I entered class on Thursday with passion in my heart and fire in my eyes. Reading Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” book about race relations the night before incited a fierce emotional response. It wasn’t pretty, but I needed to let the monster loose.
Early morning discussions began in their usual too-tired-for-serious-talks fashion, but my conversation quickly culminated to a chain of criticisms concerning Tatum’s entire portrayal of affirmative action. The comfort of the classroom allowed my true feelings to flow freely and, seeing red, I ranted without reservation. In any other situation, though, I guarantee my mouth would not have moved a muscle.
Because, as a white American, I’m afraid of being deemed a racist.
With the only early academic exposure to ethnic issuing being middle school textbook talks on slavery and civil rights movements, it’s no mystery why so many white individuals avoid speaking up about the hot topic of race. Combine this background with media coverage of the continued unfair treatment of minority groups and we’ve got ourselves a system that supports silence on the subject.
Considering the successful communication across diverse groups sought after with the contact hypothesis described in chapter four of Intercultural Communication in Contexts, our nation needs more open and thorough conversations regarding race. Ignoring these talks only touts societal ignorance, and feelings of fear or anger often originate from the creation of a separate unknown collective. To combat this troubling trend, Thursday’s experience must expand beyond the building’s closed doors.
Course material on interracial issues should be implemented at the elementary level, integrated with equal importance alongside teachings of basic reading and mathematics skills. Tatum touches on the pervasive public tendency to shield its youth from engaging in these controversial conversations, but I argue that there is no better way to encourage tolerance than by explaining social issues to young impressionable minds.
Some will certainly claim that teaching a six-year-old the ins-and-outs of slavery is an impossible (or even inconceivable) task. While an understandable source of anxiety, Tatum proves these tough issues can be tackled with an actual explanation she gave her preschool-aged son. Simple language and sentence structure keep the content clear, and the infusion of positive depictions of Africans as “really good, strong, smart workers” (pg. 39) ensures the boy does not develop an intuition of inferiority.
Others may worry that these heavy childhood discussions could have the opposite effect, breeding a generation to dislike white people from the start. Fortunately, Tatum, being the masterful psychologist (and improvisational speaker) that she is, once again dodges another dark path:
“Now, even though some White people were kidnapping Africans and making them work without pay, other White people thought that this was very unfair, which it was. And those White people worked along with the Black people to bring an end to slavery. So now it is against the law to have slaves” (pg. 40).
Regardless of your race, no one should be brought up in a society structured to instill fear. And yet, a country devoid of unrestricted dialogue is doing just that. Black, white, purple, or green, we all deserve to dive into constructive conversations about racial issues, and need to if we are ever to find a culture free of prejudice.
In the end, we all deserve the comfort of the classroom.