Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD

Race can be a difficult topic to discuss, fraught with landmines that well-intentioned people can stumble onto unwittingly.  Dr. Tatum bravely dives right in and, using personal experience in addition to her professional research and perspective, provides a valuable framework towards better understanding others and more effectively broaching these sensitive discussions.

The title of this book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" initially caught my eye, probably because I identified with the question.  The students in my high school in Williamsburg, Virginia, were about half black, half white, and, yes, when you walked into the cafeteria, there was a pretty distinct delineation with most of the black kids sitting on one side of the room and most of the white kids sitting on the other.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a military family, so we moved every few years during my childhood.  My dad was stationed in places from coast to coast including Orlando, Florida; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the Pentagon; and Newport News, Virginia.  As a child, I got to see a lot of the country, and I was exposed to a variety of people of many races, ethnicities, backgrounds.  My parents made a concerted effort to introduce us to other cultures and to help us recognize that there were many valid walks of life.  But I still noticed the natural tendency toward homogeneous groups than sometimes made it difficult to really get to know others who were different from me.  As Dr. Tatum points out, "There is still a great deal of social segregation in our communities. Consequently, most of the early information we receive about 'others'--people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically different from ourselves--does not come as the result of firsthand experience.  The secondhand information we do receive has often been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete."

One point Dr. Tatum makes right at the beginning of her book is her differentiation between prejudice and racism.  "We all have prejudices," she explains, "not because we want them, but simply because we are so continually exposed to misinformation about others."  She continues, "Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society.  Cultural racism--the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color--is like smog in the air.  Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in."  Quoting David Wellman, Dr. Tatum explains that racism is defined as a "system of advantage based on race."  "This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals."  This distinction may not seem like a big deal, but it addresses the difference between an individual's thoughts and beliefs and the structural issues in society that systematically disadvantage certain segments of the population, regardless of the opinions of the individuals involved.

Coming to terms with racial issues is a continual process.  Dr. Tatum describes the process as it often happens for an individual starting in childhood and working through stages throughout his or her life. Specifically talking about how children process racial differences, Dr. Tatum relayed a conversation she had with her own four-year-old son that illustrated the importance of explicitly addressing racism and problematic messages that are sent by media or society with our children.  Prompted by his question, "Am I Black?" Dr. Tatum held an ongoing dialogue with her son.  It started with an explanation of what "Black" means and how it doesn't accurately describe skin color any more than "White" does, then moved onto what "African American" means and how his ancestors were from Africa.  Then he asked, "If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?"  That question led to a short discussion about how and why slavery occurred, in which Dr. Tatum outlined three messages she wanted to get across to her young son.  "(1) I didn't want to frighten this four-year-old who might worry that these things would happen to him... (2) I wanted him to know that his African ancestors were not just passive victims, but had found ways to resist their victimization. (3) I did not want him to think that all White people were bad."  She advocates starting the conversation at a young age, in an age-appropriate and balanced way.  "While I think it is necessary to be honest about the racism of our past and present, it is also necessary to empower children (and adults) with the vision that change is possible."  She suggests, for example, children's books about Harriet Tubman and Peg Leg Joe, both workers on the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Tatum also extended her thoughts on racism to include many other "-isms" as well, and I was startled at how many parallels I found between racism and sexism, for example, while I was reading.  "Clearly racism and racial identity are at the center of discussion in this book, but as Audre Lorde said, from her vantage point as a Black lesbian, 'There is no hierarchy of oppression.'  The thread and threat of violence runs through all of the isms.  There is a need to acknowledge each other's pain, even as we attend to our own...The task of resisting our own oppression does not relieve us of the responsibility of acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of others.'"  This can take some deep, honest, and painful introspection to recognize.

After starting to read The Boxcar Children with her son, Dr. Tatum mentioned "how sexist they seemed to be.  The two girls seemed to spend most of their time on these adventures cooking and cleaning and setting up house while the boys fished, paddled the canoe, and made the important discoveries."  (I had a similar experience when I began reading some old Happy Hollisters books to my boys.  I remember enjoying them when I was little, and they are easy, clean mystery-adventures for the early reader set, but the 1950s sexism that pervades them just kills me to read today.)  At this point, she had a conversation with her then-seven-year-old son about sexism.  Her son wanted to continue reading the book, so they did, but with this new perspective he began to notice the gender bias himself.  "'Hey Mom,' he interrupted me as I read on, 'there's that stuff again!'"  "Learning to spot 'that stuff'--whether it is racist, or sexist, or classist--is an important skill for children to develop.  It is as important for my Black male children to recognize sexism and other forms of oppression as it is for them to spot racism.  We are better able to resist the negative impact of oppressive messages when we see them coming than when they are invisible to us.  While some may think it is a burden to children to encourage this critical consciousness, I consider it a gift.  Educator Janie Ward calls this child-rearing process 'raising resisters.'" (emphasis mine)

Another interesting aspect raised that I hadn't given much thought to is the idea of group identity, both it's harmful and helpful effects.  "People of color learn early in life that they are seen by others as members of a group.  For White, thinking of oneself only as an individual is a legacy of White privilege...The view of oneself as an individual is very compatible with the dominant ideology of rugged individualism and the American myth of meritocracy."  While this grouping, when it takes place externally, can feel oppressive and "otherizing," when the grouping is done as a conscious choice by the individual, it can be supportive and affirming.  "As one's awareness of the daily challenges of living in a racist society increase, it is immensely helpful to be able to share one's experiences with others who have lived it...the ability to see oneself as part of a larger group from which one can draw support is an important coping strategy."

Dr. Tatum advocates for conversation, for education, for action.  She says, "We need to continually break the silence about racism whenever we can.  We need to talk about it at home, at school, in our houses of worship, in our workplaces, in our community groups.  But talk does not mean idle chatter.  It means meaningful, productive dialogue to raise consciousness and lead to effective action and social change." Because it's an uphill battle, we each must take on the responsibility of educating ourselves and filling in the gaps in our knowledge and skills.  "Educating ourselves and others is an essential step in the process of change.  Few of us have been taught to think critically about issues of social justice.  We have been taught not to notice or to accept our present situation as a given, 'the way it is.'  But we can learn the history we were not taught, we can watch the documentaries we never saw in school, and we can read about the lives of change agents, past and present.  We can discover another way.  We are surrounded by a 'cloud of witnesses' who will give us courage if we let them."

In light of the difficulties of challenging racism, and any other "-ism," it's easy to get discouraged.  Dr. Tatum acknowledges this:  "The antidote [to feeling overwhelmed and powerless] I have found is to focus on my own sphere of influence.  I can't fix everything, but some things are within my control."  It's also important to find other people to buoy us up and help us stay focused on the value of our goals.   "How can we sustain ourselves for the long haul?  One thing I have learned is that we need a community of support.  We all need community to give us energy, to strengthen our voices, to offer constructive criticism when we stray off course."  Even having just one other person with whom we can process our thoughts and work through our frustrations can be life-saving.

While it's tempting to dismiss charges of racism as something that's relegated to the past, Dr. Tatum asserts that that kind of blissfully ignorant, wishful thinking doesn't solve the problem and only perpetuates the pain of those currently experiencing its ill effect, which is all of us.  "As a society, we pay a price for our silence.  Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society.  Individually, racism stifles our own growth and development.  It clouds our vision and distorts our perceptions.  It alienates us not only from others but also from ourselves and our own experiences."

Naturally, we're not to blame for the society into which we've been born, and many terrible events happened long before anyone alive today could influence them, but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands in despair and give up on change.  Nor does it mean that change isn't needed or that it's not our job to work toward needed change.  Dr. Tatum simply states, "It is not our fault, but it is our responsibility to interrupt this cycle."

"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations About Race
by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
ISBN: 9780465091270
Buy it on Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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