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Tatum discusses diversity and race in college, engaging across differences

Every campus has the opportunity to bring people together across lines of difference, said Beverly Daniel Tatum in a discussion on the latest edition of her book “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ And Other Conversations About Race.”

Tatum — who served as ninth president of Spelman College, the oldest historically black women’s college in the United States — is a renowned psychologist and educator who has widely written on race and education. “‘Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ And Other Conversations About Race” was first published in 2003.


“College is often the first space where people have to engage across lines of difference, and they don’t necessarily have a lot of practice in doing so,” she said. If this engagement is not pursued and prioritized, Tatum noted, students’ ability to engage with different people may be lost forever.

After college, 75 percent of white adults have an entirely white social network, that is, they live in white neighborhoods and work in primarily white workplaces, added Tatum, emphasizing the unique assembly of diversity in institutions of higher education and therefore the unique opportunity in encouraging dialogue.

At Spelman College, Tatum advised campus activists to persist in their protests and actions because enduring change requires commitment for the long haul. However, she recognized that the key to persistence was self-care. She said that students are eager to see the impact of their efforts in four short years, but she pushed them to remember to care for themselves as they maintained their enthusiasm.

While serving as Dean of Mount Holyoke College, Tatum explained she was able to address institutional obligations and responsibilities in sustaining dialogue on inclusivity. She advocated strongly for need-based rather than merit-based financial aid as acceptance into a college was itself meritorious.

“If you don’t need the money, you shouldn’t get the money,” she said.

According to Tatum, institutions have not changed because it is easier to continue doing the same thing. Specifically, the creation of an equitable system gives some people a sense of loss. To this point, Tatum gave the example of a Protestant chapel at Mount Holyoke that was converted to a worship space for people of all religious backgrounds.


“People who were attached to [the worship space] felt that they were losing because something was being taken away from their group,” Tatum said. However, she mentioned the importance of other Christian student leaders in engaging with the protesters to see the benefits of sharing the space with all religious groups.

Allyship from those who do have privilege is necessary for productive action, Tatum noted.

“Privilege comes along with being in a dominant group. It is not a character flaw or an insult if someone says you are privileged, but you have a choice about how you want to use your privilege,” Tatum said. “Do you maintain the status quo, or do you interrupt it?”

Tatum explained that in the 20 years since her book first came out, there has been a shift in forms of activism, particularly campus activism. Particularly, Tatum said the #blacklivesmatter movement was far less structured than the movements in the 1950s when she grew up, but included leadership from a variety of communities across the country rather than concentrated in one time and space.

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Although some things have changed in the last twenty years, such as the racial makeup of public schools that are now over 50 percent people of color, others have not, Tatum explained. Regarding school segregation, Tatum noted that black and Latinx children still attend so-called “majority-minority schools” while white children still go to primarily white schools.

“New faces, same places,” she said.

Even though much in the United States remains the same, Tatum does note that some things have changed. “A 20-year-old in this country today came of age with an African-American president and hearing about being in a ‘post-racial’ era — how do you engage with that?” asked Tatum.

She reminded the audience that a 20-year-old today had far different milestones growing up: They would have been 15 when Trayvon Martin was killed, 17 during the Ferguson disruptions, 19 when Trump was elected last November, and 20 when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville. “How does that shape you?” she questioned.

The discussion with Tatum was moderated by Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, and was co-sponsored by the Campus Conversations on Identities Initiative and the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life. It took place in McCosh 10 at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday and was attended by over 100 students, faculty, and administrators.