald,” he said, “I don’t know how things escalated so fast, but I got caught up in the emotion of it all and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I’m pretty sure I offended you, and I deeply regret that. I’m sorry.” Smiling faintly, he widened his arms for a hug, which my anger nearly prevented me from accepting. Over his shoulder, the Pole and her husband, jackets on now, said goodbye to the hostess, and then left. A moment later, the remaining guests followed suit.

I was thirty minutes from home. During the drive my anger waxed rather than waned, mainly because I called my wife and recounted the argument several times over before she told me she was going to bed. She was asleep when I arrived, so I was left to recount it alone for the four hours it took me to finally doze off. When I climbed out of bed an hour later to drive Adrian to school, I was exhausted and irritable.

“Did you have another strange dream?” he asked.

I had just pulled out of our garage and was creeping toward the busy street that ran by our house. As I waited for a chance to merge into the flow of vehicles, I tried to come up with something, but I just did not have the energy or will. “No,” I said. “I didn’t really sleep.”

“Why not?”

“Too upset.”

“With one of your students?”

“No, a couple of friends.”

There was a break in the traffic and I pulled forward. For a while neither of us spoke, though mentally I was still at the party, yelling and being yelled at.

“Maybe you should talk about it,” Adrian said.

“About what?”

“Why you’re upset.” He opened the lid of his Cheerios box and inserted his hand. “It might make you feel better.”

It would not make me feel better. Besides, to explain the fight I would have to explain the protest, which I did not want to do for fear of being critical of the students, which was to say critical of a future him. But I had to say something or I would have seemed dismissive of his concern. I proceeded with caution and vagueness. “Some students at my college staged a protest,” I began. “My friends criticized them, and we argued about it.”

“Why were the students protesting?”

“They don’t like how they’re being treated by some faculty and other students.”

“Why did your friends criticize them?”

“They think the students’ complaints are petty.”

After a short pause, Adrian said, “I’m glad you don’t think that.”

I wanted to let that stand, as if doing so was no more dishonest than concocting strange dreams, as if he were someone at a dinner party instead of my son. “I do think they’re petty,” I said, “but the thing is, maybe it doesn’t matter what I think. Maybe what matters is what the students think, and the fact that they stood up for themselves. That’s not always easy, you know. Actually, I’m proud of them. What they did took courage.”

“Like it took for you to defend them,” he said.

“Well…”

“You should be proud of yourself too, Daddy. I’m proud of you.”

I looked at him. He plunged his hand back into the box and pulled out a fist full of cereal. A few of the grains fell to his lap and the floor as he stuffed the rest into his mouth. I turned back to the road, blinking it into focus. In the silence that ensued, my thoughts returned to the party. It was just after the fight, as everyone prepared to leave, and I let myself imagine apologizing to the Pole, as the Cuban had to me. We have similar views, I told her, and I understand the point you were making, but my emotions got the best of me, as they often do when it comes to my sons. I wished I had said these things to her, and relayed them to Adrian. That was an act of courage, I could have explained. Not to be confused with an act of love.

Published on April 11, 2019

First published in Harvard Review 50.

2019-04-11T21:09:56+00:00