by Christopher Paslay
After reading the second half of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I would like to commend her for having the courage to bring the issues of race and racism in America to light. There are those who believe talking about race can only cause more frustration and serve to polarize the races even further, but I agree with Tatum when she says that there is a psychological cost of silence. “As a society, we pay a price for our silence. Unchallenged personal, cultural and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society.”
I agree wholeheartedly. No topic in America should be taboo, especially the topic of race. Communication is the best way to promote understanding and solve problems non-violently. 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.
However, this doesn’t mean we should embrace all of its ideas and accept them at face value. There are many concepts in Tatum’s book that are off-base and oversimplified—points that come from a worldview that is limited in scope and perspective.
For example, in Part III of her book, Tatum presumes to tell us all how to understand “Whiteness in a White Context”. If I recall correctly, isn’t Tatum black? Then how exactly does she have the life experiences and credentials to write about the thoughts, perceptions, prejudices and inner-struggles of white Americans? Because she’s taught at SpelmanCollege, a historically black liberal arts college for women in AtlantaGeorgia? Because she’s held workshops and roundtables on racism with white liberal college students? Because she’s interviewed “angry white men” and can now understand the psyche of those white Americans who disagree with her ideas and politics?
Tatum has misrepresented whites in several areas. Because whites are supposedly the “unexamined norm” of society, she claims they “can easily reach adulthood without thinking much about their racial group.” She also states they “tend to think of racial identity as something that other people have, not something that is salient for them.”
I can see how Tatum might have arrived at this misconception. During her workshops on race, it’s quite possible that many of her liberal white college participants were so guilty about being white, they hesitated to mention it as part of their identity. This seems to be an offshoot of our politically correct culture: when it comes to discussions on race, being white is synonymous with being the bad guy.
The reality is, many white people do think about their racial group and identity. We are not permitted to come out and celebrate being white (unless you want to be associated with the KKK), but we are proud of our heritage. Think about it. How many whites do you know—young and old—who wave the Irish flag (St. Patrick’s Day; Irish American Heritage Night at Citizen’s BankPark)? How many whites are proud of being Italian (ever see the T-shirt that says, Italians do it better)? How about the Greeks? And the Poles? And the Jews?
Tatum also misrepresents whites when it comes to Affirmative Action. She claims that white folks who believe in Affirmative Action are healthy with a positive self identity, and those who disagree with it are confused and suffering from something she calls “aversion racism”. Tatum defines aversion racism as “an attitudinal adaptation resulting from an assimilation of an egalitarian value system with prejudice and racist beliefs”. In other words, if you don’t believe in a system that awards jobs, contracts and college admissions to people based on skin color, you are a racist who is “breathing the smog of racial biases and stereotypes pervading the popular culture.”
I’ve been teaching racially diverse students in the PhiladelphiaSchool District for 12 years. I’ve worked for the Philadelphia Youth Network for six summers, spending time with students on playgrounds in Southwest Philadelphia, in basements of churches in North Philadelphia, and in rec centers in a dozen other parts of the city. I am fair, open-minded, and compassionate. But because I don’t agree with Affirmative Action, Tatum presumes I’m a racist (although I’m white and would already be a racist by default, according to her philosophies).
“When the dominant identity of Whiteness goes unexamined, racial privilege also goes unacknowledged,” Tatum says. “Instead, the achievements that unearned privilege make more attainable are seen as just reward for one’s own efforts.”
Nothing exemplifies the hypocritical nature of Tatum’s reasoning more than this statement. Tatum insists whites are privileged, and therefore given preferential treatment (and because whites haven’t examined their “Privilege,” they falsely believe that what they’ve been given is based solely on merit). At the same time, Tatum’s an advocate of Affirmative Action, a system that gives preferential treatment to people because of their race (people who falsely believe that what they’ve been given is based solely on merit).
Do you see the double-standard here?
Although Tatum’s book is radical in its ideologies, it is a powerful way to confront racism in America. However, I think the title is misleading. Instead of calling the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Tatum should rename it, Giving the White Man a Taste of His Own Medicine. This would be much more accurate and honest.
Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher. His new book, The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility, is now available from Rowman & Littlefield . To order a copy, click here.