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Talking About Race

Beverly Tatum


Psychology professor Beverly Tatum's new book on racial identity development has made her something of a national media star. She had twenty-two media interviews in three days and discussed her work with reporters from Time, USA Today, CNN, the Boston Globe, and other media outlets across the country.

"How appropriate that President Clinton gave his speech promoting racial dialogue at a college campus," she says. "Many young people have not spent much time in multiracial communities before they come to college, so even a predominantly white college like Mount Holyoke is a diverse community that provides opportunities to develop relationships across racial lines."

Can We Talk?

To do that, people must talk. Students in Tatum's Psychology of Racism course, which she's taught for seventeen years, typically move from fearful silence to no-holds-barred honest discussions about race. Through trial and error, students learn what promotes cross-racial dialogue and what kills a promising conversation. Lessons forged in the crucible of this and other race-focused MHC courses can guide others to successfully break the silence about race.

"It's only recently that people have had open conversations about race, and it helps to realize that we are all still learning how to do it," says Ruth Lopez '99. "The only way to have a straight-out talk about racial identity is to be honest. If you don't know, ask." But Tatum saw that students were at first reluctant to ask questions and talk openly. "White students talked about their fear of exposing their own prejudice, offending someone unintentionally, or sounding stupid when they spoke about race," she says. "Students of color also worried about offending someone or saying the wrong thing, but their anxiety was more around revisiting pain. If you talk about painful experiences with racism, it means reopening old wounds, and there's a lot of concern about whether it will be worth the effort." Kira Hudson '00 admits that students of color often get tired of discussing sometimes painful issues. "But if someone has a genuine desire to learn, I'll take a deep breath and explain again. Because if I won't take that step, I can't guarantee anyone else will. The work has to come from both sides."

That fits with Tatum's belief that everyone has prejudices absorbed unthinkingly just by living in this culture. "Prejudice is like smog," she explains. "Sometimes it's invisible, but you breathe it in whether or not you can see it." We are not at fault for the distortions we were exposed to growing up, but that doesn't exempt us from cleaning up the "smog," she believes. "It's our responsibility to consciously examine the stereotypes and interrupt the cycle of racism. To do this, we have to talk about race."

Lucas Wilson's Introduction to African American Studies students mentioned many of the same cross-racial communication challenges cited by Tatum's class. "In cross-racial personal interactions, there's a deficiency of language," says Alva Hayslip '99. "Because race is rarely discussed, most people haven't developed the skills to engage in significant dialogue." Initial reluctance is frequently about fear of being misunderstood, adds assistant professor of economics and African American studies Wilson. "If you say something and someone else understands it in a very different way, that misunderstanding becomes who you are [to the listener.]"

To combat that, Fran Zacharia '99 suggests remembering "the saying that God gave us two ears and one mouth so we could listen twice as much as we speak. You also need to take time to digest what the person is saying and think, 'Does she have a point?' " Julienne Guerrero '00 suggests "expecting some struggle. As Frederick Douglass said, 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress.'"

What Else Is Happening?

Lots of MHC students - not just Tatum's and Wilson's - are talking about race both in the classroom and out of it. There are 119 academic courses with a multicultural component and at least seventeen with a specific focus on race and/or racism. Department-sponsored events - such as a lecture series on economics, race, and public policy in the United States - often have racial content.

Some extracurricular groups actively seek opportunities for multiracial interaction. One of the most successful is the student-led worship group started by Protestant chaplain Andrea Ayvazian. "Antiracism work is part of every Sunday service," she says. "We sing spirituals and gospel music, have readings and prayers from around the world, and I've been told we have the most multiethnic congregation in New England."

Andrea Ayvazian and student deacons
Protestant Chaplain Andrea Ayvazian (shown at right with her council of student deacons) says whites need to listen to people of color and believe them. "Don't say "Yes, but...' Don't say, "Mr. Adams doesn't have a prejudiced bone in his body.' Saying these things, even when they're meant to comfort, undermines the speaker's life experiences."

The annual Inclusiveness Program draws the campus together to interact with outstanding visitors such as Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka and Chicana mural artist Judith Baca. This year's headliner is Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid. In addition to coordinating the inclusiveness program, director of diversity and inclusion Rochelle Calhoun recently began a series of "diversity roundtable discussions" for small groups of students, faculty, and staff as part of a yearlong campus examination of race and identity. They are part of Calhoun's overall goal of "weaving diversity and inclusion into the fabric of the institution and making it an institutional priority." She notes that MHC has "a very rich history of taking seriously issues of diversity and inclusion," but needs to "create a vision that allows these efforts to be more than sporadic." She is spearheading the College's effort to create a more fully diverse and inclusive community, a goal spelled out in the Plan for Mount Holyoke 2003.

Too Much Togetherness?

Despite the campuswide effort, understanding still lags on some issues. One is the desire of many students of color to have separate "cultural space" for their racial group. The Betty Shabazz House provides this for students of African/African American heritage and the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center is for Latina students; MHC has pledged to find spaces for Asian/Asian American women and for lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students.

Book: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting together in the CafateriaThe issue of this apparent "self-segregation" goes to the heart of Beverly Tatum's new book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Tatum argues that developing an awareness of racial identity is part of the process teenagers of all races go through while answering the crucial psychological question of adolescence: "Who am I?" For adolescents of color, "this almost always involves an exploration of ethnic identity because that's the way the outside world is responding to them," Tatum says. "It seems natural to connect with people similar to you when you're trying to make sense of racially coded messages." So, for a time, students may immerse themselves in their racial culture and prefer friends of their own race as they unlearn stereotypes about their own group and "redefine a positive sense of self based on an affirmation of [their] racial group identity."

In Tatum's view, this temporary separation is not a problem to be solved (as whites often assume), but a natural stage of adolescent development. "I think it's important for groups targeted by systematic oppression to have a space where they can come together and relax and not feel 'under the microscope,' " she says. "But we also want to create places where people are coming together across differences."

Tatum's work clearly has struck a chord in the national psyche, for she's attracted media attention from Time, USA Today, CNN, the Boston Globe, and other media outlets across the country. She was among the national authorities on education and racial issues to participate in September's National Leadership Summit on Race Relations and America's Public Education System, the first program conducted as part of Clinton's initiative on race.

All Talk and No Action?

"Talking about racism is a crucial part of getting rid of it, but it's not the only part," says Tatum. She and Ayvazian have conducted hundreds of antiracism workshops together at colleges nationwide, modeling mutually respectful, honest, and frank cross-racial dialogue. But their real goal, they wrote in Sojourners magazine, "is to move people along the continuum from uninformed to informed, from informed to concerned, and from concerned to active."

Each student in the Psychology of Racism course creates an "action plan" to take antiracism work beyond the classroom. Juniors Nicole Fabricant and Ruth Lopez led an informal, semester-long multiracial dialogue group on campus. Carol Egan, a Frances Perkins Scholar with a biracial son, compiled a book of inspirational quotations from antiracist whites such as Angelina Grimke and Wendell Berry. "My book of quotes was designed to interrupt the historical cycle of racism and to give us ideas of how others have done that," says Egan. Jennifer Reid '98 tells anyone who'll listen what the class meant to her. "Any challenge to racism means progress, so when I hear something inappropriate, I've learned to be brave and say something like, 'In my experience that isn't true.'"

Rochelle Calhoun
Rochelle Calhoun, director of diversity and inclusion (center), starts the first of several campus diversity roundtables. "In my four years here, racial issues have not been ignored or pushed away," says Jennifer Reid '98. "Many groups on campus are developing ways to let everyone be heard and respected. When we have forums and discussions and people are talking and listening, that's progress."

Kira Hudson says more such action is needed. "It doesn't bother me to speak up when something is offensive, but it would mean so much more in society if, after I say, 'That is offensive,' the woman sitting next to me - who happens to be of a different race - would say the same thing with similar conviction."

Not acting against racism takes a psychological toll on whites as well as people of color, Tatum says. "It takes lots of energy to not notice racism, and when white people begin to notice and then speak out about racism, many talk about how energizing the whole thing is," she explains.

Is MHC Typical?

"Like the rest of society, Mount Holyoke is in transition from being predominantly monocultural to becoming multicultural," says Ayvazian. "We're on the multicultural end of the continuum and we've made it a priority." Some students find Mount Holyoke a good place to warm up in talking about race. Julienne Guerrero says, "We're developing a language that we can use as a bridge [across cultures], so in that respect we're one step ahead of the rest of the country." And Connie Yim '98 says that, compared with other campuses she's visited, MHC is "a lot more progressive. These kinds of discussions don't seem to happen at the colleges my sister and her boyfriend attend."

Quo Vadis Cobb '98 reminds, "There's a thin line between talking with people who want to learn about a culture and pushing it on them," but acknowledges that "We [at MHC] are ahead of other people because for the most part there's a willingness to learn about other cultures. I don't know that you'd find that willingness out in the world." Ayvazian says she's never found a campus that's reached the "promised land" of racial harmony. "But when we fall on our faces here, we pick ourselves up and move on. Cross-race dialogue isn't smooth or easy, but it is alive on this campus."

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