The Designated Driver

Differentiating between acts of courage and acts of love.

| Winter 2018

  • 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.
    Photo courtesy of Adobestock / Stournsaeh
  • “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.
    Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Kubkoo

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, 30 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 was 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, 60 years ago, to ride Jim Crow. Maybe 60 years hence, black hair touch 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 12 and 14. No one had asked to touch their hair yet, though the opportunity abounded, as the town we lived in was 98 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 3,000 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 4-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 15 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 student’s 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 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.

1/12/2019 3:58:09 AM

12/20/2018 6:04:44 AM

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