Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum

[Just as a side note, I read the original version, not the revised text. -Rob]

Despite the title, this book is less about dealing with racial issues in class than in the general idea of racial issues. Dr. Tatum structures her book to discuss why we often don't talk about race, the idea of racial identity for blacks and whites, and even a bit about why in an America where immigration is far more complex than it used to be, why this discussion can't solely happen in black and white terms.

The Chapter from which this book gets its name was part of a set of readings I needed to complete, and it intrigued me enough to want to read the entire text. As I've grown older, and especially now that I will be a white teacher primarily working with black students, I want to read all I can on the idea of racial identity.

This is a tricky subject. It's one that, as Tatum notes right away, no one wants to talk about. A young child who sees someone different from them is often told to be quiet, rather than engaged in the idea of difference among people. As a result, as these issues of difference grow over time, it's not something to be discussed. Instead, the child is given a steady diet of racial depictions that are often stereotypical at best and horribly racist at worst.

Once you get talking, as Tatum works to do in her classes on race, the answers can be troubling, both to hear and to express. The book is sprinkled with multiple comments from her past students, several of which might just make you fly into a rage or be stupefied by the ways in which people think about racial relations. I do wish she had shared a few more positive stories, however, as I can't believe there were nothing by bad journal entries.

This book works best when it's centering on the idea of forming racial identity. Her explanation of why after a certain age, children stop playing together in racial harmony and begin forming groups in the lunchroom and elsewhere makes perfect sense. As a child gets older, the messages of society tell them that's the thing to do. The idea of beauty, for instance, is completely race-based. It only makes sense (even if it's horrible in practice) for children to take in these messages and act accordingly. If they're told, in action if not in words, that they aren't supposed to be together, or are supposed to act out in class, or any number of other things, then that's just what they're going to do. That's sad, but true.

Having a popular culture where race-based stereotypes exist in everything from television (how often are African Americans depicted in a way that's not negative), to the news (how often are the stories in poor, minority neighborhoods a positive one?), to my own personal favorite genre, comics (white Hal Jordan, almost never makes a mistake, while black John Stewart has a long history of making mistakes or perceived errors, often tied to race). If there's no one out there to fight these depictions, then we're going to internalize them. It's a problem that Tatum brings to the forefront and makes the reader think about, whether they have before or not.

The central section of the book, where Dr. Tatum refers to the idea of whites and blacks facing their own racial identities, did have a complication for me that might say more about me than about the book. I was a bit distressed by her feelings that it is best for people to go over their feelings about race with people who are of the same race as they are. I got the impression that only after a person had finished being completely comfortable with their identity that they could and should move on to bridging the racial divide.

In an ideal world, that might work, but this is a very imperfect place. Leaving people in their comfort zones to explore their issues is not going to work. After all, if you're comfortable, are you going to tread the dangerous ground of possibly upsetting someone by pointing out that they made a racial remark? To me, down this road leads to a status quo for too much of the white population. It means the individual has to work too hard to change. I don't think people are going to do that. After all, with gated communities and the ability to voluntarily segregate if you have even just the smallest income flexibility, why try?

In my opinion, I think you have to interact well before the person is completely comfortable with the differences of race, mostly because I think the only way to change things long-term is to stress the similarities, not the differences. I agree that people need time to find out who they are, especially in a culture that downplays their importance, but if we're always looking at how we are different, how are we ever going to find a way to be together? As this country moves to majority minority status, that's going to be the key to keeping America together. I don't see a way for that to happen if we're all spending all our time waiting to be perfect.

I may be misreading Dr. Tatum's argument. This is a subject that is easy to have a personal opinion on, and I'm obviously coming at it from a different angle. But while I agree with her that it's hard to have a positive image of being black (or for that matter, latino/hispanic or even asian, since a stereotype is still a stereotype) and that whites take for granted a hell of a lot, I don't think the way to solve this problem is through navel gazing.

Dr. Tatum does spend a bit of time at the end making suggestions, such as writing a letter to the editor, getting a racial dialog together, or looking closely at race relations at work or in your school. I think those are all good ideas, and they can be hard. But they don't need to wait until you feel better about race to do them, and they don't need to be done in a racial block.

At the end of the day, I agree with this book more than I disagree with it. The biggest problem about race in America is that we aren't talking about it. If you've ever tried, it's hard. I know personally I often just opt to fall out of a situation rather than talk about it, when faced with racial remarks in person. I wish I'd been stronger at those times, but as Tatum notes, you pay a price for being the person who makes others examine their actions. What I did was better than agreeing with them, but it still pales compared to what I could have done.

A book like this one is good for people who are already pretty far along the racial recognition progression, to see how others view the same concepts. It's not going to reach anyone who wants to defend their racist views, but I don't think Tatum expects it to. I think it does a great job of showing how people form their racial ideas, but struggles when discussing how to move from exploration to action. It might be unfair of me to have hoped that it would, however. I definitely recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of racial identity and how that impacts on society. To answer Dr. Tatum's question of has she said anything helpful, the answer is definitely yes.

After all, her role is to start the discussion, either in a classroom or through this text. It's up to those of us who read the book to decide what to do next.

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