The Benefits of Racial/Ethnic Student Groups:
A Psychologist Explains
Beverly Daniel Tatum's recent book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, is indispensable reading for all those interested in advancing America's dialogue about race. It should help faculty members teach all students more effectively about race and racism. parents will also find it helpful in preparing their children to challenge the racism that still pervades American life.
Countering commentators who express alarm about what they perceive to be student "self-segregation," Tatum calls for both increased dialogue about race and a much deeper understanding of racial identity development. She defines racial identity as "the meaning each of us has constructed or is constructing about what it means to be a White person or a person of color in a race-conscious society."
Understanding Racism and Prejudice
Using examples from a variety of educational settings, she examines what prevents people from talking about racism and what is needed to foster meaningful conversations about race. Tatum draws important distinctions between racial prejudice and racism. She believes that, unlike individual prejudice, racism is "a system of advantage based on race." In particular, teachers struggling to teach majority students about racism will benefit greatly from Tatum's exceptionally clear explanations of how racism actually works in American society.
The book also addresses the societal costs of racism, the intersecting systems of privilege that influence the different ways in which people benefit from or are hurt by racism, and differences in racial identity development for individuals from different class backgrounds or racial-ethnic groups.
Racial Identity Development and Racial Grouping
The most powerful part of the book at this moment in the national dialogue, however, is the section on adolescence where Tatum explains why, indeed, many of the black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria. Tatum discusses the various stages through which many people of color progress as they come to understand what role race plays in their identity.
She also discusses the ways in which racial identity can escape conscious attention, especially if one is a member of the dominant racial group. It is essential that teachers understand these processes if they are to respond effectively to the reactions white students often have when confronted with issues of race and racism when they haven't yet examined their own racial identities.
Discussing students of color, Tatum argues that, contrary to the dominant group conception, it is a healthy part of psychological development to seek out racial identity groups. She even explains how these groups can lead to more productive and healthy intergroup interactions in educational settings.
Tatum notes that, "racial grouping is a developmental process in response to an environmental stressor, racism. Joining with one's peers for support in the face of stress is a positive coping strategy."
This developmental need "to explore the meaning of one's identity with others who are engaged in a similar process" manifests itself in groupings in cafeterias and school hallways. Colleges and schools are also, however, putting in place programs that facilitate this sort of intragroup exploration and bonding.
Programs to Foster Intragroup Support and Intergroup Dialogue
Tatum describes a program at a Massachusetts middle school designed to improve the academic performance of the small number of African American students bussed to the school from Boston. The program, Student Efficacy Training (SET), requires these students to meet each day as a group with two staff members. Students talk about issues that may hinder their performance--racial encounters, social isolation, test anxiety, etc. While skeptical at first, students and faculty are now enthusiastic about the outcomes of this program. As one faculty member puts it, "my students are more engaged. They aren't battling out a lot of the issues of their anger about being in a White community....I feel that those issues that often came out in class aren't coming out in class anymore. I think they are being discussed in the SET room...The kids' grades are higher...they're not afraid to participate in class, and I don't see them isolating themselves within class."
Many students of color enter college during a stage in their racial identity development "characterized by a strong desire to surround oneself with symbols of one's racial identity." They may "actively seek out opportunities to learn about [their] own history and culture with the support of same-race peers." In this stage, students may be "unlearning the internalized stereotypes...and...redefining a positive sense of self, based on an affirmation of [their] racial group identity." This process helps students of color to withstand the stresses of life on a predominantly white campus and be self-confident enough to interact productively with fellow students of other racial backgrounds. As Tatum puts it, "Like the Black middle school students from Boston, [college students] need safe spaces to retreat to and regroup in the process of dealing with the daily stress of campus racism."
As Tatum persuasively argues, if campus leaders are serious about promoting the success of students of color and enabling genuine and productive intergroup contact, they need "to take seriously the psychological toll extracted from students of color in inhospitable environments and the critical role that cultural space can play. Having a place to be rejuvenated and to feel anchored in one's cultural community increases the possibility that one will have the energy to achieve academically as well as participate in the cross-group dialogue and interaction many colleges want to encourage."
back to top