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.

The Atheists of Alabama

I mentioned to my CouchSurfing host in Birmingham that I was visiting different churches as part of my trip. An atheist himself, he suggested I try to track down an atheist group before I left the South, as they might be able to provide an interesting alternative perspective. I thought it was a great idea, though I had almost no idea how to find an atheist group. Churches are pretty simple to track down, what with their easily identifiable buildings and denominational websites. I asked around online and eventually found a freethinkers group through meetup.com. The site said the group would be having a coffee meeting and a happy hour get together while I was in town, but gave no info about where or when. I emailed the group’s coordinator asking if they would be okay with a visitor, and gave full disclosure of my Christian roots. I told them that I was interested in talking and learning, not debating. I didn’t want to start a fight. The coordinator, Sandi, emailed me back to explain that some of their members are “discreet” about their atheism, and she normally tries to warn everyone before letting a visitor come to a meeting. There just wouldn’t be enough time to get the word out before the week’s regular meetings. However, she knew that several members would be happy to talk with me while I was in town, and we set up a lunch meeting.

We met at Sinclairs, a popular restaurant in Montgomery. It’s surprisingly easy to show up at a restaurant and find someone you’ve never met before – you just look for the person who’s looking for you. I sat down with Sandi, a college student in her early twenties, at an empty table set for five. She said the others were running late, and gave me recommendations on the food. I asked her how she got involved, and she told the story of growing up Christian, slowly letting go of her beliefs, and eventually seeing a flier for a freethinkers group on her college campus. Now that she’s active in the atheist community, she’s discovering that lifelong friends of hers are also atheist. Whenever she finds herself defending her views to someone who claims they don’t know any atheists, she confidently tells them, “Yes, you do. You just don’t know they are.”

Church with FlagsEventually the rest of the group showed up: Paul, a tall, thin, white man who spent most of his life quietly defending his faith to others and himself – until he moved to Alabama. Once in the South, his internal disagreement with the faith he saw around him was so strong he became a full, proud, atheist. There was a slightly older man who was generally quiet, and a young black man. I’m not certain if they would want their names known, so I’ll refer to them as Alan and Mark respectively. Mark explained his troubles with being a black atheist, and how when he expresses his beliefs, people often respond with, “But…you’re black.” To hear Mark talk about it, it seems that atheism is strange to many in the South, but a black atheist might as well be a unicorn.

I asked if they could elaborate on why some of their members didn’t feel comfortable “coming out” as atheist. Alan explained that one member of their group lost custody of his kids because the judge thought they would be better off in a Christian household. Many worry about the backlash from their family, others from their jobs. The lunch group explained how difficult it can be to form such an organization, especially living where they are. How do you find new members if existing members can’t even admit their own participation? How do you let people know about your group without coming off as atheist evangelists? And what do you do once you’re together? Paul explained that some members are just looking for a support group – somewhere to meet with like-minded people and to talk about their personal struggles. Others felt like it was a starting place for activism and political action – that they should be lobbying against laws that discriminate against non-Christians, and working to create a more accepting society for atheists. Still others felt that the group could be a conduit for good works – that they should be donating to charities and organizing the same kind of social justice events that are normally hosted by churches.

In short, they have the same problems of any small group, including most small churches: getting new members, holding to your ideals, spreading your ideas without forcing them, and trying to figure out how to make a real impact in the world. It’s a hard business for any organization, and they have to do it in relative secrecy.

I had been told that in the South, one of the first questions people ask is, “What church do you go to?” My friend Christine told me it was how people placed you, in the way generations past might have asked for your last name. I asked the atheists how often they encountered the question, and they said it’s fairly common with anyone you share more than a few words with – on bar with “So what do you do for a living?” If an atheist answers the church question honestly, there are a handful of responses she/he is likely to get. There are those that will react with scorn and try to pick a fight. Some will attempt to casually convert them, maybe inviting the person to come with them to church. And my personal favorite response: disbelief. An atheist? You? Sandi said she often hears the phrase, “But you’re so nice!” Perhaps this is my favorite because it reminds me of the response I got a lot in college. I was in a liberal major at a liberal school in a liberal city in a blue state. When I told people I was religious the typical response was, “Really?” with a tone that said, “but you seem so normal!”

It was hard to get Alan to say much at all, though when he finally did, he spoke with more distain for religion than anyone else had voiced. He didn’t like that members of their group insisted that they treat religious people and groups with respect. “I don’t respect them,” he said in a quiet, deep voice. I could understand why he kept quiet. Just talking seemed to stir up pain.

As we were walking out of the restaurant, Paul expressed that he was pleasantly surprised with me. At their coffee meeting the night before, my request to attend a regular meeting was discussed. He said that he had been one of the loudest voices against letting me visit the group. He said, “If she shows up, I’ll be the first one to kick her out!” We talked some more and he asked if I would be joining them for happy hour later. I gently reminded him that I was, for good reason, not invited. He laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s right.”

After listening to their stories for over an hour, it was clear that these atheists were facing the same kind of discrimination that so many have faced before, and many continue to face today. They want the freedom to be who they are openly. They want equal treatment under the law as well as in society. They don’t want to be surrounded by the constant reminders of a culture they’re not a part of, and they certainly don’t want the government upholding those reminders. It’s a story you could tell about race, gender, or sexuality. It’s the story of civil rights.

The question I ask myself is, “What can I do?” I already agree with them on every point. I don’t think religion should dictate custody. I don’t think the ten commandments belong outside a courthouse. When they describe the kind of religion they’re surrounded by, I don’t agree with it. I don’t subscribe to a hell-based theology. I don’t believe in literal interpretations of Genesis or Revelation. I don’t think homosexuality, abortion, or contraception are inherently sinful. And I live 2000 miles away, in a very different faith culture. So what can I do?

Church SignsI figured I could start by listening to their podcast. Sandi and Paul recently started podcasting, and I subscribed before I left Montgomery. So far they’ve only had seven episodes and I’ve listened to them all. But it wasn’t easy. Not because of the content, which was generally interesting and informative. But the Sandi and Paul I heard online weren’t the same Sandi and Paul I met in person. They laughed less. They swore more. They used insulting and hateful speech. They called people morons and inbreds. Sometimes their reasonings seemed to be based in rhetoric rather than logic. I felt I was being yelled at not as a Christian, but simply as a listener. It’s the same way I feel when I listen to Glen Beck.

I’ve seen it discussed at length how the anonymity of the internet allows normally nice people to become hateful. Because there are no personal repercussions, they can behave in a way they normally wouldn’t. I think the same may be true when you are allowed your own microphone, and your audience becomes anonymous. If you can’t see your audience, you will never see the pain your words may cause. After all, the words aren’t hurting you.

While I’ve never attempted a head count, it’s safe to say that the majority of my friends in Seattle are atheist or agnostic. As far as I know, this difference is generally inconsequential to our friendship. Occasionally they will say something that really grinds at me, and I know I do the same. But we don’t talk about it much, and when we do the conversation is civil. I think it’s because there’s a lot of power in the presence of another human being. With a real person right there, you’re painfully aware of their thoughts, fears, and emotions, and you realize that your personal convictions are not worth causing them pain, no matter how sure of those convictions you normally are. It’s true even with a total stranger whom you will never meet again – such as a young woman traveling through your city, or some people you found on the internet.

It’s embarrassing to think that something as seemingly huge as a belief or non-belief in a higher power can be instantly undone by the mere presence of a human. I suppose it’s because once in front of you, such things become a real person, not just a set of silly and false ideologies. And you realize that as right as you know you are, there’s always a little room for doubt. After all, here’s an ordinary person who doesn’t agree. They must have their reasons. And perhaps humanity shares a more universal and overwhelming faith – in people.