A Conversation With Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum
Issues of race and integration have long concerned Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of the upcoming book, Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations In An Era of School Resegregation (Beacon Press, 2007). Tatum is a clinical psychologist by training and has focused on Black families in predominately White communities, racial identity in teens and the role of race in the classroom. She is also the author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.
DI: The Supreme Court will soon make a decision on two public school integration cases. What will be the impact if the justices decide schools can’t consider race in admissions?
BT: Significant. Many people have the perception that schools are desegregated. Private schools and higher education are more diverse, but not public K-12 education, especially not in the South. So they created magnet schools, which would be attractive to Whites and Blacks no matter where they live.
But if the Supreme Court says you can’t look at race, how will even these schools achieve diversity?
DI: What is one of the benefits of a diverse school?
BT: If you have young people who haven’t been exposed to diversity, they sound awkward or worse because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn from each other.
DI: Could one make the same argument about Spelman,
a historically Black, all-female institution?
BT: This is a paradox. I say the problem of K-12 is the students are not given the opportunity to mix. There’s value for students who make that choice to mix, and diversity of choice in high school is valuable. During college years, a place like Spelman is beneficial because historically marginalized students, like Black women, become the center of the experience. But we also create the opportunities for them to mix.
DI: You wrote a chapter in your new book with a White woman friend. What did you learn from each other?
BT: Some of my best friends are cross-racial friendships, and one of the main obstacles between such friendships is how to talk about race and the difficulty many people have.
DI: Why is it so difficult?
BT: People have a lot of anxiety about it because it’s a heated topic. For example, [U.S. Sen.] Joe Biden was trying to say something nice about [U.S. Sen.] Barack Obama and fell into a common problem when Whites talk about African-Americans. He’s “articulate,” “smart,” and it sounded like “Isn’t this
DI: Even in diverse environments, many groups self-segregate. What can colleges and universities do to address this?
BT: I don’t even like the term “self-segregate.” Kids group together on common lines of interest and experience. If Hispanic kids want to sit together and speak in their mother tongue, that shouldn’t bother anyone, but they should have the same opportunity to meet other kids.
DI: Why don’t you like the term “self-segregate?”
BT: My decision to sit with kids who I share things in common with is not the same as legalized imposition of segregation.
— By Christina Asquith
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com