Why did I choose to read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I feel the answer lies in my background as a white male who grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, and I’d like to share how I think the book can impact people of my generation. The period of my youth saw laws put in place to expand rights and reduce gender- and race-based discrimination, and the expansion of economic programs designed for the poor, who were disproportionately non-white. This led to a real optimism that the U.S. was on the road to a racially balanced country.
And while U.S. society is certainly more integrated than when I grew up, it’s clear that there is still significant racial “congregation” – not just at the cafeteria table, but throughout our social structures. The title of this book, then, asked a question that I’ve been struggling with for some time.
My background may hold a clue to why so many people in the U.S. don’t believe our society is racist. In short, we’ve already tackled that problem. Overt racism is no longer acceptable, or legal, so what more is there to do? Which is what makes the Prologue of WAABKSTC so important. Dr. Tatum first defines race and racism as social constructs (not as obvious as it may seem). She then makes a strong argument for systemic racism – using examples to help us understand what that means and research to convince us that it’s real. This is critical to gaining “buy-in” from most white readers.
The following section on the development of race identity were particularly enlightening for a person who hasn’t had to deal with it at a personal level. Even as the parent of a child of color, I didn’t appreciate the importance of racial identity to non-whites.
The chapters on how whites deal with racism was key to understanding why the advances during my youth makes it harder for my generation to see the challenges of today. Realizing and admitting that everyone has implicit bias is essential for seeing how systemic racism can exist even in the absence of overt racism.
The rest of the book addresses what might be our most difficult challenge – what to do. But it’s important that this is included. Without it, readers so disposed could dismiss the book as simply a list of complaints against the dominant groups. I like that the discussion includes what each of us can do personally. And although I feel it’s the weakest part of the book, the examples of hope at the end are important for demonstrating that change is possible.
The progression of WAABKSTC from evidence to identity to racism to goals to examples is the perfect structure for helping the majority of people in this country understand the reality of race in America. White readers who really pay attention to what it says can expect to be jarred, but it’s only through challenging our views that we grow. I consider this text an eye-opening and important part of my re-education on matters of race.
Fred DeAngelis is an Instructor and the Director of Instructional Labs in the OSU physics department. Between earning his PhD at Rutgers University and coming to OSU, Fred spent time as a postdoc in Paris and Berlin, worked in industrial research for 16 years, and taught at various other institutions of higher learning in the US.