​Unlearning Racism

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“We’ve all internalized negative messages,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, speaking about people’s unwillingness to talk about race and racism. In a conversation format presentation, Tatum led the audience into a complex and at times painful awareness of where those negative messages come from and how to “unlearn” them.

Cassie Myer, director of the Dialogue Across Difference Programs, moderated the conversation with Tatum. President emeritus of Spellman College, honored as a leader in race relations and higher education, and author of the book, “Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, Tatum introduced audience members to themselves by asking them to recall their earliest moment of racism. For most, the circumstance occurred between the age of three and eight, prompted feelings of “discomfort,” and was never discussed with an adult—even though children are normally “chatty” at that age—because the child sensed the adults’ discomfort.

“Many people learn at a very early age that this is something they don’t want you to talk about.”

Tatum cited a Washington Post story by the father of a young white man involved in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. According to Tatum, the father insisted he did not share the son’s racist views, but confessed, “we were silent on the subject and other ideas filtered in.”

Pointing to the change in demographics since the 1950s when the United States was 90 percent white and 10 percent “other,” Tatum said in 2000, the United States was 50 percent white and 50 percent “everybody else.” Nonetheless, due to the practice in public education for children to attend neighborhood schools, “Most students come to college from a racially isolated environment.” Tatum dismissed the assumption that “learning to connect across lines of difference” will happen automatically by putting the students together in classes and residence halls.

“We need to provide structures for that to happen…to create the opportunity for students of different backgrounds to engage with each other in a sustained way that allows for the exchange of experience and stories.”

Tatum said the first step was creating “opportunities for same experience support.” Interaction and conversation with those of shared circumstances fulfilled a basic need for safety and belonging, Tatum stressed. She drew the analogy of a hungry person being unable to focus on other things until the hunger need was gone.

From the white student perspective, the shared experience group offered an opportunity to overcome “white fragility.” Engaging in dialogue about race in an all-white group provided an opportunity to reflect on experiences without having to worry about inflicting pain on people of color, Tatum suggested. “Most white people lack stamina for talking about race and racism…engaging in dialogue about race is painful and hard. To build up your stamina you need to practice and sometimes that practice is best done with other white people.”

However, Tatum insisted, “It’s not an either-or. It’s a both-and.”

Asked about her vision for Sewanee and other colleges 20 years from now, Tatum said, “For one thing, [colleges] will more accurately reflect the demographics of the nation…or they’ll find themselves with a shortage of students.”

Tatum pointed to “affirming identity” as key to accomplishing that goal. She gave the illustration of persuading Spelman College to modify its baccalaureate service to include scripture from non-Christian faiths like Islam and Baha’i. People look for themselves first in a group photograph, Tatum said, and if they have been digitally removed, the question “What’s wrong with this picture?” quickly becomes “What’s wrong with me?”

Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tatum said social change required empathy for the circumstances of others. She argued listening was the path to empathy, and empathy in turn led to action.

“It takes constant effort and vigilance to get beyond the inertia of past habits and practices.”