A review of the book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” By: Beverly Daniel Tatum


Mary Kuchta

South Dakota State University

Abstract

In the book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Beverly Daniel Tatum explains the development of racial identity in the eyes of a psychologist. I will discuss the development of racial identity along with providing answers to some of the questions that separate black people and white people. I will discuss the affects of a predominately white society on how black people identify themselves and how society plays a role in the hallways and cafeterias of school. I will conclude with some of my thoughts and how I could use the information that I gained from this book into my own teaching.


I grew up in a small farming community where most everyone in the community was white. When I began teaching in a larger school district where diversity was all around me, I was woken up to a different world and learned a lot about different groups of people and always wondered why students and people of the same color seem to cluster together. I was put into a room where I taught students that were white, black, Latino, and American Indian. Seeing such a diversity was new to me and I felt like I could not connect with the black, Latino, and American Indian students like I could with the white students. So, when I heard of the book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PH.D., I had to read it and try to get a different perspective on how I see and interpret the world around me. I wanted to gain a little understanding about what students that are not white are feeling when they live in a predominately white society.

Tatum provided some of her own experiences to help explain the development of racial identity. She first began by discussing the issues and stereotypes that are in society today. Stereotypical images of people of color are in the media, cartoons, and movies everyday. An example would be that the common image of a black young man running down the street is labeled as being a thief or criminal running from the crime. There are newspapers articles about documented racial bias in lending practices among well-know banks, racial tracking patterns in schools, and rising incidents of racially motivated hate crimes in America (Tatum, 1997). These examples show that we are all affected by racism. So, what is racism?

Before we can define racism, we must first define what it means to be prejudice. Prejudice is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information. “Prejudice is an integral part of our socialization, and it is not our fault but does not relieve us of responsibility for cleaning it up. Our responsibility to interrupt this cycle (we teach what we were taught. The unexamined prejudices of the parents are passes on to the children)” (Tatum, 1997). Those preconceived judgments that are made by people everyday contribute to racism in our society. Racism is defined as a system of advantage based on race. This definition is useful because it allows us to see that racism is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but rather it is a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals. With this system come advantages of being white. In our system, whites are considered the dominant group where blacks and other groups are considered the subordinate groups.

Dominant groups, by definition, set the parameters within which the subordinates operate. The dominant group holds the power and authority in society relative to the subordinates and determines how that power and authority may be acceptably used. Whether it is reflected in determining who gets the best jobs, whose history will be taught in school, or whose relationships will be validated by society, the dominant group has the greatest influence in determining the structure of the society. The relationship of the dominants to the subordinates is often one in which the targeted group is labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways. For example, blacks have historically been characterized as less intelligent than whites, and women have been viewed as less emotionally stable than men. The dominate group assigns roles to the subordinates, reserving the most highly valued roles in society for themselves (Tatum, 1997). I know that in school, the people in history that I mostly learned about were white. I did not realize until I was reading this book that I don’t know of many people in history of color other than Martin Luther King and Malcom X. This is just one example of how whites are the dominant group in our society. As a teacher, I also realized that the black students sit in history class learning about white people doing great things in history, but not learning about very many black people in history. Growing up, this thought never came to me.

The truth is that the dominants do not really know what the experience of the subordinates is. In contrast, the subordinates are very well informed about the dominants. Even when firsthand experience is limited by social segregation, the number of variety of images of the dominant group available through television, magazines, books, and newspapers provide subordinates with plenty of information about the dominants. The dominant world view has saturated the culture for all to learn. Information about the subordinates is often limited to stereotypical depictions. There are many images of white men and women in all forms of media, but relatively few portrayals of people of color (Tatum, 1997).

After Tatum explained some of the definitions and society that we live in today, she went on to explain how black people develop into their racial identity. When children are of preschool age, they are very aware that their blackness makes them different form mainstream white America and they understand white privilege. “The struggle for a strong positive racial identity for young Black Afro-American children is clearly made more difficult by the realities of color prejudice” (Tatum, 1997). Children pick up on the stereotypes. An example given in the book of how children understand stereotypes is when Tatum was driving down the street with her five year old son in the car. They saw a black teenager running down the street and her son said “Maybe he stole something” (Tatum, 1997). Even at age five, her son understood the culture image presented in society.

Children pay attention to the world around them at a very young age. They are like sponges and absorb all the information they can. So, parents need to talk to their children about racism. For children to feel good and confident about themselves, they need to be able to say, “That’s not fair” if they are the target of prejudice or discrimination. If we teach children to recognize injustice, then we must also teach them that people can create positive change by working together. Children at a young age recognize these prejudices, but it is still common for us to see preschool age children of different color to play and sit together. But when children hit middle school and high school age, they separate into different groups. Why does that separation occur and what causes it?

According to Tatum, puberty plays a role. They begin to explore the question of identity, asking “Who am I?” “Who can I be?” “What does it mean to be black?” This is the age where children are trying to develop their identity and begins to ask those tough questions. Black youths think about themselves in terms of race because that is how the rest of the world thinks of them. Self-perceptions are shaped by the messages that we receive from those around us, and when young black men and women enter adolescence, the racial content of those messages intensifies. These young individuals encounter the cues from their environment and the world that heightens their awareness of the significance of race and they begin to understand what it means to be a member of a group targeted by racism.

One of those cues that young individuals face is ability grouping or tracking in schools. Black children are much more likely to be in the lower track than in the honors track. I know that I notice this in the school that I teach at. I noticed that when I watch the students walk out of the honors math classes, most of them are white. Tatum interviewed a young honor student that explains his situation.

“It was really a very paradoxical existence, here I am in a school that’s 35 percent Black, you know, and I”m the only Black in my classes…. That always struck me as odd. I guess I felt that I was different from the other Blacks because of that” (Tatum, 1997).

Along with these changes in school, students experience differences among the social dynamics outside school. One example is something that many black girls experience. When their white friends start to date, they do not. The issues of emerging sexuality and the societal messages about who is sexually desirable leave young black women in a much devalued position. There was an example of a young woman from a Philadelphia suburb trying to pursue white guys in her class. She went to a predominately white school. White boys would date her white friends, but would not date her because they were seeking out white women. Along with young black women struggling in this social environment, the young women that are living in a larger black community also have their own social issues. They have to overcome the stereotypes of the school drop-out, the teenage welfare mother, the drug addict, and the victim of domestic violence or of AIDS. These are all issues that young black adolescents and adults have to struggle with.

One more example of an encounter that Tatum provided to help explain some of the struggles that young black individuals face was not a direct problem, but more of a subtle statement that was made. There was a substitute teacher in a ninth-grade classroom. There happened to be some free time and the substitute teacher went around the room asking about their college plans and suggested various four-year colleges. When the substitute came to the young black student, she asked that student which community college would be of interest. She did not mean anything by it, but the young individual got the hint about the type of schooling that is expected of a black man. This was just an example that was provided to set the stage to why these young men and women begin to group together more.

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Everyone wants to feel like they belong and this is something that young black individuals struggle with. They try to find a group that understands what they are going through and can provide the support that they need. Lets use the example of the young individual who was asked what community college he was going to, while the rest of the students were asked which four-year college they were interested in. If this young individual went to some white friends, would they understand why the statement made this individual feel upset? Black students often group up with their own culture because they feel that students of the same culture will understand and provide support to one another.

Along with the support group, theses students need to keep an image of their blackness. They don’t want to do things make them “white”. This may be why we do not see as many black students in the honors programs. Society does not portray black people as being intellectual. Society portrays black people as being more athletic and participating in football, basketball, or being a sprinter in track. So, if a black student is an honor student, that student may be somewhat rejected by his/her black peers and considered “white”. This student may also not feel like he/she does not fit in with the white students either. So, this sense of belonging can be tough for students.

As I was reading this book, I got a better sense of what adolescents go through to try to fit in and feel like they belong. Since I grew up in a predominately white community, I never thought about these issues before. And when I was a teacher, I never did understand why the majority of my lower level math classes had students that were black or Hispanic in them. When I taught these students, I knew that they were smart, but after reading this book, I realized that it was never because they could not do the material that they were being taught. Many times, these students were trying to fit into their group in order to have a sense of belonging.

As a teacher, I could use this knowledge and try to use it to help these students to be successful and feel like they can do whatever they put their minds to. One little thing that I could maybe do in my room that might help these students with motivation is incorporate different cultural history into various math story problems. If these students can learn about more black people doing great things in history, they may be more motivated. I could also provide students with the opportunity to group up in groups of diverse cultures so that they can grow to understand each other. I really enjoyed this book and it really made me realize and pay attention to our society and how people are perceived and grouped. People are not only grouped by color and race, but by how much money they have, how they dress, their gender, or their religion. Every person is different and thing for me as a teacher is to keep an open mind to all the issues that these students face each day and do my best to make my classroom the a safe environment.


Reference

Tatum, Beverly D. (1997). “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”. New York: Basic Books.