On Racism and Being Wrong

Last year I spent a wonderful Sunday morning at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Mobile, Alabama. The experience itself was interesting and enlightening for a number of reasons, but the one that keeps popping up in my head is realizing that I had approached the church with a deep and unknown racism.

Outside Big Zion - postedYou see I went to that particular church because I was chasing a story I’d been told. I’d seen it in movies time and time again. Forest Gump is always the first example that comes to mind. It’s the story that in the south there are these fantastic and full congregations made entirely of black people. And their preachers are passionate. And their parishioners are enthusiastic. And most importantly, their choirs are fantastic. I wanted to visit that place, the one I’d seen in movies. I wanted to hear the choir.

It hadn’t occurred to me that assuming that every predominately black church would automatically be filled with wonderful singers was racist. It is, by the way. It’s racist because I was taking a skin color and assigning an unrelated trait to it. I imagine I didn’t think of it this way because I was engaging in what’s often called “positive racism.” One example of positive racism you may have heard is the idea that Asian people are good at math. This feels like a harmless thought to have because it’s complimentary. We all wish we could be naturally good at math. But no matter the compliment, we are still stripping people of their identity as individuals and lumping them into a group defined by their race. And it quickly  turns into something overtly negative: Asian people who are bad at math are seen as failures to their race, and Asian people who are good at math receive no praise because it’s assumed their race is the cause.

I was envious of the black churches I saw in movies and longed to be in a place where people could be so passionate about their faith in a way that didn’t seem to attack others. I thought my assumptions were complimentary, so it never occurred to me that they were racist. That is, until I showed up and their choir was no different than choirs I’d seen at plenty of white churches. I felt a twinge of disappointment before I was overcome with shame. That moment of disappointment reminded me that disappointment can only come as a result of expectations, and the church had only failed to meet the expectations I had invented for them based on race.

A few years ago I watched a TED talk by Kathryn Shulz titled “On Being Wrong.” During the talk she asked audience members what it feels like to be wrong.

“Dreadful,” they told her. “Embarrassing.”

She told them that those are good answers, but they are answers to a different question. They are answers to the question, “What does it feel like to realize you’re wrong?” Feeling wrong, she explained, feels exactly like being right.

That’s how I felt walking into that church in Mobile. I didn’t feel racist. I had an abstract appreciation that we live in a racist society and that as a member of that society I will occasionally and unintentionally engage in acts of racism, but I didn’t think I was engaging in one at the time. In fact, I never feel like I’m currently engaging in acts of racism. Why? Because if I felt that way I would stop.

And that’s the key. There is a person I want to be. I try to be her everyday, and every day I fail at least a little. Because intellectually I know that I can’t possibly be right about everything, which means one day (hopefully), I’ll discover the ways in which I’m wrong. I will have a chance to change, and change is hard. Realizing you’re wrong feels so awful that sometimes you’ll fight to keep believing you’re right. You’ll twist the facts and make up excuses. Not to be malicious, but because change means admitting that all the reasoning you had to support your previous position was wrong. And you’ve been operating and living under that wrong reasoning every day of your life.

There are parts of the person I am right now that will be an embarrassment to the person I will become. It’s hard to think about, because admitting it means I’m already wrong and not changing. I’m already being racist and haven’t stopped. I’ve already twisted the facts and will continue to repeat them. Not only am I doing something horrible, but I’m not fixing it. My only saving grace is my ignorance. I don’t know which thoughts are the wrong ones. Yet.