Culture, Race

Reflections: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Ch.2

The author Beverly Tatum does something interesting in this chapter.  She dives into the complexity of identity – but not merely to understand ourselves better, but as a possible path to understanding each other across the racial conversation.

Who we are, Tatum suggests, is not so straight-forward.  We are multi-dimensional–e.g., I am a young, Gen X, middle class, Chinese Christian heterosexual male.  But how we view ourselves is also a product of a multi-faceted process.  A la Erikson, how we view ourselves results from this back and forth process between observation and reflection:  All day long, I intuit what you think about me, I observe what is considered normal in the world, I observe what the world thinks about people like me — and I reflect, react, and internalize those things.  So identity isn’t just this innate quality, rooted merely within myself – it is also located within my social context.  How I view myself as a young Chinese man in 2013 America is very different than as a young Chinese man in 1013 China.

One of the biggest components of our self-perception, Tatum says, is our membership in either a dominant or subordinate group.

One of the interesting things she notes is that when she asks people to describe themselves, White people almost never introduce themselves as White, while people of color almost always indicate their color or ethnicity.  The reason is because when we are in a dominant group, we tend to take that element of our identities for granted.  When the external world already privileges this aspect of my identity – the harmony is so great that it falls back into my unconscious.  On the other hand, when we are not in the dominant group – we know it.  And we’ve all been there:  when I walked into a room of all women, all well-dressed people, all tall people, etc.  This experience of being “other” is so pronounced, that it tends to be the part of our identity that we become most aware of.

There are at least seven categories of “otherness” commonly experienced in U.S. society. People are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. (p. 22)

The reality, though is that most of us belong to both dominant and subordinate groups.  I am subordinate because I am Chinese, young, and (in our area) Christian (curious, in her area, it’s an advantage).  But I am dominant because I am male, well-educated, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and once again, stunningly good-looking.

But to return to the contrast between dominant and subordinate groups – it’s pretty stark.  Because the dominant group, by definition, sets the rules, defines what’s normal.  Everyone else “is labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways” (p.22).  An example that I run across frequently has to do with study habits/value of education.  I’ve heard of people who bemoan how Asian parents for being “too strict” and putting “too much pressure” on their kids.  Meanwhile, it’s insinuated that Blacks are “lazy” or otherwise less intelligent.  Think about what is being said here. The implication is that Whites are neither too strict nor too lazy, they are, as we learned from Goldilocks:  Just right.  In any case, this is an example of the dominant group seeing what is “normal” as merely a reflection of themselves.  (To be fair, my family was quite insistent that I never become as lazy as anyone because in their cultural mindset – their way was not only right, but normative).  Another example is when men complain that women are “too emotional”.  Who defines what is the right amount of emotion?  The dominant group, which is men.

Of course, these are all stereotypes with only degrees of truth.  But when someone in the subordinate group bucks the trend, they are merely seen as anomalies.  That’s why Biden’s compliment to Obama was seen as backhanded:  “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” (read:  because normally you guys aren’t!).

But stuff like this shouldn’t surprise us, because most dominants are clueless – most think their experience is normative.  They literally have no idea.  But who can blame them when the culture and media all simply parrot back their views and values ?  Subordinates are familiar with the experience of the dominants because the dominants own the culture and the media, but rarely the other way around.  That’s why if you want to go mainstream, you often have to “whitewash” yourself:  Blacks lighten their skin, Asians change their eyes, Jews change their noses, etc.  You have to suppress your identity.

Of course, this makes many of us want to reject the dominant culture altogether – which leads to ghettoism.  The negative result, Tatum says, though is that it disconnects subordinates from the networks, skills, and resources that would otherwise help improve their plight — all of which are connected to the dominant group.

And so this where even earnest race relations have often fallen apart.  Earnest Whites can easily become discouraged by the charges of still being racist.  Meanwhile, people of color, are still angry by how clueless Whites continue to be.

From here Tatum says that the complexity of our identities can be an asset.  If you are White, she says it might be easier to understand the perspective of minorities by drawing on your own experience of belonging to a subordinate group — as a young person, female, person with disability, growing up poor, etc.  If you are a person of color, you might understand that cluelessness better if you realize you too are a clueless dominant — as a heterosexual, able-bodied person, a man, or some other kind of dominant person.  Tatum says of herself:

If I am impatient with a White woman for not recognizing her White privilege, it may be useful for me to remember how much of my life I spent oblivious to the fact of the daily advantages I receive simply because I am heterosexual, or the ways in which I may take my class privilege for granted. (p. 23)

In other words, perhaps the first step is to realize that both the threads of clueless dominance and helpless subordination run through all of us.  None of us are exempt or immune.

The thesis of this chapter resonates deeply with me as a Christian.  People often say that at the heart of Christianity is love.  Actually, it’s Jesus.  But yes, love is central.  But so is the belief that we are all sinners.  More specifically:  we are all victims of sin, but we are also all perpetrators of it.  I cannot decry the corruption of politicians without also being humble about the greed in my own heart.  I cannot turn my nose at Miley Cyrus without implicating my own pride and insecurities.  I cannot point at the speck in my brother’s eye without bumping into the plank in my own.

There are sinners on both sides of the racial conversation.  As an ethnic minority here in America (but certainly not the world!) – it’s so easy to just shake my head at the majority.  I was recently talking with a friend about Rick Warren and also the Exponential Conference – and he said something that startled me:  Most white people just don’t get it.  That may or may not be true.  But the Cross of Christ reminds me:  I am a clueless sinner too.  This does not negate the sins of the majority.  In fact, I believe the Cross puts the onus on the dominant – not the subordinate; reconciliation and love, in light of Christ crucified, is always the ethical responsibility of the strong, not the weak.  But even so, the Cross still stunningly calls me to humility and patience.  Ponder this long enough and you’ll realize how offensive, yet radical this is.

Personally, I think the Cross takes us much further than Tatum does, but it seems promising that it’s in the same direction.  Because my interest in this topic is not to stoke racial animosity or pride – but in seeking racial righteousness in the Church, and peace in the world.


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