The USC Rossier School of Education created Speak Up: Opening A Dialogue with Youth About Racismas a resource to help facilitate discussions about identity, inequality, and education for children of color. In the resource, you’ll find six interactive graphs demonstrating the disparities black and brown children face in the world around them, which make it difficult for them to excel in the classroom. In addition, this resource acknowledges the uncertainty some teachers may face when trying to address race in the classroom and highlights four key things teachers should do when beginning this important conversation.
By Thu Le ACROSS LINES OF DIFFERENCE: Dr. Beverly Tatum accepted the Gittler Prize from President Ron Liebowitz on Wednesday.
On Oct. 3, University President Ronald Liebowitz presented Dr. Beverly Tatum with the 2018 Gittler Prize, which recognizes outstanding scholarly work on racial, ethnic and religious relations. According to Liebowitz’s introductory remarks, the members of the Gittler prize selection committee described Tatum’s work as “brilliant, elegant, insightful, unpretentious — a model for all in the academy.”
Prof. Derron Wallace (SOC), a member of the selection committee, listed Tatum’s qualifications as he introduced her as the winner. He explained that Tatum has written three books but is best known for “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’: And Other Conversations About Race,” which was named the multicultural book of the year by the National Association for Multicultural Education in 1998. “I believe this should be University-wide reading for all of us here at Brandeis,” he said.
Recipients of the Gittler Prize receive $25,000 and a medal. To guide her speech, Tatum looked to the doctrine of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to better understand how facilitating dialogue between different groups can help close the “empathy gap” between them.
Tatum explained that American public schools were actually less segregated in 1980 than they are now. More specifically, 75% of Black students attend “majority minority schools” where over 60 percent of their classmates live in poverty. According to Tatum, “the result is…that young people are growing up in racially divided communities and are almost as separated from each other … as they were 50 years ago.” Tatum explains that with no interaction or knowledge of each other’s life experiences, no genuine empathetic relationships between whites and people of color can exist. This is the empathy gap.
According to Tatum, another factor hindering interracial dialogue is the homogeneity of American social networks.
Tatum also elaborated on exactly what needs to be discussed in cross-group conversations. She explained that less well-known aspects of the history of racism should be touched upon in productive dialogue. For instance, she mentioned that Georgetown University was funded by the sale of slaves. Knowledge of a fact like this can change one’s attitudes toward race. The most important part of cross-group dialogue is knowledge, according to Tatum. Unless racial groups have knowledge of each other’s current and historical conditions, she said, they cannot have empathy for each other.
Dr. Tatum expressed hope that interracial dialogue will become more prevalent. She cited programs such as the University of Michigan Intergroup Relations Program and foundations such as the Kellogg Foundation that have committed themselves to promoting interracial dialogue throughout the country. In the IGR program, she explained, students take courses “carefully designed to engage students in careful listening and shared explorations of the meanings of social identities, conflict, community, and social justice in those contexts.”
According to Tatum, there is research evidence that dialogues like those facilitated by the IGR program are effective in bridging the empathy gap between races. These programs change the attitudes and behaviors of both white students and students of color for the better, Tatum said. Students involved in the programs had “increased self-awareness about issues of power and privilege, greater awareness of the institutionalization of race and racism in the United States, better cross-racial interactions, less fear of race-related conflict and greater participation in social change.”
Tatum addresses the counterargument — that discussions about race only create tensions where none previously existed. Tatum believes that silencing conversations on race and racism “is just another way to maintain the status quo. You can’t solve a problem without talking about it.”
Finally, Tatum reiterated her main point: “We can allow the forces leading to greater segregation to drive us further apart as a nation, or we can use our leadership as active citizens to engage one another in the work of building community across lines of difference.” She shared a quote from Dr. King: “Racial understanding is not something that we find, but something that we must create.”
Tatum ended by praising the Brandeis motto: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” she said. “We need to explore truth even unto its innermost parts, even the parts that don’t feel right.” She explained that our motto can guide our faculty toward representing diversity on campus. She said that “If we only talk about the experience of white middle class” people, we are not exploring “truth unto its innermost parts.”
One day a student approached me after class and asked, “What should I call students who are of Asian descent? Is it OK to just say Asian, or should I say what group they belong to?” He continued, “What if I make a mistake and call a Chinese student Japanese? I don’t want to appear racist.”
On the campus where I teach, as well as in community organizations that I belong to, people often approach me with such questions.
In most cases, the questions are posed by white people wondering what they should call African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Pacific islanders, and others. They are generally sensitive to not wanting to be offensive and genuinely want to know what people prefer to be called. The response I usually give is, “Just ask them.” If done in a respectful way, it is usually fine. Racial terminology is daunting even to those of us who research and write about it.
I am old enough to remember when blacks were called “colored,” especially in the South, roughly from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. I also remember the use of the word “Negro,” which, for older black folks such as my mother, who grew up in Louisiana, was certainly an improvement over the “N-word.” And I well recall the 1970s when the Black Power movement was in its heyday and the slogan “Black is beautiful” came into popular use, at least among the younger generation of black student activists and scholars. The word “African-American” became common in the 1980s, and today we hear the term “people of color” being used.
Who exactly does the term “people of color” refer to? Is it a throwback to the word “colored,” and is it used solely to describe African-Americans?
“People of color” is a term primarily used in the United States and Canada to describe any person who is not white. It does not solely refer to African-Americans; rather, it encompasses all non-white groups and emphasizes the common experiences of systemic racism, which is an important point I discuss in more detail below.
Where does it come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says that it derived from a term used in the French colonial era in the Caribbean and in LaLouisianne in North America. It traditionally referred to gens de couleur libres, or people of mixed African and European ancestry who were freed from slavery or born into freedom. In the late 20th century, the term “person of color” was adopted as a preferable replacement to “non-white.” Unfortunately, the contrast pits all people who have a “color” against people who do not have a color or who possess “whiteness.” However, the word “minority” has also come to have a negative meaning attached to it, especially in places like California, Texas, New York City, and Florida where people of color are not a numerical minority anymore.
So in the United States in 2016 our language still reflects the continuing racialization hierarchy—with white at the top. The use of “people of color” may be less offensive to some than, say, specifying one’s country of origin (Mexican-American, African-American, and so on). Some people that I have asked say they prefer the use of country-of-origin terms because they provide a connection between one’s ancestral country and where they live now. So a question from me is, if we replaced “white” with “European-American” or “Iranian-American,” for example, could we then do away with the word “white” as well?
Getting back to the issue at hand, the term “people of color” may have an important role precisely because it includes a vast array of different racial or ethnic groups. These groups have the potential to form solidarities with each other for collective political and social action on behalf of many disenfranchised or marginalized people. This terminology is useful in social justice, and in civil rights and human rights contexts. For example, in relationship to the current Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States, many students-of-color groups on university and college campuses support the movement’s efforts.
How widely accepted is the use of the term “people of color” in everyday language? In an NPR blog post titled “The Journey From ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ to ‘People of Color,’” author Kee Malesky discusses the evolution of these terms and observes that “people of color” has gone mainstream. This term may have originated in political circles or social justice arenas, but it has spread to academia and is being accepted in academic writing and in speech.
But it is important to recognize that while “people of color” reaffirms non-whiteness, many people don’t like the term because they feel “it lumps all of us together.” Those who are white or Caucasian (“Caucasian” is itself a problematic word—which I will discuss in an upcoming blog post) are still the standard by which all others are labeled, at least for now.
At this cultural moment in the U.S., we still live in a racialized social and cultural hierarchy, and our language continues to reflect our ongoing attempts to grapple with that reality.