Dean Maryam Alavi of the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business recently hosted a conversation with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, an award-winning educational leader, best-selling author, and noted expert on the psychology of racism. The event was sponsored by the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact (ILSI) and Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (IDEI).
Dr. Tatum is president emerita of Spelman College and author of several books including the best-seller Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, now in its 20th anniversary edition. Dr. Tatum is the 2013 recipient of the Carnegie Academic Leadership Award and the 2014 recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology.
In this virtual talk, Dr. Tatum focused on the themes of prejudice, racism, discrimination, and racial bias. Through her stories, she noted four important issues to address to achieve ongoing conversation and anti-racist action in America.
1. Understand the difference between prejudice and racism.
Prejudice and racism are often used interchangeably but they don’t have the same meaning, explains Tatum. “Prejudice is a set of attitudes based on stereotypes and limited information,” she said. Examples of prejudice include misinformation about another group as depicted through stereotypical jokes, TV programs, consumer products, and other media.
Tatum equates the environment of prejudice to smog in the air. If you live in a smoggy place, you're going to breathe it in whether you want to or not. “We are all living in this smoggy environment of prejudice,” she noted. “It remains in the air.”
Racism, however, is more than simply being prejudiced. “Racism is about policies and practices that systematically advance one group over another,” she explained. Although someone may not be actively engaged in name-calling or active discrimination, their lack of action reinforces policies and procedures that place marginalized groups at a disadvantage.
To illustrate racism, Tatum likes to use the analogy of a moving walkway. The institutionalized policies and practices that form the system of racism function like a moving walkway carrying all of us along with it. Those who are walking fast on the walkway are akin to those who actively embrace the ideologies that fuel racism. Examples include groups supporting racist ideologies.
Still, others will reluctantly remain on the walkway, either walking ahead slowly or even standing still, but unless they actively walk in the opposite direction, they will be carried along passively. It is only when one is actively interrupting the process - walking against the moving walkway - that someone is working against racism.
2. Teaching color blindness leads to color silence.
There’s a general notion that children are color blind. Tatum says this isn’t true. She points out that children do notice differences in others, they see it and comment on it often innocently. However, when children do notice differences such as skin color and talk about it, they’re generally hushed by adults. This color silence carries them through their school years.
“We learn early on from adults that we’re not supposed to talk about these differences…Because of that early socialization, we don’t talk about it because it feels uncomfortable. We must push past this discomfort,” she states. Tatum provided the audience with a reference to a TEDxStanford talk in which she had a difficult conversation with her own three-year-old when explaining the differences in others and the history of Black Americans.
3. Recognize the systemic forces at work against communities of color.
Tatum provided examples of systemic marginalization in action by referencing admissions tests such as the ACT, SAT, and GRE in which students of color are often at a disadvantage compared to white students because of inequities in the educational system.
One example of the marginalization of certain communities came from her story of the GI Bill. The bill was passed in the 1940s after the end of World War II, to give returning veterans opportunities for education and home ownership. In Mississippi, a state that was more than 50% Black in 1947, a survey showed that of 3,200 VA guaranteed home loans awarded, only two were granted to Black veterans. A similar pattern was evident in the Northeast. Of 67,000 guaranteed mortgages awarded in the New York-Northern New Jersey area, less than 100 went to Black borrowers. “Nothing in the bill stated that it was a racist policy but it was implemented in a discriminatory way. These systemic acts of racism have ripple effects across multiple generations, still impacting rates of home ownership and access to opportunities today,” she pointed out.
4. Choose community over chaos.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book, published in 1968, titled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? in which he contemplates how people of color can achieve quality education, better housing, jobs, and a more just society. Tatum referenced the book when asked how a single individual can create racial change.
“Each of us has a choice to make; choosing chaos or building community,” she explains. To build a community of acceptance, we have to actively choose community over chaos and then find out who’s missing from our community, who needs to be invited to the conversation, and whose voice isn’t being heard. “Who’s missing?” she asked. “If we answer that question, we’ll have a roadmap. So, ask the question: Who’s missing?”