A Rosa Parks problem

by K. Crabtree
Contributing Writer

“Get to the back of the bus, Rosa Parks!”

Laughter bounced around the white Bacchus van as the door was slammed shut, and a young man hauled himself into the back of the vehicle.

“It’s okay! He’s white!”

I looked in my rearview mirror at the van full of Caucasian students. I considered speaking up. Instead, I took my foot off the brake and continued down University Avenue.

I justify my lack of voice with the thought that a pack of drunken coeds would take nothing substantial away from a sermon on the destructiveness of racial insensitivity; alcohol and inebriation might be used to excuse the comment. Yet my few months as a Bacchus driver (and amateur therapist to scorned young women and horny fraternity brothers) have taughtme that people speak most honestly when alcohol has relieved them of their inhibitions.

This comment was not racist in its nature, but it made light of an experience of which the white student who spoke it obviously did not comprehend the significance. It was painful because it belittled such a prominent event in the history of the African-American community. Parks became a joke amongst white peers in what they must have considered a safe (and exclusively white) environment.

If Sewanee is seen as a safe place for these types of comments, then this perception must be challenged. If Sewanee is viewed as an exclusively white environment, spotted with minority students taken on as a white man’s burden, then this misconception must be invalidated. What I believe more than these two theories, though, is that the Sewanee student body has a deficiency in racial education outside of the white experience, and that is a disservice to all students.

My purpose in writing is not to complain about the state of racial affairs within the University, but to regard the question of why this sort of comment was ever deemed appropriate to speak aloud. As a woman of both black and white heritage, my views on race may be rather unique, but I often see it as a boundary to a greater sense of inclusive community. This does not mean that race or ancestry should be ignored, but that we honor the past and look to meet those we encounter in the future with the respect they deserve, not because they are a member of a certain racial group, but because they are our peers.

On the eve of Black History Month, I would encourage my peers, of whatever racial composition, to use this celebration as an “excuse” (though I hardly think one is necessary) to not only see beyond the distraction of race on campus, but also to take the time to learn more about events and individuals of significance to the African-American community.

As I challenge my peers to take a look at their own misperceptions and shortcomings, I look at my own as well and recognize that my education on the topic is nowhere near complete. I thought a great deal about why this particular comment would not leave my mind, and I have realized it is because of my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, all African-American women who experienced first hand the struggle for equality of which Rosa Parks is symbolic. They would have a voice where I did not. They would have spoken up.