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October 25, 2005

A Note on the Day of the Passing of Rosa Parks

Not too long ago Athena and I touched on the subject of segregation. We were looking at a calendar and I was pointing out holidays, and there was Martin Luther King Day, so I explained that he was someone who had fought for civil rights in the US. Athena, being six, didn't know what that meant, so I explained that at some time in the past, not too long ago, people who had dark skin couldn't use the same things or go the same places as people with light skin; they had use different water faucets, stay in different hotels and eat only at certain tables at restaurants, and sit in the back of the bus. 

"Why?" she wanted to know.

"Because people who look like us thought they were better because of the color of their skin," I said.

"It's just skin," she said.

I allowed that it was, but that at the time, people thought that it mattered.

"But people in my family have tan skin," Athena said. I should note that at some point in her past, Athena observed that some people have tan skin and some people have peach skin, and inasmuch as that is a far more accurate assessment than "black" and "white," we never saw the need to "correct" her language on this point.

"Yes they do," I said, because they do. In fact, many of her cousins are tan to some degree or another, thanks to Mexican or African ancestry. "And if you lived back in that time, they couldn't go to the same places you could, or do the same things you could do."

I wish you could have been there to see the expression on her face at that moment, which was not one of puzzlement, but of actual anger, over the idea that people she knew and loved would not be treated like she would. "If someone tried to do that to me, I would get into a fight with them," she said.

"That's sort of what Martin Luther King did," I said, and we talked a little bit about the protests and the boycotts, and we may have even talked about Rosa Parks. And then she watched some cartoons and played videogames and lived in a time where a six-year-old girl with peach skin had to be told about segregation instead of already knowing it existed through the day-to-day experience of her own life.

This is not to say that various forms of segregation don't still exist, or that Athena won't meet with them or won't see how they affect her or people she loves and cares about. It does, and she will. But she'll come to those knowing that they are wrong, as opposed to them just being the way it is. It matters.

I thank Rosa Parks for being one of the many people who helped point out to millions of people a thing that my six-year-old daughter was able to grasp in a moment: segregation was unfair. And I thank her for helping create a world where my six-year-old daughter's mental leap in considering segregation had her arriving at the fact it's unfair, and not at the fact that everybody does it. The service Rosa Parks has done to me in this regard is small compared to the service she has done others, to be sure. But it doesn't mean I don't acknowledge it, or her.

Thank you, Rosa Parks. Godspeed.



Posted by john at October 25, 2005 10:51 AM

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Cassie | October 25, 2005 12:12 PM

Memory Eternal.

She was a brave woman. What she did will echo through the ages.

Amanda | October 25, 2005 12:15 PM

Really nicely put. Thank you.

Deanna Hoak | October 25, 2005 02:17 PM

I've had a similar conversation with my daughter. I've never taught her that there are separate "races." She sometimes describes someone as "brown-skinned," but she uses the term for tanned Caucasians as well as blacks or Asians--and she uses it only as a descriptor, not as a way to divide people into different groups. I'm really happy that our society is changing enough that she can get to almost seven years old without having been told any different.

otherdeb | October 25, 2005 03:00 PM

Thank Rosa Parks, yeah. And thank your lovely daughter for having more sense than many of the supposed adults in the world.

Mark | October 25, 2005 03:27 PM

I was crushed when I heard about Rosa Parks dying. Whenever anyone gave me crap about the South, I always thought (and sometimes said), screw you, Rosa Parks was Southern. People forget that: the resistance was as Southern as the oppression.

John Scalzi | October 25, 2005 03:33 PM


"People forget that: the resistance was as Southern as the oppression."

Not to mention that not every bigot lives in the South, as the recent Nazi march through Toledo reminds us.

Terry Karney | October 25, 2005 03:37 PM

This may be the best entry I've seen on Rosa Parks.

Thank you.

My moment, it seems, came when I was a little (but not much) older than Athena was in this story.

Second grade, United Way drive. Classses with 100 percent participation got some sort of prize.

I asked my mother for money. She said no. I was free, she said, to give them some of my money, but she wouldn't give them any of hers (my mother had a very good sense of what was ours, and what was hers, once the allowance moved to our hands, we could do whatever we wanted with it. Same was true of birthday money. We wanted to buy books [as I did at five] that was fine. If I'd wanted five dollars worth of ice cream, that was fine too. I might not get it all at once, but it was my money. Back to the story).

I, being the curious youngster I was, asked her why she wouldn't give them any money.

She told me it was because they had a policy of only allowing adoption of children race matched to parents.

This took a moment to soak in. I asked some questions, and got the answers... if the kid was half-filipino, and half chinese, the parents would have to be the same, either each mixed, or one parent chinese, the other filipino.

"Does that mean the twins wouldn't have been allowed to be adopted (we had friends who were bi-racial, though I think mulatto was still the common term, and had been adopted).


"Then they can't have any of my money either."

Oh, the row that caused. I, you see, was the only one who didn't bring in any money. All the kids who did donate had pins, so they knew I hadn't.

When asked if I was going to donate, I said no. When pressed I explained why.

My mother got a call. My teacher said, among other things, "Do you know what you're doing? You're instilling your values in your child."

"Who better?", and hung up the phone.

Brian Greenberg | October 25, 2005 04:48 PM

Martin Luther King day was a tough one for me. My son is 5, and wanted to know why Daddy didn't have to go to work. I told him it was Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, and it was a holiday.

When it came to explaining why, I was torn. I generally don't keep any secrets from him, although I often try to simplify things into concepts he'll understand. In this case, I didn't see the need to tell him about racism unless I had to. I guess I wanted to spare him the anger that Athena felt. On the other hand, if he's old enough to be asking about MLK...

In the end, I told him that Dr. King was a man who went all around the country telling everyone that they should be nice to everyone else. Then, we pulled up some "I Have a Dream" video, and I let him hear it from Dr. King himself.

As for Rosa Parks, I think we can safely say she has, and will forever be, judged by the content of her character.

Nice when things work out that way, huh?

claire | October 25, 2005 05:06 PM

sorry to go on the offensive in memory of rosa parks, but i think she'd want it that way: scalzi, i think the reason that racism persists in this country is that the perception that race is about the color of your skin persists as well. and here it is, being perpetuated further.

race is not about the color of your skin and never has been. race is about a construction of identity based upon the shape of the features of your face and body (which are far, far more important than skin color), the texture of your hair (which is far, far more important than its color), the color of your skin, hair and eyes, the clothing you wear, the dialect you speak and the accent you use when speaking it, the people you associate with, the way you hold yourself or gesture or walk, the neighborhood you live in, the values you hold and how you express these in your lifestyle, the way other people like you treat you, the way other people unlike you treat you, the size and nature of the chip on your shoulder, etc, etc. race is based on a thousand tiny signals, most of which we perceive unconsciously, that tell us to treat each other this way or that.

and those signals need to be there. we need to know who is "us" and who is "them" because we're predatory, dangerous animals, us humans. we need to be able to see instantly who belongs to our pack and who doesn't. racism isn't about seeing differences which are actually there. racism is about allowing ourselves to make those thousands of little signals of difference mean that someone else is of lesser value than we are. in america racism is about failing to make our "pack" big enough to encompass smaller differences.

racism still hasn't been rooted out of this country because most white americans prefer to believe the simplistic view that segregation was about excluding people on the basis of the color of their skin. naturally, when put that way, racism sounds absurd, simple-minded, and easy to overcome. racism is much, much more complex than that and has to do with real differences in culture and values as well as falsely perceived differences in biology and culture.

if you think that it's only about skin color, then it's easy to blame african americans for not stepping up to the plate, now that we've all gotten over our silly insistence on light-skinnedness.

John Scalzi | October 25, 2005 05:34 PM

Oh, for God's sake, Claire. I was discussing the concept of racism with someone who is six years old. I happen to think my daughter is pretty precocious, but just as I haven't taught her algebra because I'm still teaching her basic math, I'm not going into discuss all the variables of what constitutes race without pointing out some of the fundamentals. Which brings us to this point:

"race is not about the color of your skin and never has been."

Uh-huh. Try making that argument at a 1950s lunch counter in Alabama and see how far you get, particularly when you have dark skin. Also, Martin Luther King didn't say that he dreamed of a day when his children were judged by the content of their character and not by the construction of identity based upon the shape of the features of your face and body. I figure MLK was good with words, and he used the words he did for a reason. You are free to gainsay MLK's rhetoric, of course, but, you know, I'm willing to let it stand unaltered.

It is correct to say that racism isn't just about the color of one's skin, and certainly not all racism is about skin color (ask the Jews). But here in the US, our particular brand of racism has quite a lot to do about skin color; the darker skin tones are a handy marker for the bigots as to whom to hitch to the back of their trucks.

claire | October 25, 2005 07:20 PM

my parents found a way to discuss race with me when i was younger than six without using skin color. but maybe that's because in my family it was already apparent that race had nothing to do with skin color.

children of "color", or children of minority races, have to apply a very complex understanding of race to their daily lives from the moment they are old enough to speak to others. to simplify ideas about race for a child who may not have to deal with being treated differently by adults of different races every day, is to create a difference in perception, already, at the age of six, which will accompany her into adulthood. by the time she's old enough to seek out answers for herself, the idea that race = color is already set, and creating cognitive dissonance with the idea that race has nothing to do with color.

for someone living just on the wrong side of the racial barrier, scalzi, the truth that race has nothing to do with skin color is so obvious that it hardly needs repeating. i really don't understand your contempt for this perspective, or for the perspective that "race = color" needs to be parsed out of existence. ask any of your other friends of color, before you continue to dismiss my perspective as offhandedly as you usually do.

"You are free to gainsay MLK's rhetoric, of course, but, you know, I'm willing to let it stand unaltered."

mlk's rhetoric has been gainsaid by every major ethnic activist in the united states at one time or another, both directly and indirectly. mlk was a great man and there's a lot of respect for him out there, but he is not the leading light on racial discourse anymore--at least, not among people who spend their time reading, thinking, talking about and acting on ideas of race and ethnicity. mlk died almost forty years ago. the world has moved on since.

"Try making that argument at a 1950s lunch counter in Alabama and see how far you get, particularly when you have dark skin."

i wouldn't have been given the chance to make any argument of the sort because no one at alabama lunch counters in the 50s was talking about how anyone was seated anywhere because of the "color of their skin". they were rather acting out a hostility that no one cared to articulate. plus, no one would have known where to seat me anyway.

speaking of mlk and lunch counters, have a look at this photograph. aside from dr. king, can you tell who, in this photo, is "black" and who is "white"? if you can, or can make a reasonable guess, then you'll have to agree with me, because the photo is black and white so no skin "color" shows, and photoshop will tell you, if your eyes don't, that the photo makes use of the exact same range of grayscale for each face, "black" or "white". race here is very apparent, completely in the absence of skin color.

i had thought that everyone knew this, but in case you didn't, the reason that african american activists in the seventies chose first "afro-american" and then "african american" as the racial signifier of choice, was to emphasize that an african american racial identity wasn't about the color that the terms "negro" or "black" seemed to indicate. it was about ethnic, i.e. cultural, difference indicated by a combination of physical features and cultural markers.

"Martin Luther King didn't say that he dreamed of a day when his children were judged by the content of their character and not by the construction of identity based upon the shape of the features of your face and body"

he didn't say it, but you did -- and still can, to your daughter, to your readers, just like that.

John Scalzi | October 25, 2005 08:32 PM

Well, Claire, as we apparently differ on the practical importance of skin tone as it regards American racism, each, no doubt, based on our personal experience with it (and the experiences of our family and friends), we'll have to agree to disagree philosophically on this matter, and leave it at that.

Also, and I want to be absolutely clear on this, when I want your opinion on what and how to teach my daughter, about any topic, I'll be sure to ask you. Until then, I suggest you don't offer an opinion.

John Scalzi | October 25, 2005 09:05 PM

Also -- and entirely unrelated -- Claire, send me that URL of your friend's blog on the 4th Crusade again, please. I lost it.

will shetterly | October 25, 2005 10:18 PM

Claire, racism is not the only form of prejudice. "African American" is not a racial description. It's an ethnic one. To use some ancient terminology in an attempt to clarify this, "octoroon" is a racial description: seven parts "white" and one part "black." Someone with that "racial" heritage raised in a "white" household would be European American, but if raised in a "black" household, the person would be African American. Yes, the artificial notion of "race" complicates issues of ethnicity. That's why terms like "African American" exist, to try to clarify why someone who identifies as "black" or "white" is making a racial or an ethnic distinction.

will shetterly | October 25, 2005 10:22 PM

Uh, that should be "whether," not "why," in my last sentence. Typing too quickly!

Mary | October 25, 2005 10:52 PM

We've come a long way since that fateful day Rosa refused to give up her seat.

Unfortunately, we have a long way yet to go.

Wan Zafran | October 26, 2005 02:35 AM

You showed great effort in explaining to your child. Awesome, John! A touching piece of writing too.

I'm from Malaysia, a multi-cultural, multi-racial country. While double standards never existed for us as they did in the early days of the US, we had our arguments.

But we were also a colonized state, and the English were quick to settle any differences that we had amongst the races. (And also foster some, which were crucial for the importances that they had in our country.)

But ever since our country gained her independence, us being in any race hasn't mattered much. Sure, the occasional inter-racial arguments happen and negative feelings based on race still exist, but looking at it from a realistic perspective, those kind of sentiments are subsistent, and they will always exist, anywhere. It's part of what makes us human.

Anyway, Malaysia is a beautiful country now, and a suitably delectable blend of Asian culture; Malay, Chinese and Indian. (These races being the major races of Malaysia.)

Inter-racial marriages, community efforts and celebrations are ever-common.

What I mean to say is that we have to learn to see the person beneath the skin. And we must pass on those values to our children too.

Robert | October 26, 2005 09:00 AM

In our house race has never been an issue. We are just family. Here are some of Athena's cousins.

[J. Scalzi says -- for those of you who don't know, this is my brother.]

katie | October 26, 2005 09:15 AM

I've got to tell you John, if you keep writing like that I'm not going to be able to read you at work. People will look at me funny if I have tears rolling down my cheeks when I should be looking over spreadsheets.

Andrew Wade | October 26, 2005 01:20 PM

racism still hasn't been rooted out of this country because most white americans prefer to believe the simplistic view that segregation was about excluding people on the basis of the color of their skin. naturally, when put that way, racism sounds absurd, simple-minded, and easy to overcome.

Yes it does. But I think the race=skin simplification is an aspect of that simplistic view, but not the cause. The reason, I think, that many White Americans have such a simplistic view of racism is, ironically, because "being racist" is no longer socially acceptable. It's a lot easier not being racist when racism is some bizarre ideology that hardly anyone believes anymore, than when it is an natural emotional reaction influenced and directed by socialization. On this side of the racial barrier racism can be almost invisible. Some of that is that we don't have our faces rubbed in it, some of that is that things are somewhat better in Canada than in the States, but I suspect much of it is that White Americans don't know what racism is and don't recognize it when they see it. Explicitly racist ideologies are (thankfully) in decline, but prejudice is very much alive. And it is still socially acceptible to express racial generalizations.

I have spoken with quite a number of explicitly racist people on online message boards, and many of them do descripe a feeling of us-ness (kin, affinity, etc.) with Whites, and definitely not with the other "races". This they describe as a natural reaction. They claim that most Whites share this reaction, but are cowed into not speaking up or brainwashed (into "multiculturalism") by Jews. I suspect that the reaction to a much milder extent (these were not nice people) is in fact quite common. And conveniently for anyone who didn't want to be like them, they also had fairly laughable intellectual cover for their position.

claire | October 26, 2005 02:45 PM

scalzi: yes, let's agree to disagree, since we do anyway. as far as not telling you how to teach your child -- i didn't, nor would i ever do so. i only commented on what YOU blogged about teaching your child. and if you really don't want any public comments on what you teach your child about race, then either don't blog about it, or shut down the comments section when you do blog about it.

andrew: excellent point. simplistic race = color views are the symptom, not the disease. understanding race is a very complicated matter and most people don't want to deal with it. so when someone offers a simplistic view, they grab it and hang on for dear life. even a couple of months ago when all of those horrible pictures of predominantly african americans trapped in the superdome were everywhere on the internet, and when parallel photos of white "foragers" and black "looters" became a meme, and when false reports of rape and murder among the (black) refugees were rampant, even then most of america found itself incapable of abandoning race = color.

i had been hoping, along with thousands of other bloggers, that this would finally reopen the public debate on the continuation of racism. but after reiterating the opinion that the race debate would reopen a few times, the media completely dropped the ball. back to business as usual. race = color. rosa parks' achievement wasn't her 30-odd years working with the naacp or her decade and a half working as a congressional aide, but the fact that she sat down on a bus one day, and race = color. the civil rights movement is over, is history, and race = color. new orleans has been cleansed of african americans through tragedy and not deliberate government policy. and race = color.

John Scalzi | October 26, 2005 03:32 PM


"if you really don't want any public comments on what you teach your child about race, then either don't blog about it, or shut down the comments section when you do blog about it."

Nah. I was a little testy last night due to an unrelated event. Judge comments from last night accordingly.

claire | October 26, 2005 10:18 PM

naw, the testiness is part of the charm. and you know i can give as good a i get ;)

John Scalzi | October 26, 2005 10:28 PM

In other news, I am alleged to have charm!

mythago | October 27, 2005 12:48 AM

Mine haven't gotten past the puzzlement stage. It's heartening, if frustrating. They stare at me like I've just said that in the old days, people used to put foam cylinders on their heads and dance backwards around the bonfire.

I can't wait to explain anti-Semitism to them.

Primate | October 27, 2005 08:06 AM

Since race is a social construct, rather than something rooted in biology, I must say I'm puzzled by the argument between you two (John and Claire). Both of your constructions were/are widely understood to be the nature of racism both inside and outside racist communities. A widely held belief in one does not preclude a widely held belief in the other, at least on the level of community. With a preteen, I'd probably go with John's explanation because it's simpler and fairly valid for U.S. type racism. Claire's argued construction is more useful for examining the detail humanity will put into being stupid, which is clearly the province of high school examination and up.

John Scalzi | October 27, 2005 08:47 AM

Claire and I aren't disagreeing about the general nature of what racism is, just on the relative perceptual importance of one detail of it (and also how to introduce the subject to someone heretofore happily oblivious to it).

claire | October 27, 2005 02:17 PM

yes. saying that race is about skin color is a rhetorical device. skin color is just one of the many things that marks race, and it's used because frankly, it's the most visible and obvious thing, therefore the most easily understood. so using "skin color" as the rhetorical stand-in for "race" is easy. it's almost metaphorical when used this way. it almost doesn't literally mean what it says.

the problem comes when people take the rhetorical device literally, and start thinking that race is *only* about the color of the skin. there are so many people considered black or african american who are lighter skinned than many whites (including malcolm x) that the literalness of "skin color" as the primary race marker is meaningless.

people try to slide out from under the difficult burden of understanding race all the time. understanding "skin color" literally is just another way of avoiding the difficulties of the topic.

Primate | October 28, 2005 09:10 AM

Okay, those reponses both made me reread your thoughts on the subject and clearified what the argument was about. Thank you.

Claire, I remain unclear on why holding a simple idea of what racists believe is allowing the perpetuation of some racist behaviors to continue. I believe most of them are shaped by historical prejudices being taught to the young while they're still developing the sets of "us versus them" that all humans create as a socialization skill. I don't see how a non-racist's too simple understanding of racism is a significant factor in failing to stop racists from passing on their beliefs to their kids.

idiot | November 30, 2005 02:03 PM

i am an idiot and i am lead by richard simmons

jasmine griffin | December 30, 2005 01:37 PM

for real i want to know about your adulthood. could you tell me about it?

Anonymous | February 27, 2006 06:29 PM


shaniqua sykes | May 3, 2006 05:28 PM

you will always be remembered and never forgoten we will miss you

Anonymous | January 29, 2007 02:17 PM


Anonymous | March 19, 2007 05:04 PM

thank you Rosa Park for making a diffrence

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