by Christopher Paslay
Currently, I am working on a master’s degree in multicultural education at Eastern University. This semester I’m taking EDU 517—Multicultural Education. Here is an excerpt from a reflection paper I wrote after reading the first 90 pages of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
“. . . I guess Tatum gave me a more technical understanding of race/ racism in America; now I’m more hip to the buzz words such as internalized oppression, dominant and subordinate societal groups, and White privilege—the language created to shift power from the dominant society to the subordinate minority culture.
Here are the things that I liked about the first 90 pages of Tatum’s book. She maps the identity development of African Americans from the early formative years all the way through adulthood. As a teacher, if I could walk away with one bit of knowledge it would be the importance of recognizing how children—particularly African Americans—form their opinions of themselves and their culture. It was good to see that Tatum pointed out that young black children (especially adolescents) need to mindfully reject negative stereotypes and find more positive role models.
An example of a role model Tatum would undoubtedly approve of would be none other than Barack Obama. I recently read in the New York Times about the “Obama Effect,” how Obama is so inspiring that his mere presence as U.S. president is raising scores of black test-takers. As for the rejection of negative stereotypes—maybe our society could start by cleaning-up the gratuitous sex, violence and materialism found in the hip-hop culture; as educators, we must find substitutes for hip-hop music, possible substituting jazz and blues for gangsta rap.
Of course, there were also things about Tatum’s book that I disagreed with. To be frank, I found the underlying premise of the text quite hypocritical. On the one hand, Tatum claims she wants to end racism and bring equality to all people by breaking down barriers and developing a true multicultural society. Yet through the first 90 pages of the text, she unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) manages to divide the races, creating an us versus them mentality. Nothing in the book is about synergy, teamwork or sameness—it’s always about a dominant and a subordinate; an oppressor and an oppressed; an insider and an outsider; a privileged and a marginalized.
Granted, I’m not going to deny that these situations exist in American society. But the problem with Tatum is her philosophy behind who and what should be the catalyst for change. In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, the message is quite clear: Change DOESN’T come from within—but from OUTSIDE. White society is racist. Period. And black people and minorities are the victims. Period. (Ironically, Tatum says in her book that many black students are “uncomfortable with the portrayal of their group as helpless victims” during lessons on slavery). Tatum mentioned that during most of her workshops on race, white students rarely mentioned being white. This makes sense. She seems to be big on creating an atmosphere of white guilt, so why would anyone want to admit that they were white?
According to Tatum, white people are privileged, and they must bear the burden of recognizing this privilege and feel guilty about it (this guilt will supposedly help end racism in America). But if you subscribe to this logic, than all people should feel guilty about something. Handsome people would have a Handsome Privilege (being a good looking person sure opens a lot of doors in America), and intelligent people would have an Intelligent Privilege (brains also gets you far in this country), etc.
Although Tatum means well, she probably doesn’t realize that her book is filled with racial stereotypes and generalizations. Worse still, she doesn’t realize the danger of labeling the white American establishment as “racist” (even though America is quite diverse in 2009), just because people worked hard to achieve the American Dream. She could say the establishment is too competitive, or maybe even intolerant. But using the word racist in my opinion is a bit radical and done in poor taste.
Tatum might want to write a book on Barack Obama’s new message to America: SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY. This approach might be less insulting to white people and condescending to blacks. As a result, it might actually break down barriers between the races rather than pigeon-holing people and creating more anger and resentment.”
A second reflection paper—on the second half of Tatum’s book—is due next week. I’ll be sure to post an excerpt from that paper as well.