With the words “I remember…” magnified on an otherwise blank slide behind her, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum asked the audience of faculty members before her to take a moment to think about their earliest race-related moment. When she asked at what age these memories occurred, many faculty members shouted out, “five.” She then asked them to raise their hands if they had any recollection of having  a  conversation  about these moments with an adult. Only a few hands went up.

   The 2018 winner of the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize, Tatum led a faculty discussion about diversity on Oct. 3 and examined how to discuss race when, somewhere along the way, people have learned that they aren’t supposed to talk about it. If at the age of five, we have already learned to be reluctant to discuss an uncomfortable experience related to race, how do we get students of various races in a college classroom  to have a productive dialogue?

    Tatum’s critically acclaimed book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” was first published in 1997 and then re-released in 2017. When asked what was different about the two versions, Tatum replied, “The two populations.” Born in 1954, she grew up in a United States in which the population was 90 percent white and 10 percent non-white.  By 2017, the U.S. population had shifted dramaticaly with around 57 percent of the population being white, 18 percent Latinx, 13 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 2 percent Native American.

  “The Brandeis of today is different from Brandeis 20 years ago, I’m thinking. Whether it is or not, the world is,” said Tatum. “The world is more diverse, but also the U.S. population is more diverse and as a consequence, our students need to be able to engage with people different from themselves if they want to be effective citizens of the world.”

  Tatum cited research done by the Public Religion Research Institute, which found that 75 percent of white people have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. Although Tatum recalled efforts made to initiate conversation, such as Bill Clinton’s Presidential Initiative on Race in 1997 to which she was invited, other subsequent events quickly captivated the nation and buried the conversation of race.However, Tatum encouraged the audience, noting that progress is not always straightforward and urging them to consider the student perspectives that educators  now   face. Using 2014 survey results from young participants, Tatum illustrated the attitudes that the current generation of students generally holds.  While white youth and youth of color differed in their responses regarding treatment at school due to their ethnic background, many youth found common ground in witnessing instances of bias and fear of addressing bias due to risk of conflict.

     “Color silent is not color blind. They don’t want to talk about it, but it’s not that they don’t see it,” said Tatum. “And that’s not that different from previous generations. Does this resonate with the students that you see in your classrooms?”

 Drawing from her experience as a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College for 13 years, dean and vice president for Student Affairs and President at both Mount Holyoke and Spelman Colleges, Tatum shared the discomfort and fear that she encountered in many people during conversations about race.

  She explained that while a student who is 18 years old today would have grown up with President Obama on TV, experienced the killing of Trayvon Martin at 12 and the Ferguson unrest at 14, there is a certain cycle through which we learn about racism. She spoke about how people receive information about others both different and similar to themselves in the form of stereotypes, bias, and missing   history. They get information and examples from songs, books, parents, government and houses of worship which are not always quite true.

 “It’s impossible to avoid this misinformation. It’s in the air, like smog; we all breathe it and we’re impacted by it. Breathe some in and then it’s not surprising we breathe some out. We internalize this process and see misinformation as truth,” said Tatum. “This cycle is always operating, even without our awareness … It impacts everyone, but not in the same way. But here’s the thing: It is not our fault … Just like the air is polluted; I might’ve contributed but I didn’t pollute all of it by myself. It may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility. And the cycle can be interrupted, but not without effort.”

  Tatum noted that people are often interested but nervous. While many people do not want to experience the anger, guilt, confusion and alienation that accompany these topics, there must be movement in the conversation through that discomfort to experience the joy on the other side. “For a number of years I did professional development with K-12 teachers in the greater Boston area who … worked in METCO districts. Most of the teachers were white women­­­ — not all but most of them were,” said Tatum. We interviewed them about being white educators doing anti-racist work. And they talked about how energizing it was, and I started to think about it as a function of how much energy we use not talking about it. If we repress stuff it takes a lot of psychological energy to say ‘I didn’t notice.’ But when you give people permission to notice and do something about it, that energy gets released.”

     As she took more questions from the audience, she offered them her acronym: “ABC: affirming identity, building community, cultivating leadership.” Tatum asked the audience what they would do if they were handed a group picture in which they were present. Immediately, most answered that they would look for themselves. 

   Tatum responded, “That’s the only answer. Look for yourself and if you see yourself in it and you’re looking good, you’re satisfied. But if for some reason you’ve been digitally removed or everyone else had his or her eyes open and you were looking away, you’re going to be unhappy. And so that notion of stepping into an environment and seeing yourself represented and represented in a positive way is something that everyone wants. One question we all have to ask ourselves is, ‘Who’s missing from the picture?’

     As she continued to describe the other aspects of her acronym, she illustrated an arc of discomfort. At first, everyone is excited, and then when we realize that it’s going to be hard and we want to stop, but we have to keep going. Eventually the discomfort plateaus and we might even feel good. Tatum encouraged the audience to change their approach in order to  avoid a one-shot experience and to create one that allows for ongoing dialogue.