Book Report: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

This book was recommended to me a few months ago, and I finally had the chance to borrow it from the public library. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a renowned authority on the psychology of racism, uses this text to examine racial identity and explain its development. She examines multiple theories of identity development and uses these theories to explain the Black-White divide in contemporary education. Utilizing modified theories, she also extends her argument to the racial identity development of Latinos, American Indians, Asians, and biracial youth. Throughout the text, she argues that by prioritizing the development of positive racial identity for people of color as well as whites, we can improve our educational system. Positive racial identity is implicated in success not only in the classroom but also in the workplace and family.

Transient

The book begins with a definition of racism and an analysis of racism and intersectionality. These two chapters are notable for their clarity of thought. In a few dozen pages, Tatum is able to refute notions of racism defined solely as prejudice and lay bare the reality of racism as a system of advantage based on race. First, she highlights the cost to those advantaged and disadvantaged within the system and highlights the importance of co-defining key terms before any meaningful discussion of race occurs. Second, she delves into the formation of identity and identifies the possibility that one may be both dominant and subordinate within multiple systems of privilege. While not dismissing other systems of oppression, Tatum chooses to highlight race in the remainder of the text. Though designed mainly to level intellectually with the reader, the first two chapters prove to be an effective primer for those seeking to learn more about racism.

After the introductory chapters, Tatum transitions into an analysis of Blackness in a White Context. She tracks the development of identity from early childhood through adolescence and on to adulthood. I recommend reading this section for yourself, but I will note here that while reading this section, I lamented the Common Core curriculum and other top-down approaches to managing classroom content. These efforts make it almost impossible for teachers to select texts that their children will see themselves reflected in, contributing to student alienation. While class is not focused on here, I wondered about the effects such a curriculum would have in affluent schools as compared to less affluent schools. Will students who do not see their socioeconomic reality reflected in the material they are exposed to in the classroom become alienated? I’m not sure, but this section definitely succeeded in raising concerns.

Following her analysis of Blackness, Tatum proceeds to an analysis of Whiteness in a White Context. She chronicles the development of white guilt and the ways in which that guilt may or may not translate into meaningful engagement to combat racism. Two ideas stand out. First, this section confirmed for me the need for separate developmental spaces. Tatum notes that Black youth benefit from exclusive spaces where they can explore identity without the threats posed by Whites, and Whites benefit similarly from an environment where they can vent their budding frustration and guilt about their own privilege without annoying Black youth who were already aware of inequality (they grew up facing it everyday). Second, Tatum’s defense of affirmative action in Chapter 7 is both principled and pragmatic, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a clear, understandable analysis of the issue.

After these two important sections, Tatum proceeds to discuss identity development beyond Black and White, with a section dealing with Latino, American Indian, Asian Pacific American, and multiracial identity development. While not as fully developed as the preceding sections, this one is able to cover a lot of ground, with Tatum doing a good job linking the specificities of these groups’ experiences back to her earlier frameworks. Overall, I think Tatum is able to provide enough analysis here to warrant further investigation without leaving too much neglected. She acknowledges her areas of expertise and also acknowledges the areas in which she is inexpert, and she leaves the task of fully investigating the racial identity development of these groups to those more knowledgeable and invested.

Overall, this book is an excellent text for all educators and any person looking to learn more about racism. In addition, I believe this book is a great text for parents, as Tatum sprinkles anecdotes about her son throughout, illustrating ways parents can begin conversations about sexism and racism with their children. Tatum has a gift for speaking in layman’s terms, and she rarely sounds patronizing while doing so. I highly recommend you borrow this book from your local library or buy it yourself!