Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Can We Talk about Race? an Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Can We Talk about Race? an Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum

Article excerpt

Twenty years after publishing Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? author and former Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum says Americans still need to talk about race if they want to bridge the divide between whites and people of color.

KAPPAN: One of the themes that runs through your work is very simply the encouragement to have conversations about race. Some of your early research focused on black children living in majority white neighborhoods and how their parents did or did not talk about race at home and how that influenced them. Tell me a bit about that.

Beverly Daniel tatum: My interest in racial identity development dates back to my own experience as a young black woman growing up in a predominantly white community. When I began my academic career, I wanted to learn how black families were socializing their children as young African-Americans in communities where they didn't really see themselves reflected. I began that research in California in a community where blacks were less than 2% of the population, and almost all of the parents I interviewed had roots in southern communities.

I learned that black families varied in terms of the strategies they used to navigate that socialization process. Some families were very proactive. I called them race-conscious. These were families that believed that it was very important for their children to be part of an African-American community. They didn't really have that opportunity in that California community, but they sent their children back to that southern hometown so they could be with family members over the summer. Or they drove to a black church in another town so they could be with other black people. They were very intentional about filling that socialization gap.

Other families also said this is really important, but they hadn't been able to figure out a strategy to create that sense of community for their children. I called them race-neutral.

Then there were some parents who I initially called class-conscious because they said their children's relationships were influenced more by sharing connections with people who had the same socioeconomic status. These were families who said the race connection was not that important. I later relabeled them as race-avoidant because they also seemed reluctant to talk about race with their children.

In a second phase of this research, I interviewed black college students who had grown up in predominantly white communities about their family and school experiences. All of them shared stories about being targeted because of their race, usually at school. I observed that kids who grew up in those race-conscious families were much more self-assured and confident about their sense of identity. They had a sense of understanding that somebody's else racism was the other person's problem, not their problem. That was a very confident kind of response.

Those young people who grew up in what I termed race-neutral families, those who hadn't been able to provide a supportive community around their kids, seemed more vulnerable to self-doubt when confronted with racism from other people.

Parents who were in the race-avoidant category just really didn't want to talk about race at all, maybe because it was too painful. Their children learned early on that they weren't supposed to bring it up, and they weren't supposed to talk about it. When they had encounters with somebody's else prejudices, part of the dilemma for them was that they didn't really have a sense that they could go to their parents for support. Because they had learned this is a topic I'm not supposed to talk about, they had to just figure things out on their own. Those young people really seemed to struggle the most. They had not had those protective conversations about race.

KAPPAN: I know that your research focused on black families, but do you have thoughts on the ways in which family conversations about race matter to white, Asian, Hispanic, and other children? …

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