Book Review: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?

Re-visiting a classic is a challenge. I find myself wondering if it will still be relevant or if it will live up to the hype. How much of a universal theme will carry through to an audience many years removed from the original writing.

In education classics age particularly poorly given the rate of research distraction in the field. A ten year old text can feel antiquated and twenty years feels like a lifetime. Educational fads change quickly as the field shoots wildly in hops of finding a silver bullet for student achievement. I’m doubly hesitant when it comes to texts on educational equity. How could a text written before No Child Left Behind and the rise of the education reform movement accurately represent the pressures that teachers feel to educate each child to the highest levels? Equity feels even more tense in a post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post- Eric Garner, America. (And even more pressing in a post-2016 Election America.)

With these thoughts I began to read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?” an unquestioned classic that many educators read in preparation programs.“Why Are All the Black Kids…” is coming up on its twentieth year. Published in 1997, the text essentially covers the basics of racial identity development with a particular focus on Black people in the context of schools.
why_are_all_the_black_kidsThe text is still very strong and deserves its status as a classic. Tatum deftly describes and explores the institutional structures that maintain racism and the ways that people of color, specifically Black people, develop their own racial identities as they negotiate those structures throughout their lives. The chapters on youth and adolescence will be particularly salient for educators as they work to understand their students.

Tatum succeeds in creating a classic by focusing on timeless issues. While the title alludes to a text about schooling, and the text itself is routinely assigned in graduate schools of education, “Why Are All the Black Kids…” is not fundamentally about education or schools. The text is about racial identity development in the context of an institutionally racist society. The text covers schools and schooling because they are a fundamental player in a person’s identity development, but Tatum also addresses influences of community, peers, and the work world from birth through the entire life of a person.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” most obviously shows its age in statistics and discussion of people of color other than Blacks. This makes sense. The book is a product of its time and Tatum can only use the existing 1997 statistics to make her points. If anything many of the statistics that she presents have only become more troubling in the subsequent nineteen years. Schools are increasingly segregated along racial lines despite rapidly growing Asian and LatinX populations across the country.

At the beginning of chapter 8 where Tatum addresses identity development in people of color who are not Black (or not solely Black) she acknowledges her limits wondering how she might “make the experiences of [her] Latino, Asian, and Native students visible without tokenizing them,” drawing the conclusion that she might not be able to but, ” a sincere, though imperfect, attempt to interrupt the oppression of others is usually better than no attempt at all.” To this end Tatum quickly exposes core issues of oppression that exist for LatinX, Asian, and Native communities without trying to claim expertise. When possible, Tatum also acknowledges other scholars who are more deeply involved with these communities. The ever growing Asian, LatinX, and Middle Eastern populations in the United States and the experiences of those populations in schools highlights the need to include races other than Black and white in conversations of educational equity and antiracist education.

The sentiment that a sincere attempt is better than no attempt is a valuable model. As a white educator focusing on anti-racism in schools I am often concerned with how I show up. I work hard to speak my own truth and avoid speaking for others while authentically working to interrupt oppression and I find myself at times second guessing whether I’m “doing it right.” Tatum’s comment frees me of that concern to some extent as long as I am still willing to hear when I make missteps so as to make continuous improvements.

As “Why Are All the Black Kids…” comes up on its twentieth year I hope that Tatum will revisit the text. In some ways Tatum could simply modernize the text with new statistics and new references. A reference to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice instead of Rodney King. An explanation that the LatinX population is now 16% (up from 12.5% in 2000) and the Asian population continues to grow nationally. It would be fascinating to hear what Tatum has learned about racial identity development in the intervening years as it relates to races other than Blacks.

I wonder if Tatum’s readers would be best served by writing a follow up or companion text – something along the lines of “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” In the new context of officer involved shootings of Black youth, Black Lives Matter, Charter Schools, the Obama Presidency, and an upcoming Trump Presidency I imagine identity development is also changing and developing for youth of color.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” leaves me with more questions than answers. I want to understand the extent to which LatinX, Asian, or Middle Eastern identity development aligns with what Tatum identifies for Black people. I want to understand the variety of ways in which people of color develop their racial identities and how schools support or hinder identity development. I also want to explore more deeply how schools might develop a positive white racial identity that is not rooted in supremacy or exploitation so that white youth can engage the world with an understanding of systematic oppression, a desire to dismantle those systems, and pride in their heritage.

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