Notes on “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

Systemic racism is not new, but widespread discussion of it has been.

I keep writing and rewriting, unsure of what to say because I am a white person who grew up in an abundantly white, rural place who assumed that life where people didn’t all look the same was like Sesame Street. I struggle because I don’t understand.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? has been a helpful resource. Following are the quotes and notes I recorded back in May when I read the book.

On page 9, she offers a helpful example that gives us a working definition of systemic racism:

“In very concrete terms, it means that if a person of color is the victim of housing discrimination, the apartment that would otherwise have been rented to that person of color is still available for a White person. The White tenant is, knowingly or unknowingly, the beneficiary of racism, a system of advantage based on race. The unsuspecting tenant is not to blame for the prior discrimination, but she benefits from it anyway.”

On page 22, she quotes Audre Lorde, a Black writer:

“Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In america [sic], this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian [sic], and financially secure. It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, so of which we ourselves may be practicing.”

On page 41, Tatum talks about a question from her four-year-old son about slavery–it was sooner than she had expected/wanted to address it, but she was glad to introduce the topic on her own terms. She goes on to explain that many Black students come back and tell her that their school only taught about Blackness in terms of slavery and portrayed the enslaved as “helpless victims–the rebellions and resistance offered by the enslaved Africans are rarely discussed.” She also mentions how White students and teachers are uncomfortable discussing race and its history in any capacity.

More on Black students and learning about race and history in the classroom from page 66:

“Time and again in research interviews I conducted, Black students lamented the absence of courses in African American history or literature at the high school level and indicated how significant this new learning was to them in college, how excited and affirmed they felt by this newfound knowledge.”

She points out the unfortunate reality that those Black young people who do not go on to college will likely miss out on these learning opportunities.

On page 102, she points out that in confronting racism, White people struggle with being seen as a member of a group rather than an individual, while people of color have had that experience their whole lives. On page 103, she says:

“The view of oneself as an individual is very compatible with the dominant ideology of rugged individualism and the American myth of meritocracy. Understanding racism as a system of advantage that structurally benefits Whites and disadvantages people of color on the basis of group membership threatens not only beliefs about society but also beliefs about one’s own accomplishments.”

She uses the example of one researcher who found that when people of color and women talked about systemic discrimination, “white men heard it as a condemnation that they somehow didn’t ‘deserve’ their position,” making their statements of frustration about themselves rather than the people voicing their concerns.

But there is hope. Listening goes a long way. Calling out bad behavior helps. Looking to examples of White people who have actually been helpful rather than trying to hurt or just missing the mark. This was the most helpful quote for me, personally, from page 109:

“My White students, who often comment about how depressing it is to study racism, typically say that the opportunity to talk with this ally gave them renewed hope. Through her example, they see that the role of the ally is not to help victims of racism, but to speak up against the systems of oppression and to challenge other Whites to do the same.”

It hurts to know that things aren’t as they should be. I’m thankful that God is sovereign over all, but that doesn’t excuse us from doing what we can to love our neighbors, to speak for the oppressed, to vote for candidates who will show care and respect for all. Jesus will be the one to dry every tear one day, but we can shoot for something closer to life on Sesame Street in the meantime.

{2020 word count (does not include quotes): 3,001}

Published by MK Jorgenson

Thinking, writing, and talking about Christian stewardship in all of its facets.

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