Wednesday, January 04, 2006

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

Tatum, Dr. Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity. Basic Books, 1997.

This book was recommended to me by an African American Studies professor at my college when I wrote to him with some questions about affirmative action. While the book does have some good, basic information about affirmative action, that is not its primary subject matter. Instead, its focus is on racial identity formation within the context of a racist society. In the opening section, Dr. Tatum does an excellent job of describing the linkages and distinctions between individual prejudice and institutional/societal racism--a distinction I too often find missing in my conversations with people who have not done a lot of thinking about race. Tatum borrows a definition of racism (“a system of advantage based on race”), then expounds upon that definition to explain how people learn about their own racial identity, as well as the racial identity of others, through messages they receive during childhood. Especially in a segregated society where direct relationships across racial lines are rare, these messages are profoundly important in shaping our understanding of race. Her examples provide the reader with many opportunities to reflect upon the variety of ways in which our society provides us with information about race--such as pop culture, our education systems, and our family and peer groups.

As an educator, therapist, and an anti-racism trainer, Dr. Tatum is well-practiced at illustrating her points in clear, easy-to-understand language. She uses the analogy of breathing in pollution-filled air to illustrate our inculcation with racially prejudicial ideas, for instance, and the analogy of “moving sidewalks” (like those found in airports) to differentiate between active, passive, and anti-racists. She also discusses education across racial lines in-depth, and addresses tough questions about minority underperformance in schools, the effects of de-segregation on the education of African-Americans, bilingual education, and the ways in which racism is embedded in education systems. Throughout the book, she cites academic research as well as personal experiences gained during her lengthy tenure as an educator in this field.

Though the book focused primarily on Black-White relations, I appreciated Dr. Tatum’s awareness of the other isms pervading our society (e.g., sexism, heterosexism, classism) and her underlying assault on the “meritocracy” that pervades U.S. society. [For a more complete discussion of meritocracy, I recommend Michael Lerner’s Surplus Powerlessness.] She also does a good job acknowledging and at least introducing the complexities of multi-racial families/individuals, and the diverse histories that people of color have experienced in U.S. society, even though these experiences are not her primary focus or area of expertise.

My only real complaint about the book was Dr. Tatum’s lack of concrete steps readers can take to fight racism in their own lives and societally. In my experience, this uncertainty seems to be a significant stumbling block even for people who recognize the pervasiveness of racism in our society. In fact, recognizing what a big problem racism is can feel overwhelming if that recognition is not coupled with suggestions for action. Dr. Tatum’s most significant suggestion for action seems to be: more homework, and perhaps this suggestion is appropriate for people newly beginning their exploration of race. Her bibliography and resource guide offer a significant library for those interested in becoming more proactive in fighting racism, and a number of the books that she recommends do appear to be quite pragmatic and hands-on.

I recommend this book for anyone who is at the beginning stages of exploring race and its importance in our society. I also recommend it for more advanced anti-racists who are looking to deepen their toolbox and further incorporate anti-racism and multiculturalism into their activism and pedagogy.


Paramendra Bhagat said...

I think the most important, basic thing about race is that it has to be talked about, that is what. The conversation itself is progress. Not entirely enough, but a necessary starting point. So I am glad you are talking about it, white guy!


Paramendra Bhagat said...