Our country’s racial divides have been in the news a lot this year. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum has written extensively about the topic, including in her book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.
Tatum is a psychologist and president emerita of Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. She’ll speak twice at Town Hall Seattle on Sunday, Dec. 3. Both events are sold out, but there will be a standby line if seats open up.
Tatum said self-sorting by race can be a natural process for kids of color when they reach adolescence. She told KNKX that it’s often a response to increased discrimination they face in society. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TATUM: For example, a young African-American boy, four or five years old, might be perceived by many people as cute, but that same child, when he’s 14, might be perceived by those same people as potentially dangerous. They’re responding to him differently and because of that social response, he’s starting to wonder, “Well, what does my race mean in the world when I’m moving through department stores, when I’m on the street and I see a police officer approaching?” So these are questions that start to emerge in adolescence and because of that, you start to seek out people whose experience is similar to yours.
KNKX: Is it a self-protective response?
TATUM: We often take comfort in being surrounded with people who really know and understand who we are and what we’re experiencing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What I often say when I’m in schools and teachers or principals ask the question of “How do we get kids to interact?” I often say, “Let’s pay less attention to who is sitting with whom at the lunch table and let’s look at what’s happening in the classroom.” What are we doing to bring kids together – are we giving them opportunities, for example, to work across lines of difference cooperatively? Are we paying attention to how we’re assigning children to groups? It’s not uncommon to walk into a racially mixed school and find that the honors classes are almost entirely white, while the other classes are much more diverse, sometimes entirely made up of black and brown kids and we have to ask questions about why that is.
KNKX: You devote part of your book to whiteness. You write that white people should develop a healthy sense of white identity. In a day and age when we have white supremacists marching, it’s a hard concept to wrap your head around.
TATUM: It is important to understand that it is possible – it is possible – to have a positive sense of your white identity without an assumed sense of superiority or perceiving other people as inferior. And part of learning how to engage effectively across lines of difference is learning how to be what I would call an ally, learning how to use the advantage that is built into the system in such a way to interrupt the cycle of racism in our society. There are ways that we can bring about change. And historically, if we look over our history, we know that there has been social change and that change has not just been driven by people of color. It has also been driven by white people who have said, “I want to live in a more equitable society.” And that is the work that we can do together.
KNKX: What do you think white people should do to have less homogeneous social networks?
TATUM: I want to lift up a couple of examples that are in the last section of my book. And one of the examples I mention is something that has actually taken place in the city where I live, the Atlanta Friendship Initiative. And this was an initiative launched by a white businessman who decided he wanted to expand his social network as a way of helping to break down racial barriers and he reached out to another businessman that he knew who happened to be someone African-American, invited that man to have lunch with him and over lunch, talked about how he wanted to create opportunities for people to cross these racial barriers that are sometimes part of our daily lives by initiating a friendship with that man and then inviting that man to help him bring other people together in pairs. And that is what they have done. And lo and behold, that’s working.
The main thing I would say, though, is that we all have to be willing, particularly if you’re in the advantaged position, being willing to risk some discomfort – maybe going to visit a black church that you have not attended before, putting yourself in meetings where you might find yourself in the minority as opposed to always being in the majority.
KNKX: White people might feel hesitant to just show up at a black church.
TATUM: That’s a very common feeling. I taught a class for many years earlier in my career called the Psychology of Racism and I taught at a majority white institution. I taught at Mt. Holyoke College. And I asked my students to go somewhere where they would find themselves in the minority, and so for many of them, the best choice was to visit a church in a neighboring city. And the students would often write essays about their experience and they often talked about how nervous they were. But always, without exception, they came back from that experience saying they were warmly greeted, they really enjoyed the service, so, yes, people are nervous, but I think it’s important for white people to think about how often they expect people of color to come into their spaces where they are in the minority and no one says, “Oh, you must be nervous about that.” They just say, “You must come.” So I think it’s important for white people to be willing to risk some discomfort knowing that they’ll learn something from the experience.