Teaching My Kids to Drive While Black
I’ve raised them to be confident and to advocate for themselves. Now here I was saying, don’t do it with the police.
By Suzanne McFayden
Dec. 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
There was lightning, thunder and heavy rain the recent day I accompanied my 18-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter to get their driver’s licenses in Austin, Texas.
I wish I could say I thought nothing more of the passing storm. But the air felt moody and foreboding, as if it was urging my Black family to turn around, go home, lock our door and run the clock back to when my kids were little and couldn’t go anywhere without me. To when I did not imagine that any routine police interaction might play out as horrifyingly as it did in the cases of Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Philando Castile and others.
I kept my grim thoughts to myself because my children were already beyond excited to achieve this belated milestone after the many disappointments of a pandemic year. I did not want to be the cause of another, so on we went. Neither complained about the almost three-hour wait at the D.M.V., thanks to pandemic backlog. Both grinned ear-to-ear as they showed me their new licenses. I smiled back at them and meant it. They were now officially young adults. I refused to let what might happen to them dampen what had indeed happened.
I’d once read that teenage drivers need about 1,000 hours behind the wheel before they’re truly ready to go solo. Between boarding school, summer excursions and shared custody, my kids were never in any one place long enough to make a consistent go at learning to drive, much less for me to teach them as well as I wanted to. Then they came home to me because the pandemic shut down their high school and college for the rest of the school year.
One of the few upsides of having their academic and social lives limited to screens, and the roads near empty, was that there was finally enough time for them to get in a lot of driving hours. They practiced the right speed in residential neighborhoods, learned who goes first at a four-way stop sign if two cars arrive at once and braved getting on and off the two major highways that define Austin. Their confidence grew as spring rounded into the heady promise of summer.
But no amount of confidence behind the wheel can change my children’s maple syrup-colored skin, even if they wanted to — and they don’t. All the self-love lessons I’ve been instilling since birth have taken root and blossomed mightily.
Also blossoming mightily has been my fear of the ultimate ugly, of their untimely, unjustifiable deaths.
I began emphasizing things I thought might help keep them safe on the road when they were away from me. “YOU,” I told them, “do NOT have the luxury of speeding. Or joy riding. You, yes you, must pay attention. ALL the time!”
A friend recently went through the same D.M.V. ritual with her son. She and I say the same things, “No drinking and driving, no texting and driving, don’t fiddle with your music when you are changing lanes.” We both worry because driving at this age is the cause of many deaths. But where our shared concern stops, I must continue with lessons for Black children only. I’ve realized I feel secure only when my kids are home for the night, wherever they are, no matter their age.
Meanwhile, I wondered, what can Black people do without fear? When can we let go? When do my kids get to be just kids like their white friends? Sleeping; jogging; walking; wearing that teenage staple, the hoodie; heading home from a bachelor party; and leaving church have cost Black people their lives.
As they learned to give more gas going uphill and to always use their indicators, I tried pushing away the bird watcher incident in Central Park; and thoughts of the San Francisco homeowner whose neighbors insisted he didn’t live there, was illegally painting a Black Lives Matter sign, and called the police. My heart aches with each new incident, with unending, rolling waves of sorrow. I come up from one and another pulls me right back under.
I’ve drilled them on what to say: “Yes, officer. No, officer.” And with what to do: Turn your music off, especially if it’s rap; call me; start a recording on your phone before the officer gets to the car; put your hands on the steering wheel and keep them there; have your license and car registration handy.
Which left me torn about an ideal I’ve also drummed into them: Always self-advocate. Now here I was saying, don’t do it with the police. Know from Breonna Taylor’s case that things can turn deadly before you figure out what’s happening. Know that if you do speak, you might not be believed when you say you can’t breathe. I was both grateful for my son’s grace and devastated by his knowing when he said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I understand I have to live first so I can speak up later.”
The kids often said my driving corrections were too grumpy, that I yelled unnecessarily if they took a turn wide, didn’t look over their shoulder before changing lanes. I said we’d driven the same roads repeatedly, that they should know by now. I didn’t say how frustrated I was that as they continue on out into the world, they’re likely to be assessed first by the color of their skin and not the content of their character.
I’ve always known that motherhood involves starting to let go the minute the baby arrives. Earning a driver’s license is one of the great pit stops on a child’s road to independence. My kids are good drivers, but my fear remains. “It’s not you I worry about,” I tell them repeatedly, “it’s other people.”
As I watched my son adjust his mirrors, double check that he had his license and registration before nervously backing out and driving solo for the first time to a friend’s house, it was clear: I’ll need to make room to celebrate the good moments, not just mourn the bad. He waved and smiled one last time through the rearview mirror.
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Suzanne McFayden is a writer, philanthropist and mother of three.