Sunday, December 2, 2012

We Like the Safe Ones

I read an interesting opinion piece this morning titled, "It's time to free Rosa Parks from the bus."  Check it out here:

The author describes a Rosa Parks very different from the fatigued elderly woman that many white school children learn about.  The way I learned it, Mrs. Parks was just too tired to move to the back of the bus that fateful day.  Her determination to stay put unintentionally sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Thinking about it now, that's a pretty ridiculous scenario.  Why was I taught it that way?  Because it makes Rosa Parks safe.  She didn't mean any harm.  She wasn't militant, and certainly wasn't violent.  She was just tired. Rosa Parks was a black woman that white people could accept without fear.  For this same reason I never learned about Malcolm X, only about the non-violent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King, with his non-violent resistance, was safe in a way that Malcolm X wasn't.

There's a theory in critical race studies called "interest convergence." It claims that whites will only move toward racial equality when it benefits us in some way.  As soon as we have to give up a position of dominance, according to this theory, many whites will back off and leave social justice for someone else to worry about.  I think this theory applies to who gets designated as a "hero" of the Civil Rights Movement and who gets left out of the story in many circles. As a white, it's in my best interest to recognize, and even to applaud those activists who are "safe" because I can now proclaim myself as not-racist without the uncomfortable experience of facing the anger bred by centuries of oppression.  Ah, I feel so much better about myself now.  


  1. I was surprised too when I learned Rosa Parks just wasn't a tired old lady but instead an active fighter for civil rights. But I always assumed that that narrative was painted by the African Americans themselves because it just makes for a better humble HERO story.

  2. Hmm, that's an interesting assumption, and one I haven't heard before. Why might a white person like you or me come to that conclusion?

  3. because I am not thinking in terms of race at all.