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Tatum Delves Into Current Race Issues

By Nina Dutton Posted: 11/17/2008
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Spelman College President Beverly Tatum spoke on race relations and the recent election at the State of Race on Monday.
Spelman College President Beverly Tatum discussed race relations at universities and in the wider world, as well as President-elect Barack Obama’s election and his plans as president at the ninth annual State of Race event last night.

Tatum has authored Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, a book used in several College courses, among other best-selling works on the role of race in higher education. A fourth-generation college educator trained as a clinical psychologist, Tatum is a teacher, scholar and researcher involved in the Atlanta community who has received several honorary degrees.

Before an audience that loosely filled Glenn Memorial Auditorium, State of Race began with the presentation of the winners of Project Finding Common Grounds, a new College Council program encouraging unconventional partnerships of student organizations. Three programs each received $1,000 — one to use art to transcend religious and cultural differences, one to overcome stigmas about homosexuality with a multicultural fashion show and one to show parallels between Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Ghandi.

Tatum first spoke about Obama’s victory earlier this month. Though it was cause for celebration for many, Tatum said that people have engaged in disturbing acts of racism in response to the election.

“A shifiting paradigm generates anxiety,” she said. “Such a sense of threat can lead to violent behavior.”

Tatum likened such racist acts to “birthing pains” accompanying the birth of a “new social narrative” brought on by Obama’s win.

“Something new was born on election night. We have the responsibility and the opportunity to nurture it on our campus,” Tatum said.

Tatum then took questions from the audience.

One student asked whether historically black fraternities and sororities are self-segregating.

“I myself don’t like that term,” Tatum said. “It’s about a dominant group excluding a targeted group.”

Such organizations, she said, are more about “common affinity.”

“There has always been the opportunity for others to participate,” Tatum said, without “built-in” discrimination, adding that “it is important to make spaces for diversity.”

Other students inquired as to Tatum’s inspiration for her writing. She replied that, for one of her first university jobs, she taught a course called “Group Exploration of Racism.” Many of Tatum’s students told her that it was a new experience, she said.

“We have these questions about these very important topics in society and nobody wants to answer them,” Tatum said, explaining the need for such a seminar.

When Tatum taught the couse, she asked students to use their “spheres of influence ... to bring about social change.”

She said that the students in turn inspired her to extend her own sphere of influence, and Tatum responded by conducting workshops for teachers and administrators on teaching children about racism. One day when Tatum was sick with a cold and laryngitis, exacerbated by the sheer number of speeches, she realized she could write a book to save time and her vocal cords.

Another student said that Obama is supposedly considering changing the basis for affirmative action from race to income level.

Tatum acknowledged the role of students’ economic backgrounds, touching on her comparative advantages of education and wealth as a student entering college.

“They looked at black candidates in a separate applicant pool,” Tatum said. “It didn’t seem to me that it was fair for [economically disadvantaged] students to compete with me.”

But, Tatum said, “Race is still a significant variable in determining class outcomes.”

Two students asked about Proposition 8, the California ballot proposition that recently passed to amend the state constutition to ban same-sex marriage, and the alleged role of some minority voters in its passage. This discussion led Tatum to speak on how stereotypes are perpetuated.

She gave the example of a professor whose literature course lacked books by black writers, simply because he had not studied these as a student. But he changed his syllabus when a student pointed out the problem.

“We teach what we were taught as part of our socialization,” Tatum said. “When we become aware of this cycle, we can break it.”

— Contact Nina Dutton.

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