Do Conversations About Race Belong in the Classroom?
Two decades ago, Beverly Daniel Tatum published a bestselling book on the psychology of racism. Now, with the release of the book’s second edition, she reflects on its relevance to schools today.
In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the psychology of racism, answered a recurring question that surfaced in her work with teachers, administrators, and parent groups: Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? The result was a critically acclaimed book of the same name that gave readers—numbering in the hundreds of thousands—a starting point to demystify conversations about race, better understand the concept of racial identity, and communicate across racial and ethnic divides.
Now two decades later, the black kids are still sitting together. And Tatum has returned with a revised and updated 20th-anniversary edition of her national bestseller that publishes today. One aspect that has changed dramatically since the original release of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race are America’s demographics. Latinos and Asian Americans are the largest and fastest-growing populations of color, respectively, with children of color for the first time outnumbering white children in public schools. Additionally, the backlash against the election of the first black president, the continuing segregation of schools, and highly visible incidents of police violence seem to belie the claim of a "post-racial society”—making Tatum’s perspectives on effective dialogue about race and racism especially relevant.
Tatum recently shared some thoughts with The Atlantic on why conversations about race remain vexing and what can happen when educators and parents avoid those conversations. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Melinda D. Anderson: Has your perspective changed on anything you wrote in the original edition of your book?
Beverly Daniel Tatum: In 1997 my goal in writing my book was to help others move beyond fear, anger, and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it. … I still have that goal, but in 1997 we were a nation at peace and the economy was expanding. Today we are a nation at war, suffering from economic anxiety and the combination of “post-racial” rhetoric, simmering racial resentments, and an increasing 140-character culture of communication that has made productive conversation more difficult to have.
That said, it is still the case that in a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity that develops in predictable ways, shaped largely by the interactions we have with others. I still believe that an understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference.
Anderson: In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia—where members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marched through the city last month—many educators are grappling with how to help students understand and contextualize America’s history of racism and current racial divides. What would you say to teachers and administrators struggling in this area?
Tatum: I like to begin my conversations with educators by talking about why it's so hard for people to talk about race. I often ask them to think about their own earliest race-related memories, and without exception what I find is that many people have [these] memories—and if you ask how old they were, they’ll often tell you 5, 6, 7 years old. Then I usually ask what emotion is associated with that memory. And they’ll mention things like embarrassment, fear, anger, sadness, shame, [and] sometimes confusion. Most often it's some uncomfortable feeling.
[Finally] I ask: When that experience happened, did you speak about it to anyone? Did you talk to a parent, or a teacher, a caring adult about this experience? And almost always, the majority of the people in the audience will say they did not. There's often just this understanding that you're not supposed to talk about it. And I start there simply to say ... now you’re 35 or whatever age, and you've had a lot of lifetime experiences that have told you, don’t talk about this.
You can’t solve a problem without talking about it. And certainly if we think about educational environments and experiences, it is in the classroom where you can create the space for a conversation about the meaning of the Confederate flag and [discuss] those statues [and] when they were put up. There are resources that teachers can use—provided by organizations like Facing History and Ourselves—to inform themselves, and then bring that information into classrooms in an age-appropriate way. [Also,] if I were in a classroom talking about what happened [in Charlottesville] I’d want to lift up not only the horrific things that we all know about, but also the solidarity of the people who came out the next day to remember the memory of Heather Heyer [a 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting the white-supremacist rally]. I think that it’s important ... in these conversations, to always leave space for hope.
Anderson: You delve deeply into the racial-identity development process for black youth—from their early years through adulthood. One anecdote brings the specific role of black teachers to the forefront. Can you tell me about the role black educators—who make up just 7 percent of the public-school teaching force—play in black children’s lives?
Tatum: I often use this analogy: If you and I were in a room together with lots of other people and somebody took a photograph of us, and I handed you that photograph at the end of our time together, and you took a look at it, what would be the first thing you would do? You’re going to look for yourself in the picture.
If you think about classrooms or workspaces or conferences, wherever we are, we go into these spaces and we look for ourselves. You want to see yourself represented. In that sense, when young people walk into a classroom, they want to see someone who they identify with, maybe because they’re the same race. It doesn't always have to be racial identification. [A student] can identify with a teacher because she likes music [or] identify with [educators] because they are into sports. But to the extent that kids of color walk into classrooms and rarely see someone who looks like themselves in that environment, that’s a missing link.
Anderson: Your writing on the development of white identity was a revelatory look into the current cultural and social dynamics in the United States. Please talk about the process of redefining whiteness from “just normal” to a more nuanced conception of what it means to be white.
Tatum: If ... you live in a neighborhood where everybody or most people are white, you grew up in a family where all the members are white, and you go to a school and most people are white, [chances are] you [see your white identity as] the norm. And you probably don’t think much about it—that’s not the part of your identity that you're focused on. But when you enter into a space, a classroom or a workplace, where you are now in a racially mixed environment, and there's conversation about issues of race in particular, you may start to have a greater awareness. You start to learn what whiteness means, in some ways, because you start to see what racial-group membership means for other people. Or maybe [that awareness comes through] ... reading a book, or taking a class.
However that awareness starts to happen, what I’ve found is that [white] people start to realize that they’ve had some advantages. ... They’ve had some benefits as a result of being white that they’d never really paid attention to, but have taken for granted, or not even noticed. And when they start to notice or when they learn the history, it’s upsetting ... There are often feelings of guilt. It’s usually at that point where it can be really helpful [to join] an organization like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which helps white people support each other in their growth and learning around how to become anti-racist.
[Figuring out how to turn that guilt into action] is a learning process, and it’s not as linear as I’m describing. It often requires re-educating oneself or learning things that you never learned in school, simply because it wasn’t [taught]. Talking to people you don’t usually talk to. It’s not like it happens instantly.
Anderson: Interestingly, you expand on the conversation—shifting beyond black and white—to interrupt the frequent resistance to talking about racism in non-black communities of color. What are some of the complexities surrounding identity development for students who belong to those communities?
Tatum: Well, I think the basic principle goes back to that picture analogy. If we want to affirm the identities of our students, the first thing we have to think about is: Do they see themselves represented? One of the points I talk about is that the representation of Native Americans is always in the past. There’s a Native educator I quote who says Native youth, who have a very high suicide rate, need to see themselves as having a future, not just a past. It’s thinking about how students will find themselves in the curriculum, not just who’s teaching, but [also] how are they being talked about? If you’re Native American, do you see yourself represented at all except perhaps as the mascot of the football team?
The common stereotype for Asians is that they’re academically successful, particularly in science and math. But what if you are a young Asian person who is interested in journalism? Are you able to express yourself fully or are you being categorized so narrowly that your options are being foreclosed? In the case of Latinos, language is important to identity. Familism [prioritizing family relationships] is an important cultural value; you want to preserve your language so you can speak to [your] grandmother. But if you’re in a school where you feel your language is perceived as a liability—not an asset—that has a direct impact on how you feel about being in school.
Regardless of your group membership, the questions of identity are at the heart of the adolescent experience. ... Each group has its own particular social context … but at the fundamental core of each young person's [identity development] is a desire for affirmation.
Anderson: You admit that you’re an optimist at heart, but for some the prevalence of racism in American society can seem all-consuming. What fuels your sense of confidence?
Tatum: Sometimes you have to work at feeling hopeful. Social progress tends to be two steps forward, one step back. I'm old enough to know that change is possible. I was born in September of 1954, several months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. ... If you think about the sense of urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, those young people who are out in the streets are asking: Why are we still having this conversation? Why are these things still happening? It’s a difficult moment, there’s no question. Charlottesville and the President's response have reminded us how difficult it is. But that said, there are a lot of people who want change.
And it’s only because I have seen that change is possible that I believe it is again possible. The dialogue is critical. That’s why I always put the word “conversations” in my book titles, because you can't move forward without talking to people. Talk isn’t something that comes easily [and] talk by itself isn’t sufficient; you want to have those conversations because you want to inspire action.