Expectations: What do they do for you?
Expectations have been on my mind of late, a phenomenon I often overlook, gloss over, yet that influences my life as a lens through which I view and interpret my experiences. We concoct these assumptions from a convoluted stew of past events, reactions, hopes, and needs, both personal and collective. These assumptions can be as simple and mundane as believing that going to your favorite restaurant and ordering the same food will deliver an experience just as satisfying as those before. There is no way to definitively know that the cooks will use the same recipe or won’t burn the food, or some other way of deviation will not occur. But based on past experiences and a general trust and approval of this restaurant from one’s community, it often feels safe to expect a delicious meal. And interestingly enough, this often colors our perception of the entire experience. From the minute we walk out the door, make our way to the restaurant, place our order, and feast our eyes upon the moment of truth, we have positive anticipatory feelings. We might be particularly friendly to strangers we pass along the way, or to our server at the restaurant, or perhaps revel in the homeyness of the restaurant, the rustic red bricks, fascinating peers surrounding us, and all that is great about this experience.
Of course, expectations come into play in more pressing moments as well. Every time we settle into our cars, board an airplane, or even take our seat on a roller coaster, we take significant risks. But again, we have completed so many car trips, plane flights, and some of us, roller coaster rides, that we dismiss the risk. The chance that an alternative outcome will occur in place of the expected version is so low, and our personal experiences as well as those of our friends and family back up our assumptions. Indeed, these expectations structure our everyday lives and enable us to take risks, for we reason them away based on personal and societal assumptions.
However, while expectations play an important empowering role in our lives, they can just as easily inhibit us, holding us back from trying new experiences for which we don’t have a precedent. How many of us are reluctant to try a new food at our favorite restaurant because we want our favorite? Again, there are much higher stakes at play here as we venture into social interactions and relationships. Trust and mistrust are the very definition of social expectations-the idea that we either can or cannot assume our friend will support us in time of need, that our parents will encourage us when we struggle. But what about when we don’t have an established relationship with someone? The very concept of a stranger is of someone with whom we are unfamiliar, and therefore we don’t have expectations. Or do we? It would seem logical to have an absence of assumptions about anyone or anything, we have not personally experienced, but this is where the societal expectations we have absorbed and made our own come into play. “Well, I’ve never been to that restaurant or met him or her, but based on what I’ve heard and read, I can expect this…” And sure, if we don’t have our own experiences, we have to defer to others’ experiences to reach an assumption, an anticipation of what is to come. But in doing so, we put ourselves at the mercy of others’ assumptions, for better or worse. And when one considers the implications in social interactions and race, these assumptions can be very problematic.
Recently I have focused my attentions on understanding and unraveling my covert prejudices and how they manifest themselves in my expectations. While working at a school in a low-income, predominately black area of DC, I walked the ten minutes from the subway station to my school every day. Before even stepping foot in the community, I was very aware that I would be uncomfortable making this walk and working at the school. I’m a sheltered, well-off white kid and was headed to the “hood,” better believe I should be nervous-that’s what my parents, extended family, and childhood community would tell me. At the very least, most of them would say or did say, you should be cautious, on guard, aware. And sure, working in an area where violence is more common, I should keep my eyes open and be aware of the things going on around me. But if I have learned anything from discussions with my peers and friends, it’s to be skeptical of the thoughts and attitudes of others, to dismantle these societal assumptions that I ingest and allow to become my own. Clearly I needed to do some serious deconstruction of the validity and impact of these expectations.
It’s easy to paint a broad picture of a community as fitting a stereotyped set of one-size-fits-all characteristics. Likewise, it was just as easy to convince myself that I was going to break this notion which had taken root in my head, that direct and personal interactions in this low-income black community would almost immediately be the antidote to these poisonous assumptions that are all too prevalent in many of our minds and hearts. I found very quickly that this idyllic hope was drastically overwhelmed by the tidal wave of preconceptions brought on by this broad brush picture of the entire community. This group-wide image permeated into my one-on-one interactions in the community, influencing my anticipations of what each individual would be like, their educational and work backgrounds, intelligence, social lives, values, physical appearances, and so on.
Sure, I could say that I believed that this black community is just as trustworthy, smart, and loving as my own, but did I really believe that? These one-on-one interactions made me realize that I absolutely did not, as much as I wanted to think I did. Walking past a black person on the way to school, I would observe myself being hyper-aware of this person, taking extreme notice of their appearance relative to how much I notice a white person passing by. I would tense up, become nervous, on guard, and what happened?
In all my 11 months of walking between the school and metro station, not one person said a thing to me. Forget being approached with hostility, attacked, or anything remotely resembling an interaction of which I would be afraid. No one said one thing to me, even though I was clearly the exact image of the hateful, discriminating, hierarchical white power structure eager to wipe African Americans out of this country. I never even got a, “hey, is it not enough for you to deny funding to our schools and neighborhoods? To excuse our harassment and murders by the police by declaring a war on ‘drugs?’ Now you have to invade our communities? Spy on us, do some feel-good work to wash away any guilt for yourself...do you mind leaving?”
I don’t blame myself or anyone else for being susceptible to the lies, misrepresentations, and hate that American society perpetuates regarding people of color. But once we, white people in particular, wake up to the reality and see the poison of this power-hungry, bigoted deceit, it is absolutely our responsibility to obliterate these racist expectations in place of open-mindedness and to seek out personal relationships with people of color. It is our responsibility as individuals within our own hearts, as people who can influence our friends and families and intimate communities, as well as our society at large. When we walk past someone on the street, we need to be ok with knowing that we don’t know a thing about them, except that they have family and friends who love them dearly and whom they love dearly. Do we need to have expectations about them, to make assumptions? What are these assumptions doing for us, for our cities, for our country, our world? I need to continue actively dismantling these ideas in my head that I have allowed to take root. I need to critically analyze every opinion, “fact,” and thought that comes my way. I need to put myself in position to engage with people and communities of color to rebuild these expectations such that they reflect the truths that define all humanity.