"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" [book review]

I’ve been waiting for years to get my hands on this book. Now that I have, I can say that it’s everything that I expected it to be. It’s a frank discourse about race relations in the USA today (or 12 years ago, since it was published in ’97) and an excellent starting point for further discussion. All that’s good about the book speaks for itself. I don’t need to go into that. After all, how do you review racial discussions? Well, small critiques, I suppose.

"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?"

Shamelessly lifted from Amazon.com’s site

There’s one thing that seriously bothers me about Dr. Tatum’s racial discussion. I believe in the same chapter that she states how harmful it is for people to only have labels attributed to them, she says that, by a definition of her machination, only those in power – white people – are capable of being racist. Racism is only possible for those in power. I don’t agree. Racism, by definition, is the result of racial preference or discrimination. Everyone can discriminate. It’s technically racist to write in one’s own book, where one has the power, that only another group is worthy of such a heinous label. It creates an unnecessary “us vs. them” divide that the culture wars do not need.

This wasn’t the first time I came across that alternative definition for racism, but I’m sure it was the source. Many of my friends as well as myself are graduates of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Tatum received her license in clinical psychology from the M. Naturally, this book had to have been used in a course or few on campus. I was confronted once with, “No, only white people can be racist,” and I was told I was clearly missing the point when I stated that it was wrong by definition. I’m sure that it’s meant to be empowering to take the use of the word away from the oppressors, but all it does is result in an unnecessary racial snottiness. I can’t be racist because you people are the racists. Way to go, Dr. Tatum.

But her strong opinions are certainly to be admired. She writes about a time she was set to go on stage at a school, and right before it a breakfast meeting for just the African Americans was announced. After she spoke to the group, a white member of the audience, clearly agitated by what had happened earlier, asked how she would have felt had she witnessed a breakfast meeting for just the white people. Tatum’s response: “I would say it was a good idea.” It takes a lot of character to say that. I think what she proposes from there is great. Groups that support African Americans should encourage their white members to act independently in their support, not to mention discover their own identities as white/European Americans. This implicates that the goal isn’t just to the move African Americans forward but to help us all grow and move forward together. I just wish she had blatantly stated that, as cheesy as it is.

Then there was her section on developing an identity in a multiracial context. It naturally focused on the black-white mix, about which I know all too much. What I didn’t like was the fact that she initially rolled that in with one’s development as an African American. I think that oversimplifies things, so I’m glad she also stated that she wasn’t as qualified as other social scientists to discuss the situation. Regardless, she wrote a whole chapter and supported the idea that the racial identity of a person can be left as context-sensitive, and that in some contexts one can champion the black identity and in other contexts the mixed identity. The white side, being the side of power, requires not support. Since I’m very proud of both sides of my family, I have a bone to pick with that.

Well, I think I might have a bone to pick with the author. She seems to have such a level of racial pride that I think it has created a certain level of spite for the majority race in the country. Not only are whites not to be bolstered in the identity of a mixed race person, and not only are white people the only ones who can be racist, but she states in an almost proud manner toward the beginning of the book that she can recall all of her black friends from college but not a single white one. In the epilogue she wrote for the new edition of the book, she responded to criticisms of that by saying that the crowds they were in were fairly segregated, so she spent less time with them. The statement’s inclusion in the first place, though, was quite unnecessary.

The book is great, however. Friends have complained that the title is quite long, but it does get one’s attention. Despite the hang-ups I have with what can be gleamed of the author, the book has a place as a conversation piece and teaching tool. Also, anyone who might be interested in looking more seriously into the media and its portrayal of minorities could do worse than to start with this book to help develop an appropriately discerning paradigm.

Author: Gospel X

Media commentator who tries not to waste time - and often fails

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