How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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The Designated Driver Summary and Analysis

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Walker attended a faculty meeting that was disrupted by hundreds of students chanting for justice. Most of the students were white and had come to support their Black peers, who had aired numerous grievances against the college. Walker was struck by the degree of these offenses, believing them “minor” compared to the racial injustices he had personally experienced, such as being chased by white boys wielding a stick. Instead, these students were enraged that white students had asked to touch the hair of their Black peers and had asked their Black peers if their presence was necessary to fulfill racial diversity quotas. While Walker found the behavior annoying, he didn’t deem it “demonstration-worthy.” 

As a bullhorn proclaimed that “racism ends now,” Walker silently retorted that racism would continue and that this group of young people would need to “stiffen [their] spines” accordingly. He also considered his own sons, who were twelve and fourteen at the time and whose spines he believed were “as soft as Jell-O.” The only racism either of them had experienced was the comment of a classmate who had told Adrian that people with his skin color were “stinky,” and Adrian had forgotten the comment within hours. Walker, however, had not. He had therefore established himself as Adrian’s “designated driver” as Adrian began his freshman year of high school, hoping that the additional time together in the car would be a means for him to provide much-needed guidance through the inevitable conflicts ahead.

After eight months, there had been no such conflicts, and Walker considered broaching the topic of racial injustice by using the student demonstrations on his campus as a starting point. Ultimately, the timing seemed awkward, so he backed out of the conversation.

The protests were picked up by several news outlets, and the subject inevitably came up at a dinner party attended by Walker and several of his colleagues. At first, the general consensus sided with the students, noting that it was tragic that one student felt that the college had “broken her spirit.” The mood shifted when the wife of a colleague joined the party late; she was from Poland and often presented a “unique” and “provocative” analysis of American culture. 

After listening to the conversation, the Polish wife labeled the student who felt “broken” as “coddled.” The other guests were appalled; the Polish woman then insisted that the group was “pathetic” for being so moved by the “petty complaints” of these students. Walker defended the students, insisting that these were not “petty” complaints; internally, he felt that these students were, in fact, petty, but he didn’t want to hear a white person saying so.

The Polish woman held her ground, telling the group that the students had probably never witnessed real racism in their lives. She told them about her experiences in Poland, including numerous hardships she had endured without shedding a tear. Walker reminded her that she wasn’t living in Poland and that these students weren’t her children. She responded that they weren’t his, either, and he snapped that they could be.

Tensions soared as tempers flared. Everyone at the dinner party took sides, including a Cuban colleague who sided with the Polish woman. Finally, Walker left the dinner party for some air and was joined by other guests who sided with him. As they conversed, their anger continued to intensify, and the hostess finally handed the Polish woman and her husband their coats. The Cuban colleague apologized for his comments as the Polish woman and her husband exited the party.

Walker called his wife on the way home, his anger...

(This entire section contains 1087 words.)

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intensifying during their conversation. His wife told him that she was going to bed, and she was asleep when he arrived home. Walker barely slept that night and was exhausted the next morning while driving Adrian to school.

Recognizing his father’s mental state, Adrian suggested that Walker talk about his struggles during their car ride. Walker finally told him that some of his friends had criticized a group of students who were protesting on campus and that he had gotten into an argument with them. Adrian asked why Walker’s friends were critical, and Walker told his son that his friends believed the students’ complaints were “petty.” Adrian responded that he was glad his father didn’t think that way.

Walker wanted to let that comment stand, but he couldn’t. Instead, he said that the complaints were petty but insisted that it was courageous of the students to stand up for themselves and that that is not always easy. Adrian pointed out that his father had acted courageously as well by defending those students and encouraged his father to be proud of himself. 

Walker imagined returning to the dinner party and engaging in a more meaningful conversation with the Polish woman. He wanted to tell her that they actually shared similar views and that he had allowed his emotions to get the best of him, which he conceded was often the case when he considered his own sons. Walker believed that such an honest conversation would have demonstrated authentic courage.

Analysis 

Walker acknowledges that if left unchecked, an emotional response can disrupt authentic conversations. From the start, he acknowledged that the demonstrations on campus centered on issues which were mere annoyances. Yet when the Polish woman voiced this same assessment of the students’ behavior, Walker was outraged, feeling that no white person had a right to criticize the struggles of Black students. The Polish woman brought her own emotional baggage to the conversation, informing the dinner guests that she had suffered far worse injustices than these students at an elite college could imagine; moreover, she had overcome her circumstances without complaining about them. The conversation exploded because emotions ran unchecked. This essay speaks to the tendency of people to believe that they have suffered more and have endured greater obstacles than those around them. Thus, others’ struggles become trivialized in egocentric conversations. The Polish woman had indeed overcome great obstacles. Walker himself had suffered racial injustice and the threat of violence. The Cuban guest had weathered personal battles. And these young students were now struggling with their own conflicts. The thread of pain and loss united their stories and struggles, yet even Walker failed to acknowledge the commonality of their experiences in the moment. It is thus crucial to truly hear the struggles of others without allowing those struggles to elicit an emotionally charged response.

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