by MIKE SERPE
Egg Harbor, Wisconsin
Here’s an analogy about expectations for my fellow white folks who are just diving into anti-racism education.
Imagine showing up to a class an hour late. How would you expect the professor to respond to your entrance? Would you expect this person to greet you at the door, tell you how happy she or he is that you arrived, walk you to your seat and make sure you were seated comfortably? Ask you if you have everything you need, and thank you for showing up? Would you expect the professor to take time away from the class to do any of that, and would that even feel appropriate?
Or, would you expect the professor to say, “Hi. Take a seat”? Or perhaps say nothing at all – maybe just give you a glance while he or she gets on with the class as you find a place to sit?
And how would you enter that class if you were an hour late? Would you walk in and announce, “Hey, I’m here!” and then give a big explanation for why you’re taking the class and what took you so long to get there, diverting the class’s attention and wasting valuable class time? Would you walk straight up to the professor and say, “Sorry I’m late, but could you please go over with me what you’ve covered during the last hour?” (Imagine the look on the professor’s face if you did that, and hold that thought.)
Or, would you quickly and quietly sit down, open your book and do your best to keep up with where the class is now, knowing you’re going to have to catch up on the first hour’s material on your own, maybe by borrowing someone’s notes to help with what you’ve missed?
Would the professor be glad that you were in the class? Sure. Better late than never. But would you expect her or him to express gratitude or happiness that you finally showed up? Of course not.
Now imagine that the professor’s life depends on people like you showing up for class. Imagine that this person has seen countless students arrive late, sit down for a few minutes, decide the desk is too uncomfortable or the subject matter is too hard, then walk out, over and over and over. Would you expect the professor to feel relieved at your arrival under these circumstances? Would you expect to be met with a warm welcome or some understandable skepticism?
White folks, we are that late student. Only we are far more than an hour late.
If you’re just diving into anti-racism activism and it all feels a bit pricklier or less patient or less welcoming than you expected, this is why. We don’t get a cookie for showing up to a place we already should have been. We should not expect an open-armed, warm welcome because we’ve finally arrived.
We might be embarrassed when we realize how late we are. We also might feel like we have some good reasons for it. But lengthy apologies and explanations just waste valuable class time, and no one really wants to hear them, no matter how heartfelt or sincere. The class just wants to move on.
We’re undoubtedly going to feel a little lost. But if we raise our hands to ask questions about stuff that was covered in the hour we missed, we should expect the response to be a simple, “You’re going to need to get someone’s notes on that” or “That was covered in Chapter 1 – go back and read it.” No one would expect a professor to go over material that’s already been covered for the student who showed up an hour into class. And no one should expect that professor not to find those questions annoying.
Yes, it is good that we’re here. There’s no question about that. But we’re late to a class that’s already in session, and this is the dynamic we should expect. The most respectful thing we can do is recognize our lateness, then quickly take a seat, open our books and listen like someone’s life depends on it.