“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, by Beverly Daniel Tatum *****

whyare all the black kidsThis is a wonderful volume, legendary and still current after over a decade, both for teachers and parents of Black youth. It’s not a bad read for everyone else either. For those who have felt uneasy watching African-American students group together (this is written for a US audience, but I suspect the principles apply in almost every developed nation with any sizable dark-skinned and disenfranchised population), take heart. It’s good for them to do that, at least for awhile.

I am retired from teaching now, but I can recall uneasily wondering, at first, whether I was doing something wrong when my Black kids would all land together in the same work group, when my students did group work and chose who they’d work with. Was I creating a little Apartheid in my classroom without knowing it? Were my Caucasian students making my Black students uncomfortable? What was I doing wrong?

I got a clue from two places, and they were both at home. I noticed that my then-teenage son, who is Black, mostly hung out with other Black kids. When I married my husband, who is a Japanese citizen, he asked me to look for a house in a heavily Asian area, and if I couldn’t find one, to go to the Black community rather than an all-white neighborhood. So by the time I read this book, I had the pieces, and Tatum helped me put them in the right places for a better picture. I breathed a lot easier after I read her book.

Turns out that when Black kids have what Tatum calls an “immersion experience” it improves their self esteem. They need, for awhile at least, to be around kids who look like them. It’s a healthy thing for them to do. If you are Caucasian, it isn’t about you. You aren’t being rejected; its just that African-American kids (or sometimes it’s all dark-skinned kids, with a subtle but distinct shift somewhere along the pigment gradation line) need each other. And if you are a teacher who isn’t African-American, it isn’t that you have created an unhealthy classroom atmosphere, as long as you are providing choices.

But as much as I enjoyed teaching, my family is where my heart is, and so I paid closer attention to this phenomenon when the family from two states gathered, which we do about once a year, sometimes more. At whole family gatherings, I have noticed that in our multiracial family, all the African-American kids clump together, usually sooner rather than later. Cousins from three different families converge into a block, walking away from their paler sibs. There’s an age gap of about a decade, but it doesn’t matter.

There’s nothing exclusionary or unfriendly about it; others who join them are greeted warmly, and sometimes the working class Caucasian siblings land over there with them sooner or later, as the professional Caucasian siblings merge with the older white folk. It’s almost eerie. It is as if there were a magnetic force field that calls only to pigmentation.

Tatum makes sense of all this. She lets us know that this is normal, and that it’s not only okay, it’s great.

This book is a classic must-read for teachers for all the right reasons. Parents of Black kids may benefit, and anyone else out there who worries or feels excluded may enjoy having the mystery erased. If you’re not Black, it’s not about you. Relax. And if you are African-American, maybe you already knew, at some level, but still might like to see what an African-American academic has discovered over the course of her research.

Interesting and extremely useful to a lot of folks on a lot of levels.

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