Magazine article Techniques

Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum

Magazine article Techniques

Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum

Article excerpt

Bevery Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and a dean at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., has lectured, led workshops and

written extensively about racial identity development in teens and its impact in the classroom. She teaches an undergraduate course on the psychology of racism and has developed a course on "anti-racist classroom practices" for K- 12 educators. Her 1997 book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, argues that straight talk about race is essential, and that racism affects everyone. Tatum spoke with TechniQues Contributing Editor Eric Ries.

Why did you name your book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

For a number of years I have been doing workshops for educators looking at issues of race and racial identities as they manifest themselves in schools. Often that's taken me into settings that were racially mixed. It was very common to have teachers ask, "Why arE all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" It was usually asked in a tone that suggested it was problem that needed to be fixed.

Because I can only visit so many schools, I thought it would be good to address [the question] in print. But it's not a simple question, and it's not necessarily a negative thing that kids of whatever backgrounds are choosing to sit with each other.

The book has some provocative things to say about the lenses through which people of color and white people view the world. What are some of the most important things for teachers to know and understand about these divergent viewpoints?

I think it's important for teachers to understand that race impacts everyone. When we talk about white teachers, I think many of them think race and/or racism impact people of color but don't necessarily impact white students or themselves. But everybody's life is affected by the fact that we live in a society built on systems of privilege and disadvantage. That influences how we view the world, who we come into contact with, how we think about ourselves and other people.

In the United States most people still live in socially segregated communities. Most of what we know about people different from ourselves is second-hand-it comes to us from things we see on television, or what we read in books, or stories we hear people tell. As a consequence, a lot of what we think has been shaped by stereotypes and distorted information, or misrepresented information.

It's very common to hear people say, "I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body." But clearly all of us have been shaped by the images and messages we've received from the wider culturewhether we've heard them at home, in school, at church or at the cafeteria table with our friends.

Students seem to self-segregate more and more the older they get. Why is that?And isn't a certain amount of self-segregation natural?

Self-segregation is, certainly, a reflection of some developmental issues. Elementary school students, in many places, are interacting across racial lines in ways that are very comfortable for the most part. But as they get older and reach puberty, young people, regardless of race, are starting to ask, "Who am I?" For young people of color, greater awareness starts to emerge about their racial group membership.

If you're an adolescent African-American male going to the mall with your friends, maybe you start to notice that you and your African-American friends get followed around or stopped for suspected shoplifting or hassled by mall security in ways that your white friends don't. When you're 7 you looked cute [but] when you're 15 you look dangerous through the eyes of the people you're interacting with. So the kind of feedback the social environment is giving young people changes. And as that changes, the young person has to try to figure out what's going on: How do I make sense of this? …

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