Racism is a system of advantage based on race, a combination of racial prejudice and social power. Because they benefit from this arrangement, almost all white Americans — but not their black peers — can fairly be called racist.
Or so says Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum, who delivered the freshman keynote address Sunday evening and whose book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” was mailed home to every member of the class of 2011 as mandatory summer reading.
Tatum’s visit to Yale came after lengthy discussion between administrators and students concerned about last year’s spate of racially charged incidents, including allegedly racist fliers posted around campus and content in several undergraduate publications that some students found hurtful. Many freshmen who attended Tatum’s address said that while they disagreed with Tatum’s arguments, they think her remarks will serve as a helpful foundation for future discussions of race and diversity on campus.
Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque said he met last spring and over the summer with residential college deans, freshman and ethnic counselors, and members of student groups such as the Coalition for Campus Unity and Realizing Race, who wanted to see the administration take active steps to raise awareness about racial relations among freshmen upon their arrival in New Haven.
“We thought that, given some of the difficult conversations the last couple of years … it would be important to tackle pretty head-on the issues of race and racism,” he said. “Any thinking person is conscious that racism still exists in our world and in American society. I think it will not take these students long to realize that racism inevitably exists at Yale.”
Over the summer, students received a letter from Yale College Dean Peter Salovey asking them to read three chapters of Tatum’s book that examined the nature of racism and suggested approaches for bridging the gap between different racial groups. Before Tatum’s speech, Salovey told freshmen that the college wanted to “present something with a little bit of an edge to it.”
During her speech, Tatum shared experiences that she said motivated her to write the book, including an anecdote about a white male student who, having heard a fellow student complain that she had not been taught African American literature in college, said, “It’s not my fault that blacks don’t write books.”
Tatum said no one is at fault for being prejudiced, stressing the connection between “missing information” and the development of racial bias.
“If you breathe in a lot of smog, you’re going to breathe it out,” she said.
Administrators chose Tatum’s book because several CCU members were familiar with the book and believed it would be accessible to most students, Levesque said. To the best of his knowledge, he said, the assigned reading marks the first time incoming Yalies have been given a summer assignment.
CCU member Frances Kelley ’08 said her organization urged administrators to focus on issues relating to race during freshman orientation so that incoming students would appreciate the importance of discussing these issues openly. She said she thinks the backlash against students who spoke out against material published in the Record and Rumpus humor magazines last year demonstrates that many Yalies are not properly equipped to discuss race sensitively.
“We were glad [the administration] took this first step of saying that having a conversation about race is important,” Kelley said. “It seems to me Yale students don’t have the tools and vocabulary to speak about race or gender or class in [such] a way that we would even be able to have a conversation.”
Following the speech, each residential college hosted a panel of students who spoke about their experiences with race and racism on campus. Freshmen then broke up into smaller groups to discuss the issue in more intimate sessions.
Sam Ng ’09, who spoke on the student panel in Branford and led a small-group discussion, said students were initially reluctant to share their thoughts because they were fearful of giving offense, and many said they had not openly discussed race relations in high school.
“What about talking about race is so stigmatized?” said Ng, the moderator of Realizing Race.
Some freshmen said that while they appreciated the college’s effort to draw attention to racism, they are skeptical of some of the ideas presented in Tatum’s book. But others said they appreciated the sometimes intense discussion the book sparked among the class.
Students criticized the book for its depiction of racism as a system rather than a personal state of mind, arguing that Tatum’s definition of racism suggests that white people are inherently racist while people of color cannot truly be racist.
Jonhatan Aragon ’11 said he disagreed with Tatum’s assertion that white people inevitably have the upper hand in society because they are the majority.
“The idea that all white people are racist is probably a little drastic,” he said. “Everyone in society has to work hard to achieve their potential.”
During the brief question-and-answer session after the speech, two students asked Tatum whether or not she thought talking about racism could aggravate the problem by drawing attention to it. In response, she compared racism to pollution, arguing that racism will go unchecked until people acknowledge its existence and take steps to eradicate it.
Eleanor Avrunin ’11 said she was surprised that the college assigned such a controversial topic for summer reading, but she appreciated the attempt to spark discussion on an important issue.
“I was a little bit surprised, but it fits in with how they want us to be more inquisitive,” she said.
Julian Domo ’11 said the book was a good choice for him because he comes from rural area with a homogenous population, and Tatum’s arguments offered a fresh perspective on race relations. The book successfully sparked debates among incoming students, he said.
“People were discussing the book even before she came,” he said.
Despite some freshman counselors’ anxiety about leading discussions on such a sensitive issue, Levesque said he was pleased both with students’ interactions with Tatum during the address and with the tenor of discussion groups.
“I was prepared for people to have been offended by some of her definitions of racism, which are controversial, but the tone of the questions was very respectful,” he said. “I toured around all the colleges and every counselor I talked to said they had an amazing conversation, and some said it was the best conversation they’ve ever had on this topic.”
Head Ethnic Counselor Funmi Showole ’08, who helped organize the freshman orientation, said she was pleased that the new program allowed the ethnic counselors to be introduced to the freshman class in a more uniform manner than in past years.
“Now more than ever I think that the freshmen class understands that ethnic counselors are there to serve all students and not solely students of [color]” she said in an e-mail.
Tatum, who is known nationwide as an expert on racial identity, participated in President Bill Clinton’s 1998 “Dialogue on Race” program.