Black History Month: Is Colored People Time a thing? Part I

I sincerely thought I could tackle this in one post,  but I ended up having to break it into two for your reading pleasure and convenience.

Part I: No, It is NOT a Thing

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Like seriously though. Time, like race, is a construct. It’s not even a real thing yet so much of life in the Western world hinges on both.

I’ve always hated being late. As with most of my idiosyncrasies, this hatred began at an early age with my mother regularly dropping me at school at least 10 minutes after my school day started. No matter how early I rose to shower, dress, groom, eat breakfast and be ready for a swift departure, I could not control the fact that my mother insisted on taking her sweet-ass time to do the same. She’d regularly tell me, “I’m not rushing for nobody,” as I silently willed the clock to slow down to accommodate her and her salty attitude. She’d insisted on enrolling me, her last-born child, into private school instead of allowing me to attend the elementary school right around the corner. And since my private elementary school was on the other side of town—and I was not deemed old enough to catch the city bus—I had to wait on her for a ride.

After six years of reporting to the principal’s office for tardy slips, suffering the embarrassment of interrupting class in progress, and feeling as if I had missed some key secret that no one would share with me, I insisted on going to public junior high which was also within walking distance. From then on, very rarely did I turn up late. As long as I didn’t have to depend on anyone else, I was good.

I’m pretty much a stickler for punctuality to this day, not so much because of the CPT stereotype but rather because I have personally witnessed the benefits of being early and/or on time. Those benefits include everything from snagging a preferred seat, to getting an early-entry discount, to scoring choice food items that haven’t been picked over by anyone else, to not missing the establishing scenes and key plot points of a film, and on and on and on.

Admittedly being early sometimes does suck. One time I got to a friends’ birthday party too soon and ended up helping to clean menudo. My hands smelled like pig stomachs for three days. So, I have learned that being “on time” is based on the both the event and the attending crowd in question. But for the most part, I am neither Lauryn Hill nor Erykah Badu and I know better than to show up late to a Morris Day and the Time concert. Still…I’m neither punctual nor early 100% of the time, and for those times I have been late I’ve heard far too often that the primary reason for my lateness is that I’m a person of color who stereotypically disregards the importance of tracking and keeping time.

When I’ve searched articles on why people are chronically late, those reasons are almost always attributed to some sort of psychological cause such as optimism bias or inefficient multi-tasking. For example, this Sciencealert.com article states:

In 2001, Conte also discovered that there’s also a personality type that’s more likely to be late. While highly strung, achievement-oriented Type A individuals are more likely to be punctual, Type B individuals, who are more laid-back, are later… Over three previous studies Conte found that, for Type A individuals, a minute passed in 58 seconds, where as Type B people felt a minute pass in a leisurely 77 seconds. 

My Black momma is not an optimist and I’m sure that all of us Black people around the world do not insist on having a rosy outlook about everything including time. I’ve met Black folks who are inept at multi-tasking but are never late to the gym and super-efficient Black multi-taskers who never once made it to Tuesday night Bible study on time.  I’m also sure there are both Type A and Type B individuals who belong to the Black race. Yet, the Colored People Time idea insists that we are ALL chronically late because we are Black.

There ain’t no Colored People Time…but there are factors that cause tardiness that are definitely disproportionate and definitely based on race—the most common of which is access to reliable transportation.

According to NationalEquityAtlas.org, a 2015 study revealed that while 6.51% of White households did not have access to a car, a whopping 19.71% of Black households did not have access to a car. Those households without a car are then reliant on public transportation which is not always reliable and definitely not always punctual. For example, in New York City where arguably a majority of inhabitants are reliant on public transportation, only 63% of public transport is punctual.

So why don’t those Black households just get a car? Or move closer to work? Historically, there have been factors preventing both according to Automobile in American Life and Society: Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America by Thomas J. Sugrue:

Because Backs were more likely to be poor than whites (in 1960, nearly half of the nation’s Blacks lived beneath the poverty line), they were less likely to be able to afford new cars and, for most of the twentieth-century, they had difficulties getting car loans and paid more for insurance because of the discriminatory attitudes of bankers and actuaries. When they bought cars, most had to go to White car dealerships. Until 1940, when Ed Davis opened up a Studebaker dealership in Detroit, there were no Black-owned car dealerships in the United States. In 1963, Davis became Chrysler’s first Black dealer–and possibly the first Black to own a “Big Three” franchise. In the post-1960s years, car dealerships became an important vehicle for Black upward mobility: by 1987, 53 of the top 100 Black-owned companies in the United States were auto dealerships (although, as a reminder of the Black-White gap in the business world, the top 100 White-owned companies dwarfed car dealerships: Whites owned nearly all companies on the Fortune 500 list). Even if Blacks owned more car dealerships than ever before, White-owned car dealers still dominated the market and often treated Black customers unequally. As late as the 1990s, when the Urban League sent out matched pairs of Black and White car buyers, they found that Black consumers paid, on average, higher interest rates and higher fees than did Whites who had the same income and credit history.

The lack of access to reliable cars became a major contributing factor to the problem of poverty. Over the last half of the twentieth century, as metropolitan areas sprawled outward and public transportation systems faced cutbacks, access to a car became crucial to economic success. Suburban employers who sought low-wage minority employees (such as office park janitors, shopping center stockroom workers, and kitchen staff) faced a dilemma. Patterns of residential segregation by race and class meant that most Black and other minority workers lived a great distance from the most-rapidly growing workplaces. In addition, those workplaces were only accessible by car.

I don’t care if you are Black or White, poverty is difficult to overcome without access to certain resources such as transportation or affordable daycare or higher education or an established network of contacts to facilitate upward mobility. Conversely, punctuality is very easy for those with privilege. Privilege and/or wealth affords working vehicles, and living accommodations closer to bustling business centers, and nepotism, and resources to hire an Uber or Lyft.

And let me just say that not all Black people are poor and carless as #45 seems to believe. But we do have to tackle a lot of strange and unfortunate complications that require different and increased use of time as a result of our race and how we are perceived. I will happily use a personal example.

Once upon a time, I worked with a young White lady who insisted on never ironing her clothing. She simply didn’t enjoy the task of ironing. Each day, she came to work as wrinkled as a sharpei puppy in the arms of a dehydrated 95 year old. No one ever said a thing about it. Conversely, I (who regularly ironed and pressed and creased my attire for about 15 minutes each day) once went to work in in linen pants that had wrinkled in the back during my morning drive. All that day, each one of my various White coworkers pointed out the condition of my pants. One even “joked” by asking whether or not I had rolled around on the ground outside before I came to work. And all day, I literally had to explain linen.

Now one might say that I only got ribbed because the wrinkles were a departure from my normal appearance. But ask any Black person if they’ve had a similar experience and they’ll tell you that they are simply regarded in a different light. They have to be pristine in every way with a certain tone, and a certain look, and a precise practice of punctuality or else they’ll be accused of being angry or slovenly or operating on Colored People Time. Having to be excellent in everything takes more time than being average. And because Black people have historically had to be excellent—with little to no exception—simply to attain social acceptance, we have had to use and operate inside the confines of time differently. Again, there is no such thing as Colored People Time, but the phrase is much easier to dismissively utter than the history and implications of social and systemic racism…because ain’t nobody got time for that.

 

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