Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

About the Book

Obstensibly, this book is about “self-segregation” or the idea that many African American students will, in fact, sit and work together in a racially mixed environment. Ultimately though, it is an explanation of how African Americans experience the world which is still very much dominated by Whites. It also gives a framework to understand how the dynamics of a dominant vs. non-dominant groups play out, particularly for issues of race and ethnicity in the U.S.

ISBN and Chapter Info

Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1997, 2003) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? 5th Edition New York: Basic Books/Perseus Book Group
ISBN 10: 0465083617

The table of contents of the book is:

  • Chapter 1: Defining Racism: Can we talk?
  • Chapter 2: The Complexity of Identity Who am I?
  • Chapter 3: The Early Years: Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?
  • Chapter 4: Identity Development in Adolescence: Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?
  • Chapter 5: Racial Identity in Adulthood: Still a work in progress
  • Chapter 6: The Development of White Identity: I’m not ethnic, I’m just normal
  • Chapter 7: White Identity and Affirmative Action: I’m in favor of affirmative action except when it comes to my jobs
  • Chapter 8: Critical Issues in Latino American Indian and Asian Pacific American Identity Development: There’s more than just Black and White you know
  • Chapter 9: Identity Development in Multiracial Families: But don’t the children suffer?
  • Chapter 10: Embracing a Cross Racial Dialogue: We were struggling for the words
  • Continuing the Conversation
  • Getting Started Resources for the Next Step
  • Reader Discussion Guide

The State College Environment (A Personal View)

One of the challenges of discussing race in a location like State College or central Pennsylvania is that while there is relatively little overt racism, the culture is still very much White (or Anglo) dominant and the result can seem hostile. There can also be lingering instances of bias or lack of understanding.

What this book does is help explain that while a person may never be overtly prejudiced, he or she can be very oblivious to the African-American perspective. It presents the experience of someone from a non-dominant culture in a way that explains that person’s frustration while not necessarily putting blame on a White person. It shows how the legacy of a racist past lingers, even when people are not aware of it. As Tatum points out, unless a White person sees how an African American navigates the world, the implicit bias does not seem apparent. I know I got more insights, and I had been aware of some issues for many years.

As an instructor, I think this is a timely reminder of what experiences a non-White student may have gone through and how it impacts their interaction in a Penn State classroom.

A Racist System

In the first part of the book, Tatum distinguishes individual prejudiced behaviors which most people call racist from a racist system which is structured to benefit a dominant group. In a racist system, a member of the dominant class can be neutral or even benign in terms of individual race relations, but still benefit from being in a racist system.

Although a lot of the mechanisms from the clearly racist Jim Crow apartheid system have been dismantled, Tatum explains how Whites still remain dominant and benefit from the system. For instance, clothes and cosmetics designed for paler skin tones clothes are very readily available, while a person with a different skin tone must search harder.

A more pernicious example is that a White stranded at a bus station late at night can generally expect assistance from a security guard or the police, but a person with a different look might be considered a criminal in the same context. In fact, many urban areas like Ferguson and Staten Island are dealing with the demographics of White police officers policing “crime-ridden” African American neighborhoods.

I would also add here that although the North never had the same kind of overtly discriminatory practices that the Jim Crow South did, there were other kinds of systematic policies to discriminate against African Americans. <or instance a Whites only preference for 1930’s era FHA loans meant that African Americans in northern cities had a very difficulty buying and maintaining a home except in relatively poor “ghettos”.

This kind of practice to led to racially segregated neighborhoods in Northern cities with hostile attitudes between groups.Similarly, African Americans may be charged higher interest rates, pay higher insurance rates or have less chance to get student loans based on “statistical data” (see Wikipedia Red lining).

Can African Americans be Racist?

Tatum answers this question by saying it depends on what you mean by “racist”. Tatum does acknowledge that African Americans and other non-Whites can have negative stereotypes about Whites or other ethnic groups, but feels that White domination means that African Americans cannot benefit in a racist system. That may be generally true for now, but as African Americans obtain more status and wealth, some may be able to build structures meant to benefit African Americans at a cost to other communities. Every group should consider that once a group becomes more successful, they will gain privileges which can be abused.

Levels of Privilege and Non-Privilege

On the other hand, Tatum points out that not all Whites necessarily feel their “White privilege”. Lower income Whites may feel some of the same injustices as African Americans. Women who are White often experience gender discrimination and non-Christians, including Jews, may suffer from discrimination or lack of institutional support for religious holidays or other occasions. Even “nerds” may feel unprivileged from a social point of view if they suffered bullying in school. As a linguist, I have to point out that, English speakers from all ethnicities will have access to more technology resources options at a price point than speakers of other languages. African Americans may enjoy some privileges not available to non-English speaking or non-Christian groups.

It’s Not a Competition

When discussing comparative privilege, I think it’s important to clarify that it shouldn’t be a competition of which ethnic group or community has suffered the most. It’s an unfortunate truth that many groups, particularly those who have emigrated to the U.S. and other save havens, have suffered from different types of oppression. Rather, I think the point is to empathize with experiences of other groups and try to build a bridge of understanding. I think Tatum would agree on this point.

The Affirmative Action Debate

An issue impacting higher education is the idea of affirmative action, or finding ways to assist under-represented groups, including African Americans, gain access to higher education. One issue that many agree on is that one needs to distinguish class from ethnicity. There are African American (and Latino) families who have a long tradition of being college educated. It is important that this group be represented in a university, but not be the ONLY representation of an ethnicity.

In terms of affirmative action, Tatum and others talk about the fact that any first generation college student will experience similar challenges in terms of financial support or cultural discordance. Many members of this group may suffer linguistic prejudice if they do not natively speak Standard English. In fact, using Standard English or following other cultural expectations of academia may feel like a betrayal of the home culture.

Tatum raises another issue that is not easy to address – the idea that Whites may feel that African Americans in any kind of affirmative action program are not as qualified as a White person would be and that they are getting a “free ride.” There is no easy answer for this issue, but I would say that no affirmative action program could work unless this bias is somehow addressed.

One issue facing some younger African Americans are instructors who misunderstand African American Vernacular English language and culture. A child commenting that “Fractions don’t make any sense” is more likely to be helped than one commenting that “Fractions don’t make no sense.” Similarly racial stereotypes may persuade teachers that a rowdy white child is smart but just needs a little discipline, while a rowdy black child could be seen as a criminal in training. Certainly, the type of open questioning of an instructor that might be supported in some suburban schools could be seen as “threatening” in other contexts.

What is “White”?: Rethinking Ethnic Identities for “Anglos”

An issue that Tatum discusses is that if a White lives in a mostly White environment, he or she may not feel any kind of ethnic identity at all (i.e. “I’m just white”). Nor may there be an understanding of how ethnicities may differ culturally. Even if there are non-Whites (or non Anglos) in a town, they may have felt the pressure to just assimilate completely to the dominant culture, at least in public. There could be the illusion that everyone has the same experience regardless of skin tone and can be treated as “the same”.

Although the idea of “not seeing color” seems fair to Whites, it can in fact be offensive to non-Whites because it can be perceived as lack of awareness. I believe it can also be harmful to Whites who could equate a generic White identity to a disconnection with their heritage. In contrast Tatum notes that Non-whites have often explored their heritage more in order to understand their place within the dominant culture.

Following up on this idea, I would advocate that Whites learn about their individual ethnic heritages as much as possible. Although White is the dominant race in America, most Whites are descended from ancestors fleeing some sort of persecution or impoverished circumstance. Indeed, many groups which are now mainstream, including Irish, Italians, many Slavic groups and different Jewish groups, experienced intense discrimination or poverty in this country. This can be a way to help empathize with current immigrants/non-dominant groups.

Having said that, there is the flip side that some Whites claim they don’t understand why African Americans can’t make the same transition that their ancestors did. Unfortunately, skin tone continues to be a huge factor in a perception of inferiority in this country and, sadly, elsewhere.

A Little Beyond Black and White

Just as not all Whites have the same ethnic background, not all African Americans (or Blacks), Asians, and Latin Americans have the same ethnic background. A person with black skin could be an African American, Haitian American, from a Spanish speaking country or from an African family. These groups have different cultures and different experiences in America. The same is true from Asian (Chinese? Korean? Vietnamese?) and Latin Americans (Mexican> Puerto Rican? Dominican?).

I think the ultimate challenge is overcoming the fear of discussing ethnic differences in post-racial America. Non-whites (and many Whites) want people to know their heritage, but many Whites have felt that it can be a difficult question to ask politely. That’s a shame really because the stories are actually very interesting when told correctly. Just ask anyone who has watched the unexpurgated Finding Your Roots stories.

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