Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What Did You Expect?

By Amy Phillips-Gary

Recently, esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested after he was “caught” “breaking in” to his own home in Massachusetts.

A call about suspicious activity at the house was reported to police who arrived to find Professor Gates, an African-American man, and his driver trying to force entrance into Gates' home because the front door was stuck.

What might have been a harmless and easily explained encounter quickly escalated and Gates ended up being booked for disorderly conduct.

In the aftermath of this incident, allegations of racism have been lobbed about and even U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the police acted “stupidly.”

I wasn't at the scene of this very unfortunate incident. I have not spoken with either Professor Gates or the police officers involved.

What I suspect, however, is that this situation did not have to turn out this way. The expectations of probably all involved created a scene in which an innocent man was arrested and a potential lawsuit with negative ramifications could follow.

So was racism a motivator in this case?

Yes, it probably was.

The U.S. has a long history of racism that will take a long time to unlearn. But that does not necessarily mean that the police officers involved are members of the KKK or even that they consciously or regularly discriminate against people who are not white-skinned.

I speculate that a context of racism-- that Professor Gates studies, observes and has probably experienced-- also played a role in Gates' reaction to being approached and questioned by the white police officers arriving on the scene with a report of a break-in.

Expectations on both sides most likely led to this situation that could have ended without incident.

What are your expectations?

We expect a bridge to hold us up as we drive over it. We expect the people we care about to support us when we need them. We expect the sun to rise and then set each day.

Most of us also harbor expectations that people will behave in specific ways because of the identity markers such as race, sex, class, ethnicity, age and sexuality we perceive.

We all have expectations, yet most of us don't realize how motivated we are by them.

When you tune in and begin to listen to your own expectations, you might be surprised and, perhaps, even feel a little ashamed. I can find within myself particular expectations that I am not too proud of.

Our expectations do not have to be categorized as dichotomously either “good” or “bad.” Instead, you could acknowledge what you discover about yourself and ask if it's pointing you in a direction you desire.

Are the expectations you have of yourself, your life and others-- whether they be family, friends or complete strangers-- allowing you to live the way you want to live?

This is the question to consider.

Too many times, our expectations severely limit us. We become closed in and stuck with a “this is the way it is” or “that is the way he or she is/I am” kind of mindset.

Open up and meet each person in the present

To acknowledge and question your expectations requires you to stay tuned in to your feelings and thoughts.

Expectations can sometimes feel narrow and closed. It's as if your beliefs and perceptions of yourself and others are like that stuck front door to Professor Gates' home.

What can you do to bring more ease to a situation so that your own symbolic door can freely open?

You might encourage yourself to form new expectations. Despite what you've learned, been told or have previously experienced, perhaps now you are willing to expect to connect and interact with others in peaceful and loving ways.

Meet every person and situation you come upon as if for the first time-- with an open heart and mind.

Practice staying present and awake. Really listen to what the people you are with are saying. Feel into yourself to decide-- in each moment-- how you want to respond to what's going on.

You might just be astounded by the effects.


  1. Great post. I needed this one. I have had expectations from people lately that are above and beyond what should be expected of them.