By way of quick introduction, the author Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, is a psychologist as well as an educator. She originally wrote the book in answer to questions about race she would often receive, in particular the one in the title, from well-meaning White teachers who were concerned and perplexed upon seeing black kids sitting together in the cafeteria and not mingling.
The book draws on a variety of research studies while avoiding abstract theory, focusing instead on concrete examples. This makes the book very accessible without skimping on credibility. The version I read is the recently updated 20th anniversary edition. The first version is already a classic in the field.
I'm sure everyone who reads it will have their own a-ha! moment. I personally had several. Yet there was one that really stood out. It was the realisation that my fundamental assumption about racism was inadequate. Like many other people apparently, I equated racism with a kind of prejudice towards people of other races. Being a good citizen, this understanding of racism meant I could check my attitude and behaviour and feel confident that, yes, I am not being racist in my daily life.
However that is a fairly superficial definition of racism that does not get at the heart of the problem. To put this in perspective, my understanding of how racism developed has forever been changed by a recent trip to Washington DC during which I visited the African-American Museum. It tells the story of the global slave trade during the colonial era, the immense suffering of the slaves who were sold and bough as chattel, and their resistance and perseverance over centuries to find a better way and a better life. In one single afternoon I learned more about slavery and its consequences than I'd ever known before.
As a UK citizen born in South Africa I also had occasion to ponder how slavery and racism have manifested in different ways on three different continents, but that is a whole analysis unto itself. For present purposes, suffice it to say that a historical perspective, of slavery and its consequences in particular, is essential to understanding what racism is. Those consequences are an ideology of White privilege that have been ingrained in culture and set in laws over centuries.
What that means is that racism is structural in nature, and that existing societal structures are racist inasmuch as they favour White people over Black people (and other races). This is the crux of the matter, and that is why the idea of racism as a prejudice is of limited use. To dismantle racism we can't only check our attitude and biases, we have to go much, much further.
Tatum quotes David Wellman, who defines racism in this sense as a "system of advantage based on race" (p. 87). Another definition of racism often used is that of "prejudice plus power", which explains how the structural inequality comes into being and has been enforced:
"Racial prejudice combined with social power - access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision-making - leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices" - p. 87
However this definition, Tatum concludes, has one drawback that on a practical level many White people feel that they do not have the 'power' that is being alluded to. She therefore prefers Wellman's definition. Nevertheless, I would add that this definition does indeed describe how racism was *initially* instantiated. It is now maintained simply through the ongoing maintenance of the status quo that was perviously established by those with social power. Only when the status quo is challenged can this historical reality be uncovered and seen for what it is, namely the construction of racism.
The second big idea I encountered was that of intersectionality. This is a term that has had a fair amount of coverage in the popular media, but I never really looked at it closely. In practical terms a person's identity may form along several axes of distinctiveness, or otherness, of which Tatum highlights seven: race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability (p. 103). Following another book I'm currently reading (Neurotribes by David Silverman) I would probably expect neurodiversity to eventually join this list.
The point is that each of these categories of otherness has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression / anti-semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism (p. 103).
As an example of intersectionality, one's identity might form along the following manifested centres of experience: black, female, Christian, lesbian, working class, middle aged, and healthy. Any part of the identity not in the dominant or normal side of the category means that the individual will experience oppression or discrimination in some way or form.
When it comes to race, White is the dominant and normal race. As a result it is not uncommon for a White person to not really self-identify in terms of race. Tatum quotes Debby Irving in her memoir Waking up White:
"The way I understood it, race was for other people, brown and black-skinned people. Don't get me wrong - if you put a census form in my hand I would know to check 'white' or 'Caucasian'. It's more that I thought all those other categories, like Asian, African American, American Indian, and Latino, were the real races. I thought white was the raceless race- just plain, normal, the one against which all others are measured" - p. 186
However there is "a hidden cost of racism for Whites" (p. 187), namely the experience of psychological discomfort whenever racism is brought up - guilt, shame, frustration, even anger. The absence of a racial identity in the case of Whites, Tatum contends, is the root cause of this discomfort. She notes that a common reaction for the White person, once they become aware of racism and their own role in it as a White person, is to conclude that they need to have more interactions with Black people or make friends with Black people.
She explains that a more fruitful approach is to develop a positive White identity first of all. This point was another big a-ha! moment for me, because I have experienced that psychological discomfort myself. Combined with the perception of racism as a form of prejudice, silence often seems like the safest route in the face of uncertainty - and yet of course it does not change anything. But with a positive racial identity there would be a foundation to work from and things can begin to fall into place.
While acknowledging that there is no set recipe, Tatum offers practical advice to encourage White intragroup conversations and help develop such a positive White identity:
- find other Whites who have already progressed along the way and can show you what to do
- read autobiographies and biographies by White anti-racist activists, like "A Season of Justice" by Morris Dees, or "White Like Me" by Tim Wise
- participate in White anti-racism consciousness raising groups (eg. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ))
She provides perspective on the need for all-White support groups and the function they fulfill:
"Particularly when Whites are trying to work through their feelings of guilt and shame, separate groups give White people the 'space to speak with honesty and candor rarely possible in racially mixed groups'. Even when Whites feel comfortable sharing these feelings with people of color, frankly, people of color don't necessarily want to hear about it" - p.205
The onus is on the White individual to do the work and develop his or her White racial identity, making it into something positive.
The question of identity is also central on the side of Black people to gain insight into the question in the title: why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? During pre-adolescence, race isn't viewed in the same way by kids because their identity has not been fully formed yet. But during adolescence new social factors come into play (who is dating who, who is friends with who, what is my future?, etc.) become increasingly important. Black kids are then often drawn together by their shared experiences of being institutionally othered and oppressed by the rest of society. In other words, by the sort of structural racism that does not affect the dominant White group much.
"In the prepuberty stage, the personal and social significance of one's REC[racial-ethnic-cultural]-group membership has not yet been realized, and REC identity is not yet under examination [...] During adolescence their understanding evolves to include not just more about themselves but also more about their group, including an 'understanding of a common fate or shared destiny based on ethnic or racial group membership and that these shared experiences differ from the experiences of individuals from other groups" - p. 135
In the face of such experiences, being part of a larger group of people who understand one's situation and experiences is a benefit. Therefore the concerns of those White teachers who asked why they are sitting together are valid, but misplaced. The root of the problem should be sought in the institution of racism, and how to dismantle it, and not directly in the behaviour and thoughts of those being othered and oppressed.
This brings us to another important point, namely what those of us who are on the privileged side of the equation can do about it. The book points out on more than one occasion that those who are oppressed do not want us to speak for them because they have their own voices. So what is it that we can do? Plenty, as it turns out. For starters, by starting in our own sphere of influence and pointing out when someone has made a racist comment or joke can change awareness.
One of my favourite examples is actually in the context of sexism, but it could as easily have applied to racism. It happens when Andy Murray corrects a journalist for referring to Sam Querrey as "the first US player since 2009 to reach a major semi-final since 2009". Of course, Serena Williams (and other US women tennis players) have been winning plenty since 2009. The counter-argument that the context was implicitly "men's tennis" is almost the point, because the same can be said about all institutional racism and sexism: the existing context, or status quo, can only be exposed by drawing attention to it.
As White people we have more social power than we often realise, and even simple interventions, like the way Andy Murray used his influence in the media, can make a powerful statement.
There is tons more excellent material in the book, and I've glossed over much at the expense of nuance. Three more worth mentioning in passing include the need for affirmative action and for goal setting in affirmative action programs; the challenges of aversive racism; and how to counter the influence of bias in decision-making.
Rather than go into all of them, I want to highlight one last point that really stuck out for me. In the final section of the book Tatum discusses racism and the experience of racism in the context of other ethnic and racial groups in the US, including Native Americans, Asians, Latinx, and others.
In the case of Native Americans - a catchall name for many different communities - researchers like Paul Ongtooguk have noticed that such communities have been reduced to static stereotypes in the public mind. Even when their traditions have been preserved it is usually presented in terms of how things used to be once upon a time. In other words, it gives them no sense of their current existence, nor of their future.
While the traditional arts and crafts were worthy of study, the curriculum embodied a "museum" perspective whereby the traditional life of Alaska Natives was studied "as an interesting curiousity commemorating the past." Ongtooguk explained, "The most disturbing picture of Inupiaq culture, then, was of its static nature - something that had happened 'back then' rather than something that was happening now. Did this mean that the people living in the region now were like a cast of actors who had run out of lines?" - p. 267
Ongtooguk focuses on creating study materials that allow American Native students to see themselves in the future. This future oriented imagination is an important part of the continuity of community identity, and therefore of their cultural survival as a distinct group, and almost certainly of their capability to thrive again in the future.
It is worth summarising these insights once more:
1. Racism is institutionalised and structural, not just a question of conscious prejudice
2. White people should develop a positive White racial identity that does not deny the reality and history of racism, but acknowledges, addresses, and helps to dismantle it
3. Personal identity formation is a complex process influenced by highly individual combinations of intersectionality
4. The survival and prosperity of a community lies not only in preserving its past, but also in connecting to its present and actively imagining its future
This has without doubt been an eye opener to me. From a practical point of view, and from my personal perspective as a middle class White male, the second point is a clear call to action.