Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president emerita of Spelman College and a leading expert on the psychology of racism, first released her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? two decades ago. Tatum’s exploration of race relations in America, which became a bestseller, gave hundreds of thousands of readers tools to begin conversations about racism and segregation, to talk across lines of difference, and to deepen understandings about racial identity. So when Tatum began her work on a revised edition, released in September, she faced a recurring question: Are things getting better?
It turns out it’s a complicated answer. In the intervening years, the elections of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the steep economic downturn of the Great Recession, the focus on police brutality against unarmed black youths, and the emergence of the activist movement Black Lives Matter have shaped the current discussion of racial divides. The country’s population is also more diverse than it was 20 years ago—students of color became the majority in public schools in 2014—but familiar patterns of segregation continue in education, in neighborhoods, and, yes, in the cafeteria.
In the revised edition of the book, Tatum, who received the American Psychological Association’s Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology in 2014, gives context to events, particularly of the last decade, to show the ways in which our cultural framing continues to enable racial hierarchies and limits opportunities for equitable relationships.
Commentary Associate Kate Stoltzfus recently spoke with Tatum by phone about the dialogue on race and racism she believes students need to have to “imagine the future more justly” and the role educators must play in shaping that conversation.
It’s been 20 years since the first edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? was published. What’s changed and what hasn’t when it comes to this country’s attitudes about race and racism?
In 1954, the year I was born, the U.S. population was 90 percent white. In 2014, it was the first year that the population of school-age children was more than 50 percent children of color. That in itself is a significant change. But I also talk about the fact that even though the population has gotten more diverse, our social configuration has not really changed. Neighborhoods are still very segregated in the United States, for the most part. Schools are even more segregated today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In some ways, the dynamic of making connections across racial divides has not changed very much for the better because people are still separated from one another in a lot of ways. On the other hand, we do know that there is, at this moment, more conversation about race because we must have it in the space of all the changes that are taking place.
But the reality is, conflict often arises because we are not talking."
Has your own perspective shifted at all in the past 20 years?
When my book was originally published in 1997, I had been teaching the psychology of racism for almost 20 years at that point. And shortly after the book was published, I became a dean (that was in 1998). And then I became a college president—first as acting president at Mount Holyoke College [in South Hadley, Mass.], and then president of Spellman College for 13 years. Shifting my position from being a faculty member to being a college administrator and president helped me to see the complexity of trying to create inclusive environments and ones in which you’re trying to meet multiple needs of your varying constituents. There’s a lot that school leaders and other kinds of leaders are trying to juggle when they’re trying to address these issues. I also came to understand how important leadership is in doing what I call the ABCs of leadership—A, affirming identity; B, building community; and C, cultivating leadership.
Affirming identity is really about trying to create an environment where everyone can see themselves represented and feel welcomed into that environment. Building community is critical if you want to get a sense of shared belonging. If you’ve got goals for your organization, trying to move those goals forward really requires having everyone feel invested in those goals. The C, cultivating leadership, is critical both for the person leading the organization—as president or principal—but it’s critical for the next generation. When we’re educating students, we are preparing them for citizenship in a democracy, and we need to help them be able to engage with people different from themselves across lines of difference if they are going to be able to have the appropriate leadership for the 21st century.
Do you have any advice for school leaders in the K-12 space for how to have those conversations?
My advice is to embrace the conversations. Sometimes people want to avoid them. There’s a lot of hesitation sometimes to talk about race and racism in our society because people feel that it will cause conflict. But the reality is, conflict often arises because we are not talking. And we are not really being proactive in our conversation about how these issues are manifesting themselves in schools and how we are preparing young people to interrupt the cycle of racism. It’s not easy—of course there are challenges—but we all need to be willing to risk some discomfort. This is where leadership can make a huge difference in terms of really creating the space in schools, whether that’s through special programming or co-curricular activities or looking at the curriculum and how these issues are being talked about in the classroom and how they are aligned with the values of the mission of the institution.
Children as young as preschool age start to notice racial differences. You write that productive cross-racial dialogue about race and racism—at home, at school, and in the workplace—is the key to raising consciousness and creating change. Yet, many teachers often have trouble discussing race and racism in their classrooms. What are your tips for helping teachers get comfortable enough to talk honestly about race?
The first thing we have to be conscious of, of course, is what’s age appropriate. When I say we should be having these conversations, I mean that in the context of the developmental stage of children. But you can have conversations with 3-year-olds about issues of race because they are commenting. They notice difference. They talk about skin-color difference and differences in hair texture and eye shape. If we are listening carefully to those conversations, we can educate to help young children understand that these differences are a perfectly normal part of our lives and it’s not something to be worried about or certainly not to discriminate about. It’s hard for teachers to have conversations if they don’t have practice having them with each other. That’s certainly a place where professional development can help—creating those kinds of learning opportunities, whether it’s through book clubs where teachers are reading a book together and talking about it after school or attending seminars or watching TED Talks together. Getting more comfortable with the conversation is the first step.
All the black kids are still sitting together in the cafeteria—in other words, patterns of self-selected segregation between students continue. You write in the revised edition of the book that young children in racially mixed elementary schools cross racial boundaries with ease, but by middle school, racial grouping begins—even in schools where children have known each other since kindergarten. Why does this happen?
Children are able to think more abstractly as their brains continue to grow and develop and as that capacity develops, they start asking those more abstract questions: Who am I? How do I fit into society? How do people see me? What does it mean that I am perceived as a member of a minority racial group? Children of color are more likely to be thinking about these questions at that time than white children are. And that has everything to do with the fact that they are coming to terms with the way racism impacts their lives or the lives of people like them. And the adults in the environment start responding to them differently. How you respond to a 6-year-old African-American boy is different than the way people respond to a 14-year-old African-American boy. The 6-year-old might be seen as cute; the 14-year-old might be seen as dangerous. How those cues are being communicated to them is part of what they’re thinking about, and connecting with kids who are having similar experiences is a natural response.
One desegregation program at a middle school in the Boston suburbs that you evaluated in the 1990s had African-American students meet with school staff once a day to talk about grades and social issues. This in turn improved their academic performance and the social relationships among all students. How does further separating students actually help them come together? How does this not put an undue burden on students of color to be the ones to improve relationships?
If you are having a need to be affirmed in your identity, that’s a very fundamental need. Connecting with someone across lines of difference can be taxing for lots of reasons. If young people are growing up in different neighborhoods, they’re separated by residential segregation, and now they’re coming together in a school environment, part of that experience may be the projection of stereotypes onto each other—not because people are mean-spirited, but because they have learned stereotypical information. When you’re bringing kids together particularly in adolescence, which tends to be a time of heightened self-awareness and sometimes heightened insecurities, it may be a challenging task to say, we want you to connect in ways that may not always be comfortable. If you’ve had a chance to take care of your fundamental core needs, that you’ve got more energy to reach out across lines of difference.
This is not to say that the burden of improving race relations should lie on kids of color. It seemed as though it was very beneficial for those children to have that opportunity to, in the safe space of each other’s company, work through some things that were important to them and allowed them to then better concentrate on their academic performance.
Are there school integration approaches you’ve seen or heard of that you think have been particularly successful?
There are a number of independent schools that use affinity groups as a way of providing social support for children of color—particularly in the middle and high school years—with positive effects. But even as we recognize that it’s important to create spaces where kids of color can explore their identities, feel affirmed, and have some buffer from the racism in the environments that they are surrounded by, I think it is equally important for us to create opportunities for children of color and white children to engage and connect across lines of difference in ways that support a deeper understanding of race and racism in our society and how everybody is affected by that, and ways that they can, in their own spheres of influence, be active participants in creating a more just society.
What do you envision for the next 20 years?
I have lived long enough to see progress in our society. But I also am a student of history, and I know that progress is rarely linear. We are living in a moment where we have seen forward motion and now we are feeling that backward press. It is sometimes difficult to maintain one’s optimism when you see so much backward motion. That said, what gives me continued hope and optimism are the people I have met who are every day taking action to create more equitable societies in their sphere of influence. I think if we pay attention to the opportunities that each of us have to make a difference, we can move forward together again as a society.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.