At American high schools and even at universities black students often sit together at lunch without any whites. Why is that? Are they being racist?
Both Barack Obama and bell hooks say it was to get a break from white racism. Dr Tatum, a psychologist, says there is more to it than that:
Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 20 blacks at mixed-race schools start to experience racism from whites: from white parents, white teachers and white students. Like racist remarks or having white friends change on them or having no luck with whites of the opposite sex. They no longer feel completely accepted by whites.
They start thinking about their blackness. They knew they were black all along, but before now most people did not make a big deal about it. They got invited to birthday parties like everyone else and all that. Not any more. Why? Puberty. Many white parents do not want blacks dating their sons and daughters. Thus the racism that starts coming their way from whites at this age.
Their white friends play it down and tell them not to be so sensitive. Because whites do not experience the racism, they do not understand it; they do not take it seriously. But guess what: their black friends do! Because they are going through the very same thing!
So who do they sit with at lunch? The people who will listen to them and take them seriously and understand where they are coming from. Which, in this case, are the other black students! It is the shared experience of white racism that brings them together.
Not only do they listen to each other, but they give each other support. Together they try to understand what it means to be black.
Being teenagers they turn to each other for answers instead of to the hard-won wisdom of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So it becomes the blind leading the blind. And they come up with some of the most brainless ideas of what it means to be black:
- Like the Wigger Fallacy: that being black comes down to clothes and music and slang and stuff like that, as if it were some sort of youth subculture like the goths.
- Like not “acting white”, which takes in not just clothes and music but even proper English and doing well at school!
- Like copying stereotypes from television, not understanding who made those stereotypes and why.
Out of stuff like this they build their “oppositional identity”, as Tatum calls it. Not being accepted by whites, they are trying hard not to be white. But in so doing they are harming their education.
All this is new since the 1960s. Before, in Jim Crow times, getting a good education, for example, was not seen as “acting white”. It was merely sensible. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr certainly thought so.