Are we as adults prepared to help the children we care about make sense of their own race-related observations?
This is a book review of Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum. The review was written by Brandie Williams.
In this thought-provoking work, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Beverly Daniel Tatum weaves together a conscious-jolting web of understanding surrounding privilege, racial identity, and how we come to understand who we are as individuals. In the very beginning of her book, she challenges us with a simple exercise: “think back to your earliest race-related memory.”
Little Brown Me
I was immediately drawn back to rural North Carolina, to a dusty, underfunded public park with old tattered swings and dirt instead of lush grass. As my twin sister and I soared high on the swings, we were approached by a slightly older White child, who innocently asked “what are y’all?” My twin sister and I looked at each other. “What does she mean by, “what are y’all,’” I thought. She clarified, “I mean, are y’all Black or White?” In sitcom twin fashion, we both looked down at our arms, our skin, at each other, and at the same time said “brown.” Tatum might argue that while this child was trying to place us in categories of sameness or otherness due to the ambiguity caused by our biracial identities, we, at five years old living in a mostly White household in the South, had not established a racial identity at all. That would not come for years later, when adolescence struck and society would attempt to squeeze us into categories of this or that.
Who am I? And Why?
What I loved most about this book was that as I read one enticing argument after another, I found myself staring into space, thinking about my own identity and who I am and how much of that has been defined by how others perceive me. I am biracial, “just as much White as you are Black” (in the words of my grandmother). Yet society sees me as Black, and that is how I’ve always viewed myself. I approached the book thinking that it would be another book on systemic racism, but it is more aptly a book on identity; on coming to understand the nuances and complexities of racial identity, and how the messages we receive about race, and ourselves, will ultimately be reflected back in our own self-conceptions.
“Check Your Privilege”
Instead of the flat arguments often put forth by some who only discuss tough issues in myopic ways (talking mostly about White privilege instead of also considering class, gender, and other types of privilege), Tatum digs much deeper. She focuses on racial identity throughout the book, but carefully balances it by explaining that we all play a role in “checking” our own privilege, examining the ways we portray one another, and openly discussing the messages we send and receive about race. For example, I am a (self-identified) Black woman, yet I am also able-bodied, middle class, educated, and light-skinned, all of which afford me privileges that others may not have. We are complex, and I think she champions that point effortlessly.
Resisting Stereotypes and Positive Affirmation
The most valuable contribution of the book was the dialogue that Tatum has with her young son, Jonathan, about race. Explaining topics such as slavery, colorism, and sexism to a child can be daunting, and many parents will attempt to silence their children or avoid the topics altogether. Tatum not only challenges parents and teachers to confront this head-on, but provides a guide for how to do so.
I highly recommend this book to people of all backgrounds; it serves as a road map for any parent who wants to thoughtfully engage their children in critical conversations and shows us how to empower children and youth to identify and resist bias when they see it. It is truly a must- read.
Brandie Reeder Williams is staffer, blogger and researcher for the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. She holds a Master’s of Public Administration from UNC Greensboro, and works to champion issues related to social justice, women’s rights and community development.
For more information about Brandie: Twitter.