Diversity & inclusion8 min read

Book Review: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel-Tatum

Beverly Daniel-Tatum’s first edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race became a national bestseller when it was first published in 1997. It takes us on a brave, self-reflective journey to unpack why we feel so uncomfortable talking about race. In 2017, the groundbreaking text was revised, putting the last twenty years into context and highlighting how the principles covered in the original text still persist in post-Obama America. 

All rights reserved by Basic Books.

🔥 The hot take

Why are race and racism such uncomfortable talking points? Do we still need to be talking about it? Why do people insist that they’re colorblind when they’re not? These questions, like the one in the title, feel like a minefield of discomfort. But Daniel-Tatum tells us that we shouldn’t let this discomfort stop us from having conversations that are essential for breaking down racial barriers.

"Learning how to have these conversations is a necessary art of moving forward as a healthy society. You can't fix what you can't talk about." - Beverly Daniel-Tatum in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race
“Learning how to have these conversations is a necessary art of moving forward as a healthy society. You can’t fix what you can’t talk about.” – Beverly Daniel-Tatum in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race

Daniel-Tatum schools us on the long and complex history of racism and dispels the myth of a post-racial America. Firsthand accounts from white people and people of color give us more than enough to spark conversations around race and racism — but that’s just the first piece of the puzzle.

The second piece is us — how we each fit into a society categorized by race and how our identities are shaped by it. Daniel-Tatum unpicks the psychology of why we’re so painfully awkward and uncomfortable when the subject of race comes up: most of us were taught not to talk about it from a young age. When we started noticing differences and asked about it loudly in public, we were shushed or distracted by mortified adults. We’re sorely out of practice but there is hope and room for improvement. 

To better equip us to have these conversations, Daniel-Tatum offers analogies that are lightbulb moments for the reader. One that hits home takes down the assumption that racism is about the standalone actions of individuals. Daniel-Tatum illustrates how we’re all affected by racism because it’s like a smog that circulates messages of assumed superiority and inferiority of races. We all breathe in that smog. Sometimes we breathe it out. 

In another analogy, we’re all on the moving walkway that is the cycle of racism. Racism isn’t just overt — it can be passive or active. Standing still or turning the other way on the walkway doesn’t change where we’re headed. Racism ticks along and we all end up in the same place. We have to walk against the direction of movement at a faster rate. In other words, we need to be actively antiracist. 

🗺️ Where this book will take you

  1. Daniel-Tatum pens us a journey through racial inequality in the US, with a highlighted segment on the past 20 years on the progress — and the tangible setbacks. To answer why we’re still talking about racism, Daniel-Tatum makes it clear that America’s progress in racial equality has been unstable with the end of affirmative action, the whitelash against President Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 re-election, and the continued racial division stoked during the 2016 election of President Trump. 
  2. Before we start the conversation, Daniel-Tatum sets down the necessary parameters. Racism is a system of advantage based on race. We all breathe it in like a smog. We are all carried along on the moving walkway of systemic racism. It’s not enough to be passively antiracist — we have to be actively antiracist. 
  3. Then we turn inwards. In Part ll, Part lll and Part lV, racial identities are broken down in the white-dominant context of America. There are answers to questions you would never have dared to ask. This is where the reader digs deeper into their identity and can empathize with other racial groups. 
  4. Next comes the prickly topic of affirmative action including what it isn’t (it is not quotas, which are illegal) and what it is (a conscious effort to balance the current imbalance that proven biases keep in place). Daniel-Tatum illuminates how someone can be for racial equality but against affirmative action: colorblindness (more on this below). 
  5. Next is racial identity and racism beyond black and white. Daniel-Tatum talks about the recent anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric and stacks up the facts on hyperselection, high selection and hyposelection and the Model Minority Myth (“If racism exists, why are Asian Americans the richest group?” Answer: historic laws to attract well-educated Asians to the US and the absence of 400 years of oppression). 
  6. Now you’ve done the vital groundwork, we read about the fear and embarrassment from white people and people of color who talk about race. A poignant awakening moment is the part where Daniel-Tatum sheds light on the energy we spend sidestepping racism, whether that’s denying our experiences or conditioning ourselves not to notice. We’re emboldened by honest accounts admitting that these conversations are scary and vulnerable, but that when people have pushed past the discomfort, they feel liberated.

🔧 What this book wants you to do differently

Move from passive racism to active antiracism. There is no such thing as not being racist — you are either passively racist or actively antiracist. You are moving along in the same way if you do and say nothing. Start moving away from passive racism by talking about racism and encouraging others to do the same. 

If you’re a parent or guardian… talk about race with your children. Use simple terms to explain why people look different from each other and help your child recognize unfairness in the world. When you talk about slavery, talk about the resistance of Black people and the allyship of white people. If your child has a different race to you, help them explore all parts of their identity. 

If you’re a person of color, explore your identity. Talk to others who can relate to your experience. What have others reflected back to you as important or salient about your identity, and how has that influenced your identity development? Where do you feel like you belong? 

If you’re white, explore your identity as a white person. What does being white mean to you? Have you ever felt like you don’t have a race, that you’re just “an individual” or “normal”? Can you think of positive examples of white identity? 

If you’re white, learn about the experiences of people of color. Read this book. When people of color open up to you about their experiences of racism, pause and listen — don’t invalidate them or justify the perpetrator’s actions (“I’m sure they didn’t mean it”, “I think you’re overreacting/making a big deal out of this”). 

Make your allyship sustainable. Spoiler alert: allyship done purely in service of people of color won’t stick when things get tough — and it will. (It might sound something like, “Wait, I keep putting myself out for others but what do I get out of this?”.) 

  • Think about the cost of racism for you. Think about how allyship can relieve your discomfort, fear or guilt. 
  • Find strength and inspiration by learning about other disruptors and allies.
  • Overcome feelings of overwhelm by focusing on your sphere of influence. 
  • Create a support network of like-minded allies. 
  • Accept that you will get things wrong. Make like Daniel-Tatum, an award-winning psychologist and educator, who has “made many mistakes” in forty years of teaching and leading workshops about racism. Apologize and show that you’re willing to learn

Empathize with others’ struggles to accept privilege. Daniel-Tatum does this by reminding herself of the other privileges she has that she benefits from while being largely unaware of it (e.g. heterosexual privilege). 

⚡ The must-discuss parts

Colorblindness. Why do some people take comfort or pride in declaring that they don’t see color? How does both pretending that you don’t see color and saying that you treat everyone the same, to then reel off people by the distinct color of their skin, prove that you are “not racist”? What was your first experience of race? What emotions did you feel, and did you talk to anyone about it? What did they say to you? 

Aversive racism. Also colorblind racism. Like a passive form of racism, people who are aversive racists reject the idea that they are or could be prejudiced. They aren’t actively racist ways but they do shut down conversations around racism by combatively reacting with, “are you calling me racist?” when something they say or do is pointed out. This kind of racism is what lets people, namely white people, continue to ignore racism and perpetuates the myth of meritocracy (which does not exist where there is systemic racism). 

🛒 Where to buy

If you are in the US, get your copy from:

If you are in the UK, get your copy from:

This book review was first published in the Inclusion Works Leaders Network – a digital community for D&I leaders to swap challenges and ideas. If you have views you’d like to discuss, you can sign up here.

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