Why Are All the White Kids Sitting Together in MoCon?
A Conversation with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum '75, P'04
by Ciaran S. Escoffery '00
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum '75, P'04 is a scholar, author, administrator, race relations expert, clinical psychologist, and fourth generation college professor. She is married to Dr. Travis Tatum, and they have two sons, Travis Jonathan Daniel Tatum '04 and David Alexander Daniel Tatum. She is a shining example of the type of citizens who make up Wesleyan's alumni of color community.
From the beginning, Tatum knew that she was headed down an academic career path. After graduating a semester early from Wesleyan in December 1974, she worked for about eight months before heading off to the University of Michigan where she attained a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Fast forward a few prestigious university faculty positions later, and we catch up with her in her third year as the ninth president of Spelman College (a historically black liberal arts college for women located in Atlanta, Georgia). Tatum's expertise in race relations includes black families in white America, racial identity in teens, and race in the classroom. As the author of Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community, and Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, she has traveled throughout the country, presenting lectures and leading workshops on racial identity development and on race and educational issues.
In addition to her presidency at Spelman, her extensive lecture schedule, her role as mother and wife, and the numerous other hats that Tatum wears, she always found time and continues to find time for Wesleyan. Most recently, she began her first year as a Wesleyan charter trustee. She brings to the Board of Trustees a higher education background and an understanding of matters that are unique to colleges and universities—a valuable component of the Board.
Ciaran: Why did you choose Wesleyan?
Tatum: In 1970 when I applied, as an honors student in high school, and a college literature national achievement finalist, I was interested in attending a university with a strong academic reputation. All the literature that I received from Wesleyan conveyed its focus on academics and indicated that it had a diverse student population—which was quite rare in the 70s. At the time, the University was just going coed, which was another component that I was seeking as part of my university experience.
C: Many students of color cite their attendance at Pre-frosh Weekend as the experience that led them to make up their mind that Wesleyan was the place for them. (WesFest Weekend is an annual spring program for admitted students hosted by the Office of Admission during mid-April. The program is designed to give students a final "up close" look at life at Wesleyan. WesFest incorporates and compliments Student of Color (SOC) Pre-frosh Weekend, building on the long-standing tradition of special events for students of color, planned by and with current students of color). What was Pre-frosh Weekend like for you?
T: Pre-frosh Weekend was being offered when I applied except it was structured a bit differently. It was a six-week summer program that took place before the start of the freshman year. I think the program was significant to the black student population. The program focused on the New England college experience and gave us a chance to form a bond with each other that was critical to my success at Wesleyan and I think to the success of many of my black classmates. The program created a sense of community for the participants. By the time we began our freshman year, we had already begun to feel at home at Wesleyan and with each other. I think by the end of the six weeks, the program had managed to give us a leg up that many students of color entering college today do not have.
C: What was your overall experience at Wesleyan like?
T: I had a positive experience as a student at Wesleyan, and I'm very proud of my Wesleyan degree. I'm also delighted to be the parent of a Wesleyan graduate.
C: Beyond the six-week pre-frosh program, what was your experience within the student of color community?
T: The student of color community was enthusiastic about being at Wesleyan, about learning, and about being a support system for each other. There were so many students of color. The black population was the largest, but overall, students of color made up about 10 percent of the student population. That percentage is a fairly significant number even today.
C: Students of color at various colleges and universities have cited that there is a difference between their college experience and the experience of their white counterparts, and as such, have asked for multicultural programming and/or deans dedicated to their needs. What are your thoughts on programming specific towards students of color?
T: Programs dedicated towards students of color are useful. However, how well they work is based on how they are structured and how they are operated. The same is true of deans of multicultural affairs positions. Unfortunately, unless the dean has significant authority and decision-making rights within the administration, the person may end up simply being a figurehead.
C: Although white students are drawn to Wesleyan for its diversity, the responsibility of bringing that diversity into play seem to be left up to black students and other students of color. Should diversity really be the responsibility of the student of color community?
T: I think one of the first things that we need to do is to acknowledge that there is a difference in the college experience of a black student versus a white student.
The white students I shared classes with benefited from my participation and from me being there. And that is exactly why many white students come to Wesleyan and places like Wesleyan: for the inherent benefits of diversity. However, once many white students arrive on their respective diverse campuses, they oftentimes end up feeling cheated. These students feel like they have been cheated out of having a diverse college experience because the assumption is that all of the students of color are all tucked away in their affinity housing or preoccupied with their multicultural programs.
This reminds me of one of my visits to Wesleyan. At the invitation of my son, I gave a talk at Wesleyan during his sophomore year. At the end of the lecture, a white student expressed to me that: “I came to Wesleyan for the diversity. I can't get it because I can't connect with students of color because they are all in X House, La Casa . . . .”
When a student expresses these kind of feelings, it should be heard by the University as a cry for help, because it lets us know that the student is having trouble interacting with students of color. Furthermore, the expression of such feelings also gives us an opportunity to expand the dialogue by asking the inverse question, “Why are all the white kids sitting together?" The reality is, white students are the most socially isolated. Black students are out there having multiple connections; be it with their professors, their classmates, their hallmates, etc. When the inverse question is not being asked, we end up seeing the problem from only one side and may end up devising a one-sided solution. These are the instances that perpetuate the notion that diversity is the responsibility of the student of color community. In a case like this, where the white student feels that she is not able to interact with students of color because they are all in affinity housing, the obvious solution may seem to be to do away with affinity housing. However, as administrators, we should look at the concerns of our students from more than one perspective; and when seeking the solution, we should look to create new opportunities rather than simply eliminating existing ones.
As administrators, we have to create opportunities that will help students interact with people who are different from themselves. The University of Michigan (U of M) is a good example of how these opportunities can be created. A few years ago, U of M established intergroup relations that offer students an opportunity for structured conversation relating to the complexities of living in a multicultural society. The students are trained to lead such conversations and also get academic credit for doing so. At the end of these conversations, each student walks away with leadership benefits, academic credit, and the skills and experience that allows them to have multiple and meaningful connections in a diverse society.
(In 1988, the University of Michigan established the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) in response to the heightened racial and ethnic tensions being experienced on its Ann Arbor campus. IGR's initial philosophy was to advance student understanding of and respect for diversity and to augment student skills in the area of intergroup relations and managing conflict between social identity groups. The central goal of the program was, and still is, for students to be engaged proactively to learn about the complexities of living in a multicultural society. Intergroup relations was established a year later as IGR's signature focus and contribution to the University's undergraduate community. — U of M website )
In a similar aim, Wesleyan has recently established the Sustained Dialogue Program, a series of programs intended to create dialogue about diversity on Wesleyan's campus. The Sustained Dialogue Program is open to students, faculty, and staff jointly and will provide a process through which members of the Wesleyan community can share their background and experiences in order to better understand their current behaviors and perspectives. The hope is that, through these series of open dialogues, members of the Wesleyan community will begin to transform the relationships within the community that may be strained along ethnic, racial, religious, and other lines reflected in deep-rooted differences over identity, interest, power, misconceptions, or destructive habits of interacting. For more information, go to http://www.wesleyan.edu/affirm/dialogue-into.html.
C: What are some of the fundamental components for creating these kinds of open dialogue opportunities?
T: I call it the ABC of creating an inclusive learning environment: Affirm identity. Build community. Cultivate leadership.
Affirm identity: In order to affirm identity we begin by doing two things. First, we ask ourselves, “Who is in our community?” “Are they being reflected?" Everyone needs to see themselves reflected in their community or the community they are seeking to be a part of. It is not a misguided impulse for black students to sit together. Instinctually, we seek to be in an environment with other people who share our interests and experiences; it's a natural phenomenon to be drawn to people who we feel are like us. As such, a campus will attract new members to its community based on the reflection of its current community. Therefore, in order to attract a diverse body of students tomorrow, you must reflect diversity in today's student body. Secondly, we must convey to each student: "We know you're here. We know this experience is an important part of your life, and we recognize that."
Build community: We will not be able to build an effective community unless we communicate effectively that everyone in the community is essential and valued. When you take a group photo of the community, it's essential for each person to be able to find him/herself in the photo. Finding yourself in the photo validates your value within that community. This goes back to being able to see yourself reflected in your community.
Cultivate leadership: As a learning institution, we must strive to be a place that creates opportunities that bring a diverse body of people together who are able to learn from each other and have lifelong enriching experiences. We are educating the future leaders but how can they lead if they don't know how to interact across race lines? We have to help students figure it out. We have to do our best to matriculate culturally competent students.
C: Now that you have the experience of Spelman, do you feel that there are things that you missed out on by attending Wesleyan?
T: Actually, Wesleyan and Spelman are more similar than one would immediately imagine. Although Spelman focuses on black women, the aim of the two institutions is to cultivate leaders, inspire independent thought, and encourage these future leaders to make a difference in the world.
C: When you think about Wesleyan what thoughts immediately come to mind?
T: Diverse. Independent thinkers. Wesleyan has a strong streak of independent alumni.
Dr. Tatum will be a presenter for the following WESeminar taking place during Reunion & Commencement Weekend,
May 19–22, 2005: WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS STILL SITTING TOGETHER?: THE CONTINUING SIGNIFICANCE OF RACIAL IDENTITY IN AMERICA. Dr. Beverly Tatum will explore the continuing issues surrounding the development of racial identity in the United States, from very young children who have not yet learned the judgment that often accompanies noticing difference, through college students and debates about "program housing."