Although he professes to have liberated, intellectual views about race, Julian is in many ways just as petty and small-minded as he perceives his mother to be. Julian has grown up with a narrow set of experiences, influenced by his overbearing mother’s limited worldview. Because of his college education, however, he has acquired a new set of enlightened perspectives regarding race and social equality. Julian attempts to distinguish himself from his mother’s antiquated beliefs by publicly demonstrating his liberal views on integration and racial relations. Throughout the story, he makes failed attempts to connect to blacks and repeatedly discovers that the people with whom he converses do not live up to his idealized expectations of them. When he tries to strike up conversation with the black man in the suit on the bus, for example, he comes across as awkward and intrusive. Julian desperately wants to demonstrate that he can communicate and connect to blacks, but he finds himself unable to connect to other people on their own terms, particularly across racial lines.
Julian seems to have no more understanding of African Americans than his bigoted mother, despite the liberal views he espouses. It becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses that he speaks of racial equality only to annoy his mother, not out of any compassion for black Americans. In fact, his irritation with his mother’s outdated views may even reflect irritation with himself for being unable to connect with blacks or even engage in small talk with them. For him, African Americans are a class of people he doesn’t understand, foreign enough that he fantasizes about bringing one or two of them home not as individuals but as trophies of his education and liberalism to be paraded in front of his mother. Julian’s unrealistic perception of blacks and racial equality, therefore, isolates him from reality.
Julian’s mother’s patronizing attitude toward blacks derives from fear and her dated perceptions of society and racial equality. Because of her upbringing, she has strict ideas about racial division, and her belief in segregation allows her to speak affectionately about her nurse, Caroline, while simultaneously believing that blacks were better off as slaves. In her mind, blacks should only be allowed to rise on their “own side of the fence” because full integration poses a danger to the social order. At the same time, she adheres to the older social norms, which prompt her to give Carver a penny without understanding the racist and patronizing nature of the act. She functions as a model of old southern gentility, harboring racist attitudes while maintaining a strong sense of social decorum. Ironically, the climax of the story pushes Julian’s mother even further back into the past. After her apparent stroke, she becomes confused and disoriented, calling out for her father and her nurse, Caroline, both of whom are long dead, because she associates them with security and comfort.