Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D uses her novel, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria to raise the conversation of stereotypes, prejudice, and racism. Tatum references statistical data, theories, and real-life experiences to support her discussion. I found the manner in which Tatum chose to discuss these topics informative. Her discussion provides the reader with valid talking points for critical topics. The topics that will be reviewed in this paper will be the benefits of discussing racism, defining racism and the attributes that support it, identity development, and how to begin to stop the cycle.
There are many reasons for bringing awareness to the existence of racism. Through the discussion and examination of racism in our society, we can understand how we are affected by it. 83 Throughout our development, we are intentionally and unknowingly stimulated by agents of socialization.
Our social environment is filled with sources that constantly endorse secondhand information. During adolescence, many people have limited interactions with people of different races and cultures.
Awareness of racism allows us to identify misinformation provided through different mediums. 84 The attention-grabbing media sources are rarely informative and led to the development of negative categorizations of other racial groups. 86 A new consciousness towards racism allows for the recognition of how secondhand information may be distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete. 84 Furthermore, these distortions, misrepresentations, and falsehoods have a lasting impression and may go unchallenged for long periods of time. 85 They become the foundations for our prejudices and fuels the emergence of cultural racism.
Some individuals even make these negative attitudes or behaviors part of their own nature through unconscious assimilation. The youth are not to blame for internalized racism, however it is our growth and development that equips is for understanding our behavior. 86 Through knowledge, we can understand our role within society and the footprint that we leave behind. Unchecked behaviors without reflection and re-education result in a continuation of the cycle.
It is our responsibility to interrupt and stop this cycle. 87 Tatum recommends that “We need to talk about it at home, at school, in our houses of worship, in our workplaces, in our community groups.” 331 The conversations must be focused on understanding racism, and the actions we can take within our roles as agents of change.
Confronting any social issue can produce fear and racism is no different. To discuss racism, we must also honestly examine how we have participated in, allowed occurring, or benefited from racism. Most people will avoid this topic to not stir opposing or negative emotions within others. Conversations regarding racism will reveal self-truths that some individuals will not be willing to accept or want to hear. Unfortunately, this only highlights the insecurities and ignorance of our peers. 332 The fear of isolation and hostility for discussing racism will hinder many from doing so. David Wellman’s definition of racism allows us to see how racism “is a form of oppression and not just personal ideologies. 87
In the United States, the white majority are the initiators and main benefactors of most institutional policies and practices within our society. This continues to allow the white majority to maintain power. Moreover, people of color have a disadvantage and receive the negative results of such policies and practices at a disproportionately higher rate than their white counterparts. Tatum is justified in basing most of her discussion on Wellman’s definition of racism, because it acknowledges the effects on our society as a whole. It examines how racism is woven into our social, educational, political, judicial, and economic systems.
Racism in America allows for access to better housing, educational opportunities, employment, and life experiences. Some individuals will attribute these advantages to good luck, failing to acknowledge that their race was an underlying factor. A racially categorized review of job salaries, educational attainment, and incarceration rates for nonviolent crimes would provide factual support for the basis of racism resulting in systematic advantages and disadvantages. With this knowledge, we can advocate for the correction of these inequalities to create a society that is truly fair and unbiased. “The system of advantage continues when we don’t acknowledge it.” 89
I find Tatum’s explanation of William Cross’ stages to be confusing, rushed, and muddled together. It was difficult for me to separate her wording into five distinct stages. On the other hand, I find William Cross’s stages of racial identity development to be an effective method of explaining the identity experience.
My opinion is based on how relatable each stage was to my personal experiences as a black person in America. I can distinctly remember the situations that could be categorized within the pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion, internalization, and internalization-commitment stages.
At a young age, my mother exposed me to cultural events and displayed a love for African culture. My middle name, Nailah, translates as “the one who succeeds” in Arabic. During my cultural experiences, I was not led to believe any race was greater or lesser than any other. I can remember playing at community parks with other children of varying races and recognizing the defining difference to be between boys and girls. I would consider this my experience within the pre-encounter stage.
The second stage of Encounter occurred for me in the third grade. I had moved from what I now realized was a mostly minority populated school to a predominantly white populated school. While playing with two of my newest friends, Jessica and Jennifer, I was exposed to hearing my first racial slur. Jessica and Jennifer became upset when a group of other children raced to the activity center we seated in front of. I overheard Jessica and Jennifer make a statement to the effect of, “Those niggers better not try to play with us.” It was their tone and the way they turned towards each other that made me look up at them.
When they realized that I heard them, an expression of shock came across their faces. They both quickly began to make assurances to me with statements like, “Don’t worry Alex you’re not one of them, you’re like us.” I looked at other children and then back at Jessica and Jennifer. There was this weird feeling I had inside, but not the awareness to address it. When I told my mother of the event she confirmed my suspicions. After this point, my mother began to provide me with more books that were written by Black authors. Due to this my favorite books of all time became The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Gal by Josephine Humphreys.
The third stage of Immersion/Emersion occurred for me when I reached middle school. My best friend, Cressendia, was black and she lived in a housing complex that was populated by blacks and other minorities. My house was on the same school bus route. My once diverse group of friends consisted of mostly Black and Latino.
At times, I would find myself the on receiving end of taunts for sounding white, dressing white, even looking white. I did not like this, but it never became an issue of me having to criticize white culture. I became more interested in people who looked similar to me and found this comforting. I found myself listening less pop and more rap. I switched from reading Teen magazine to Vibe magazine. And my favorite tv program was no longer Home Improvement, it was now the Martin Lawrence Show.
The fourth stage of Internalization, occurred for me once I graduated from high school. I had been through enough experiences during high school, that was testing out my independence. I didn’t really care what anyone thought or expected of me as a Black person. When reviewing this stage, I can agree with there being the acceptance of an over-simplistic code of blackness. The motto of “All I have to do in life is stay black and die” rang true to me.
The final stage of Internalization/Commitment is still in process. I am a Black female that is aware of my role within society and how I may be judged on the basis of my skin color alone. Although I love my ethnicity, I do find it disheartening that I have to constantly be conscious of how my race will affect my interactions with others. I enjoy diversity and believe that society would be less interesting and progressive without it. I am committed to being the best person that I can be regardless of the labels that others may attribute to me.
I believe that William Cross’s stages of racial identity could be applied to other multicultural groups. When an individual is a member of a multigroup that is not considered the norm or held by the majority, knowledge and acceptance of these differences does not occur at once. Developing our own self-identity and being able to function within that identity is a process. When an individual becomes aware of their differences they begin to question themselves and if they truly are a member of that group. This may cause a range of emotions before they reach a point of acceptance.
After this, a person will usually seek out people that are a part of that group as a means of comfort and understanding. Once a person senses a feeling of belonging they will usually take on the beliefs, traditions, and behaviors of that group with pride. Furthermore, as a member of that multicultural group, the individual will seek a means of protecting and advocating for the group.
It is important that adults engage children in an examination of the sources of entertainment they consume so that they are able to recognize oppressive messages. “We are better able to resist the negative impact of oppressive messages when we see them coming than when they are invisible to us”(126). When a child is educated to the meaning of the language and images, they are less likely to internalize and absorb those messages.
This is engagement will contribute to stopping the spread of stereotypes and prejudices. Adults can encourage children to question if the depictions of children are stereotypes by identifying the roles assigned to characters. The children can learn to ask why a certain character is given the spotlight and others left out. They can also question what characteristics attributed to each character and why. The child can then use that information to question whether what is being portrayed by the character is negative or distorted.
When a child is able to identify and understand the distortions and misrepresentations, they are able to think about how the misinformation can cause issues within society. With the understanding of how the misinformation can be harmful, a child can then be taught how to respond. “If we teach children to recognize injustice, then we must also teach them that people can create positive change by working together…” (129).
A child should be encouraged to say when they disagree with or dislike something. When a child is encouraged they become more confident and feel good about having an opinion that may be different from others around them. This will allow children to become adults that are able to identify, understand, and communicate their responses when faced with the oppressive material.