Assigned Seats

January 01, 1998 4 min read

The following is from Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations About Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, a professor at Mount Holyoke College. It was published in September by Basic Books..

Walk into any racially mixed high school cafeteria at lunch time and you will instantly notice that in the sea of adolescent faces, there is an identifiable group of black students sitting together. Conversely, it could be pointed out that there are many groups of white students sitting together as well, though people rarely comment about that. The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: “Why are the black kids sitting together?” Principals want to know, teachers want to know, white students want to know, the black students who aren’t sitting at the table want to know.

How does it happen that so many black teenagers end up at the same cafeteria table? They don’t start out there. If you walk into racially mixed elementary schools, you will often see young children of diverse racial backgrounds playing with one another, sitting at the snack table together, crossing racial boundaries with an ease uncommon in adolescence. Moving from elementary school to middle school (often at 6th or 7th grade) means interacting with new children from different neighborhoods than before, and a certain degree of clustering by race might therefore be expected, presuming that children who are familiar with one another would form groups. But even in schools where the same children stay together from kindergarten through 8th grade, racial grouping begins by the 6th or 7th grade. What happens?

One thing that happens is puberty. As children enter adolescence, they begin to explore the question of identity, asking “Who am I? Who can I be?” in ways they have not done before. For black youth, asking “Who am I?” includes thinking about “Who am I ethnically and/or racially? What does it mean to be black?”

As I write this, I can hear the voice of a white woman who said to me, “Well, all adolescents struggle with questions of identity. They all become more self-conscious about their appearance and more concerned about what their peers think. So what is so different for black kids?” Of course, she is right that all adolescents look at themselves in new ways, but not all adolescents think about themselves in racial terms.

The search for personal identity that intensifies in adolescence can involve several dimensions of an adolescent’s life: vocational plans, religious beliefs, values and preferences, political affiliations and beliefs, gender roles, and ethnic identities. The process of exploration may vary across these identity domains. James Marcia described four identity “statuses” to characterize the variation in the identity search process: 1) diffuse, a state in which there has been little exploration or active consideration of a particular domain and no psychological commitment; 2) foreclosed, a state in which a commitment has been made to particular roles or belief systems, often those selected by parents, without considering alternatives; 3) moratorium, a state of active exploration of roles and beliefs in which no commitment has yet been made; and 4) achieved, a state of strong personal commitment to a dimension of identity following a period of high exploration.

An individual is not likely to explore all identity domains at once; therefore it is not unusual for an adolescent to be actively exploring one dimension while another remains unexamined. Given the impact of dominant and subordinate status, it is not surprising that researchers have found that adolescents of color are more likely to be actively engaged in an exploration of their racial or ethnic identity than are white adolescents.

Why do black youths, in particular, think about themselves in terms of race? Because that is how the rest of the world thinks of them. Our self-perceptions are shaped by the messages that we receive from those around us, and when young black men and women enter adolescence, the racial content of those messages intensifies. A case in point: If you were to ask my 10-year-old son, David, to describe himself, he would tell you many things: that he is smart, that he likes to play computer games, that he has an older brother. Near the top of his list, he would likely mention that he is tall for his age. He would probably not mention that he is black, though he knows that. Why would he mention his height and not his racial group membership? When David meets new adults, one of the first questions they ask is: “How old are you?” When David states his age, the inevitable reply is: “Gee, you’re tall for your age!” It happens so frequently that I once overheard David say to someone, “Don’t say it, I know. I’m tall for my age.” Height is salient for David because it is salient for others.

When David meets new adults, they don’t say, “Gee, you’re black for your age!” If you are saying to yourself, “Of course they don’t,” think again. Imagine David at 15, six-foot-two, wearing the adolescent attire of the day, passing adults he doesn’t know on the sidewalk. Do the women hold their purses a little tighter, maybe even cross the street to avoid him? Does he hear the sound of the automatic door locks on cars as he passes by? Is he being followed around by the security guards at the local mall? As he stops in town with his new bicycle, does a police officer hassle him, asking where he got it, implying that it might be stolen? Do strangers assume he plays basketball? Each of these experiences conveys a racial message. At 10, race is not yet salient for David because it is not yet salient for society. But it will be.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D. Copyright © 1997 by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books.