“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: Messages for College Teachers

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Dr. Beverly Tatum is not a new book – it was first published in 1997. However, as the dust of Ferguson settles, it is clear that its subject – understanding racial identity in America – is still critically important. The book, which I strongly recommend to all Americans, looks at what it means to live in a racist society, discusses the idea of privilege, explores the process of racial identity development, and seeks to understand how racial identity impacts the way that people interact in our society. While much of the book focuses on development of racial identity in children, there is also significant discussion of the role of race on the college campus (Dr. Tatum is a professor and college administrator).

Dr. Tatum shows that students from minority groups face a variety of challenges on college campuses. They may be exposed to racist remarks from other students (or even faculty), may be one of only a few students from their racial group in many of their classes, and may have few role models from their racial group represented in the faculty and campus leadership. These challenges can conspire to make minority students feel like they don’t belong at the institution or in a particular major, especially when those students first encounter challenging courses and suffer academic setbacks. To counter these feelings of isolation, Dr. Tatum advocates two measures – using affirmative action to increase representation of minorities in the faculty and encouraging mutual support groups for minority students.

I think that Dr. Tatum makes a strong case for using affirmative action policies to increase representation of minorities on the faculty. However, this leaves me with the question of what I, as a white male, can do (besides supporting these policies) to make sure that minority students in my classes feel that they have a place in science. I think that a good way to do this, which avoids activating stereotype threat, is to show pictures of the research groups whose papers I mention in class. Given the diversity of people involved in modern biological research, I think that this would be an easy way to dispel the idea that science is done primarily by old white men.

Dr. Tatum’s second suggestion is to establish and support peer groups for minority students. The benefit of these groups is illustrated in the book by a program at a suburban Massachusetts middle school for Black students who are bussed in as part of a desegregation program. The students meet regularly as a group to discuss the challenges they faced and the racism they encountered. As a result of these meetings, students’ grades increased and their outlook improved significantly. On a college campus, such groups can provide students with an outlet to discuss racist encounters and can also give students a much stronger sense of community and belonging, which is an important factor in college success. Instructors can support these groups by serving as advisors and by advertising them at the beginning of the semester (particularly those groups related to the class – i.e. in a biology class at UC Davis, I might advertise the Chicano and Latino Engineers and Scientists Society and other science or health-related groups*).

Overall, I found the book to be incredibly interesting, both as an aspiring educator, and as member of American society. Dr. Tatum confronts difficult topics in a way that is direct and challenging, but also approachable. I highly recommend it.

*You can learn more multicultural resources and groups at UC Davis here

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