Full Show Notes
Right now, America is once again in the midst of having one of the most important—and most complicated—conversations: the conversation about race. With the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, reactions to racial disparity in America have exploded in the form of peaceful protests, community organization, and social media activism, as well as dramatic incidents of looting and rioting. No matter where we turn, we’re face-to-face with a set of daunting, hard-to-answer questions that have haunted America through all its history.
Living in such a tumultuous time can be a lot for anyone. It’s especially a lot for teenagers and young people in general. For parents, the conversation surrounding race holds a special significance in the home. Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and other non-White homes want to talk about race and ethnic identity in teenagers. They want to make sure their children are prepared to face race-related challenges that could arise over the course of their adolescence, and certainly, all parents want their children to be unbiased and empathetic toward others, regardless of skin color.
However, the language surrounding race and ethnic identity in teenagers is often packed with loaded terminology and uncomfortable historical facts, making it intimidating for many parents to openly address race with their children. But to ensure the next generation of adults is prepared to continue fighting for racial equality, it’s absolutely essential for all parents to know how and why to talk about race openly and honestly, no matter how difficult it seems.
To explore how race and ethnic identity in teenagers and what parents can do to foster open dialogues about race in the home, I spoke with the esteemed Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Dr. Tatum is the former president of the historically Black college Spelman University, a recipient of the American Psychological Association’s top honor, and author of the renowned book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race.
As one of our country’s foremost scholars on race and a teacher of race-related subjects for over thirty years, it’s no surprise Dr. Tatum offers some incredible takeaways for listeners in this week’s episode. When it comes to talking about race and ethnic identity in teenagers, Dr. Tatum doesn’t shy away from the fact that all people need to be engaged, not just people of color.
How To Talk To Teens About Race
Racism is a prejudice that hurts everyone in society. But in that same vein, anyone can help eliminate racism by being actively anti-racist, such as consciously dismantling racist systems or educating oneself on what social justice is. To illustrate her point, she compares racism to smog; if not everybody is actively involved in cutting emissions, our air will never be clean. It’s the same, she claims, for racism. Unless everyone is involved in fighting for racial equality, racism will always be a problem.
And that fight starts with addressing the reality of racism in America. After all, you can’t fix a problem unless you’ve identified it first! This idea directly opposes the “colorblind” approach to race, where people pretend not to “see” skin color. When one tries to deny the presence of any one person’s color, that is to deny what shapes that person’s entire life.
Dr. Tatum and I discussed an anecdote about race and ethnic identity in teenagers regarding a white father being proud of his young daughter for “not seeing color.” The man’s daughter was pointing out her new friend on the playground and she was using descriptors to point out which girl she was talking about. The daughter talked about everything about her friend except for the fact that she was the only Black girl present.
In this week’s interview about race and ethnic identity in teenagers, Dr. Tatum not only explains why this mindset is harmful, but she gives great advice on what parents can do to embrace, accept, celebrate, and navigate the implications of REC—racial-ethnic-cultural—identities in the home—even White families. There’s nothing wrong with being White in the same way that pointing out that someone is Black is not wrong or rude.
When talking about race and ethnic identity in teenagers, it’s important to affirm heritage as something that makes people unique. Their background is something that helps shape them as a person as they grow into young adulthood. When they feel empowered, secure, and not ashamed about their own heritage, they can be more willing to have discussions about other people’s backgrounds and how they interact with people who are different from them. This goes for everyone.
In fact, Dr. Tatum addresses how White families can act as firm and steadfast allies, and she even offers an alternate term for White privilege to help clarify its definition: White immunity. With the phrase, “White privilege,” there’s been a fair amount of controversy surrounding its usage. Many White people do not necessarily feel like they have led privileged lives. “White immunity” communicates the fact that White people are the most protected class in a mostly White society. Furthermore, that people of color experience in some negative experiences disproportionate amounts, such as police brutality and racial profiling. White people rarely experience these issues concerning race and ethnic identity in teenagers in a mostly White society.
In the course of our conversation about race and ethnic identity in teenagers, Dr. Tatum also discusses the changes in policy, psychology, population, and polarization (the “Four Ps”) that have impacted the discussion surrounding race—valuable information to parents keen to learn more about the current state of racism in America. This may seem like a lot of information to take in about a very delicate subject, but it is a process. Being an active participant in the process of dismantling racism is exactly what needs to be done. It’s not an overnight event, rather, a completely different way of living.
More Resources About Teenagers and Identity
There’s no way that the topic of race and ethnic identity in teenagers can be covered in one podcast episode. However, the discussion Dr. Tatum and I had is absolutely worthwhile for you and your teen to listen to and engage with.
On top of her great insight on race and ethnic identity in teenagers, Dr. Tatum and I discuss:
- Addressing race and diversity in education
- How race and brain development go hand-in-hand for teens
- Why the history of racism is so important
- Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
- The concept of “White guilt” and what you can do to overcome it
With such a rich and critical topic at hand, and considering the current political climate, I know all listeners will find something valuable to take away from Dr. Tatum’s research and perspective. Whether you’re a social justice champion or a parent trying to address race for the first time, this week’s episode is sure to help you understand more about race and ethnic identity in teenagers.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Help your teen realize race affects them, no matter what it is:
“It’s important to recognize that your life experience is shaped in part by your racial group membership. You might not talk about it, but being __ does shape where you live, where you go to school, where go to work, or what opportunities you might have.”-Beverly Daniel Tatum
2. What to say when your teen complains his or her peers are being exclusionary based on their minority status or ethnic background:
“There are times when you want to talk to someone who really understands what your experience is, and when you don’t have to explain your experience to them.”-Beverly Daniel Tatum
3. If your teen refuses to talk about race or ethnicity:
“To say that you don’t notice someone else’s racial identity is to ignore their experience. You don’t want to internalize the idea that there’s something wrong with being, for example, ‘the black girl.’”-Beverly Daniel Tatum
4. When your teen avoids talking about a difficult subject or a pain point:
“When you have a problem and can’t talk about it, you can’t fix it.”-Beverly Daniel Tatum
5. To your teen’s administrators and educators, when you notice a lack of diversity in their studies:
“I’m looking at what my child is bringing home, and I’m not seeing a diverse representation.”-Beverly Daniel Tatum
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: This is something that you’ve been doing for a really long time. How did all of this start and how did you get interested in this and get into this?
Beverly: Sure. Well I’m a psychologist by training, and while I was still a graduate student back in the late 70s I have the opportunity in 1980 to teach a course called Group Exploration of Racism. I was just doing it not because that was my career goal, but I was working on my dissertation and someone asked me if I had capacity to do this class, and I needed a little extra money, and so I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” It’s as simple as that. But when I had that teaching experience, when I taught it the very first time what really impressed me at the time I was teaching at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and what impressed me was my students’ response to the class, which was, “Wow, I learned so much. Why didn’t we talk about these issues when I was in high school? Why did I have to wait until I was a college senior to understand how racism works in our society?”
Beverly: So I got such great feedback actually from my students, most of whom were white, that I thought I’ll do it again. And I ended up doing it over and over and over again teaching the course many times so much so that I shifted my career focus from becoming a therapist, working as a therapist, and becoming a college professor teaching about the psychology of racism. So I’ve been doing that … When my book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations about Race was first published was 1997, so by that time I’d been teaching this course about 16 or 17 years and had learned quite a lot about the questions that people have.
Beverly: About racism and how it operates in our society, not only why are the black kids sitting together but also how do you talk to young children and also what can I do to make a difference? And so I organized the book back then to have really three parts. I call it what, so what, and now what. What is racism, how does it operate, how do we understand the systemic nature of it. So what does that matter in terms of how we think about ourselves as individuals and members of racial groups and how we think about other people. And now what, now what can we do about it.
Beverly: I wrote that book in 1997, and it turned out to be a very popular book. People found it helpful, which was great. But fast forward to 2017, 20 years later meanwhile I had gone on to be a college professor and then an administrator and eventually the president of Spelman College, and I retired from being president in 2015. And I thought now that I have some free time maybe I will update this book. I will update the book because having worked in higher education all those years I realized that the people who were born in 1997 and 20 years old in 2017 had had a very different life experience than the students I had been teaching back in 1980. So I wanted the book to really reflect the experiences of a 21st century population.
Andy: What did you see as the main thing that needed to be updated like we were you going to keep those same three pieces to the book and just update the examples or did you see a fundamental shift take place that needed to be addressed, do you think, in the new version?
Beverly: Well there were four things. I like to say there were four things that were really significantly different and are reflected in the book. And I call them the four Ps because they all begin with P. The first P has to do with population. The population in the United States has changed significantly since I was working on it at first. Must more diverse today than it was even in the late 90s. So I wanted the content to reflect the changing nature of our demographics. That was one thing, so changing population. To just say a word about that for your audience I like to say I’m not that old, but I was born in 1954. In 1954 the U.S. population was 90% white, 10% everybody else. So that is often a surprise to people because we live in a society today where it’s more like 60% white or 65% white and two thirds white and everybody else. And that’s a big shift because when we say 90% white it wasn’t 10% black people. It was 10% blacks, Latinos, everybody else.
Andy: Everybody else.
Beverly: Everybody else. So that is a big shift if you think about what the population is today in 2020. So that was one P. The second P was politics. When I wrote my book in the late 90s when it was published in 1997 Bill Clinton was the president of the United States. He in his presidency in the same year, 1997, launched what he called the President’s Initiative on Race. And he said in a speech that he thought it was very important for the United States, the population of the U.S., for all of us to talk about the legacy of racism in our society. And in 1997 he said, “I think this is a good time to have that conversation because we are not at war and the economy is good. We’re at peace and feeling prosperous, and when things are good that’s when you can really take on tough conversations.” He made that speech in 1997. That commission worked for about a year, but many people didn’t hear about the work of that commission because it was overshadowed by his impeachment trial and the scandal with Monica Lewinsky.
Beverly: But if we go to the next president, in 2000 George W Bush was elected, and he in his first year in the fall of 2001, September 11, 2001 we were attacked and all of a sudden we weren’t a nation at peace. And during his tenure too the 2008 collapse of the economy meant we weren’t experiencing prosperity either. And that had an impact on the kind of conversations people might have been willing to have. Then in 2008 Barack Obama was elected, first African American president of course. And when he was elected many people said, “We don’t need to talk about it. It’s fixed.”
Andy: Okay, great. Solved that issue.
Beverly: Of course we know that that was a premature conclusion, and in fact there were a lot of incidents that occurred during his leadership over that eight years, the Charleston shooting in the church, the rise of white supremacist activity really started in response to his election. And then 2016 Donald Trump was elected, and we know from his campaign that racial divisiveness was part of his rhetoric from the very beginning when he started talking about Mexicans and castigating populations of all kinds. So since his election we’ve seen as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations a real rise in racial harassment and hate crimes. And of course we know right at this moment that we are talking there are protests all over the nation taking place in response to the police violence and murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. So just the shift in political leadership was something that I wanted to reflect on and the impact that it had.
Beverly: And then the third P was polarization. I think most people would agree that we are living in a time when there’s more sense of polarization between and among us than in previous years for sure. And then the last P is psychology. And that is to say that there are psychological researchers who study the things that I write about who have published important articles and introduced us to important ideas that weren’t being talked about in 1997 but that I wanted to be sure to include in 2017.
Andy: Something that I found real interesting in this book was this idea that when a trait represents a person being a member of a dominant or advantaged social group it kind of becomes invisible to us or we fail to notice it sometimes. And so you talk about in this book how part of what you do with students is ask them to complete the sentence I am blank. What do their responses reveal about the way that they view themselves and their racial identity?
Beverly: Sure. Let me just start by saying that we all have multiple dimensions of our identity, and if you ask someone to describe themselves quickly, just the first 10 things you think of to say about yourself you’re going to say all kinds of things. You might say, “I’m tall, I’m short, I’m intelligent, I’m happy, I’m 18.” It could be any number of things that you would say about yourself, but what we think of first tends to be those characteristics that are most salient to us. Maybe they’re the things that people most often comment about or notice about us. So if you ask a diverse group of young people to fill in the blank, I am fill in the blank.
Beverly: Give them 60 seconds to do it. Write as many different adjectives or descriptors as you can what’s really interesting is that those people who have a dimension of their identity that makes them stand out in some way will usually mention it. For example if it’s a predominantly white group of students, but some of the students are kids of color the kids of color are probably going to mention their race or ethnicity, but the white students don’t mention whiteness. They don’t mention being white. If someone is in a group of Christians but is a Muslim or a Jew that Jewish person or that Muslim person is going to likely mention their religious identity but mainline Protestants may not even mention it.
Beverly: I noticed in my classes when I was teaching in co-ed institutions, I worked for many years in women’s colleges but when I taught in a co-ed institution the women would often mention being female, but the men didn’t always mention their male identity. The dominant identity, the identity that gives you social status or privilege in our society tends to go unnoticed. Here’s an example that your audience might identify with, I can describe myself in a lot of different ways. I probably wouldn’t mention being able-bodied. I don’t have any physical concerns. But if I were in a wheelchair I probably would mention wheelchair-bound as an example. I don’t mention myself as a breather of oxygen, but if I for some reason couldn’t breathe my oxygen you can bet I’d be talking about it.
Andy: Yeah, right.
Beverly: So the idea that that part of our identity that goes unmentioned, unnoticed, uncommented on by other people is likely to be unmentioned, unnoticed, uncommented on by us as well. We’re not thinking a lot about it.
Andy: And it makes sense too because the whole point of our identify is that it’s what identifies us or makes us unique in some way, so we just focus in on those aspects of ourself that we feel like separate us out or make us look different in others eyes.
Beverly: What’s important about that though is that it’s not just what we think, it’s the feedback we’ve gotten from other people. So I sometimes use the example of one of my sons who is very tall. He was a tall baby and a tall toddler, and now he’s a 6’4″ adult. And if you had talked to him when he was seven and you asked him … I would overhear conversations like this all the time. Someone would say, “How old are you?” He’d say, “I’m seven.” And then they would get ready to say, “Oh, you’re tall for your age.”
Andy: You are a tall kid, yeah.
Beverly: Right exactly. And people would say it so much that he would say, “I know, don’t say it. I’m tall for my age.”
Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, right.
Beverly: So it’s the feedback that people are giving you. Our identities are formed not sitting in a room alone but in dialog with other people and interactions with other people, and the feedback they give us helps to shape how we think about ourselves.
Andy: It only takes really a few people saying that probably. Really we pick up on stuff like that really, really fast. That’s social feedback that we use to then inform our own identity. But also I thought what was so interesting about that story because I also had marked that one with David was just the idea of the change and the fact that when he’s seven people are mentioning his height. His race isn’t really even factored in or whatever to their first impression of him. But then once he reaches adolescence then I guess it suddenly is. To me that was a theme of the book or an insight from this book is that shift that happens. So I guess why is that or where does that come from or what’s going on?
Beverly: Well two things happen. One of the things is that teenagers are changing how they think because their brains are developing.
Beverly: That’s just a neurological reality. When we’re born our brains are still developing. And they get to their sort of adult state in our teenage years. And as the brain develops you are able to think more abstractly so questions like who am I, what does this mean, how am I viewed in the world those are questions that teenagers, adolescents are thinking about in part because their brain is allowing them to think in those ways. But the other part of it is that the social signals are different. So the social signal you get when you’re a cute black kid at the age of seven is different than the social signal you get when you’re a tall 17-year-old and people are perceiving you as perhaps dangerous or a threat because they’re viewing you through the lens of stereotypes.
Andy: Yeah. Coming back to the question, the eponymous question of the book, why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, so is that part of the answer then?
Beverly: That is part of the answer. That is part of the answer because of course nobody asks that question in a segregated school. So if you’re at a school where all the kids are black no one’s asking why are they sitting together. So this is a question that gets asked in racially mixed settings. And in those racially mixed settings as kids enter adolescence they are starting to have experiences or encounters with racism in the environment. They’re starting to get feedback, maybe from teachers, maybe from peers, maybe from the school resource officer or the police officer in the building. As they’re getting that feedback they are becoming increasingly aware that their racial group membership matters to other people. And they’re starting to think about how does it matter to me, how do I feel about it, how do I think about it. And as they’re doing that it’s a natural thing to want to connect with other kids who are asking the same questions, thinking about the same things, with whom you have that in common even if the school is a place where there’s not hostility.
Beverly: And of course if there is hostility you can see how people would band together as a self protective element. But even in a school where that’s not the case the kids of color are going to be having different experiences. The experience of watching or seeing on the internet the video or George Floyd’s murder is going to hit you differently if you can imagine yourself as George Floyd as opposed to someone who just feels back about the mistreatment of another person.
Andy: So you think that kind of thing is really important to reflect on with people of your own race as well as in situations with mixed race?
Beverly: I certainly think dialogue across groups is important, but sometimes there are times when you want to talk to someone who really understands what your experience is and you don’t have to explain it.
Andy: Yeah, start from square one and explain the entire thing to them they just know, and you just can empathize and they get it. On page 158 you’re talking about a program in school, it was a voluntary desegregation program that led to actually improved academic performance and social relationships among students by actually separating the black students for one period every day, which seems at first to not make sense like how would actually separating the students make it better, but I guess that kind of comes back to what you were just talking about.
Beverly: Yeah, so in this particular program this took place in the Greater Boston area, and there were kids who lived in the city of Boston who were being bused into a suburban majority white community. And of course the purpose, it was a voluntary program, their parents put them on that bus to go to that school because they thought they would have access to a high quality education. But there were also social stressors associated with being in an environment and a community where you don’t live but where people might be perceiving you through a stereotype lens where you’re still dealing with the realities of racism in the world as a young teen of color. And being able to talk to other kids with the support of concerned and caring adults, because the kids weren’t just off by themselves. They were in conversation with advisors who were able to help support them.
Beverly: It was a stress reducer, you might say. By having that time to just be able to talk candidly without worrying about what other people were perceiving or thinking kind of freed up their cognitive capacity to be able to focus in a better way on their school work the rest of the day.
Andy: But isn’t it better to just not talk about race and just assume everybody knows what’s going on and just not really focus on it?
Beverly: Well the trouble with not talking about it is when you’ve got a problem, and we do have a problem, if you have a problem and can’t talk about it you can’t fix it. So we all have to be better at being able to have these conversations so we can really work toward real change.
Andy: You talk about a father in here, and there’s this little scenario where he’s telling you about when he picked his daughter up from school and asked her to point out her new friend, and she’s trying to point out her new friend from this group of girls on the playground, and it’s the one black girl in the group, but she doesn’t mention anything about race. She’s talking about what the girl’s wearing and the backpack that she has and all these other things. And the dad is telling you about this, and he’s really proud because his daughter is colorblind. Then you say I wondered if rather than a sign of color blindness it was a sign that she had learned not to be so impolite as to mention someone’s race.
Beverly: Yeah, the idea a lot of particularly white families have this idea that their children should be colorblind. And I think what they really mean is that they don’t want their kids to be racist or they don’t want their kids to be discriminatory. And of course I want that too. But to say you don’t see somebody else’s racial group membership or you don’t see their identity is to erase a significant part of their experience. So the daughter who might have been thinking it was impolite to say, “Oh, it was the black girl,” is perhaps internalizing an idea that there’s something wrong with being a black girl and that that message that it’s so unpleasant that we shouldn’t even mention it is problematic. She should say, “Oh, I’ve got Susie, the black girl,” is the easiest way to point out if she’s the only one. That’s the quickest identifier, but also it’s like saying the one with the red hair. It doesn’t have to be a loaded thing and certainly not [crosstalk].
Andy: It’s a really obvious physical distinguishing characteristic. It doesn’t have to be so loaded. But it also just like that attitude it strikes me that just picturing because you kind of paint this little scenario and you can kind of picture the scene of the girl describing it to the dad, and just subtly he was proud of her for not mentioning it, so she was then in that moment rewarded with is pride and just reinforced for that behavior or not talking about it. I thought it was really interesting reading it because it was just one of those subtle ways in which this culture of silence is just perpetuated and it’s taught from parent to child without trying at all because he was thinking he was doing the right thing or helping.
Andy: This is an interesting idea that we’ve heard from a couple other people on this Podcast. I’m getting really interested in just the education system and how there’s such a lack of models of anything in education of what we teach kids other than white men. So we had talked about this book on the Podcast recently with Janice Kaplan called The Genius of Women that was all about how there’s just this dearth of role models of really, really smart women. And you were talking here a lot about how this dearth of African American history and literature at the high school level and how a lot of black students get to college and they’re like, “Wow, all this exists.” So I guess I wonder what parents can do or what we should be thinking about in terms of how we can be raising more literate and culturally intelligent teenagers.
Beverly: Well certainly parents can speak up about it at their child’s school. They can ask questions about the curriculum. They can say, “I am looking at what my kid’s bringing home and I’m not seeing a diverse representation.” There’s a story, true story about a recent social studies book published and widely distributed across the country. It was being used in Texas but Texas book orders often influence because it’s such a big state what is being used in other states as well. And in this particular textbook they had a unit on immigration, and they referenced slavery as an example of immigration which the Africans were immigrant labor. Not quite. So there was a young man in this class using this textbook took a screenshot of this particular passage, sent it to his mother, and she was beside herself with the inaccuracy of how this was being communicated and really took it socially viral on social media, and eventually the textbook publisher had to acknowledge the editorial error and issue a correction in the online version of the textbook. But that’s an example of parents paying attention and then speaking up about it. So certainly we can educate ourselves and then ask our schools to be responsive in that way.
Andy: That’s cool and just inspiring I guess that you have power, and you don’t have to just say this is the way it is.
Andy: What is wise criticism, and why was it important in a study that you mention in the book and what could we learn about it?
Beverly: Yeah. So this grows out of the research of a social psychologist whose name is Claude [Steele 00:26:29], and Claude Steele was the first social psychologist to write about something he refers to as stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the idea that if you know there are stereotypes about your group you may want to behave in ways that will work to … You don’t want to fulfill the stereotype. So in this particular case his work was about the stereotypes about black students being less capable academically. And let’s imagine you are a black student at a predominantly white college or university or high school. It doesn’t have to be college age, but in this particular case it was a study done at a college. And you are worried that people have these stereotypes about you and people like you.
Beverly: I want to talk about the stereotype threat, and then I’m going to answer your question about this particular study, the wise criticism. But Claude Steele did this work where what he found was that when students are worried that other people are going to perceive their capabilities as less than they might get nervous. And in some ways the stereotype threat is the anxiety, the performance anxiety that you can have when you’re trying to do your best, but you are concerned that people are not going to see it or recognize your talent.
Andy: Yeah, you view yourself as an ambassador of your entire race almost. There’s even studies on women as well in different disciplines like when any characteristic is made salient that has some stereotype behind it we then try to prove that no, we can do it just as good as the other people can.
Beverly: And one of the things that happens is sometimes in your effort to prove it you try too hard and you make mistakes because you’re anxious and nervous, and it inhibits your performance. So one of the things that knowing about this research some researchers decided to try to figure out how to reduce stereotype threat. If you could lower the anxiety you would see a different level of performance. So they created an experiment where they asked a group of students, white students and black students at Stanford, which is obviously a very elite institution and nobody goes to Stanford unless they’re really a good student. So you’ve got this group of talented students, white students and black students at Stanford, and they’re all asked to write an essay. And the essay was supposed to be about a favorite professor. And they were told that the essay was going to be perhaps published in a publication celebrating the excellent professors, so it needed to be really a well written essay. So it’s clear that we have a high standard. It’s going to have to be really good to be accepted.
Beverly: But everybody wrote their essays. And then they turned their essays in to the professor, and they were turned in with a photograph. And the reason they had to turn it in with a photograph was to let the writer know that the professor was going to know their race or ethnicity. So they turn in their essays, and the raters, the people who are grading the essays right comments, and everybody gets criticized. Here’s your essay. It’s not good enough. Here’s what you need to fix. And what they wanted to see was how many of the students would revise and resubmit their essay. Well, they found that more white students revised and resubmitted the essay than the black students did in this typical criticism version.
Beverly: The same experiment was done except in this case the criticism was not here’s what’s wrong with your essay. The criticism came in a form which we might call … I call it a criticism sandwich or buffered criticism. And what I mean by that is you say something nice at the beginning. I really liked the opening of your essay. Here’s what’s wrong with it. And now let me say something nice at the end. So the criticism is sort of inserted in the middle, buffered. And in the buffered criticism version more white students revised and resubmitted the essay than the black students did, but in this case more black students revised and resubmitted than in the first version.
Beverly: But in the last version, the wise criticism version, the feedback came in a particular way, and it started by the person giving the feedback saying, “I want to remind you that these essays need to be really good because they’re being considered for publication.” So I am reminding you that there’s a high standard. And now I’m saying, “But I believe you can meet that standard. Therefore, I’m going to give you very detailed criticism about your essay, and I hope you’ll put that criticism to use and resubmit because I think your essay has potential.” So when the feedback came in that way more black students revised and resubmitted the essay than even the white students did. And what was important about that was in the earlier version a student might think he’s just criticizing my essay because he’s biased against me. Maybe you don’t trust the source of the criticism.
Beverly: But in the last version when the professor says, “I have a high standard, but I believe you can meet it, and I’m giving you all this criticism because I want you to be able to meet my high standard,” then it sounds like not you’re picking on me but you’re investing in me. You’re investing your time and effort to make sure that I am doing my best. And that is like, “Whoa, somebody is really appreciating me. Let me try harder for that person.” That’s wise criticism.
Andy: I just think that’s so impactful, and I could see that working for just about anything, that exact little format of reminding people that this is not easy what you’re trying to do here, and I wouldn’t be taking the time to give you this feedback if I just thought there was no chance. I’m going to tell you this because I really think you’ve got something, and you’ve got a shot. And because of that I’m going to really take some time here and give you some really quality feedback. I don’t know. I just thought that one was such a cool tidbit, and I think if someone told me that I would listen, and I would probably take their feedback. So the wise criticism is I think something to learn.
Beverly: What it really says if we were just going to summarize it quickly the key messages are this is important, you can do it, I’m not giving up on you. That’s the key message that really encourages students, particularly those students who don’t get those messages very often, to really lean in and give it their best effort. And it’s a message that any educator could give. But sometimes they don’t realize how important it is particularly for students who are marginalized.
Andy: I think there’s just something about a good mentor that says, “I see something in you, and I think you’ve really got something” that really just makes us want to prove ourselves and live up to their … Dale Carnegie in his most classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People one of his core principles is give people a good reputation to live up to. Expect positive things from people, and you’ll get it. And I think that’s a really good example of that, of reaffirming that this isn’t easy, but I think you can do it.
Andy: So why is it that black graduates of historically black colleges seem to do so much better on a whole lot of different measures than those who graduated from predominantly white institutions?
Beverly: Well I think it has a lot to do with what we were just talking about. If you are a student of African descent, you don’t have to be to go to an HBCU, but particularly if you are and you go to a historically black college one of the things you know is that institution was created with you specifically in mind. When I was president of Spelman College I used to say to the Spelman applicants, people who were thinking about coming to Spelman that if you want to be at an institution where you’re going to be at the center of the educational experience, not on the margin of it in any way, where young black women are the main purpose for this institution this is the place you want to be. And when you have that experience, when you come there one of the things you realize is that all of those women who came before you who are now doctors and lawyers and running for governor in Georgia, Stacey Abrams is a Spelman alum.
Beverly: All those accomplished people that you’re meeting in the classroom and outside are women who, like you, have overcome obstacles that you will be able to overcome too. So there’s a kind of confidence as well as a sense of wellbeing, I think, that comes from being in an environment where people aren’t focused on what makes you deficient in any way. They’re focused on your empowerment.
Andy: Yeah, and human beings I think we rise to the expectations that are placed on us. And when you’re in an environment where it’s expected that you’re going to do certain things and certain things are going to happen for you we do that. So when you’re in an environment where it’s kind of expected that you’re going to be just average or okay or you’re overlooked then we conform to that expectation, and it’s hard to consistently try and break that when that’s what’s forced onto us every day or what we’re met with. So yeah, I think that’s really cool and powerful.
Andy: You highly recommend parents to send black kids to those kind of institutions. The other schools also need some minority students at them as well or whatever, so I guess that’s one of the hard questions for me where it may be better for the individual to go to …
Beverly: Well, the good news is that we live in a nation where there are lots of different kinds of colleges. So there are HBCUs, but there are small liberal arts colleges that are diverse but majority white. There are large universities. There are community colleges. There are all kinds of colleges, and what is going to be right for any particular student is going to depend a lot on their academic preparation, their interests, their readiness for certain kinds of experiences. So I would never say only look at HBCUs. I didn’t go to an HBCU myself. My parents were college educated. They went to Howard University. When I graduated from high school in the ’70s I had options to choose that they didn’t have, that weren’t available to them. I went to a majority white institution in New England, and I had a good experience there. 20 years later, one of my sons went to the same college, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. But having been the leader of Spelman College for 13 years I can say that it’s an excellent choice and if somebody wants that experience there are a lot of great places they can go. And parents should actively consider them for sure.
Andy: Talk to me about achieving a positive sense of REC identity and what does that mean?
Beverly: Sure, REC stands for racial ethic cultural identity. If somebody read my 1997 version of my book that phrase would’ve just said a positive sense of racial identity. But fast forward 20 years researchers who study racial identity said in some cases racial identity, it might be ethnic identity, identifying not necessarily as a member of a particular racial group but maybe an ethnic group. Puerto Rican is an ethnic group. It’s not a racial group. Or a cultural identity that your sense of belonging to a group has everything to do, perhaps, with language and culture. So thinking about that it’s not just race. It’s race, it’s ethnicity, it’s culture. So that’s where we get the REC, so you don’t always have to always say racial, ethnic, cultural identity. But having one, having a positive sense of identity that is not rooted in assumed superiority or assumed inferiority is important to good mental health and to be able to engage effectively with other people.
Andy: Okay. And see this is important for everyone including white people, and you talk about this also. Actually you have a whole chapter on the development of white identity in here. So you talk about how we all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of racial and cultural heritage. And so there are many people for whom whiteness is still experienced as a source of shame rather than a source of pride. So why is that, and what do we do about it?
Beverly: If we think about the fact that if you grow up in a largely or maybe even entirely white neighborhood or community, if you’re a young white person growing up in a very racially homogenous community, and you’re around white people all the time you might not even be talking or thinking much about the fact that you are white. It just goes unmentioned. Because everybody is we don’t talk about it. Maybe we talk about religious differences. He’s a Methodist, you’re a Baptist, she’s a Catholic. Or maybe we talk about socioeconomic differences. That person is from the wrong side of the tracks, but they’re the same racial group as you. So the kind of identities we pay attention to depends a lot on our environment. But for a lot of people being white is not something they’ve thought much about because they’ve been in a largely white environment.
Beverly: When they do think about it or if it comes up like right now in the midst of all of these protests and with the nation focused on the history of racism and the unfair treatment of people of color, particularly African Americans by the police that conversation might lead some white people to start to think about, “Gosh, I’m white. These things don’t happen to me.” What is the meaning of being white in this society. And some people might feel guilty or even embarrassed or ashamed because they don’t want to be associated with the negative behaviors. But it’s important to recognize that your life experience is shaped in part by your racial group membership. So you might not talk about it, but being white does shape where you live, where you go to school, where you work, what opportunities you might have. So to ignore it is to not fully understand your own life experience.
Beverly: So being able to recognize that whiteness matters and that it’s okay to acknowledge that and to feel … You don’t have to feel ashamed about being white. Nobody needs to feel ashamed of being a particular group. That doesn’t mean you like everything that’s happened in the name of whiteness, but it does mean that you can acknowledge your racial group membership and still work for social change, still be in favor of social justice, still be someone who wants to be an ally. When we talk about whiteness we sometimes use the phrase white privilege and that phrase refers to the benefits that come from being white.
Beverly: I recently read a book where someone said, “My white male students in particular struggle with that phrase white privilege. They don’t feel privileged.” And the author of that book, that author’s name is Nolan Cabrera, and Dr. Cabrera said, “I’ve been using the phrase white immunity as another way of describing it because it might not mean that being white gives you all these things, but it protects you from bad things.” It protects you from being beat up by police officers. It protects you from being viewed suspiciously when you walk in the store. It protects you from inadequate healthcare if you have the resources. So maybe that’s another term to use, white immunity.
Andy: Oh, so it’s a lot harder to admit to ourselves the ways in which racism has benefited us because then we would have to admit to ourselves that we didn’t earn everything, that we have as much as we feel like we did or something. It is just like there’s something complicated there that makes it probably a little bit more touchy or something, but yeah. I like that term, white immunity. That’s cool. So then a followup to that, the positive sense of REC identity is like is there anything that parents could do, especially parents of teenagers, but just any kind of with your family now especially what’s going on in the country to help just foster that positive REC identity or push your family in that direction?
Beverly: I think it’s really important to regardless of whether you identify as a person of color or as a white person to really embrace the history that has shaped our nation. And by embrace it I mean not to necessarily say you like everything about it. There’s lots to not like about it. But to especially learn about what it means to be, I’m going to use the word resister, that if you are a person of color and you … If your only knowledge of history is that people like you were enslaved or paid low wages and used to build railroads and exploited in the process and interred in Japanese American internment camps, if that’s all you know you’re going to feel demoralized by that. But if you know that yes bad things happened, but people like Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells and Howard Thurman and Thurgood Marshall, these were people who were speaking up and whose contributions made a difference and I can admire them and feel inspired by them that gives me a sense of being part of a proud tradition.
Beverly: In the same way white youth can feel empowered and inspired by the people who spoke up for justice. And there are white people throughout history who have. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know their names, don’t know those stories. So we have to make that history visible. So it’s not just about being oppressed or being an oppressor. It’s about resisting oppression and resisting being an oppressor, being an ally, being an advocate for social justice.
Andy: Okay, so you point out something that I definitely noticed is this problem when someone raises questions about racial practices or policies in an environment where white colorblindness is the norm their response is kind of like with that dad we talked about earlier, that kind of attitude. The response if often one of hurt and defensiveness as in, “Are you calling me a racist?” Aversive racism, called aversive racism because the person is averse to acknowledging any links to prejudice or racism. So why does this happen, and is there any good way to deal with it because I think we have to deal with it if we want to be able to have these difficult talks and lean into them?
Beverly: You’re exactly right. We have to be able to deal with it. And one of the things that I think we all have to acknowledge, and I try to convey this in my book, is that everyone is impacted by the racism in our environment. It’s like smog in the air. If you’re in a smoggy place everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re all going to breathe some of that smog in and be impacted by it. So if we’re all breathing in some smog it shouldn’t surprise us if sometimes we breathe some out. So we have to be able to say to each other, “I think some smog is showing.” I think we have to look at these issues and be able to talk about them. Otherwise we can’t fix it.
Beverly: To stick to my smog analogy for just another minute, I would say if we think about if there’s pollution in the air what do we want to do. We want to clean it up. And in order to clean it up each of us has to take action, and each of us has to pay attention to whether we’re contributing more pollutants or whether we’re helping reduce the pollutants. We all want to be reducing the pollution not adding to it. We have to be able to talk about it.
About Beverly Daniel Tatum
Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, is a nationally recognized authority on racial issues in America and a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Tatum has toured extensively, leading workshops and presenting papers and lectures on racial identity development. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, which was re-released in 2017 as a twenty-year anniversary edition, fully revised and updated to meet the current social and political climate. Since its original publication, The New York Times recommended the book as required reading for private school teachers and administrators. Dr. Tatum is also the author of Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation.
Dr. Tatum has had a long tenure in higher education beginning as a lecturer at the University of California at Santa Barbara during her graduate school years. From there she held a faculty member position at Westfield State College and then spent over a decade at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she served as a professor of psychology and education, chair of the Department, and then Dean of the College and Vice President for Student Affairs, and eventually the acting president. In 2002, Dr. Tatum became the ninth president of Spelman College becoming a hallowed leader there as well after her many successful campaigns to bring Spelman into the spotlight and increase scholarship funds.
Under Dr. Tatum’s leadership, Spelman College launched its Wellness Revolution in 2012. In 2013, the Carnegie Corporation of New York named Dr. Tatum as a recipient of its 2013 Academic Leadership Award, recognizing her as an exceptional president of a U.S. college or university. In 2014, the American Psychological Association presented Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum with the Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology, the highest honor presented by the APA. Dr. Tatum retired in July of 2015 as President Emerita to focus on her work as an author, speaker and expert on issues related to racial identity.
Dr. Tatum resides in Atlanta, GA and raised teens of her own in addition to her other important work!