Tatum’s Dream: Desegregation
By Li Li
Can We Talk about Race? is an educational book that consists of collaborative lectures written by the prestigious Brock International Prize winner, Beverly Daniel Tatum. The Lectures consist of the sensitive topic: race and resegregation in today’s American school. What makes Tatum address this issue, and how she is going to convince the reader that our society still in many ways allows this segregation happen is my curiosity to look into this book deeply and finds out an answer.
As an Asian foreign student in a predominantly White college, I almost talk myself out of reading Tatum’s book because I think,” Why bother?” First of all, I am not a black student; secondly, perhaps the racial issue isn’t something that I should discuss among my peers who are mostly White.” But the question Tatum asks to challenge readers in her introduction interests me, “Can we get beyond our fear, our sweaty palms, our anxiety about saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong words and have an honest conversation about racial issues?”(xiii) I was struck by that bold invitation. I have never thought about the possibility of having a conversation like that, partly due to my fear of becoming a racial anger target. Having a conversation about academic work? Yes, we’ve done that in every class, a conversation about multi-culture literature? Yes, both my professor and peers enjoy it; a conversation about politics? Yes, we definitely discuss that topic during some of our book club or literature circle discussions. But race? I doubt and hesitate.
Can We Talk about Race? is the very first book that I have ever read regarding the sensitive race issue; yet, I finish it very quickly because it is interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring, and because it has answered my question, “how can race have anything to do with academic performance?” However, one question lingers in my mind after I’ve finished reading it, “Can Tatum really convince the poor black students to strive to success when she herself comes from a privileged middle class family, lives in a white neighborhood and is raised by her parents who both have received higher education?” Even with such doubt, I find her book useful to me personally because I have started to look at American society and education with a more critical eye based on my current education training.
From the very beginning, Tatum warns us the racial segregation not only still exists in our schools but also has a huge impact on students’ achievement performance. She believes that racial segregation is associated with economic and residential segregation (13). Those segregation factors are the reason that teachers lack multi-cultural experiences and students are not receiving quality education. Due to poverty, insufficient learning conditions, and fixed self-images, black students tend to fail tragically. When we first look at the SAT data, then read the facts on the poor performance of color students and the achievement gap that exists between White and Black students among all grades, it makes it an urgent call from Tatum: teachers not only need to recognize their own Whiteness—“a story of achievement, success, and of being in charge” (32), which means, their privilege that has been programmed into their minds, but also need to take action by learning some effective strategies in encouraging students-both white and black to talk openly about race which is the root of resegregation in today’s schools. One way for teachers to be able to do this is to provide both teachers and their students with antiracist, multicultural education courses or programs. She urges both White and Black students to start a meaningful conversation in order to promote an effective diverse educational learning environment that can benefit both. Tatum quotes social psychologist Pat’s conclusion, “students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in and out of their classrooms benefited in terms of both ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘democracy outcomes’”(110). Tatum, a race expert, has acted on such commitment for over twenty years in her teaching and workshops.
The author believes that universities should take an active role and the responsibility in training students some practical anti-racist courses in order to not only narrow the racial segregation gap but also to improve students academic performance. Education is the key to stop racial conflicts especially in assumption and ideology. Only when dominant Whites and the minority can respect each other on the grounds of understanding, friendship and mutual interest, as Dr. Tatum’s cross-racial friendship with Andrea shows, can segregation be broken. However, Tatum’s own story of an open conversation with her white friend, Andrea, in promoting effective and honest communication between White and Black is not quite convincing to me. As a foreign student who observes the segregation from a certain distance, I can’t help asking myself one question, “Under what condition does the friendship between Andrea and Tatum develop?” It is obviously under the conditions of a similar middle-class background, same education level, and work relationship. Their mutual respect is the foundation of such friendship, which is based on their belonging to the same class rather than to a simplified open dialogue between a white and a black individual. For example, what if Andrea were from a poverty residence? What if one of them were not educated? My point is that the communication between White and Black / minority cannot be solved by a simplistic method or strategy as is the case between Andrea and the author. Another question I am curious about is, Since Tatum has promoted programs and workshops on multiracial and diverse learning environments throughout this book, then how is she, as the current president of Spelman College, able to justify the fact that Spelman College is not only an all black but also an all female institution? Can she invite the white students to her college in the future? If not, can the white population accuse her causing resegregation?
After reading Can We Talk about Race?, I am convinced that the resegregation does exist as Dr. Tatum claims, yet I see the desegregation is highly enforced by Affirmative Action through government and by people both white and black. My personal working experience in a couple of schools tells me that the white people are very aware of the race issue, and as a matter of fact, they put their efforts in making the minority students feeling equally important both academically and socially. The author has obviously found the factors that cause race resegregation which pinpoint the root of segregation problem. As far as the academic gap issue, to me, is a problem existing in any society regardless there is a race issue or not. As long as the economic and political gaps exist, a sense of segregation will always be there between the rich and the poor, and the race issue is only one branch of the big tree. As much as I applaud for Dr. Tatum’s dream- letting the white and the black hold hands with sincere appreciation, as much as I value her efforts for reaching such a goal by promoting the anti-racist workshops and an effective conversation, I still don’t see how soon we can realize it when other gap factors like financial status are dominantly shaping people’s ideologies, lives and politics in America as well as in other countries