The Presumption of Wrongness

I learned a lot from my grandmother. She was a detail-oriented taskmaster who believed my salvation from Hell would result from meekness and silence. "Do what you are told; do it quick, and do it without question," is how I would sum up much of what she taught me. The challenge was this: Much of what Grandma taught and expected me to do, she never found acceptable. I would go so far as to say that because she believed I was unacceptable, she expected me to fail.

Grandma was a domestic worker. According to her standard of reality, my dusting was never complete. My cleaning was never quite thorough. My cooking was a dismal failure. My ironing always required a touch-up. Even though Grandma read on a third-grade level, she would assess that my homework never "looked" quite right. In her sincere efforts to help me get it right, her instructions always came with the preemptive clause of, "Try not to mess it up this time." Her inspections were always followed by, "I don't know why you can't do what you are told, the way you are told." My repetitive failures and her consistent disappointment with my failures did not stop her from assigning me weekly tasks while belittling my efforts -- and me -- each time I seemed to fail.

My relationship and those interactions with Grandma led me to believe that people with authority are mean, and no matter what you do, you cannot please them. In other words, no matter what, I was wrong. It's one thing when what you do is wrong. Often, that can be corrected. However, when who you are is wrong, it's an entirely different story. When who you are is seen as wrong, there is an assumption and presumption of guilt that covers not just who you are, but also everything you do. You feel it and others perceive it, whether they acknowledge it or not.

I spent all of my childhood summers during the late 1950s and early 1960s in the South -- Virginia, to be exact. We traveled from New York in the back of the bus with our shoe boxes of chicken sandwiches and mayonnaise jars of sweet tea. We sat in the back because we were black. Because we were poor, we carried our own food. I'm not sure why we were considered dirty or dumb, but I heard it from enough Southern white people to take it on. I remember the woman who thought it was cute that I had a book, who was also shocked that I could read it. I also remember Grandma's insistence that I scrub all of my "tight places" extra hard so that I would not stink around other people. And, I remember when Grandma took me to work with her in the big houses in Scarsdale, N.Y., I had to wash my hands before I touched anything so I would not leave it dirty. I never quite understood how sitting on a box with my hands folded on my lap would make things dirty so I concluded that my wrongness and blackness were the issues. When who you are is deemed wrong, you feel guilty about everything you do. If you are not careful, you will project your guilt onto others, so they become wrong, too.

I was about 15 years old when being black became "fashionable." (I say "fashionable" because the jury may still be out on whether or not it is totally acceptable.) Dr. King, Medgar Evers and Brother Malcolm had been assassinated. Civil Rights laws were changing the world. I was bussed to junior high school where I was quickly educated with a new set of descriptive nouns for my wrongness and my blackness. I was spit on and called names. I survived these experiences and worked hard to heal my heart and soul. What scarred me for life was being a witness to what happened to my brother when he got off the school bus or when he tried to play football or when he walked too close to one of his white female classmates. What triggers this pain all over again is when the men who killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and countless others walk free. They are essentially saying they cannot or will not hold you accountable for your behavior under the letter of the law. Those who hear the ruling then make up that someone was right and someone was wrong, according to the spirit of the law. The challenge with these two divergent views is that without an understanding of perceptions, experiences and the truth of one's intention, there can be no accurate assessment of the individuals involved. This might lead one to believe that a process that pits the letter against the spirit is essentially flawed.

What I have experienced in life, both at home and in the world, has been hard, sometimes harsh and often cruel. What my brother lived and experienced was downright ungodly and dehumanizing. His wrongness trumped mine, perhaps because he was a male, but surely because the world in which we live held an even lower expectation of him than they did of me. His presumed guilt and experience of being wrong underscored his self-image to such a degree that he gave up on himself in a way that I never could or would consider. Perhaps he was simply a weak person. Or maybe, he just didn't have what it takes to make it in a hostile and harsh world. What I know for sure in my hearts of hearts is that my brother died feeling wrong and guilty for who he was -- both for what he had and had not done with his life.

Each of us enters every experience and views our individual reality through the lens of our experiences. Those experiences are personal. Some experiences we have; others we are taught. In the same way I was taught to believe and expect to be wrong, there are others who are taught to expect and believe, that no matter what, they are right. Our culture may not emphasize the tenants of rightness, but we surely have put a face and a gender and a quality of life to wrongness. No matter who you are or what side of the fence you grew up on, right is better than wrong. Right is always superior to wrong. Now, when you add gender and race to the equation of right and wrong, you are working on a slippery slope. When you start sliding down that slope, it will be along the path of your own experience, teaching and belief. You will more often than not lean toward what you have seen, heard and come to believe is true about yourself and others. The problem is intensified when you have or don't have authority, power, money and a weapon. The presumption of wrongness is deadly and costly and will continue to permeate our world until we become willing to tell and face the truth about what we have learned, been taught and come to accept as truth about what is right, who is wrong and begin to unravel the myths about racial and gender equality.