Monday, October 31, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name

For days I have been wondering what I could say about the passing of Rosa Parks, and I've felt intimidated by the subject. There really is nothing I can write with even a drop of the greatness she displayed in character and courage, but I would feel ashamed to say nothing at all.

Nearly everyone knows that Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama bus for a white person, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was the first organized protest of segregation by African Americans. What many people don't know is that that fateful afternoon was not the first time she'd refused to change her seat. She'd been put off a handful of buses and was beginning to get a reputation among drivers. Her actions were calculated and with purpose. On the day she made famous, more than her feet were tired.

It is very easy to forget where you come from. Particularly in our 'melting pot' society, which asks everyone to assimilate and become one. A sweet idea in theory, but one that asks people to squelch the parts of themselves which likely make them the most interesting. And one that asks people to let go of individualized community pride in exchange for a larger, communal train of thought, a train of thought which is still flawed.

I bought paint on Saturday from a paint store in Falls Church. While I paid the bill, I laughed at a posted sign: "Free Ride In A Police Car When You Shop Lift." I chuckled with the store clerk about the sign, until she told me that she'd put it there because of the heavy shoplifting occurring in her store. She then went on to tell me that the shoplifting occurred 'because of the area.' Most of the painting contractors in Falls Church were Hispanic, she told me. Hence the heavy shoplifting.

I chose not to explain to her that the people who stole from her store were not stealing because they were Hispanic. They were stealing for a myriad of reasons, and some of them happened to be of Latin Descent. Not the same thing: heritage was not a contributing factor to their behavior. In fact, if we were to look on a global scale at theft, people of Latin descent may indeed be the ones least guilty of stealing to better their own countries. Not even the United States can say the same, unless you consider the Trail of Tears to be a lie.

No, I said nothing. I paid for my paint and left, and decided that next time, I'd spend my dollar in an establishment run by someone who didn't so readily label large groups of people. In reality, however, my lack of action accomplishes nothing. A very nice woman in a Falls Church paint store will continue to be a victim of both shoplifting and her ignorance. And every Hispanic paint contractor who enters that store will continue to be a victim of racial profiling.

This is what makes Rosa Parks such a great woman. She had the courage, in 1950's Alabama, no less, where blacks had been lynched for far less, to insist on keeping a seat she knew she deserved. She had the conviction of heart to attempt on multiple occasions to educate the bus driver and other passengers, to assist them in being released from their own prejudices. As a result, more happened than just my being able to sit anywhere I want on a city bus. As a country, we moved forward. We all learned.

As she is funeralized today, I will reflect on that. And perhaps soon, pay a return visit to a lady in a Falls Church paint store.

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