Teaching about racism in school can be a first step toward progress

Alondra Campos
Editorial Director

Beverly Daniel Tatum spoke on addressing issues of racism in academic settings and how to be proactive in our own sphere of influence on Wednesday at the annual Frederick Douglass Human Rights lecture through Zoom. 

Tatum is president emerita of Spelman College and the best-selling author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race” and “Can We Talk about Race.” In 2013, she received the Carnegie Academic Leadership Award and is the 2014 recipient of the American Psychological Association Award.

Tatum’s lecture covered issues of racism and systems of racism in society as well as how to start conversations and find solutions to these long-standing issues. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Shannon Mathews moderated the lecture with more than 100 students, faculty and staff in attendance and allowed the audience to participate and ask questions. 

To start off the lecture, Mathews asked why talking about race is still relevant in the present day but still very difficult to talk about.

“I think that has everything to do with the fact that we learn at an early age that we are not supposed to talk about it,” Tatum said. “As kids, most people do not have an adult they can speak to about their first race-related experience. That silence is so pervasive and you cannot solve a problem that hasn’t been talked about.”

Most people are reluctant to engage in an honest and productive conversation about systems of racism in our society, said Tatum.

“Where does race and race issues stand in classroom curriculums?,” Mathews asked.

Tatum said the idea of race can be introduced as early as middle school and to keep in mind the other forms of discrimination that are relevant in society too, such as ableism, sexism and anti-Semitism.

The language each individual uses to speak about systems of racism may not be used in the same way across the board, which can create confusion in dialogue.

Tatum defined prejudice as an attitude about people different from one’s self based on stereotypes.

“No one grows up escaping the influence of prejudice,” Tatum said. 

Tatum defined racism as more than just discrimination based on skin color, but about policies and practices that have shaped interactions in our world, such as how resources are being divided as a consequence of an election.

“How do you have a discussion in class about painful issues when sometimes you’re the only one in the room that resonates with those issues?,” asked Valerie Cummings, associate professor of broadcast journalism.

Translating pain into proactive activity is key to these types of painful discussions, said Tatum.

“An empowered response is the response needed to issues of social injustice,” Tatum said. “One of the things instructors can do is shift the conversation to put more responsibility on issues away from those targeted and more to those who we would like to be allies.”

Tatum also touched upon the topic of color blindness and her first hand experiences with parents teaching their children to be color blind in order to prevent racism.

“I hear most often white parents tell their kids to be color blind and in response I would like to say that it might be that your child is color silent, not color blind,” Tatum said.

Color silent is when an individual refuses to see how skin color impacts someone else’s life in many ways, explained Tatum. The more someone grows into their identities, the more they will want those identities to be noticed. 

Tatum also provided tips on how to teach children about race at a young age.

“Use the word ‘difference’ instead of ‘race’ because it is important to acknowledge race as an artificial construct,” Tatum said. “The genetic material that determines our physical appearance is so small and irrelevant biologically but very important socially.”

Although children may not know race labels at a young age, they are able to understand differences in skin color, and parents can talk about those differences that affirm the value of light or dark skin, said Tatum. 

“If parents want to raise their children to be anti-racist, they have to instill the value of all shapes and sizes, which can be done through books, media, and even shows like Sesame Street,” Tatum said. 

Tatum explained the reason why students still sit in particular ethnic or racial groups today is because they seek people who will relate to them and how others view them.

As students approach puberty, they start to think more abstractly and symbolically about one another, said Tatum. As they take on their appearance, adults view them differently. Therefore, they will gather with other students who remind them of their own category and experiences.

Al Clark, professor of humanities, said Tatum’s lecture reminded him that everyone experiences things differently based on their backgrounds.

“We hear and say things that may be commonly agreed in one group, but may be a stereotype for another group,” Clark said. 

Clark referred to an example Tatum spoke about from her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race” where a white teacher encourages a black student to attend a school social event because “her people love to dance.” After hearing this, the black student reached out to a white friend about the teacher’s comment only to be told to brush it off. 

In addition to race and racism in the classroom, Tatum spoke about using spheres of influence to address racial issues publicly.

“When someone like Colin Kaepernick chooses to kneel to draw attention to injustices from police brutality, he’s making that visible through his sphere of influence as a public figure,” Tatum said. “Any of us can do that in our own spheres of influence as teachers, students, or individuals.”

A student panel discussion followed Tatum’s lecture where students had the opportunity to ask Tatum any additional questions.

Greta Taylor, junior communications major, said Tatum’s lecture left her feeling different compared to other Black History Month events.

“I try to avoid events that have painful discussions during Black History Month because there are so many infuriating and sad things that were done to Black people in the past and it can make me feel depressed,” Taylor said. “But I left Tatum’s lecture feeling empowered, optimistic, and hopeful.”

Taylor said Tatum’s advice to stay proactive within her community pushed her to see the victories against racism in the past.

“If we understand that racism is a hierarchy of human value, but that human rights are for all humans, we can therefore see how a hierarchy shouldn’t exist at all,” Tatum said.

Alondra Campos can be reached at alondra.campos@laverne.edu.

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