ADRIAN KANYOLI – SHORT STORY
What Do You Do At Traffic Lights?
‘What’s white guilt?’ Dean asks.
The last of my beer goes down the wrong hole.
Dean pats my back. ‘There, there,’ he says.
‘You timed that,’ I say in-between coughs.
‘Why are you asking? I’m not a spokesman for the black community.’
‘You’re black?’ he replies in mock surprise. ‘I never noticed. I don’t see colour.’
‘Then what do you do at traffic lights?’
‘You stole that joke from Trevor Noah.’
‘Answer the question.’
I take a second to frame my response. ‘White guilt is this stressful reaction white people get when race comes up as a topic. Anxiety, sweaty palms, increased heart rate. I guess a lot of them don’t talk about race at home so when it comes up, they get defensive, perceive it as a personal attack on them and then cue: stress reaction. Like when you get ready for a fight.’
‘Does it happen to black people?’
‘Being white is a prerequisite for white guilt.’ I look Dean up and down. ‘You seem fine.’
‘Well, nothing bothers me.’
It’s Tuesday. We’ve been drinking for an hour now and the conversation has bounced around quite a bit. I’m trying to unwind after turning in my latest essay and Dean is busy being Dean. I get us another round and when I return, he’s on his phone, looking very proud of himself. Dean reaches over our pints to show me. It’s the front-page article of a satirical newspaper with his name on it. Nigerians complain Chinese condoms are too small.
‘Classy,’ I say flatly, wondering if this was how Tory ministers acted in their twenties.
‘C’mon, this is fucking hilarious,’ Dean says. ‘I really put my back into this.’
‘Well, I’m not changing it. I already had to bin my article on nineties West Coast rap. The African-Caribbean Society got into a tizzy and censored me–That’s when I learned about white guilt.’
‘What did they do?’
‘Tried to make me say ‘n-word’ like a white boy.’
I frown at Dean’s skin. ‘What do you mean ‘white boy’, white boy?’
A flash of teeth. ‘I’m one-eighth West Indian, my nigga. I should be running ACS.’
Believe it or not, Dean is older than me – a third year doing History and Economics. He is equal parts clever and inappropriate, the kind of man you’d usually only find making feminists go red on Good Morning Britain. But Dean knows how much of a nightmare he can be and that gives a self-deprecating edge to his otherwise indiscriminately adversarial humour. Usually, he is decent company. In small doses. If you don’t mind the occasional ethnic World War Two joke. You know, the classics: the French were cowards, American tanks were rubbish and quips about Soviet collectivism (‘It’s not YouTube, it’s OurTube.’) And Dean isn’t a bigot. He’s twenty-one.
He keeps checking his phone in between sips. He’s trying to bring something up but he doesn’t have the right segue. Best guess is he wants to ask about the blind date Becky was trying to set me up on. Which should mean what he really wants to talk about is Becky. She does the same shit when she wants to talk about him. They’re both too laissez-faire to admit they want to jump in bed together, so they use my love life as a catalyst for conversations about each other.
‘I’m not interested,’ I say, when Dean finally asks. He wants to know why. It was because I didn’t think the girl was my type. (‘How do you know if you haven’t met her?’) For the same reason Becky was so eager to put us together. Because–
‘…because she only dates black men,’ Becky said.
Red flag. It was Monday. I was sat on Becky’s bed.
‘I can’t believe you wouldn’t meet her at least once.’
‘It doesn’t matter now, does it?’ I said, lying my head down on Becky’s legs.
‘It was perfect.’
It wasn’t. I wouldn’t expect her to understand that some white girls were a little too into blackness. At least I assumed my potential blind date was white.
‘That makes zero sense,’ said Becky when I gave her my reason. ‘Is it because they expect you to have a 15-inch dick?’
‘They’d fuck me if I had a micro-penis. When it comes down to it, it’s about pissing off ‘Daddy.’’
‘Her dad’s a professor of Postcolonial Studies–’
‘And I’m sure he’s the least racist person you know. Does he work long hours?’
‘He’s head of his department. Why?’ she said slowly.
I smiled. ‘No reason.’
I wouldn’t. ‘Doesn’t matter now, does it?
‘What does Dean think about all this?’
Chances were he was thinking: ‘I’d like Becky to wrap her legs around my head.’ But I couldn’t say that. ‘I never know what’s going on in his head,’ I said.
Speaking of Becky, I wondered if bringing up her friend’s jungle fever was her way of addressing her anxieties about dating outside her race. Then I wondered if she knew Dean was an octoroon, even though he was as pale as Boris Johnson. Then I wondered if she would care about distant black heritage at all. Then I wondered how black someone has to look to ‘be black’. Of course, I would never bring up Becky’s personal views on race to her face. She wasn’t immune to white guilt like Dean and it was an uncomfortable thing to watch in real time.
With other black people, we always talk about race. The subject had come up about a month ago before during a double date with my brother. The girls were Congolese (at least their parents were – don’t ask me which Congo) and we were talking about the ubiquity of Jollof rice in African households, bootleg Tyler Perry DVDs and sharing the conspiracy theories our immigrant parents had forwarded us on WhatsApp. But then the conversation hit a lull, so I re-told a Dave Chappelle joke: that the Civil Rights Movement started because African-American GIs had slept with so many European women during the Second World War they couldn’t go back to a life without miscegenation. If you don’t know what that word means, relax, it’s because you’re not a bigot.
My brother instantly proclaimed he would never date a white girl (‘That’s just gross, man’) and the girls grinned. He’s a fucking liar, of course – he has a poster of Megan Fox on his bedroom door that would glow like a disco ball under UV light – but nothing turns on black women like knowing their man isn’t going to be ensnared by white pussy.
‘All of them?’ Becky said sceptically, when I told her the story a month later. ‘All black women?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We had a meeting and it was unanimous. They also want you to stop asking if their hair is really their own.’ (I smiled to myself thinking of my mum saying, ‘Of course it’s my own. I bought it, didn’t I?’)
On the double date, one of the girls had asked me about my relationship history and I’d shrugged, making a sort of non-committal croaking noise that seemed to have been boycotted by all the consonants in the world (‘Eee’) and then I stood, offering to buy her a drink.
‘A Cosmo, please.’ She had eyed the bartender. ‘Make sure you watch his hands. I don’t trust his kind,’ she said.
‘I’m Kenyan,’ I had said and left the awkwardness in my wake like a loud fart.
I had got myself another pint and two shots to down so I could get through the night. With both shot glasses empty, I had asked the bartender if he was Kenyan. He said he was a Scouser. I asked him if he dated white girls and he said he was an arse man.
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘A white girl with a big arse is like a unicorn. Even if one did exist, neither of us would get to ride one.’
I re-tell this joke to Dean.
‘Not true,’ he says. ‘I met this girl on Tinder and she was quite skinny but she had a nice big round arse. Oh, funny story. She was riding me and I decided to reach around and smack that arse. Missed completely and hit myself right on the testicles.’ I break out in a round of rapturous laughter. ‘It was like being struck by lightning.’
‘Did she notice?’ I say, between chuckles.
‘She thought I was about to finish but I said, ‘Nah, I’m good, babe. Don’t stop.’ and I white-knuckled it until she was satisfied.’
‘Oh, my God,’ I say, dying.
‘Now, call me a masochist but it was the best orgasm I ever had.’
‘Actually,’ says Dean. ‘I’m pretty sure that girl wasn’t white. She might have been Asian. Have you ever dated an Asian girl?’
‘Yeah, she was Pakistani. We went out for a month and then she asked me to wear a snapback to bed one night. I said no, she said it was alright and then curiously, two days later, she became too busy with schoolwork for the relationship.’
That was my own fault. I’m usually good at picking up red flags. Like when a girl casually tells me how much they love grime, or if she’s more offended by American police shootings than I am.
‘I hope you haven’t written off all Asian girls because of one bad experience,’ says Dean.
‘Why do you care?’ I look up from my drink, realising what was happening. ‘So Becky’s friend is Asian, is she?’
‘Didn’t you mention that earlier?’ Dean says innocently.
‘The fuck I did. I don’t even know her name.’ And, just like that, it’s all so obvious. ‘Tell me you weren’t dumb enough to ask me to get drinks tonight so you could sell this blind date to me.’
Dean takes a sip. ‘Yeah, it was long shot, wasn’t it?’
‘Since when are you Cupid?’
‘I need to score points with Becky,’ he says.
‘Becky’s given up.’
‘That’s why it’ll mean more if I succeed. C’mon, do it for your boy. Hashtag-Deanlivesmatter.’
‘Figure out another way to get laid.’
‘We can both get laid. That’s the point. I met her. She’s a cute girl, she’s smart, she’s–’
‘I’m seeing someone.’
Dean tilts his head. ‘What the fuck, man? You couldn’t have said that three pints ago? How long has it been?’
‘Its fairly recent.’
‘Has she met your family?’
Dean raises his eyebrows. ‘And how did that go?’
I remember walking to my front door, with her fingers interlaced in mine looking like piano keys, and we could hear the music and the chatter already.
‘How much do they know about me?’ she asked. I was sure that wasn’t what she wanted to ask but she was never good at bringing up race.
I closed my eyes for a second then faced her. ‘I didn’t mention much.’
I saw shock then anger then sadness flash over her eyes. Her fingers loosened around mine but I held on tighter.
‘Why?’ she asked. And before I could reply, the door opened.
‘How did it go, mate?’ Dean asks again.
I was deep in my own head so it took me a while to answer. ‘It went fine,’ I smile despite myself. ‘Honestly, I don’t know what I was worried about.’
‘You never said you were worried.’
‘Yeah, well, it’s all in the past now.’
‘What’s she like?’ I couldn’t tell if he actually cared or if he was just being sociable.
‘She’s cute, funny, smart – smarter than me. Actually, I figured out she would engineer conversations about whether I was single or what I was looking for by trying to set me up on…’ I trail off. Fucking big mouth – how many pints had I had? – and I’d been so careful too. Dean’s face is like a rock. It would’ve been less suspicious if I had finished the sentence.
I clear my throat. ‘So, who’ve you been seeing-?’
He won’t let me change the subject.
‘So its Becky?’ Dean’s jaw is clenched. ‘This new girl. Is it Becky?’
‘I was going to tell you soon,’ I say. ‘You never made a move. She got tired of waiting.’
‘Yesterday, when you were on her bed, it was after–’
Dean downs the rest of his beer and stands to leave. ‘Fuck you.’
Adrian is a Zimbabwean-born novelist, poet and playwright from Coventry, currently studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.