Book Club Guiding Questions

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race? 20th Anniversary Edition (Basic Books, 2017)

Book Group Discussion Guide
Beverly Daniel Tatum

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Prologue

1. In the prologue to the 2017 edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, the author identifies several changes/trends that have taken place over the 20-year period from 1997 (when the first edition of the book was published) to 2017. One of those changes is the population shift in the United States. The 2014 school year marked the first time in US history that the majority of school age children were children of color – Latinx, Black, Asian, American Indian or multiracial. Yet, despite the growing national diversity, old patterns of segregation persist in many neighborhoods and schools.

Reflection: What was the demographic makeup of the neighborhood where you grew up? Where you live now? What was the population of the schools you attended growing up? Is it the same or different from the schools in your community now? What role has the segregation of housing and/or schools played in your life?

2. A national poll conducted by PRRI in 2013 found that most White American adults (75%) have social networks (e.g., friends, neighbors, co-workers) that are entirely White, without the presence of any people of color. Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI, concluded, “The chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans...talk mostly to other white people.” (p.45)

Reflection: Who is in your social network? At home? At school? At work? How has your social network shaped your world view? Do you agree that limited cross-racial contact is a barrier to understanding the experiences of people of color in the U.S.? Why or why not?

Chapter 1: Defining Racism

2. Many people use the terms “prejudice” and “racism” interchangeably, but the author says it is important to understand that they are not the same. Prejudice refers to individual attitudes, but racism is better understood as “a system of advantage based on race,” a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices that operate to the advantage of White people and to the disadvantage of people of color (p. 87). Because these policies and practices are so well-established and engrained in American society, the system of advantage can continue to operate even in the absence of overtly prejudicial thinking.

Reflection: Does the definition of racism as “a system of advantage” make sense to you? Why or why not? If people of color are disadvantaged by racism, how are White people advantaged by it, knowingly or unknowingly?

3. The author uses the analogy of a moving walkway to illustrate the ongoing cycle of racism and to distinguish between active racist behavior, passive racist behavior, and actively anti-racist behavior (p.91).

Reflection: What examples of active and passive racism have you observed or experienced? What examples of active anti-racism have you witnessed or participated in?

Chapter 2: The Complexity of Identity

2. The author writes, “there are at least seven categories of ‘otherness’ commonly experienced in US society. People are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender (including gender expression), religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. In each case, there is a group considered dominant (systematically advantaged by the society because of group membership) and a group considered subordinate or targeted (systematically disadvantaged). When we think about our multiple identities, most of us will find that we are both dominant and targeted at the same time. But it is the targeted identities that hold our attention and the dominant identities that often go unexamined.” (p. 103)

Reflection: Does this statement ring true for you? Which aspects of your identity have you been actively exploring? Which parts of your identity are relatively unexamined? If you have a “dominant” aspect of your identity, how much do you know about the “subordinates” and how did you learn it? If you have a “subordinate” or targeted aspect of your identity, how much do you know about the “dominants” and how did you learn it?

Part II: Understanding Blackness in a White Context

Chapter 3: The Early Years

1. The author argues that many adults learned in childhood that they should not speak about race- related observations. Even when they had race-related experiences that were confusing or upsetting, many people learned early in life that they should keep their questions to themselves. The silencing in childhood leads to silence in adulthood, and the pattern repeats itself with their own children.

Reflection: Think of your earliest race-related memory. How old were you? What emotion, if any, is attached to the incident you recalled? Did you talk to anyone – a parent, teacher or other caring adult - about what happened? If not, why not?

Chapter 5: Racial Identity in Adulthood

1. The author writes, “The process of REC-identity development, often emerging in adolescence and continuing into adulthood, is not so much linear as circular. It’s like moving up a spiral staircase: as you proceed up each level, you have a sense that you have passed this way before, but you are not in exactly the same spot. Moving through the immersion phase of intense and focused exploration to the internalization of an affirmed and secure sense of group identity does not mean that there won’t be new and unsettling encounters with racism or the recurring desire to retreat to the safety of one’s same-race peer group, or that identity questions that were resolved won’t need to be revisited as life circumstances change.” (p. 174)

Reflection: Have you experienced (or observed someone else experiencing) what might be called “identity recycling,” perhaps triggered by a situation at work or as the result of racial incidents involving your (or someone else’s) children? Have you participated in affinity groups (sometimes called employee resource groups) at work? Do you find such groups useful? Why or why not?

Chapter 6: The Development of White Identity

2. The author writes, “While the task for people of color is to resist negative societal messages and develop an empowered sense of self in the face of a racist society, [counseling psychologist Janet] Helms says the task for Whites is to develop a positive White identity based in reality, not on assumed superiority. In order to do that, each person must become aware of his or her Whiteness, recognize that it is personally and socially significant, and learn to feel good about it, not in the sense of a Klan member’s ‘White pride’ but in the context of a commitment to a just society.” (p. 186)

Reflection: If you are White, to what degree have you experienced the identity developmental process that Janet Helms described, and that the author summarizes in Chapter 6? How can White people achieve a healthy sense of White identity?

3. “There is a history of White protest against racism, a history of Whites who have resisted the role of oppressor and who have been allies to people of color. Unfortunately, these Whites are often invisible to us. While the names of active racists are easily recalled – past and present Klan leaders and Southern segregationists, for example – the names of White allies are often unknown.”

Reflection: What do you know about the history of White allies in America? What might be the benefits to you and others of learning more about that history?

Chapter 7: White Identity, Affirmative Action, and Color-Blind Racial Ideology

1. Whether we consider measures of housing, education, the labor market, the criminal justice system, the media, politics or health care, Whites as a group fare better than just about every other racial/ethnic group in the United States on measures of access, participation, and success. Yet recent national surveys indicate that 50% of White Americans believe that discrimination against Whites has become a problem equivalent to that against people of color. (p. 211)

Reflection: Why do you think so many White people hold this belief despite the data on persistent racial gaps on measures of social or economic well-being?

3. The author cites the work of various social scientists, including Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who describe color-blind racial ideology as “the dominant racial ideology of contemporary America, in which White people deny or minimize the degree of racial inequality as the result of factors unrelated to racial dynamics (such as Black cultural values or economic forces unrelated to race.)” (p.226).

Reflection: Do you agree that color-blind racial ideology is widespread? Why do the social scientists cited in the book agree that being “color-blind” is problematic?

Part IV: Beyond Black and White

Chapter 8: Critical Issues in Latinx, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Middle Eastern/North African Identity Development

1. The author writes, “Although conversations about race, racism, and racial identity tend to focus on Black-White relations, to do so ignores the experiences of other targeted racial or ethnic groups. When we look at the experiences of Latinxs, Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs), and, more recently, Middle Easterners and North Africans (MENAs) in the United States, we can easily see that racial and cultural oppression has been a part of their lived experiences and that it plays a role in the identity development process for individuals in these groups as well.” (p. 236).

Reflection: What new information have you learned about the experiences of one or more of these communities of color that gives you greater insight into the identity development process for them? What are some of the critical issues that stood out for you in thinking about the experiences of youth from these various groups?

Part V: Breaking the Silence Chapter 10: Embracing a Cross-Racial Dialogue

1. The author refers to “the White culture of silence about racism,” and encourages her readers to break the silence about racism whenever they can (p.333). She writes, “In order for there to be meaningful dialogue, fear, whether of anger or isolation, must eventually give way to risk and trust. A leap of faith must be made (p.337).

Reflection: Have you also observed this culture of silence? What are some of the personal and social costs of such silence? Have you felt the fear or anger that the author describes? Have you been able to make “the leap of faith” the author describes? If so, what helped you do so?

2.The author concludes Chapter 10 with these words: “We all have a sphere of influence. Each of us needs to find our own sources of courage so that we will begin to speak. There are many problems to address, and we cannot avoid them indefinitely. We cannot continue to be silent. We must begin to speak, knowing that words alone are insufficient. But I have seen that meaningful dialogue can lead us to effective action. Change is possible.”

Reflection: Do you believe change is possible? If so, what is your sphere of influence and how can you use it to bring about positive social change? If you are hesitant, what is holding you back? What support do you need to become a more effective agent of change?

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