Reflections on Tatum

Tatum, Beverly Daniel [1](1997): ”Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race. Basic Books. Parts I, III & V. edit

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book of 1997 deals with a matter that is a constantly pressing issue in the society, namely racism. The book’s title is intriguing, arousing curiosity of what’s to come. Beginning with the question presented in the title, Tatum defines the terms used in the book and discusses the development of racism in both intra-personal and societal levels, a task that she continues to do during all the three parts discussed here.

When it comes to the development of racism intra-personally, Tatum suggests that a great part of the process is unconscious and unintented. According to her, most of the early information we receive about others in our childhood – people racially, religiously or socioeconomically different from ourselves – is not a result of firsthand experience, but most often filtered through adults and older children we interact with, through media, literature and so on. The secondhand information we receive has in its turn been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes and left incomplete. In other words, we are more or less unintentionally being raised to be thinking categorically, or if you wish to say so, racist. The stereotypes and prejudices we have are both results of “information” and disinformation, as well as information that we lack (1997:4-6).

Cultural racism is described by Tatum as “smog in the air”, at times visible, but mostly invisible but yet existing and affecting our perceptions, ideas and thoughts (1995:95). The presence of the smog does often go unnoticed, but nevertheless, it is still there – and after being exposed to the smog for a long time it becomes not only a natural part of our lives, but even a necessity for experiencing stability in the world. The metaphor is effective and well-functioning in this context.

Tatum defines racism “as a system of advantage based on race”, rather than a personal ideology based on racial prejudice. Instead, when racial prejudice is combined with social power, that is when it leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices (1997:7-8) The systematization of advantage in the society is being presented in an interesting contrast to the idea of American meritocracy, i.e. a system where one’s possibilities and opportunities in life should be determined by one’s talent and abilities. This is the matter of fact in the US, but also a common starting point for an ideal society in Scandinavia. Wisely, Tatum reminds the reader about the fact that race is not the only factor determining dis/advantage in the society. Other factors such as gender, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, mental and physical ability are also mentioned (1997:22). To understand this, we need only to look at ourselves. From my perspective, for instance, I can quickly establish in which terms I have more (being White, well-educated, Christian, heterosexual, healthy) and less (female, a member of a cultural/linguistic minority) advantage, and as such, chances to be heard and seen in the society. All these parts construct also my identity and just as Tatum presents it, it is only seldom that I am aware of all of them and the effect they have or lack.

Speaking in terms of dominance and subordination is another way of looking at the system of advantage in the society. According to Jean Baker Miller, dominant groups, holding authority and power, are the ones that set the parametres in which the subordinates operate, often leading to a situation where the subordinate group is labeled defective or substandard and the dominant group is seen as the norm of humanity (1997:23-24). Tatum discusses this imbalance from several differens points of view, mentioning e.g. the imbalance in information concerning the other group (1997: 25-26). A disctinct method of survival for the subordinate group is to acquire knowledge and information about the dominant group, but this doesn’t work vice versa. Knowledge of the subordinate group doesn’t in itself grant advantage in the society (or hold symbolic power, to speak in Bourdieuan terms), so it is rarely acquired by the dominant group. Apart from power, awareness, or the lack of it, is something that Tatum discusses from several points of view, wheter it comes to Whites’ position of dominance or advantage in society, to realizing that we all are “normal” and “abnormal” at the same time, to being individuals yet simultaneously members of groups or to denying or not being aware of the racism that lies beneath our skins.

The terms “White” and “Black” are the starting point in Tatum’s discussion about race, but she makes it clear that the categories are not cemented and that categorization, stereotyping, and prejudice, not to mention racism covers also other groups and subgroups. Several times in her text, she touches upon intersectionality, though not mentioning it explicitly. My guess is that the term was not commonly used in 1997. It is also obvious that the book is written with the American society as its main starting point and focus, but the way the issues are presented makes them universal.

Tatum’s perspective on racism is constructive, based on the assumption that racism is something that we can get rid of, but only through conscious and hard work. In chapter 6, she presents a six-step model for abadoning racism, originally introduced by the psychologist Janet Helms. The steps are briefly presented below. In order to achieve a more universal understanding, I have in most cases, replaced Tatum’s “Whites” with “the dominant group” and “Blacks” with “the disadvantaged group”.

Step 1 Contact The dominant groud pays little attention to the significance of their racial identity, not realizing they are systematically privileged, often thinking that they cannot be racist. (1997:95)
Step 2 Disintegration A growing awareness of racism and the privilege of the dominant group through personal encounters in which the social significance of race is made visible. Feelings of discomfort, guilt, shame, which often leads to internal tension. (1997:96-98)
Step 3 Reintegration The desire to relieve internal tension leads to fear and anger towards the disadvantaged group. Logic: “racism has to have a connection to the disadvantaged group, up to a point that they are the ‘source’ of it”. (1997:101-103)
Step 4 Pseudo-independent A deepening awareness of racism often leads to a commitment to unlearn it. (1997: 106)
Step 5 Immersion/emersion Going beyond the role of the victimizer through recognizing the need to find a more positive self-definition, e.g. through finding antiracist role models or communities for support. (1997:107-110)
Step 6 Autonomy A redefined view of the group identity as a part of a personal identity: accepting the uniqueness of each person, regardless of group memberships, but also acknowledging the effects of group memberships for each individual. Being open to new information and new ways of thinking about racial and cultural variables. (1997:112)

The books’ final chapter encourages the reader to embrace a cross-racial dialogue. Tatum calls for a meaningful, productive dialogue to raise consciousness which in its turn can lead to effective action and social and societal change. Having earlier in the book focused on the emotional constraints of racism, Tatum doesn’t forget them here, either. She discusses the paralysis of fear, the fact that challenging “common truths” and taking action against offensive behaviour often seems like a too big thing to do in terms of what we are afraid of sacrificing. Being passive can have its roots in many things, in fear of isolation, of offending someone, of losing privilege, of not knowing how to address the problem, of being forced to accept anger and frustration (1997:194-198). Tatum’s argument for challenging these fears is simple: we cannot afford not to do so. As a society, she writes, “we pay a price for our silence”, listing the costs of personal, institutional and cultural racism in loss of human potential, lowered productivity and negative spiral of fear and violence in our society (1997:200). On a more personal level, having fear and not challenging one’s and others’ “truths” means losing opportunities for greater insight into ourselves (1997:201). Having courage is necessary, Tatum stresses, and can be acquired through education, seeking for support in others and most of all; accepting that even though one cannot change the entire world, everyone can start making a difference in one’s own sphere of influence, within one’s own network.