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Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria
    by John Cech

Today, at the University of Florida, we are having a community-wide conversation about race -- one of the continuing and pressing concerns in our own area and in our nation as a whole. To focus our discussion we are all reading Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Dr. Tatum is a distinguished psychologist and educator who is currently the President of Spelman College; and her book has provided the starting point for many conversations around the country, like the one taking place on our campus.

The conversations about race begin very early in a child's life, as Dr. Tatum reports in her examination of how we begin to form our own identities, often in contrast with the "otherness" that we observe in the world around us. One of the first places that this identity formation comes up is in the observations that young children make about skin color. "Imagine [the] scenario," Dr. Tatum writes, of a White mother in the supermarket, shopping with her preschool child. She goes on: "They pass a Black woman and child, and the White child says loudly, 'Mommy, look at that girl! Why is she so dirty?' (Confusing dark skin with dirt is a common misconception among White preschool children.) The White mother, embarassed by her child's comment, responds quickly with a 'Ssh!'" (36).

Here is where one of those early conversations could be extremely helpful and clarifying -- if the parent will carry it further. Dr. Tatum suggests that the White mother could say to her child that the Black child's skin is as clean as hers, it's simply a different color. And if a child wanted to know more, Dr. Tatum adds, one could explain the basics of melanin.

But far too often in our society, that opportunity for clear, open discussion is lost. How do we talk to younger children about slavery, for example, as Dr. Tatum wondered when she was asked about it by her then four-year-old son. And by the time children reach adolescence, they have been subjected to years of "stereotypes, omissions, and distortions" about race from our "dominant White culture, including the idea," Dr. Tatum writes, "that it is better to be White" (55). No wonder many Black children sit together in the cafeteria -- as an act of self-defense.,

This is not an easy conversation to have in contemporary America, but it is one that we must have if we are to build the road together, to borrow Dr. Tatum's closing image in the book, that leads to "a more just and equitable world for all."

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Copyright 2004 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."