This Op-ed ran in the New York Times on Sunday, July 2, 2000 as part of a larger article titled "America, Seen Through the Filter of Race"Many white people think of racism as a problem of individual bigotry and hatred, while people of color often understand it as an intricate web of individual attitudes, cultural messages and institutional practices that systematically advantage whites and disadvantage people of color. If you believe that individual acts of meanness are the problem, then the solution is individual acts of kindnessÂpolite, respectful behavior, maybe even friendly outreach. White students often use that strategy to connect with black classmates. In a study of undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley, sociologist Troy Duster found that white students wanted more opportunities to just "hang out" with black classmates, having lunch or going for pizza.
But if your understanding is that a system is operating to reinforce cultural stereotypes, limit opportunities and foster a climate in which bigotry can be expressed, then the solution is a concerted daily effort to interrupt that system. It means objecting to jokes, challenging policies, advocating for greater inclusion. It requires more than being nice, and the black students were not so interested in sharing pizza, but in engaging white classmates in structured a dialogue about race relations.
Beverly Daniel Tatum is dean of the college at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race(Basic Books, 1997).