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Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum

"Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity - Beverly Daniel Tatum

This is an informative book about the racial aspect of identity development. I am giving it a mild recommendation because I did not find it life-changing. But despite being a book about social issues published in 1997 (with an updated edition in 2003), it has maintained relevance. It is primarily geared toward parents and teachers, with a focus on child and adolescent identity development: how to raise non-white children in the U.S. with a healthy sense of themselves, and how to raise white children to speak out against racism. Because of the smattering of angry reviews, it’s also worth pointing out that the book is geared toward those who acknowledge that racism is an existing problem that affects people of color, and would like to improve their understanding or learn to do more about it.

Beverly Tatum is a college professor and administrator with a background in psychology and extensive experience teaching workshops about race, and also a black woman who’s put careful thought into teaching her sons about race. The book has a detached, somewhat scholarly tone, though it remains accessible and readable. The author compiles several theoretical models for racial identity development and illustrates them with examples from students, workshop participants, and her own life. In general I found the information she provides helpful, not earth-shattering for someone relatively familiar with social justice issues, but not too basic either.

The book does mostly focus on black and white, though the author makes an effort to expand from that. There are 10-page sections about Hispanic, Native American, and Asian-American identity, which are more substantial than I expected based on their brevity, but lack space to do more than summarize these groups’ experience with American government and society, and flag some key issues relevant to grade school teachers. Unsurprisingly, the portion of the book dealing with African-American identity is the richest. It’s useful – and probably necessary – for teachers and others to understand what kids are experiencing.

In writing about white people, the author is familiar with common racial attitudes, and explains them in terms of a growth model even though many people get stuck somewhere along the way (the same of course can be said for black people): from not having to think about race, to blaming minorities for their situation, to white guilt, to hopefully speaking out against racism in a productive way. Her analysis of the reasons white people are afraid to speak out seems dated to me (suggesting that fear of ostracism from other white people is a major factor, while de-emphasizing fear of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth because white people aren’t taught to talk about race). But otherwise the book’s analysis of race relations feels contemporary.

The author’s conception of a positive white racial identity is also incomplete, though as a black person, this isn’t really her job. She believes (and I have doubts about this) that positive change requires white people having a strong, positive racial identity of their own: including whiteness as a major part of their self-conception without being racist. But as far as she gets in envisioning what that looks like is suggesting that white people look to other white people who have fought racism, and build anti-racist identities. The problem is that opposing racism is a social position, not an identity, and most people are not activists who build their lives around their opinions. Ultimately it’s for white people to determine what white identity looks like, though, so I can’t fault the author for failing to do so.

At any rate, this book is informative and the actual text is only just over 200 pages, so it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. It isn't a book that inspired any strong reaction in me, but I feel a bit more knowledgeable for having read it.