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087: Talking with children about race, with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum
31st March 2019 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
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This episode is part of a series on understanding the intersection of race, privilege, and parenting.  Click here to view all the items in this series.
We’ve laid a lot of groundwork on topics related to race by now: we learned about white privilege in parenting, and white privilege in schools, and even how parents can use sports to give their children advantages in school and in life. Today my listener Dr. Kim Rybacki and I interview a giant in the field: Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of the now-classic book (recently released in a 20th anniversary edition!) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. We begin by assessing what is White parents’ responsibility to help dismantle structural racism, and then learn how to discuss race and racism with our children.  And in the next episode in this series I’ll have some really in-depth resources to support you in having these conversations with your own children. Dr. Tatum was featured in a short piece with Lester Holt on how to talk with children about racial injustice that you might also find helpful - she describes ways you can answer their questions honestly and fully in an age-appropriate way.  You can find a link to the interview on her website here.   References Bonilla-Silva, E., (2004). From bi-racial to tri-racial: Towards a new system of racial stratification in the USA. Ethnic and Racial Studies 27(6), 931-950. Cheney-Rice, Z. (2018, November 11). Bernie Sanders and the lies we tell white voters. New York Intelligencer. Retrieved from Derman-Sparks, L., & Olsen, J. (2009). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Available at Hagerman, M. (2018). White Kids: Growing up with privilege in a racially divided America. New York, NY: New York University Press. Helms, J. E. (Ed.). (1990). Contributions in Afro-American and African studies, No. 129. Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY, England: Greenwood Press. King, M.L. (2010). Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? Boston, MA: Beacon. Kivel, P. (2017). Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice (4th Ed.). Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society. Miller, S. (2017, December 8). Reading race: Proactive conversations with young children. Raising Race-Conscious Children. Retrieved from Roda, A. (2015). Inequality in gifted and talented programs: Parental choices about status, school opportunity, and second-generation segregation. London, U.K.: Palgrave MacMillan. Stalvey, L.M. (1989). The education of a WASP. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press. Sullivan, S. (2014). Good white people: The problem with middle-class white anti-racism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Tatum, B.D. (2017). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. New York, NY: Basic. Van Ausdale, D.V. & Feagin, J.R. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. [accordion] [accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"] Jen: 01:25 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a very special episode lined up for today and I’m recording this introduction separately, so as not to take time away from the interview. If you’re a regular listener, you might have heard my episodes on White Privilege and Parenting and also White Privilege in Schools in which we looked at some of the structural racism that’s present in our society that we might not have recognized until now, especially if we’re white. I’d also like to direct you back to the very beginning of the show because in episode 6, which was called “Wait, is my toddler racist?” We discovered how implicit bias works, how it’s often present even in very young children and how just not talking with children about color or what is known as the colorblind approach is one of the more effective ways to raise a child who experiences racial prejudice. Jen: 02:10 Having been completely immersed in the literature on this topic for the last couple of months, I’m also going to adjust my terminology to be more in line with the language that my guest uses. Racial prejudice describes a person’s attitude while racism or structural racism is the system that confers advantages on white people and disadvantages on people who aren’t white by reinforcing ideas about white superiority. If you haven’t already listened to these previous episodes then I would strongly encourage you to do so as a lot of the ideas and language we’ll use today was established in these episodes and we won’t spend a lot of time laying groundwork today so we can maximize our time on the really deep questions. I also want to acknowledge that when we use terms like white privilege and implicit bias, that it can make it seem like white people are innocent if ignorant recipients of an unfair advantage. Jen: 02:55 We didn’t ask for this privilege after all, we were just born into a system in which we have it, but in reality, there are a lot of things that white people do every day to perpetuate and even reinforce the system. We talked about some of them in our episodes on White Privilege. These can be as simple as things like finding a resource related to education that not everybody knows about and sharing that information among networks of white people, which makes it more difficult for people of nondominant cultures to access these resources and of course they can take much more insidious forms like electing racist leaders who explicitly perpetuate whites’ advantage. So today we’re very lucky to have two special guests with us. The first one needs almost no introduction. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is former president of Spelman College, licensed clinical psychologist and nationally recognized authority on racial issues in America. Jen: 03:45 Dr. Tatum holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan and for 18 years she taught a course called Psychology of Racism at three different institutions. She’s the author of the seminal book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, which was revised and updated in 2017 and is a nationally renowned expert on the subjects of race and racial identity development. And here with me today to help me co-interview Dr. Tatum is Dr. Kim Rybacki who received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the City University of New York, and is on the Behavioral Sciences Faculty at Dutchess Community College in New York. Dr. Rybacki is in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group, which you should join if you’re not already a member, and we had a conversation in the group about things that she’s trying to do to “fight for a better system while doing the least amount of damage in the current one as possible.” But she seemed very unsure as to whether she was doing the right things or even enough of the right things and so I realized she’d be the perfect person to talk this through with Dr. Tatum. Jen: 04:42 I mentioned in the introductions to the previous two episodes that I acknowledged that race can be a difficult thing to talk about. To some extent, I think it’s sort of like talking about sex and even anatomically correct names for body parts, the more time you say vulva and penis, the less ridiculous it feels and the more ridiculous it feels that it feels ridiculous to say these words. So even if you’re feeling some resistance to the idea of listening to this episode, I would encourage you to sit tight with us, especially if you have a goal of raising race conscious children. So, we’re going to start off today by talking about the structural racism and what is our responsibility as parents to change the system and then we’ll talk about things that we can talk about and do with our children specifically on issues related to race. Jen: 05:22 I’ll also remind you that we’ve began each of the episodes in this series by having both me and my guests state our privileges. You’ve heard mine a couple times already by now, so I’ll just state them quickly and then we’ll start by asking our guests about theirs. So, some of my main privileges are my whiteness, my economic status in the upper middle class, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness and my education. Now let’s hear from my guests. So, welcome Dr. Tatum it’s great to have you here. Dr. Tatum: 05:49 Thank you so much. Glad to be with you. Jen: 05:51 And welcome Kim as well. Kim: 05:53 Thank you. Great to be here. Jen: 05:55 So, I’ve already stated my privileges in the introduction to this episode. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind starting by having each of you state your privileges in turn perhaps by starting with Dr. Tatum, please. Dr. Tatum: 06:06 Sure. Well, when I think about privileges, I define that in terms of the ways that I’m systematically advantaged and so I’m systematically advantaged as a heterosexual. I identify as Christian and living in a Christian dominant society that also gives me privileges. I’m physically and cognitively able. I grew up in a middle class home with well-educated parents and have been the recipient of an excellent education myself, so that certainly advantages me and I am someone who identifies as economically secure. I am an African American woman and of course I’m targeted by racism and sexism, but I always just want to acknowledge that as a light skinned person, a light skinned African American, I feel that that also gives me privileges that dark skinned people don’t get. Jen: 06:55 Thank you so much. Kim, would you mind saying yours as well? Kim: 06:58 Sure. I mean using the same definition as Dr. Tatum, I would certainly start off with stating that I have white privilege as a white woman. Also cisgender heterosexual privilege. I am an able-bodied person with a strong educational background and secure economic status. So, those are what would come to mind first. Jen: 07:20 Super. Thank you. And so we’re going to take two major tacks with our questions today. We’re going to start out by talking about structural racism and then we’re going to talk about how we actually talk to our children about racism and race as well more generally. When I was trying to think, can we really cover this in an hour? I was trying to think what on earth I could cut, but I decided that I wanted to try and ask Dr. Tatum as much of it as we can. So, we’ll start with the structural racism and then we’ll get into the how to talk with children about this topic. So, my first question for you is for anyone whose view of the history of black people in America goes something kind of like black people were brought here as slaves and then Lincoln freed them because he thought that slavery was wrong and then black people essentially had all the same rights as white people, except that they couldn’t vote. Jen: 08:03 Then they got that right in the 60s and now they’re essentially the same as whites and they really don’t deserve any special treatment like affirmative action. Then I just want to encourage my listeners to read Carol Anderson’s book, White Rage because it just systematically dismantle all of these ideas and hundreds more besides and I was so impressed that it has 80 pages of references in 230 pages of book. Kim actually recommended that book to me. So, the point that I’m trying to make here is that while we might think that the playing field is level, the playing field has never been level. So, we may think this is a recent problem, now we’ve managed to elect a president who has sort of spews these hateful ideas and these ongoing nationwide problems with the election of officials who have racially prejudiced ideas and less we think this is a Republican or Conservative problem. Jen: 08:50 We should also acknowledge the large role of the Clinton administration played in promoting mass incarceration in the name of war on drugs. And also Bernie Sanders’ recent suggestion that whites who are uncomfortable voting for an African American president aren’t necessarily racist. So, this stuff is just all around us. It suffuses our everyday lives. It’s not just those people over there who don’t know any better. So, Dr. Tatum, I realize I’m sort of throwing us in the deep end a bit here, but I’m wondering what are some concrete steps we can realistically take ourselves as individuals to move forward and start to break the system? Dr. Tatum: 09:23 Well, Jen I think you started with something that’s very important which is educating oneself. As you mentioned, a lot of people are quite misinformed or uninformed about the ways in which racism has operated in our society and continues to operate. And so you can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge that it exists. So of course learning more about it is critical. One of the reasons I wrote my book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race back in 1997 and then updated it in 2017 was really for that purpose to help people, the readers white and of color understand what racism is, the systematic nature of it, how it has been built into the very fabric of our society and how that impacts all of us in terms of how we think about ourselves and other people and ultimately what we can do about it, but the first starting point I think for people who are listening and saying, what are they talking about? Education through reading books like Carol Anderson’s excellent book, White Rage, and certainly I would advocate for my own. Jen: 10:30 Of course, yeah. Dr. Tatum: 10:31 I think it can be a good place to start. Once we have an understanding of the ways in which racism is operating, we can begin to think about how we can use our own individual spheres of influence, whether that’s in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces to begin to interrupt that cycle of racism. Jen: 10:53 Okay, and so I’m starting to think about, okay, how do we make this move? So, I’m thinking about the philosopher, Dr. Shannon Sullivan and she’s written about White Guilt and Shame, which I think can sort of take the form of hand wringing a lot like we’re doing on this podcast if we were to look at it uncharitably I suppose, and I think that can lead to a toxic form of anger, but she says that these feelings aren’t actually very good at prompting us to act. So, I feel as though this education is a necessary step and then we might get angry about it and we feel the shame as well. And then we just kind of throw up our hands and say, well, what do we do about it? So I’m wondering if you see it in the same way or if these emotions are things that white people have to experience before they can accept all the things that haven’t worked so far and go on to find what does. Dr. Tatum: 11:41 Well, I often talk about something I call the cycle of racism. So let me just say a word about that and if we think about racism as something that was operating in our society before any of us on this conversation were born, right? We didn’t start a fire so to speak, but it has been operating and we are all influenced by starting in our early years. We get misinformation, we’re exposed to stereotypes, we’re influenced in the socialization process by people we know, love and trust, our parents, our teachers, our friends, our neighbors, and we internalize a lot of that misinformation, the stereotypes about people different from ourselves as well as stereotypes about people like ourselves. When I say we, I’m talking about not just white people, but people of color as well. We all get misinformation. It’s like breathing smog. If you live anywhere, there are pollutants in the air, you breathe them in, not because you want to, but because it’s the only air that’s available. Dr. Tatum: 12:45 And to the extent that we are all being exposed to it, we are not always conscious of it. In fact, a lot of the times we’re not conscious of it at all. We come to believe that misinformation is truth. We see difference as not different but equal, but difference as wrong or abnormal, and we passed that misinformation on to the next generation. That’s what I mean by that cycle. It continues. So sometimes we are, as I said, we’re not even aware of it, but when we become aware whether that’s by listening to a conversation like this one or having an experience where we witnessed something happening, we know to be wrong or we learned something in school or via documentary. However, the information comes to us, there are common emotions associated with it anger, guilt, confusion, alienation. These are common and they’re certainly common for white people, but they can also be part of the experience that people of color have as well. Dr. Tatum: 13:45 And when you have that feeling of this is not right and feeling overwhelmed by it, one response can be, particularly for white people, I think who often are living in racial isolation, most white people in the United States live in largely white communities and go to school in largely white settings and have a pretty homogeneous social network. And if that describes someone and then they’re exposed to information that they didn’t have before or have a heightened awareness, confusion is common, guilt can be a feeling, anger can be a feeling, and sometimes the desire is to just not have those uncomfortable feelings. If I didn’t notice, if you didn’t bring it up to me, if I didn’t listen to this program, I wouldn’t have to think about it and there’s a tendency to want to just tune the information out. But for some people the impulse will lead to action. I want to do something about it. I want to take action, but I don’t know where to start, which brings us back to your earlier question and connecting with other people who are having a similar experience who also want to work against racism, who also want to speak up, can be one way to move forward, to find like-minded others with which you can connect and do some problem solving together. Jen: 15:06 Kim, I’m wondering, I think you used Dr. Tatum’s book as a teaching tool in some of your classes. Do you see the students in your classes going through these kinds of stages? Kim: 15:15 I do. Obviously, the students come at very different points in the process, so speaking of my white students specifically, some of them are at the point where they’re sort of familiar with the problems associated with racism and now looking for things to do to be active, but I also get a lot of students who are still in that anger denial, discomfort stage where what they’re really looking for is to become more comfortable if that means denying the problem and for some of them that’s where they’ll go and it’s sort of a process of trying to push them out of that. Jen: 15:54 Okay. Yeah, and I think part of the we want to feel comfortable, I think it’s sort of a human nature in general to want to feel comfortable. And so before I started researching this, I always figured, okay, racism has been a problem. It still is a problem. At some point I hope it’s...