I received this text message from a dear friend of mine last weekend: "You usually don't ask dumb questions. But this will go down as one of them."
She was responding to a text I'd just sent, asking her a pretty innocent question. It was certainly one that on the surface wouldn't seem to elicit such a strong response. However, upon brief reflection, I realized she was absolutely right. My question was stupid.
This was my question: "Did the event start on time?"
I'm embarrassed that I even asked. I knew the answer. We all knew the answer. And you know the answer as well: The organizers, participants and attendees of the event were black folks, so of course it didn't start on time.
I am notoriously early to everything. Growing up, I watched with great amusement as my mom often got annoyed at my dad for how early he insisted that we arrive everywhere, whether it was church, a movie or a doctor's appointment. Whatever it was, we were going to be there way ahead of the scheduled time. Childhood lessons of punctuality stuck with me, and to this day, I'm a guy who would rather arrive 30 minutes early and wait than arrive 30 seconds late. So I loathe tardiness.
Yet, I always give us a pass. In my personal and professional dealings with black people over the years, lateness has been a consistent theme. And even though I might get annoyed, I largely accept it as part of the deal when working with our people. It's what I expect. But last weekend, my reaction to tardiness went beyond the usual annoyance and eye roll. For the first time I can remember, I was mad about it.
I was asked to give a keynote address at a business conference. My speech was scheduled for the afternoon during an awards luncheon. (It was while I was en route that I sent my friend the text asking if the conference started on time.) Thirty minutes later, as I looked out into the audience, my frustration swelled when I noticed a lot of black college students and recent black college grads. I pounded my fist on the podium, and my eyes watered as I talked about the example being set for them by the professionals in charge of the event.
And it wasn't just upsetting that the event started so late; it was that no one seemed to give a damn that it did. Everyone went about their business as if this is how we do business. Nobody was fazed. I heard "You know how we are" as the rationale for why things ran late at the conference.
"You know how we are." I've heard that phrase my whole life used as the excuse for our tardiness. Our challenges with starting or arriving on time are often dismissed with humorous complacency and today are an accepted and even embraced part of the culture. No big deal?
This hurts to admit, but I often pause when considering doing business with black people or black companies, based on my experiences. That black production company in charge of the event I hosted last year that started 45 minutes late? I will never work with them again or refer them. That black-owned car company that showed up a half hour late to pick me up with no explanation? I'll never work with that company again. The young black woman who regularly showed up late to work? I wouldn't refer her to another company. The black man who wanted me to join his organization but showed up 15 minutes late to our meeting? I won't be working with him.
I know I shouldn't punish another production company, car company, co-worker or potential business partner based on those experiences. Yet I find myself doing exactly what I've urged executives and managers in my business not to do: let preconceived notions, stereotypes or biases get in the way of hiring or promoting African Americans. Colored People's Time is one of those stereotypes, and I am one who holds that bias. But based on experience and based on our embrace of CPT, it doesn't really feel like a stereotype anymore. It feels like the truth.
I spend a lot of time talking to black students and young black professionals. I always remind them that they're representing all of us, of the unique challenges ahead for them and of their responsibility to make the path easier for the next young black man or woman who'll walk in their shoes.
Given the vastness of the problems plaguing our community, punctuality may seem to be the least of them. But it may also be the one over which we have most control. And it's a big deal. I'm not talking about someone showing up late for a drink or to your house. I'm talking about my experiences in professional settings. And that's why I reacted the way I did at the awards luncheon. There's just no excuse.
We've all been late at some point in our lives and probably had legitimate reasons for it. But this week, CPT totally stopped being funny to me. And I've become increasingly frustrated with giving some folks a pass who often turn out to be the same folks who want me to give them a chance.
Being on time shouldn't be too much to ask. Yet every day it feels like another one of my stupid questions.