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Race, Dialogue, and Tackling 'Tough Conversations'

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Beverly Tatum and Sylvia Burwell

In 1997, the groundbreaking book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race launched countless discussions about race relations and encouraged educators to face head on issues that had long been considered taboo in the classroom. Two decades later, the book has become a classic in its field while still being so relevant that a new 20thanniversary edition was published in 2017. 

The book’s author, Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, who is also president emerita of Spelman College, paid a visit to American University on March 27 to discuss what has and hasn’t changed since the original edition was published, how to create spaces to talk about race on campuses and in classroom settings, and the importance of working through difficult conversations. 

At the event, hosted as part of the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars 10thanniversary programming, AU president Sylvia M. Burwell began by engaging Tatum in a discussion of her book, beginning with a brief summary. 

“Some people think the book is about answering the question [in the title],” Tatum said. “Really, I’d like to say the book has three parts: What? So what? And now what?”

“What” meaning what is racism and how can it be understood in the context of systemic issues in society rather than as individual attitudes? That discussion leads to “so what difference does it make in terms of how we think about ourselves and other people,” followed by “now what can we do about?”

Tatum asked the audience to think about their earliest memories related to race—what happened, how old they were, how it made them feel, and whether they had a discussion with a concerned adult at the time. More often than not, she pointed out, the answer to whether it was discussed is no. 

This is a key problem that can stymie progress in issues related to race. “We have a long and early developed understanding that we are not supposed to have these conversations. Then when they come up in class, the reality is that people don’t have the tools for engaging in conversation,” Tatum said. “The next generation of leaders will be equally impaired because they haven’t learned what is increasingly an important skill—you can’t solve a problem you don’t know how to talk about.”

Tatum recalled the experience that led to her recognition of this issue. In 1980, at the age of 26, she was asked to teach a class called “group exploration of racism” while earning her PhD. The class was held at a majority-white institution, and at the end of the semester she was fascinated by the feedback she received from students: “This course changed my life,” they wrote. “This course should be required for everyone—why did I have to wait until I was a senior in college to have these conversations?”

“There was a sense of ‘finally we get to talk about this important topic, and why didn’t we do this sooner?’” Tatum recalled. 

Even as society begins to achieve progress, Tatum noted that societal growth is not linear. 

“If you look at 1997 and 2017,” she said, the years each edition of her book was released, “you might say not much has changed. … But that suggests there was no movement in between. There has been progress, and then there has been recession—two steps forward and one step back.” 

Though she feels we may be in a “step back” moment at this time, there are still markers of progress. For example, society is more diverse in 2019 than in 1997. As the population has evolved, however, the challenge becomes pushback against that change. 

This discussion led Burwell to pose a question about polarization—what is leading to the degree of polarization seen in society today, and what can be done about it? What are the tools for getting people out of the “us vs. them” mentality?

Tatum stressed the importance of both leadership and dialogue. The leader of any given group helps define who is “us” and who is “them.” When the leader defines a community in a broad, inclusive way, it encourages followers to do the same.

“If you have the leader saying, ‘Everyone here is a part of us,’ that helps,” Tatum explained. “Then dialogue and creation of empathy is part of reducing the ‘us-them’ thinking. If I can identify with you enough to identify with your circumstances, if I can have an empathic response, I’m more likely to want to help you and take action in solidarity with you, to interrupt unfair systems.”

In response to Burwell’s inquiry about best practices in encouraging constructive dialogue, Tatum noted that creating space for community members to share and authentically listen to one another is crucial. A community has to devote time to fostering dialogue—it’s not a one-time chat, it’s an ongoing discussion. There also must be an understanding that the discussion will not always be easy or comfortable, and a willingness to push through that. 

“If you bring students, faculty, a community together to talk about race, one thing is guaranteed—everyone will get uncomfortable,” Tatum said. “When people get uncomfortable, there’s a response, which is to say, ‘I’m done with that, I’m not coming back.’ But if you withdraw at the moment of discomfort, you never get past that point. You never have the opportunity to work through the tough conversations.”

Tatum likened it to a course of antibiotics: when a doctor prescribes the medication, they say, “You may feel different in a few days, but you need to take the whole course, you need to stick it out to the end.”

“If you don’t take the whole thing, it comes back and it comes back worse, because people develop resistance,” she said. “If you stick through it all the way to the end, my experience is you get to a place of, ‘Wow, this changed my life.’”

As Burwell thanked Tatum for her time and insights, she highlighted the relevancy of the discussion to a lot of the work AU is currently engaged in as a campus community.

“We are so privileged and honored to have you here, a leading expert in the world on something we as a university are focused on in our curriculum, the work we’re doing as a community, issues of access, inclusive excellence,” Burwell said. “Having you here to be a part of helping us on that journey is tremendous for us.”