It’s been more than 20 years since Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? first hit shelves, but this month, it’s back on the New York Times bestseller list, part of a wave of books on racism currently experiencing a surge in sales.
After its original debut, Tatum tells GEN, “It became kind of a standby, a book that a lot of folks were using at the college level, in teacher preparation programs and in psychology courses like mine. But certainly, fast-forward 20 years, even though people were still reading it, still using it, I felt like it had become dated in some ways. So, I took up the task of updating and revising it for a 20th-anniversary publication in 2017.” That edition is the one so many readers are now turning to for insight on issues of race and identity at the adolescent stage when Black children begin to ask themselves whether they are safe in American society, and what kind of friends will understand what they’re going through.
GEN caught up with Tatum, now President Emerita of Spelman College, about what it’s like to see the book hit bestseller lists in the current moment, and why Black children in majority-white schools may be particularly drawn to one another whenever they finally return to school.
GEN: Tell me about the origins of this book, and in particular, that question that you kept getting, which gives it its title.
Tatum: When I wrote my book originally back in the late ’90s’, I was a professor of psychology, teaching a course on the Psychology of Racism. One of the things that the students often would say to me is, “Why didn’t we learn about this in high school? Why didn’t we talk about these issues in middle school?”
I started asking educators those questions, and teachers would repeatedly say that they just didn’t know how. They were not comfortable bringing up these sensitive topics — [they thought] maybe they’d do something wrong or cause more conflict. And for that reason, I started doing workshops for educators on how to talk about race in their classrooms.
Inevitably, when I would be doing those workshops, somebody would ask the question, “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” Most of these workshops, I should say, were being done in the Northeast, and there were a lot of districts where they were trying to desegregate their schools. So, with the focus on trying to increase diversity in the school, administrators were puzzled as to why the kids were separating themselves in the cafeteria, particularly at the middle school and high school level.
How did you explain that to educators and administrators, particularly white people?
Yeah, I have to say it was particularly white people who asked the question. Typically, the educators of color did not ask the question.
So, the first thing I would say is that you don’t see that pattern, that separation of young people in the cafeteria at elementary schools, typically. The pattern of dividing up in the cafeteria that so many people were asking about tends to occur when kids are moving into adolescence.
The question is, why? Most school districts break up elementary and middle, but in some districts, there’s schools that go from pre-K through eighth grade. And if you’ve got a mixed group of kids who have been together since preschool or kindergarten, you do have to ask why, if they were all mixed together and interacting with one another in the second and the third and fourth grade, why now that they’re in the fifth or the sixth or the seventh or the eighth, are they separating along racial lines?
And a lot of it has to do, of course, with adolescent development. Thinking about that question of, “Who am I?,” that’s an adolescent question. Eight-year-olds are not asking, “Who am I?,” in the way that 13- and 14- and 15-year-olds are. Thinking about identity is something that starts to really matter to a young person. And the reason it starts to matter then is because their bodies are changing. Their brains are capable of more sophisticated questions, and they can think more abstractly.
But along with those physical changes is not just what’s happening to them internally, but different things start to happen externally. The six-year-old Black boy who everybody thinks is cute, fast-forward to when he’s 16, people might think he’s dangerous. Now he’s six feet tall and they’re crossing the street to avoid him.
So the feedback that young people start to get from the wider environment encourages them to start asking these questions. “Why is it that I’m being followed around in the store all the time?” “Why is it that the police hassle me on the street when I’m just minding my own business?” And as they are starting to ask those questions, it’s a natural thing to connect with other people who are having the same experience.
Right. I was particularly struck by this passage about how Black kids in majority-white schools can suddenly lose interest in their white friends and want to sit at the Black table: “At the end of one school year, race may not have appeared to be significant, but often some encounter takes place over the summer and the young person returns to school much more aware of his or her Blackness and ready to make sure that the rest of the world is aware of it, too.” How do you think that dynamic is going to play out this summer in particular?
Well, I definitely think that if you are a young Black person, in particular and you have seen the video — hopefully you have not seen it if you’re very young — but if you’re aware of the murder of George Floyd or the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, if those things are part of your awareness, and it would be hard for it not to be, then you can’t help but think, “Gosh, might this happen to me? How safe am I out in the world?”
Thinking about those questions, if you are going to an all-Black school or a largely Black school, your friends might all be talking about that and you’re all kind of shifting your thinking together. But if you’re one of a small number of Black kids in a largely white school, your white friends might be thinking about it, might be sympathetic, might even be out protesting with their parents, but they’re not having the same kind of existential questioning that you are.
So it becomes valuable to connect with other Black kids who you maybe haven’t been friends with before, because they recognize what you’re going through?
Yes. What happens sometimes is that Black child who’s had white friends in elementary school starts to separate from those friends as they move into middle school or high school. Sometimes it’s for the reasons we’re just talking about: seeking out other people who really understand where I’m coming from.
But sometimes it’s kind of a push-pull, because you may be drawn to people who understand, but you also may feel pushed away by people who don’t. What I mean by that is, if I am talking about an experience I had with racism — maybe being hassled by a police officer, maybe being followed around in a store — and then I talk about it and my white friend, who wants to be supportive but also doesn’t really know how to talk about race, and is uncomfortable with the conversation. That white friend might say something like, “Oh, I don’t think it was what you thought it was. That person wasn’t really following you. It’s in your imagination.” You know what I mean? There’s all kinds of things that somebody might say that feel invalidating to your experience. And the typical result, anytime any of us feel invalidated by somebody else, is to move away from them. To say, “Okay, well, you don’t get it. Let me move on.”
That is a very different result than if a friend said, “It makes me really mad too. Let’s think about what we can do together.” Or, “I’m going to this protest. You want to come with me?” I mean, “Let me be in solidarity with you.”
Here’s another example, and it’s one that I’ve heard of on multiple occasions, from young people who have had the experience of having a white friend and then encountering other white children, other white youth who are saying or doing racist things. Often, what happens is that the white person they’re with is silent. Maybe they don’t join in, but they’re just silent. And there’s this sense of, “Why don’t you speak up? These are people you know. Why don’t you tell them to stop?” Right? The silence is taken as complicity of a kind. So, that can be a wedge.
What do you think back-to-school will be like, particularly for Black kids, this fall — if and when their classes can resume?
That’s so hard to say, because who knows if they will be back to school. But certainly on my Twitter feed, I am seeing a lot of educators talking about their summer reading. What they’re going to be reading, how they’re trying to prepare themselves to better understand social issues, hopefully so that they can address them in their classrooms or think about their curricula.
From a kid’s point of view, it’s hard to know because we’ve all been through such a difficult time, not just in terms of the current unrest around racial violence, but also just what it has meant to be at home. Some kids not having good access to online learning and having lost ground, as I’m sure many have, in terms of their own educational progress.
I think that there are certainly going to be a lot of adolescents of color thinking about what it means to be a young person of color, particularly a young Black person. In my book, I tried to talk about lots of different groups, but at this moment, I think we also have to be clear that so much of what’s happening right now is really about anti-Black racism.
Of course, the Covid-19 situation was bringing out some anti-Asian racism too, and I don’t want to minimize that. But in terms of the physical violence that we have seen so many examples of, that is about anti-Black racism and that’s hard for a young person to miss.
Right. They may also be aware of how Covid-19 is disproportionately having an impact on Black people.
Yes, absolutely. Many people will know someone who has died, if not in their family, in their neighborhood, in their church community. Some people [will know] multiple folks and that is another source of grief.
You write, “In the context of race relations, when the Black people are sitting together, the white people notice and become self-conscious about being white in a way that they were not before.” That, too, feels like it’s happening on a grand scale right now.
Yes. Particularly if you’re a white person who has lived in a largely white environment, which most white people do. There’s a statistic in my book, something like 75% of white adults in a survey done by TRRI said that their social networks were entirely white. If that’s the case, you’re working in a white work setting and you live in an entirely white neighborhood or mostly white, and your friendship circle is all white, then you probably have spent very little time thinking about what does that whiteness mean, in terms of your day-to-day interactions with people.
I tell the story in the book of a white student, who, when asked to identify her race or ethnic background said, “I’m just normal.” That sense of being the norm doesn’t encourage self-examination.
Some of the most startling — and at times, a little bit amusing — anecdotes in the book are in the “kids say the darnedest things” category. You make the point that the wrong response to a young child who has asked an uncomfortable question is to say “Shhh,” which stigmatizes the subject, and is something white parents tend to do. What would you say, both to white parents whose children have questions and Black parents whose children have questions and concerns right now?
It’s going to vary depending on the age of the child. As you said, kids say the darnedest things. Three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds have questions. They might ask, “Why did that man do that?,” or, “Will somebody do that to me?” These are heart-wrenching questions, but parents can address them in an age-appropriate way.
Let’s say that a Black child is saying to their Black parents, “Could that happen to me or could that happen to you?” and the child wants to be reassured. The child wants to be told, “I’m here to protect you. You don’t have to worry about that. We are protesting so it won’t happen to anybody else.” These are statements you can make if you’re talking to a four-year-old — the odds are, you can protect that four-year-old. But if you’re talking to a 14-year-old, you don’t have the same confidence, because they’re out on their own riding their bike or soon to be driving and things can happen over which you, the parent, have no control.
So then, the Black parents’ conversation with that Black child is really around, “I hope you’re never in a situation where you need to know, but here’s what you need to know. If you’re stopped, here’s what you need. Always be polite. Keep your hands visible. No sudden moves.” I mean, those are the kinds of things that Black parents have to talk to their children about. White parents, not so much.
You write about “aversive racism,” which is partly about white people being so nervous to say the wrong thing about race, that they say nothing about race. That feels particularly poignant right now, especially when you go to protests and you hear people chanting, “White silence is violence.”
Yes. One of the things that is encouraging right now is the fact that many more white people are showing up to these protests than I recall having seen before.
It’s been interesting to see that so many books about race are [now] bestsellers. Clearly, I think most of the buyers… perhaps not all, but many of the buyers are probably white buyers looking to educate themselves. And that, at the level of the scale at which we’re seeing, it, certainly seems to be a new phenomenon to me.
Is there a level on which that’s just frustrating though, that it hasn’t happened before?
Well, yeah, you could look at it that way, I guess. [Laughs.] Like, “What took you so long?” I’m sort of the glass-is-half-full kind of person. And that is to say, I think it’s a positive sign.
I was talking to someone about the fact that all these books are being purchased and the person I was speaking with said, “Let’s hope they actually read them.” So let’s hope the books get opened up and actually get read, and then conversations happen.
I think it is important for white people to be talking to other white people, in particular, about these issues. And if you feel like you don’t know enough, educating yourself is a good place to start.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.