Can we talk about race? An interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum

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.K1711_Richardson(Tatum)_30_tbl1

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?

TATUM: Talking to children about racism in our society and how to interrupt it is important for everyone. Silence is not an effective strategy.

The public’s view of diversity

Kappan: This year’s PDK poll asked a series of questions about diversity. In a nutshell, we learned that parents say they would prefer to have their child in a school that is racially diverse and economically diverse, but they’re not willing to have their child travel farther to make that happen. Black parents were more likely to be interested in having a child in a diverse school and also more willing to drive farther to achieve that. And in Georgia, where you live, we found very high levels of interest in both of those areas. I wonder what you make of those findings.

TATUM: Two things stood out for me. With reference to the Georgia data, about one-third of the residents in Georgia are black. Many of them grew up with the history of segregation. They want their kids to be in a diverse learning environment perhaps because they value diversity on its face — as in, “I want my kids to have experience with lots of different people.” But I think black parents also recognize that resources follow white kids. So if you want your child to be in a well-funded school, that’s more likely to happen if your child attends a school that has racial diversity, particularly the presence of white children.

If you look at Atlanta, for example, you see that the highest-performing schools are in the highest-income areas, and those highest-income areas are largely white in an otherwise very racially diverse city.

Across the nation, there’s still a great deal of residential segregation. Although we’re 60+ years past the Brown decision, subsequent court decisions have chipped away at the strategies for school desegregation, and most students are being assigned to schools in their neighborhoods. It’s very difficult to interrupt school segregation as long as you have neighborhood segregation. People often say they want diversity, but they don’t choose to live in diverse neighborhoods. If you don’t choose to live in a diverse neighborhood, your child is probably not going to go to a diverse school.

In general, people have internalized the ideal of integrated schools as desirable, but, at the end of the day, there’s still hesitation about how much people really want to cross lines of difference, unless they really have some experience with it. Many white people, in particular, feel hesitation and anxiety about putting themselves in a place where they might not be in the majority.

More conversation about race

Kappan: You’ve argued that all of us, but especially white people, need to talk more about race. Speaking as a veteran white person myself, I think you’re correct to say that many of us find this difficult. But you also point out that white people don’t just avoid the topic — often, they actively discourage conversations about race. Why is that so?

TATUM: It’s not just white people who find it difficult. Lots of parents across different backgrounds will say that they struggle with these conversations. But some parents have to have these conversations. It’s a matter of life or death. If you’re the parent of a young black teenager and haven’t had a conversation about potential difficulties he might have if he’s racially profiled while driving, you’re putting your child at risk. Some people have to have these conversations whether they want to or not.

But, too often, we stop conversations about race before they can begin. One of the characteristics of young children is that they notice, and they ask questions, and they make candid comments that their parents might find embarrassing, especially if they’re saying something in a public place. When a white three-year-old in the grocery store notices a dark person and says, “Mommy, why is that person so dark?,” that mom is likely to respond with a “shhh.” But the mom could also say simply that people come in different colors, just like they have different hair color, they can have different skin color. It doesn’t have to be a big, complicated conversation. But many people seize up and don’t know how to respond, conveying to the child that there is something wrong with difference.

Talking to children about racism in our society and how to interrupt it is important for everyone. Silence is not an effective strategy. The risk of silence is that other people may fill the void with information that you wouldn’t want your kid to have.

When I ask audiences to recall an early race-related memory, most people can remember at least one incident quite clearly, and they remember it as distressing in some way. They recall that the situation caused them to be sad or anxious or afraid or perhaps to feel shame or guilt. When I ask, “Did you talk to anyone about it?” most say no, because even at the age of 5 or 6 or 7, they had already learned that they weren’t supposed to talk about race. That lesson gets reinforced repeatedly over a lifetime.

Race is the big elephant in the room, and that elephant is causing lots of problems. You can’t solve a problem without talking about it.

Kappan: Most of us don’t have enough experience having such conversations, so we feel uncomfortable and uncertain about what to say.

TATUM: Yes, which is why I offer guidelines to parents of all backgrounds about ways to start the conversation with their children in an age-appropriate way. Of course, the more you have the conversations, the easier they get. Sometimes I compare it to the hesitation we have about sex education. A lot of parents struggle with talking with their teens about sexual activity. They want to make sure they say everything right, and they’re worried that they won’t so they avoid talking about it at all.

You don’t want your kids to be prematurely sexually active. But, on the other hand, if you don’t arm them with information, then bad things can happen. People struggle with these conversations. Sometimes, they just don’t have the conversations because they find it too embarrassing. But not having the conversation doesn’t prevent their children from learning about sex. They learn about it from other people, and sometimes the information is inaccurate, and sometimes it’s harmful to them.

Not talking about race is the same thing. The risk of silence is that other people may fill the void with information that you wouldn’t want your kid to have, and it comes in forms that can lead to bad things.

Just recently, for example, I read an open letter written by Pearce Tefft, a man whose son was one of the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. In the letter, he denounced his son’s neo-Nazi activity and said, essentially, I regret our silence. My son didn’t learn these attitudes at home. These are not ideas that we endorse. But we were silent. He got these ideas elsewhere.

Charlottesville & race

Kappan: The Trump election and particularly the rally in Charlottesville have really shined a light on a segment of white Americans who believe that whites are being oppressed and suffering discrimination. I wonder how you respond to that concern.

TATUM: In my book, I discuss the data from a national survey that shows that as many as 50% of white people polled said they believe that discrimination against whites has become a problem equivalent to that of discrimination against people of color. Another national survey revealed that 75% of white people in the United States have entirely white social networks, which means they probably live in all-white neighborhoods, work in mostly white settings, and don’t really have social interactions with people of color. Consequently, the conversations they’re having, and the information they’re getting about racial issues, come from other white people. Their source of information is, as a result, quite limited.

When you look at data about almost every measure of economic and social well-being — access to education, access to employment, access to health care, access to housing — white people fare better consistently on all these measures. So, while some people have this perception of white racial disadvantage, it’s not rooted in reality.

Kappan: It’s always a fine idea to bring data into an argument, but I wonder whether the data can be persuasive on this issue at a time when people cry fake news whenever someone tries to introduce facts.

TATUM: We are internally motivated to question what doesn’t align with our belief system. If you believe you live in a meritocracy, then it’s hard to acknowledge that something like racism or sexism is affecting people’s lives. That’s in direct conflict with that idea of living in a meritocracy. So I understand psychologically why people are resistant to information that’s challenging to deeply held belief systems.

When I started teaching about racism as a 26-year-old in 1980, I was often challenged by my students, most of whom were white. When I talked about housing discrimination, for example, students would question the veracity of the information. This was well before the term fake news was part of our vocabulary. But it was like that.

So I started using what I called “activities for self-generated knowledge.” Or to put it differently: Here’s an assignment, go out and see for yourself. Same-race or mixed-race couples would try to rent apartments, or I’d ask students to go into public places and be conscious of their privileges or notice someone else experiencing privilege.

They would often come back and report that, for example, they saw a black person being asked for more identification at a store checkout, or they noticed a store employee following the black person but not following white customers. Those kind of see-it-for-yourself experiences were very helpful.

But the other challenge is that once you become aware of a problem, you start to feel like you have to do something about it. And that can become an uncomfortable feeling. So that’s another reason for the resistance to the facts.

It’s very difficult to interrupt school segregation as long as you have neighborhood segregation. People often say they want diversity, but they don’t choose to live in diverse neighborhoods. If you don’t choose to live in a diverse neighborhood, your child is probably not going to go to a diverse school.

Teaching about white privilege

Kappan: I live in a majority white community that is quite affluent, and I find that many of the white parents are unwilling to have discussions about race or diversity. In particular, they shut down any discussion of white privilege on the grounds that their children shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for the sins of the past. Is there room for white students to explore this concept without the discussion degenerating into defensiveness and accusation? And is it possible for white students to take pride in their own heritage without implying support for white supremacy?

TATUM: I write about the dilemma that you’re describing. The question is, how do we talk about whiteness in a way that goes beyond feelings of guilt or images of Klan members? If you are exploring your white identity and don’t want to identify yourself with white supremacists or with white people suffering from guilt, is there another way to think about being white? The answer is yes. There is the role of the white ally, the person using their racial privilege to work against racism in our society.

In a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity and that racial identity develops in predictable ways and is shaped largely by our interactions with others.

If you are a young person of color living in the U.S., you are likely to be thinking about your own racial identity because your racial group membership may be brought to your attention by other people in ways that may be subtle or sometimes quite directly. What that means is that young people of color, particularly in predominantly white communities, are thinking about their racial identity at an earlier age than their white peers.

But if you are a white person who is growing up in a largely white neighborhood or going to a predominantly white school, you may not be thinking much about your whiteness because you don’t have to. It’s like a fish swimming in water. You are surrounded by it, and you don’t have to think about it. If others bring it to your attention, your initial response may be one of discomfort.

In classrooms this fall, students may be talking about Charlottesville, or they could be talking about Confederate monuments. It’s natural that white students will want to find a place that doesn’t feel guilty, that doesn’t make them feel bad.

One of the things we have to do is offer alternative views of whiteness. Are there people who have done horrific things in the name of white supremacy? The answer is yes. But there are also people who have done heroic things in the name of being white allies. Heather Heyer (the young woman who died during the Charlottesville rally) will go down as one of those people. We can talk about people in the 18th, the 19th, and 20th centuries who were advocates for social justice. There are white people as well as people of color who are working tirelessly now. That is knowledge that can be a source of pride and inspiration. There are people every day who are working to make more inclusive communities. And we need to know more about them. That is a real learning opportunity we should all embrace.

When we talk about privilege, it’s not for the purpose of making anyone feel guilty, though such feelings can arise. When teaching about privilege, I find it helpful to remind people that we all have multiple identities, sometimes experiencing privilege and sometimes not. I’m a black woman and am challenged by racism, and you’re a white woman and you have racial privilege. I’m a heterosexual woman, and I have heterosexual privilege. I need to ask myself, how am I using that? I grew up in a middle-class family, and I have had that class privilege all my life. How has that influenced me and my interactions with other people? I am targeted by my gender, but I am a physically able person, and I don’t usually think twice about my able-bodied privilege when I walk up the stairs in a building. I don’t wonder if there is a ramp. But if I were confined to a wheelchair, I’d be very aware of the privilege that those able-bodied people have.

If we think about our identities in multiple ways, we’d realize that we all have privilege in some parts of our lives. It’s not unusual to not notice the places where we’re privileged because we just take it for granted. We all have places where we need to grow in our awareness.

Kappan: It used to be that conversations about race centered on blacks and the challenges of living with racism. Now I feel as if whites have hijacked these conversations and suddenly the emphasis has shifted to whites and how they perceive themselves racially. Am I wrong about that?

TATUM: This question of whiteness and what it means to be white in a multiracial society is getting to be a more urgent question for white people at a time when the percentage of white people is shrinking.

When I was born, in 1954, 90% of the people living in the United States were white. Today, the majority of children in public schools are children of color. By 2042, people of color are projected to become the majority in this country.

The understanding of one’s place in the world shifts with that kind of demographic change.  It is making some white people nervous in ways they may not be able to articulate. In my view, there’s no reason to be nervous.

Having lived a long time as a minority, it doesn’t make me nervous that there are more white people in a room than me. But, if your understanding as a white person is that people like you are always in the majority, and then you find yourself increasingly in the presence of people you have been told are supposed to be a threat to you, that’s anxiety producing.

It’s not just the changing of the population numbers, it’s the messaging about who’s scary that is the source of that anxiety.

If you’ve been told all your life that black people are dangerous and now there are more of them and less of you, that’s going to cause anxiety.

Kappan: So, at this time of transition in demographics, what could make all of us feel less anxious?

TATUM: In my book, I talk about why leadership matters, and what effective leaders do. Leadership in schools matters. Leadership in the nation matters. One of the things that’s true about human beings is that we are programmed to categorize. Our brains make categories for everything from chairs to cars to people. We’ve learned to categorize people as us or them. Who’s part of us, and who’s not part of us? The process of categorization is innate, but who we put into the various categories is not innate.

People look to the leader to know who’s inside the circle and who’s outside the circle. The leader could be the mom, the leader could be the teacher, the mayor, the president. When you have leaders drawing circles narrowly, that raises anxiety.

If you have a leader who says, only the people in the room are part of “us,” that means everybody else is “them,” a potential threat is implied. Everybody in that room is going to be looking over their shoulder whenever they leave. But if the leader draws the circle very widely and includes lots of people in “us,” that creates a sense of safety.

Part of the challenge today is that not all of our leaders are drawing the circle in a wide way that’s intended to include everyone. We need leaders who know how to bring people together with a shared sense of belonging, affirming all identities.

Kappan: We know that there are lots of schools where the title of your book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, is a reflection of reality. But I assume that there are schools where black and white and Asian and Hispanic and Muslim children mix it up more and do sit together in the cafeteria and share friendships outside of school. What do you think has happened to enable those kinds of schools to create cultures that support such relationships? Put another way, how do schools create a positive learning environment when it comes to race relations?

TATUM: It has everything to do with leadership. It can be leadership by the principal, it can be leadership by the classroom teacher. But we know that those kids are not likely to be coming from the same neighborhoods because of the way neighborhoods are constructed. So practically speaking, school is the best opportunity for them to learn how to engage across lines of difference. An understanding of racial identity development gives educators tools to better understand students and their interactions with each other, allowing for more effective school-based interventions.

When schools are intentional about doing what I call the ABCs — affirming identity, building community, and cultivating leadership — they help young people learn how to bridge differences. When that happens, you will see what you’ve just described: Kids are crossing boundaries.

When I hear from a young person who says that the black kids don’t sit together at school, I always ask what kinds of programs exist at that school. Almost always, there has been some intentional effort to help kids connect with each other in thoughtful ways, helping them learn to bridge racial divides. That’s about leadership.

Citation: Richardson, J. (2017). Can we talk about race? An interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum.  Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 30-36.


JOAN RICHARDSON is the director of the PDK Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools and the former editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

One Comment

  • Dr. Sandy Womack Jr.

    The idea of race and the color line was a key component of the work of W.E.B Dubose and are still a significant factor impacting the lives and socio-economic status of people of color. While, Dr. Tatum is right on point with her delivery and discussion on White privilege, addressing the PDK survey on attending integrated schools, and school leadership. I wish the conversation about the reasons for so many of these issues of race are manifesting themselves. I believe the mis-education of Whites and especially people of color is a tragic consequence of a motive to keep one race the laborers and another the boss. Power and Privilege are synonymous.

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