Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (part one)

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.  


13 thoughts on “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (part one)

  1. Good article. Different, insightful, thoughtful, reasoned, and looking for better solutions.
    I see diversity as a two-sided coin, but only one side is touted constantly. **We must relish our differences, you have your culture, holidays, dress, music, etc. Mine is just as good as yours. Let’s celebrate the differences. What is missing is the emphasis on EXACTLY HOW THIS COMES TOGETHER AND MAKES A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE FOR AN ORGANIZATION OR COUNTRY. When I was in high school we had a very diverse school and track team–the track team was VERY SUCCESSFUL because of diversity and the SINGLE MINDED GOAL OR POINT OF UNITY which was–the school or team was the focus. Your unique or diverse skill was blended into a powerful unit. We did not sit around (like T.O. and others) and say how as diverse individuals we should celebrate our differences. NO. The diverse individual came into the situation knowing that we all had a common bond–the tradition of the school and the success of our team. The Dallas Cowboys might have diversity out the gazoo, but no unity, hence, little real success. As I read and hear constantly, the individual (the ego) overrides all else. Might seem old school, but it works best when it is stated–there is no I in team.
    Therefore, all this diversity has to come together for a common cause and not individual or special group pride.
    A second component that is confusing for me is privilege. Is the author, Tatum, saying the poor, uneducated whites are privileged in this country? In any city or town in the USA? Are poor, uneducated whites more privileged than rich, educated blacks. Are people like Tiger, Jordon, Nutter, Obama, Oprah, Superintendent Ackerman, and the 35% of African Americans who make well above the national average in income and are looked upon with favor–are they not equal or more privileged than poor, uneducated whites? I think someone is pushing the envelope a little much here.
    A final observation. Are stereotypes bad to use or not? Let’s get on the same page. I believe and Tatum states that stereotypes are not a good thing. Then we should not stereotype blacks as victims and oppressed (by the way, Tatum is stating this stereotype not me) and we should not stereotype all whites as privileged and oppressors.
    I have taught in Philadelphia schools for many years and worked with thousands of teenagers. I never found one–not one–who said they could not compete with a white kid. They wanted to stand on their own two feet. However, an overwhelming majority felt put down and it was condescending to hear–they couldn’t compete head to head. Remember, many classrooms have whites and blacks. Is Tatum saying the whites are privileged and the oppressors and all blacks are victims and can’t do it because of the system. They are in the same classroom–the same system. Sounds like stereotyping to me.
    Sorry Author Tatum, I KNOW that all students have the ability to learn, work hard, and get ahead. Are there still challenges and obstacles at times–of course. But let’s not stereotype and generalize to the point of the ridiculous.

  2. They are debating the spelling of “cafeteria”.

    They??? who is they? Peggy McIntosh notes that one of the “white privileges” is not being regarded as a spokesperson for ones race or ethnic group but somehow one person’s response merits the word {they}.

    Do those who perpetuate this theory of white privilege actually believe that once white people acknowledge their privileges that racism will cease? If so, they are sadly mistaken and a little more study of the words of Hitler and Stalin may be in order.

    But first I would like to know of one nation or ethnic group where some form of privilege is not part of their society? Does an African man in Zaire have more privileges than his wife? if so, do we also refer to this as {white privilege}? Or how about the untouchables in India-do they lack {white privilege}?

    In, and of its self, privilege is neither right or wrong! many people have privileges because of their education, military rank, occupation and other factors. Not allowing a particular group of people access to these privileges is wrong not the privileges themselves. I’ve read many of the white privilege lists and the majority of them are vague or have nothing to do with any racial/ethnic factors-in fact-most of them should come under the heading of neurotic complaints.

  3. Henry,

    I like the following point you made: “Not allowing a particular group of people access to these privileges is wrong not the privileges themselves.”

    Well said! Privilege in and of itself is not wrong, and those who have a privilege should not be made to feel guilty about it (guilt is not enough to end racism).

    –Chris Paslay

  4. Thanks…the white privilege concept will create a bottomless chasm of angst and anger. Angst for white folks who never quite know what they have done wrong and anger for minorities who feel slighted.
    Best of luck on your studies!

  5. Cafeteria: C-A-F-E-T-E-R-I-A. Cafeteria. Wow–I missed that one. Big time. That’s what happens when you’re the writer, editor and proof-reader, all in one shot. Anyone out there feel like helping me run this blog? Any writers out there? Shoot me an email.

    –Chris Paslay

  6. Privilege is not wrong in and of itself.

    Privilege is always at the expense of someone, isn’t it? If everyone can do it then is it a privilege?

    Tatum’s framework for racism is that it is a system of advantage based on race. In that framework the question is not concerned with that there are privileges, but how these privileges are perpetuated.

    Certainly there is privilege just within the African-American culture. Some African-Americans have access to what other African-Americans do not. This sort of privilege is likely not promulgated out of a racist system. There certainly are privileges in our society that are perpetuated on the basis of racial bias and the means of their perpetuation is Tatum’s concern when she speaks of racism being a “system of advantage based on race.”

    Tatum’s best contribution in the book is the Dual Identity concept that African-Americans do work through (c.f., W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk) where European-Americans do not have this struggle as the majority/dominant culture.

    If there is going to be understanding and an advance of the conversation we must recognize in Tatum’s work that an active attempt at creating a greater understanding is better than no attempt at all.

  7. W. Nielsen,

    I agree with you 100%. “If there is going to be understanding and an advance of the conversation we must recognize in Tatum’s work that an active attempt at creating a greater understanding is better than no attempt at all.”

    As I stated in part two of this post (February 1st), “Tatum’s book is a powerful (although extreme) tool for challenging racism in America. It’s a radical wrecking-ball crashing through traditional thinking, forcing everyone who reads it to reexamine the way they view race relations in the United States.”

    I applaud her courage, and the fact that she is forwarding the discussion on race in America. I just think she could do more to share the responsibility for solving some of the problems, and not place all the blame and responsibility on the other guy.

    PS: Privilege isn’t always at the expense of someone else. If we work hard and learn the system, we ALL can be privileged. It’s like the saying about the mother with three children: She doesn’t DIVIDE her love, she MULTIPLIES it. Thanks for commenting.

    –Chris Paslay

  8. Chris

    I’m simply glad to find people thinking about these things.

    The distinction between dividing and multiplying would seem to be a non sequitur. Privilege is not a question of whether things are divided or multiplied (mathematically they are indistinguishable. Consider the following:

    100 / 10 = 10
    100 x .1 = 10

    In both division and multiplication the same result is achieved. The results are not dependent on the function (multiplication or division) but on how these functions are used (not the ‘that’ but the ‘how’).

    Privilege, then, is a question of how. Parents strive precisely not to favor one child over the other; however, if one child merits greater responsibility than another it would be parentally unwise in my estimation to bestow the same responsibility on both children knowing that only one could sustain it. Further, many of us know people who can point to favorite sons or daughters in their families. In either case, privilege is always relative; its valency always dependent upon what it possesses to the exclusion of others.

    To hopefully expand and continue our discussion here, sometimes privilege does come because of hard work and education (though not always). However, my limited understanding of Booker T. Washington’s position was that if the Negro population could just be left alone “as fingers are separate from each other; yet joined at the hand” then the Negro could excel. He was willing to give up the vote, civil rights, and higher education (though he advocated trade schools).

    W. E. B. DuBois criticizes him on these very three points as naive. First, DuBois argued, how can the Negro expect to compete in the market place against those with civil rights when the Negro would have no parity in the courts. Second, without the vote, how could the Negro hope to influence the courts and society for more favorable conditions (which was what Washington hoped would happen later at the hands of European-Americans, if concessions were made initially by African-Americans)? Finally, he argued that it was an absolute necessity for the parity of the races that higher education be pursued by the academically oriented Negro. In other words, how could the Negro expect to have skills and production that kept up with competition if there were not those who were engaged in the rigors of theoretical education?

    DuBois argued for equality as one who was quite privileged by any standard when one considers his Harvard education. He saw in Washington’s popular position a fundamental inequality and sought to expose the fallacy that hard work would always render the same result when the playing fields and rules of the game, as it were, were so essentially skewed.

    Stay engaged and thanks for your post.

  9. Sorry for just jumping into this convo but I just came across this website today.

    “Privilege isn’t always at the expense of someone else. If we work hard and learn the system, we ALL can be privileged.”

    I think the argument for white privilege is that the system didn’t (and maybe still doesn’t) allow that to be true. If we could all work equally hard and gain the same thing, it wouldn’t be privilege. The problem is that for too long in this country it wasn’t equal. For too long, people were excluded (based on race) from the opportunity to work hard and “earn” the privileges. Some people could work just as hard, if not harder, than others but not get the benefits because of their race. And while this country has certainly come a long way, we are still feeling and dealing with the effects of our history.

    It is actually interesting because I think about it a lot in terms of our students here in Philly. I’m often incredibly discouraged because I feel like I send my seniors out into the “real world” at such a disadvantage. It doesn’t mean our students here in Philly (or their teachers for that matter) didn’t work hard. It means the system has failed them. And they will leave our schools with an automatic disadvantage and will be competing and working with students who were “privileged” enough to go to school in another district.

  10. Kat,

    As teachers, we can only do so much. If we put in our best effort, I don’t think there is any reason to feel discouraged. If you reach ONE kid you’ve done an admirable job. Think about all the children you’ve saved. Those kids in other districts are not always “advantaged” because of schools. Often times, they have an edge because they come from communities and home environments with lots of resources, and have parents who place a high value on education.

    Too many of our students don’t have these things. As teachers, if you look at what we accomplish with what we have to work with (and I’m NOT talking about the intelligence or worth of the child), we do a pretty respectable job. But no one ever tells us this. No one appreciates us. All we get is negative reinforcement. Everything is our fault.

    Think about those seniors who you DID reach, and you’ll feel much better.

    –Chris Paslay

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