Etiquette Question About Calling Out Other White People

Without being rude, how exactly do you tell a fellow white person to stop comparing (a) themselves or (b) Sarah Palin to Rosa Parks?

I’ve seen it on two blogs that I generally like, and I am so… I hate to use the word “offended” because people mock it so much, as if being offended is just something that people make up when they want to cause a scene. And I think I’m more shocked and bewildered than angry or hurt, so offended is probably not the right choice even though it’s the first word that comes to mind.

Rosa Parks was not just some random woman who got on a bus one day and thought “Gee, you know, I’m tired, I think I’ll just refuse to move.” She was an activist and an African-American during a time when you could be beaten, your house bombed by terrorists, and you and your family murdered for standing up for your rights. After she acted as plaintiff in the test case against bus segregation by going to trial for her actions, she was fired and her husband had to quit his job. They had to move to a different city so she could find work. (You can learn more at the Rosa Parks entry on Wikipedia and her biography at the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.)

Saying that a white American is the Rosa Parks of whatever cause is really disrespectful. It’s not synonymous with saying “she’s a fighter” or “she’s breaking down barriers.” It’s appropriation of a person and a context and a movement that you do not own and do not have permission to borrow. And I’m pretty sure it’s my anti-racist duty to point that out, even if the parties involved don’t care what I have to say, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to explain it without throwing 5,000 words at it when 15 would be better.

Suggestions welcome.

6 thoughts on “Etiquette Question About Calling Out Other White People

  1. Glenn

    Seems like all you need to say is:

    – Congrats for pushing things. But Rosa left a pretty high bar. [Then link to Wikiapedia.]

  2. Susan

    Oh, yes! Sarah Vowell has written about this phenomenon in her Partly-Cloudy Patriot. It was also a This American Life segment:

    “Sarah Vowell identifies a phenomenon that’s sort of a cultural rerun. It’s an analogy that gets made over and over in different situations: people who often are not black, or women, or in any way involved with civil rights, comparing themselves to Rosa Parks”

    Perhaps slip the offending parties the audio link?

  3. Shane Taylor

    If I recommended looking up anything, it would be the respective definitions of dignity and solipsism.

  4. Andrea

    I have never heard of this “white Rosa Parks” business. How nonsensical.

    When I am confronted (as I really frequently am, working in a construction company) by utterly offensive or grossly exaggerated claims of “reverse racism”(I guess that’s an oxymoron, really), I usually respond with nonconfrontational confusion. Goes like this:

    Stupid/ignorant/offensive comment, re: Asian drivers for example

    Me: I don’t understand. Are Asians all bad drivers? I didn’t know that! Is it like a genetic anomaly or something, do you think?

    General backpedalling ensues.

    Me: Do you think that just the Asians that come to the US are bad drivers? Maybe some kind of mass resettlement program on the part of the continent of Asia? Should we start some kind of investigation, or drivers test at the airport INS check? Should we send them our bad drivers? Maybe they deport people who fail theirs drivers tests? Maybe we should?

    Etc, until the dumbass either recants or gives up. Framing stupidity in its own ridiculousness makes me feel better, allows me to confront in a way that I think someone might hear, and is a fun way to use my imagination.

    Sorry for the long-winded answer. I got carried away.

  5. Si

    Oh just be rude. You couldn’t possibly be as rude as they’re being by co-opting an experience of oppression they have never had and never will. Oppressions are not equivalent, even if they are similarly structured.

    And, doubly, since Palin is a first, but not in anyway resistant to the current paradigm. She’s not changing or resisting or protesting a damn thing. Her rise is the result a purely cynical political move, not of resistance to patriarchy’s inequities.

    Just. Be. Rude. By way of just being direct and clear. You don’t have to sling smack, just be direct.

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