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Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

by Beverly Daniel Tatum Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D Profiles in Catholicism

A clinical psychologist and professor at Mount Holyoke College, Tatum (who is black) brings some worthwhile perspectives--developmental psychology and racial identity development theory--to issues of race. Thus, she observes that, when asked for self-definition, whites take their race for granted, while students of color do not. She notes that adults don't know how to respond when children make race-related observations, such as confusing dark skin with dirt.

Answering the book's title question, she explains that black students, in late adolescence and early adulthood, are first grappling with "what it means to be a group targeted by racism," and thus seek solidarity in an "oppositional identity." Such solidarity often remains necessary, even in corporate settings. She observes credibly in her chapter on affirmative action that the "less-qualified" person is usually seen as black, not a white woman, and suggests that whites are more likely to favor their own in cases when the minority applicant is equally qualified. However, she argues that only poorly implemented affirmative action programs promote the unqualified; her treatment of this issue is too pat, as is her treatment of affirmative action in academic admissions. Tatum recommends all-white support groups to work through feelings of guilt and shame regarding racism. She also calls for more dialogue about race; such dialogue, however, would likely have to include such touchy subjects as questions of race and crime to be fruitful. “This edition of the book is more than 100 pages longer than the original edition.

First of all, the author begins with an analysis of the U.S. social and political context of the last 20 years, addressing issues such as the impact of changing demographics, persistent school and neighborhood segregation, the affirmative action backlash, Great Recession of 2008, the election of Barack Obama and subsequent “postracial” narratives, the emergence of Black Lives Matter and campus activism, and the early days of the Trump presidency -- all in the context of contemporary race relations. Readers will find Tatum’s answer to the title question remains unchanged, but the psychological research supporting it has been completely updated to reflect the current state of the literature, as well as an expanded consideration of the critical issues in the identity development of Latinx, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Middle Eastern/North African, Muslim, and multiracial youth, in recognition of the demographic diversity of the U.S. in the 21st century. Because of persistent K-12 school segregation, colleges and universities are among the few places where people of different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds can engage with each other in more than just a superficial way. However, because of both lack of direct contact and repeated exposure to cultural stereotypes, while growing up, cross-group interactions can be uncomfortable.

Even genuine efforts at friendship and connection can be derailed by awkward interactions and unconscious bias. Ideally, the college years offer a unique opportunity to engage with people whose life experiences and viewpoints are different than one’s own and to develop the leadership capacity needed to function effectively in a diverse, increasingly global, world. However, whether college students develop that capacity will depend in large part on whether the institution they attend has provided structures for those learning experiences to take place. Intentionality matters. 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. An understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference. With that understanding, we are better able to do what the author calls the ABCs of leadership -- affirm identity, build community and cultivate the 21st-century leadership we all need to dismantle the racism that threatens our diverse society. Because many people are confused about the basic facts of affirmative action, Tatum thought it important to provide that information in her book and urges educators to familiarize themselves with it. She provides a brief overview of the history of affirmative action policies, going back to the introduction of the term in 1965, distinguishing between quotas (which are illegal) and measurable goals (which are necessary for evaluating progress). A recent national survey indicated that as many as 50 percent of whites believe that discrimination against whites has become a problem equivalent to that against people of color, despite the fact that national data show that whites as a group consistently fare better on all measures of social or economic well-being (i.e., access to housing, education, employment, health care). Helping readers understand the differences between commonly held perceptions and measurable realities is what Tatum has tried to do in the book, and what informed educators can do in the classroom.

There is no question that we are living in a difficult time, and recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere have been very disturbing. Tatum works at maintaining her optimism because she believes that in times of darkness, we all need to generate more light. The epilogue is titled “Signs of Hope, Sites of Progress,” because we all need to remember that each of us can exercise the kind of inclusive leadership we need to interrupt the cycle of racism. With the collective hard work and effort of many Tatum believes that positive social change is possible.” This is a book that will enlighten and inform the population and help all to serve their colleagues better.

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