Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race
A Psychologist's Perspective
AS A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST WITH A RESEARCH INTEREST IN BLACK children's racial identity development, I began teaching about racism many years ago when I was asked by the chair of the Black studies department of the large public university where I was a lecturer to teach a course called Group Exploration of Racism. None of my colleagues, all of whom had been trained in the traditional lecture style of college teaching, wanted to teach the course, which emphasized group interaction and self-revelation. But as a clinical psychologist trained to facilitate emotionally difficult group discussions, I was intrigued by the experiential emphasis implied by the course title, and I took on the challenge.
Aided by a folder full of handouts and course descriptions left behind by the previous instructor, a copy of White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, and my own clinical skills as a group facilitator, I constructed a course that seemed to meet the goals outlined in the course catalog. Designed "to provide students with an understanding of the psychological causes and emotional reality of racism as it appears in everyday life," the course incorporated lectures, readings, simulation exercises, group research projects, and extensive class discussion to help students explore the psychological impact of racism on both Whites and people of color.
Though my first efforts were tentative, the results were powerful. The students in my class, most of whom were White, repeatedly described the course in their evaluations as one of the most valuable educational experiences of their college careers. I was convinced that helping students understand the ways in which racism operates in their own lives and what they could do about it was a true calling that I should accept. The freedom to institute the course in the curriculum of the psychology departments in which I would eventually teach became a personal condition of employment. Beginning in 1980, for more than twenty years, I taught this course, eventually called The Psychology of Racism, to hundreds of students at three different predominantly White institutions—a large public university, a small coeducational state college, and an elite private college for women. I also developed a similar course especially for elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators, which hundreds of educators have taken. These experiences, along with the countless parent-education workshops I have led and my research about the experiences of Black adolescents in predominantly White settings, have taught me a lot about the significance of racial identity in the lives of children as well as adults. In fact, my deepening understanding of racial identity development theory greatly informed my thinking about how best to teach these courses and lead these workshops.
After about ten years of teaching, I decided to share some of what I had learned in an article, "Talking About Race, Learning About Racism: An Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom." Published in the Spring 1992 edition of the Harvard Educational Review, the article has been read widely by my academic colleagues in the field of education, many of whom tell me that reading about the theoretical framework of racial identity development triggered an "aha" moment for them. Suddenly the racial dynamics in their classrooms and within their own campus communities made sense in a way that they hadn't before. Those who were parents of adolescents of color suddenly had a new lens with which to see the sometimes sudden shifts in their children's behavior both at home and at school. Cross-racial interactions with colleagues took on new meaning. Just as it had for me, an understanding of racial identity development gave them new ways of thinking about old problems and offered them new strategies for facilitating productive dialogue about racial issues.
What concerns me is how little most people outside my particular specialty know about racial identity development. Even those who have studied child psychology are not always well informed about the role of racial or ethnic identity in young people's development. Perhaps given the historical emphasis on the experiences of White, middle-class children in psychological research, this fact should not be surprising. Most introductory psychology or developmental psychology textbooks include limited discussion of racial or ethnic identity development. Because racial identity is not seen as salient for White adolescents, it is usually not discussed in depth in the texts.
One consequence of this omission that should concern all of us is that educators all across the country, most of whom are White, are teaching in racially mixed classrooms, daily observing identity development in process, and are without an important interpretive framework to help them understand what is happening in their interactions with students, or even in their cross-racial interactions with colleagues. Although educators are hungry for this information, too often it has not been made accessible to them, instead confined to scholarly journals and academic volumes.
And if my colleagues in education have limited information about racial identity development theory, the general public knows even less. Yet whenever I talk about this concept in workshops and public lectures, the response is always the same: "This is so helpful. Now I have a better understanding of those interactions, now I see why talking about racism is so hard, now I know what I can do to make it easier."
Kurt Lewin, a famous social psychologist, once said, "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." A theoretical framework that helps us make sense of what we observe in our daily lives is a very valuable resource. What I hope to provide with this book is a helpful understanding of racial identity development from the perspective of a psychologist who has been applying the theory in her teaching, research, clinical, consulting, and administrative practice for more than thirty-five years.
It is a perspective we need now more than ever. Daily news reports tell us of the rising racial tensions in the United States. As our nation becomes more diverse, we need to be able to communicate across racial and ethnic lines, but we seem increasingly less able to do so. New tools are needed. While the insights of sociologists, economists, political scientists, historians, and other social commentators have much to offer, a psychological understanding of cross-racial interactions has been noticeably absent from the public discourse. In the absence of such an understanding, many questions important to our daily lives go unanswered.
I am often asked by parents and educators to address questions about children's understanding of race, racial identity in adolescence, and how to combat racism in daily life. White parents and teachers, in particular, often ask me questions about how to talk to children and other adults about racial issues. They struggle with embarrassment about the topic, the social awkwardness that can result if the "wrong" words are used, the discomfort that comes from breaking a social taboo, the painful possibility of being perceived as racist. Parents of color, too, have questions. They are sometimes unsure about how to talk to their own children about racism, torn between wanting to protect them from the pain of racial realities and wanting to prepare them effectively to cope with a potentially hostile world.
Adults, both White and of color, often hesitate to speak to children about racism for fear they will create problems where perhaps none exist, afraid that they will make "color-blind" children unnecessarily color-conscious. A psychological perspective—informed by developmental psychology in general, racial identity development theory in particular, and the insights of social psychological research—allows me to respond to these questions and others in ways that I hope will add useful clarity to the daily discourse about race.
My audiences often tell me that what they appreciate about my articles and my public presentations is that I make the idea of talking about race and racism less intimidating. I help them to see the importance of dialogue about this issue and give them the confidence they need to break the silence about race at home, at work, among their friends, and with their children.
I decided to write this book when I received a letter from a school principal in New Jersey. He had heard me speak at a conference the summer before and wrote to say that I had given the best explanation he had ever heard of why, in racially mixed schools all over the country, Black kids were still sitting together in school cafeterias. He invited me to come to his school and give the same explanation to his staff. The letter came at a particularly busy time in the school year. My desk was covered with student papers to read, there were project deadlines to meet, and I had just returned from a series of speaking engagements with a bad case of laryngitis. I was exhausted, and the idea of traveling to yet another school to give yet another talk on adolescent racial identity development was painful even to contemplate. Yet the request represented a genuine need for information. I thought of the hundreds of times I had been asked the question, "Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" The tone of voice implied what usually remained unsaid: "And what can we do to solve this problem?" It became apparent to me that it was time to address this question in print and to bring an understanding of racial identity development to a wider audience.
As the idea for the book percolated in my head, other frequently asked questions came to mind. How do you talk to children about such a painful historical event as slavery? When do children start to notice racial differences? How should I respond to racial jokes? Isn't racism a thing of the past? I thought about the many public conversations I have had with educators, parents, and students, and the private conversations I have had with family and friends. It seemed to me that there was value in making some of these conversations available to others, as I do in my public presentations, as a way of both sharing information and modeling a process of engagement, a way of talking about the legacy of racism in our lives.
At the center of these conversations is an understanding of racial identity, the meaning each of us has constructed or is constructing about what it means to be a White person or a person of color in a race-conscious society. Present also is an understanding of racism. It is because we live in a racist society that racial identity has as much meaning as it does. We cannot talk meaningfully about racial identity without also talking about racism.
Unless otherwise noted, all of the conversations in this book are drawn from my own life experience and are in the context of my own teaching about racism and racial identity at predominantly White institutions, as well as from my research on Black children and families in predominantly White settings. This book is also informed by the years I spent as the president of Spelman College, where I had the opportunity to witness the transformational power of an affirming educational environment on the lives of generations of Black women. Because I am a Black woman, these conversations are often framed in the context of Black-White relations. However, one of the lessons I have learned in the years that I have been teaching about racism is that racism is a live issue for other groups of color as well. My Latinx, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, and biracial students have taught me that they have a developing sense of racial/ethnic identity, too, and that all of us need to see our experiences reflected back to us. In that spirit, I have included discussions of the identity development of adolescents from all of these groups, in addition to the experiences of both Black and White adolescents.
In envisioning this book, it was not my intention to write for an academic audience. Instead I wanted to talk to the many parents, educators, and community leaders who would come to one of my presentations on "Talking to Children About Race" or "Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression" or "Understanding Racial Identity Development" if it were held at their children's school or in their town, and to respond to the kinds of questions I often hear these concerned adults ask. I wanted to make this psychological perspective as jargon-free as possible while still maintaining the integrity of the ideas. To the extent that readers find ideas they can use in their daily conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, I have been successful.
James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced." Talking about racism is an essential part of facing racism and changing it. But it is not the only part. I am painfully aware that people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Many people of color are tired of talking, frustrated that talk has not led to enough constructive action or meaningful social change. But in my own work, I have seen the effectiveness of talking about racism and teaching others to do the same. I have seen the impact on individual students who years later have written to me about the changes they are making in their workplaces. I have seen the impact on educators I have worked with who are now transforming their curricula and interacting with students of color in ways that facilitate rather than hinder those children's academic success. I have witnessed the parents who begin to use their own spheres of influence within the community to address racism and other forms of oppression in their own environments. I remain hopeful. It is with this spirit of optimism that I invite my readers to join me in these conversations about race.