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why_are_all_the_black_kids_sitting_together_in_the_cafeteria1Beverly Tatum is a child psychologist who wrote “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (2003, updated). Despite the title it is not about self-segregation – though she does answer that question. It is about how race affects growing up in America.

Being black herself, her main concern is black children and that is where the book shines, but she covers the other races too: white, Asian, Hispanic (counts as a race in this book) and even Native American and Middle Easterners (who are becoming racialized as a dangerous other). She covers biracial or mixed race children too. Even if you are “Other” it is worth reading because it turns out that what matters most is whether or not you are white.

She lays out the stage models that psychologists have come up with for how people of different races come to terms with their own colour. Some models are more solid and worked out than others. She points out their limits. She does not assume a background in psychology or act as if these models are the way, the truth and the light – just the best working answers by those who study such things.

The black stage model is the one that is most worked out and best supported by studies. It is surprisingly good:  you see how the things in your life that you thought were just accidents (like how some white friends from grade school fall away in middle school for no apparent reason) or just you (a sudden, consuming interest in black authors at a particular age) are not chance events but follow a particular pattern driven by race.

The white stage model seemed like something from another world. I am surprised anyone worked it out, to tell you the truth, since whites seem to think of themselves as raceless, as if their race does not affect them. But in any case, that model is next to useless anyway because few whites get beyond stage one – the stage where they think they are colour-blind and that America is fair. But it does show you how hard it is for a white person to shake his racism and self-delusion. It is way harder than you think – more like a fish swimming up stream, say,  than some blinding moment of enlightenment.

Note that the models only apply to those who grew up after 1970, after the civil rights movement. They apply best to those who go to mixed-race government schools since they are the most studied.

Even if you do not have children, it is still good to read if you want to understand how race shapes people in America and what it might take for it to become truly post-racial.

But, as it turns out, that is just why some people do not like the book. They think racism is over. They say Tatum sees race in everything and is making it worse. But that is just what you would expect from stage-one whites!

See also:

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

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