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087: Talking with children about race, with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum

We’ve laid a lot of groundwork on topics related to race by now: we learned about white privilege in parenting, and white privilege in schools, and even how parents can use sports to give their children advantages in school and in life.

Today my listener Dr. Kim Rybacki and I interview a giant in the field: Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of the now-classic book (recently released in a 20th anniversary edition!) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race.

We begin by assessing what is White parents’ responsibility to help dismantle structural racism, and then learn how to discuss race and racism with our children.  And in the next episode in this series I’ll have some really in-depth resources to support you in having these conversations with your own children.

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Jen: 01:25 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a very special episode lined up for today and I’m recording this introduction separately, so as not to take time away from the interview. If you’re a regular listener, you might have heard my episodes on White Privilege and Parenting and also White Privilege in Schools in which we looked at some of the structural racism that’s present in our society that we might not have recognized until now, especially if we’re white. I’d also like to direct you back to the very beginning of the show because in episode 6, which was called “Wait, is my toddler racist?” We discovered how implicit bias works, how it’s often present even in very young children and how just not talking with children about color or what is known as the colorblind approach is one of the more effective ways to raise a child who experiences racial prejudice.
Jen: 02:10 Having been completely immersed in the literature on this topic for the last couple of months, I’m also going to adjust my terminology to be more in line with the language that my guest uses. Racial prejudice describes a person’s attitude while racism or structural racism is the system that confers advantages on white people and disadvantages on people who aren’t white by reinforcing ideas about white superiority. If you haven’t already listened to these previous episodes then I would strongly encourage you to do so as a lot of the ideas and language we’ll use today was established in these episodes and we won’t spend a lot of time laying groundwork today so we can maximize our time on the really deep questions. I also want to acknowledge that when we use terms like white privilege and implicit bias, that it can make it seem like white people are innocent if ignorant recipients of an unfair advantage.
Jen: 02:55 We didn’t ask for this privilege after all, we were just born into a system in which we have it, but in reality, there are a lot of things that white people do every day to perpetuate and even reinforce the system. We talked about some of them in our episodes on White Privilege. These can be as simple as things like finding a resource related to education that not everybody knows about and sharing that information among networks of white people, which makes it more difficult for people of nondominant cultures to access these resources and of course they can take much more insidious forms like electing racist leaders who explicitly perpetuate whites’ advantage. So today we’re very lucky to have two special guests with us. The first one needs almost no introduction. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is former president of Spelman College, licensed clinical psychologist and nationally recognized authority on racial issues in America.
Jen: 03:45 Dr. Tatum holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan and for 18 years she taught a course called Psychology of Racism at three different institutions. She’s the author of the seminal book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, which was revised and updated in 2017 and is a nationally renowned expert on the subjects of race and racial identity development. And here with me today to help me co-interview Dr. Tatum is Dr. Kim Rybacki who received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the City University of New York, and is on the Behavioral Sciences Faculty at Dutchess Community College in New York. Dr. Rybacki is in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group, which you should join if you’re not already a member, and we had a conversation in the group about things that she’s trying to do to “fight for a better system while doing the least amount of damage in the current one as possible.” But she seemed very unsure as to whether she was doing the right things or even enough of the right things and so I realized she’d be the perfect person to talk this through with Dr. Tatum.
Jen: 04:42 I mentioned in the introductions to the previous two episodes that I acknowledged that race can be a difficult thing to talk about. To some extent, I think it’s sort of like talking about sex and even anatomically correct names for body parts, the more time you say vulva and penis, the less ridiculous it feels and the more ridiculous it feels that it feels ridiculous to say these words. So even if you’re feeling some resistance to the idea of listening to this episode, I would encourage you to sit tight with us, especially if you have a goal of raising race conscious children. So, we’re going to start off today by talking about the structural racism and what is our responsibility as parents to change the system and then we’ll talk about things that we can talk about and do with our children specifically on issues related to race.
Jen: 05:22 I’ll also remind you that we’ve began each of the episodes in this series by having both me and my guests state our privileges. You’ve heard mine a couple times already by now, so I’ll just state them quickly and then we’ll start by asking our guests about theirs. So, some of my main privileges are my whiteness, my economic status in the upper middle class, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness and my education. Now let’s hear from my guests. So, welcome Dr. Tatum it’s great to have you here.
Dr. Tatum: 05:49 Thank you so much. Glad to be with you.
Jen: 05:51 And welcome Kim as well.
Kim: 05:53 Thank you. Great to be here.
Jen: 05:55 So, I’ve already stated my privileges in the introduction to this episode. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind starting by having each of you state your privileges in turn perhaps by starting with Dr. Tatum, please.
Dr. Tatum: 06:06 Sure. Well, when I think about privileges, I define that in terms of the ways that I’m systematically advantaged and so I’m systematically advantaged as a heterosexual. I identify as Christian and living in a Christian dominant society that also gives me privileges. I’m physically and cognitively able. I grew up in a middle class home with well-educated parents and have been the recipient of an excellent education myself, so that certainly advantages me and I am someone who identifies as economically secure. I am an African American woman and of course I’m targeted by racism and sexism, but I always just want to acknowledge that as a light skinned person, a light skinned African American, I feel that that also gives me privileges that dark skinned people don’t get.
Jen: 06:55 Thank you so much. Kim, would you mind saying yours as well?
Kim: 06:58 Sure. I mean using the same definition as Dr. Tatum, I would certainly start off with stating that I have white privilege as a white woman. Also cisgender heterosexual privilege. I am an able-bodied person with a strong educational background and secure economic status. So, those are what would come to mind first.
Jen: 07:20 Super. Thank you. And so we’re going to take two major tacks with our questions today. We’re going to start out by talking about structural racism and then we’re going to talk about how we actually talk to our children about racism and race as well more generally. When I was trying to think, can we really cover this in an hour? I was trying to think what on earth I could cut, but I decided that I wanted to try and ask Dr. Tatum as much of it as we can. So, we’ll start with the structural racism and then we’ll get into the how to talk with children about this topic. So, my first question for you is for anyone whose view of the history of black people in America goes something kind of like black people were brought here as slaves and then Lincoln freed them because he thought that slavery was wrong and then black people essentially had all the same rights as white people, except that they couldn’t vote.
Jen: 08:03 Then they got that right in the 60s and now they’re essentially the same as whites and they really don’t deserve any special treatment like affirmative action. Then I just want to encourage my listeners to read Carol Anderson’s book, White Rage because it just systematically dismantle all of these ideas and hundreds more besides and I was so impressed that it has 80 pages of references in 230 pages of book. Kim actually recommended that book to me. So, the point that I’m trying to make here is that while we might think that the playing field is level, the playing field has never been level. So, we may think this is a recent problem, now we’ve managed to elect a president who has sort of spews these hateful ideas and these ongoing nationwide problems with the election of officials who have racially prejudiced ideas and less we think this is a Republican or Conservative problem.
Jen: 08:50 We should also acknowledge the large role of the Clinton administration played in promoting mass incarceration in the name of war on drugs. And also Bernie Sanders’ recent suggestion that whites who are uncomfortable voting for an African American president aren’t necessarily racist. So, this stuff is just all around us. It suffuses our everyday lives. It’s not just those people over there who don’t know any better. So, Dr. Tatum, I realize I’m sort of throwing us in the deep end a bit here, but I’m wondering what are some concrete steps we can realistically take ourselves as individuals to move forward and start to break the system?
Dr. Tatum: 09:23 Well, Jen I think you started with something that’s very important which is educating oneself. As you mentioned, a lot of people are quite misinformed or uninformed about the ways in which racism has operated in our society and continues to operate. And so you can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge that it exists. So of course learning more about it is critical. One of the reasons I wrote my book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race back in 1997 and then updated it in 2017 was really for that purpose to help people, the readers white and of color understand what racism is, the systematic nature of it, how it has been built into the very fabric of our society and how that impacts all of us in terms of how we think about ourselves and other people and ultimately what we can do about it, but the first starting point I think for people who are listening and saying, what are they talking about? Education through reading books like Carol Anderson’s excellent book, White Rage, and certainly I would advocate for my own.
Jen: 10:30 Of course, yeah.
Dr. Tatum: 10:31 I think it can be a good place to start. Once we have an understanding of the ways in which racism is operating, we can begin to think about how we can use our own individual spheres of influence, whether that’s in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces to begin to interrupt that cycle of racism.
Jen: 10:53 Okay, and so I’m starting to think about, okay, how do we make this move? So, I’m thinking about the philosopher, Dr. Shannon Sullivan and she’s written about White Guilt and Shame, which I think can sort of take the form of hand wringing a lot like we’re doing on this podcast if we were to look at it uncharitably I suppose, and I think that can lead to a toxic form of anger, but she says that these feelings aren’t actually very good at prompting us to act. So, I feel as though this education is a necessary step and then we might get angry about it and we feel the shame as well. And then we just kind of throw up our hands and say, well, what do we do about it? So I’m wondering if you see it in the same way or if these emotions are things that white people have to experience before they can accept all the things that haven’t worked so far and go on to find what does.
Dr. Tatum: 11:41 Well, I often talk about something I call the cycle of racism. So let me just say a word about that and if we think about racism as something that was operating in our society before any of us on this conversation were born, right? We didn’t start a fire so to speak, but it has been operating and we are all influenced by starting in our early years. We get misinformation, we’re exposed to stereotypes, we’re influenced in the socialization process by people we know, love and trust, our parents, our teachers, our friends, our neighbors, and we internalize a lot of that misinformation, the stereotypes about people different from ourselves as well as stereotypes about people like ourselves. When I say we, I’m talking about not just white people, but people of color as well. We all get misinformation. It’s like breathing smog. If you live anywhere, there are pollutants in the air, you breathe them in, not because you want to, but because it’s the only air that’s available.
Dr. Tatum: 12:45 And to the extent that we are all being exposed to it, we are not always conscious of it. In fact, a lot of the times we’re not conscious of it at all. We come to believe that misinformation is truth. We see difference as not different but equal, but difference as wrong or abnormal, and we passed that misinformation on to the next generation. That’s what I mean by that cycle. It continues. So sometimes we are, as I said, we’re not even aware of it, but when we become aware whether that’s by listening to a conversation like this one or having an experience where we witnessed something happening, we know to be wrong or we learned something in school or via documentary. However, the information comes to us, there are common emotions associated with it anger, guilt, confusion, alienation. These are common and they’re certainly common for white people, but they can also be part of the experience that people of color have as well.
Dr. Tatum: 13:45 And when you have that feeling of this is not right and feeling overwhelmed by it, one response can be, particularly for white people, I think who often are living in racial isolation, most white people in the United States live in largely white communities and go to school in largely white settings and have a pretty homogeneous social network. And if that describes someone and then they’re exposed to information that they didn’t have before or have a heightened awareness, confusion is common, guilt can be a feeling, anger can be a feeling, and sometimes the desire is to just not have those uncomfortable feelings. If I didn’t notice, if you didn’t bring it up to me, if I didn’t listen to this program, I wouldn’t have to think about it and there’s a tendency to want to just tune the information out. But for some people the impulse will lead to action. I want to do something about it. I want to take action, but I don’t know where to start, which brings us back to your earlier question and connecting with other people who are having a similar experience who also want to work against racism, who also want to speak up, can be one way to move forward, to find like-minded others with which you can connect and do some problem solving together.
Jen: 15:06 Kim, I’m wondering, I think you used Dr. Tatum’s book as a teaching tool in some of your classes. Do you see the students in your classes going through these kinds of stages?
Kim: 15:15 I do. Obviously, the students come at very different points in the process, so speaking of my white students specifically, some of them are at the point where they’re sort of familiar with the problems associated with racism and now looking for things to do to be active, but I also get a lot of students who are still in that anger denial, discomfort stage where what they’re really looking for is to become more comfortable if that means denying the problem and for some of them that’s where they’ll go and it’s sort of a process of trying to push them out of that.
Jen: 15:54 Okay. Yeah, and I think part of the we want to feel comfortable, I think it’s sort of a human nature in general to want to feel comfortable. And so before I started researching this, I always figured, okay, racism has been a problem. It still is a problem. At some point I hope it’s not going to be a problem and I sort of hadn’t really thought about how we are going to get there. And then I started researching this episode and I discovered Dr. Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s work and he has theorized that we’re actually moving towards a system with whites at the top and a group that he calls honorary whites in the middle who have a lot of characteristics that whites often see as desirable and then the collective black at the bottom, which contains people who possess attributes that are associated with dark skinned people that whites don’t find appealing.
Jen: 16:37 The most discouraging part that I found in all of this was that Dr. Bonilla-Silva thinks that whites are going to use the honorary whites to keep the collective blacks in their place. And so he’s citing examples actually from very close to home for me in Oakland of Chinese Americans saying that Latino immigration is a burden to society and also that an Asian Latino coalition is suing the city of Oakland claiming it awards too many city contracts to black-owned companies. So, Dr. Tatum I’m wondering, do you see us rushing to claim this kind of post racial society maybe because we want to feel comfortable, we want to feel like we’ve solved a problem when actually we’re heading towards something that’s even more pernicious and even more deeply entrenched.
Dr. Tatum: 17:16 Well, I do think that in 2008 following the election of President Barack Obama, there was this sense of forward progress. There was a survey that was taken right after the election of President Obama by USA Today and in that survey something like close to 70%, 67% or 70% of the respondents said they felt like the election of a black president was a sign of racial progress. Even for people who didn’t choose to vote for him. There was a wide sense of optimism that this means we’re moving past the racial troubles we’ve struggled with for so long. But that optimism, I’m going to call that post racial optimism, I think has largely dissipated and certainly not just because of the 2016 election though I think it is heightened by that outcome. But if we think about some of the events that took place between 2008 and 2016, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the emergence of Black Lives Matter and all the police shootings that took place during that time and all the viral videos we see on social media today where black people are being harassed by others, whether sitting in Starbucks or sleeping in a residence hall lounge or the sort of anti-black narrative that is part of our current society and obviously not just anti-black anti-immigrant, other marginalized groups being stigmatized deeply by the rhetoric that is part of the Trump era and the rise in hate crimes that have taken place really not just since 2016, but really that surge began perhaps in response to the election of President Obama and has continued during the election and post election period of Donald Trump.
Dr. Tatum: 19:17 And the increased visibility of overt white supremacy. All of that suggests a backward movement in our society. So, I don’t hear many people talking about being post racial these days. Of course we never were. But I do find that we are in a place now where some of the overt racism of the past is being given more room for expression and that is deeply discouraging.
Jen: 19:43 Yeah. So, it only seems as though we’re moving in the wrong direction at this point. I’m wondering what you think is the hope for moving towards something that isn’t overtly racist or what Dr. Bonilla-Silva is saying is where we’re headed.
Dr. Tatum: 20:00 Yeah. Let me say a word about that because of course we’ve just entered 2019, but in 2018 it was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. And during that period in April of 2018, I’ve participated on a panel talking about sort of what Dr. King would say about where we are today. And in preparation for that panel I reread a book he wrote which his last book, which was published in 1968, titled Where Do We Go From Here? And the subtitle is Chaos or Community? And in that book it’s very interesting to read, I would recommend it to your listeners because even though it was written 50 years ago, it sounds much like what we might describe our current situation and he talks about the fact that after every period of social progress there is a period of push back that the line of progress is never straight.
Dr. Tatum: 21:04 We move forward and then we fall back and then we have to push forward again. And in the book he concludes basically by saying, he has a lot of great ideas in there, which I’m happy to talk more about. But in the end he concludes by saying, “We have a choice to make. We either can choose community where we try to bridge differences and empathize with the other person that the “other” as we say. To empathize with the other and to get to know beyond the things that separate us, to share in sort of a common sense of humanity that’s building community or we can collapse into chaos.” And I feel that we are at a moment in 2019 where that choice is very clearly in front of us. We can either choose community or we can collapse into chaos and I think that the majority of Americans want community, but don’t always know how to move toward it. And I think that is the work that we have to do.
Kim: 22:15 If you don’t mind with just me jumping in with a question, in light of that, do you feel like in some cases people are sort of aiming towards the wrong end point? Like I feel like sometimes there’s a striving towards a “post racial society”, but maybe that’s not what we should be striving for. Obviously post racism, right? Get rid of race, but to sort of envision a point where this thing that we’ve created is just somehow gone would also erase a lot of identities and a lot of culture and community as well.
Dr. Tatum: 22:53 Well, I think your question as you were framing it at the beginning is exactly the dilemma. It’s like I certainly would like to be post racism. So, can we be post racism without trying to homogenize our society so that we don’t experience difference? I think it is possible, for example, I mean if we think globally, if we think beyond the borders of the United States, I mean we can travel to another country where people speak a different language and have different traditions and learn about those traditions and feel at home there and be welcomed without feeling as though we have to impose our own traditions and values to the exclusion of theirs. Is it possible for both to coexist? I think it is possible to create community where everyone feels included and yet we haven’t seen that happen, have we?
Dr. Tatum: 24:02 I mean there’s no example, prolonged example, maybe short term examples, but no prolonged example of societies that have truly been able to create the kind of beloved community that Dr. King talked about. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for that, but it would seem as though it would be possible to achieve that without, I think another way of saying this is to move beyond racial hierarchies. To recognize the innate value of all human beings without trying to create a racial hierarchy. That quote you read Jen from Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s work when he was talking about using sort of a mid group of “honorary whites.” That’s about racial hierarchy. Can we get beyond racial hierarchies? I would like to think that it is possible for human beings to do that.
Jen: 25:04 That’s a very optimistic view and I want to talk about it. It starts to head towards the weeds here of what really parents of preschoolers are thinking of and in my reading for this episode, I stumbled on the work of feminist scholar Dr. Sara Ahmed and she’s talked about the humanist fantasy that assumes that the distance between people of different races produces hate and that bringing different racial or cultural groups together will automatically eliminate their conflicts and I think that this is a really real way that parents of preschoolers might try and try to reduce racism because they can put their child into a diverse school or preschool. And so I was shocked to read what is now a pretty old book called The First R: How Children Learn Race And Racism, and it’s by Dr. Debra Van Ausdale and Dr. Joe Feagin. Dr. Van Ausdale spent a year embedded in a preschool as an observer and she would deliberately not sanction or judge the children in any way, so they would feel free to speak freely in front of her and the white children said and did some absolutely horrific things.
Jen: 26:09 They would taunt the other children, mostly the black children, and they would watch and see what reaction the other child would have and whether a teacher would find out and what a teacher would do if they did find out. And by and large what they seem to be learning was that racially prejudice taunts get a rise out of people who are of the non-dominant culture and they reinforced the white child’s dominance and the chances of caught are getting slim and the chances of serious consequences if they do get caught are even slimmer. This was in a school that prided itself on helping children to learn about diversity, but the teachers were mostly embarrassed to talk about race except in these very tightly boxed ways. Even this one thing that parents were pretty sure was a good thing they were doing might help to perpetuate the current system more than it helps us to overcome it. What do you think about these kinds of diverse environments in schools and preschools?
Dr. Tatum: 26:56 Well, I think without commenting specifically on that particular school and what was going on in that particular school, we certainly know that children learn stereotypes and racial attitudes at a very young age. However, we also know that meaningful contact can improve relations between people. Now, does that mean that three, four and five year olds are able to navigate that by themselves without guidance and/or without the model of adults who are also engaged in diverse relationships? The best data tells us that children who have good cross racial relationships have parents with good cross racial relationships. The parents are modeling that. People come to their house, they have friends of color. Children with friends of color are usually the children of parents with friends of color and meaningful engagement across lines of difference does lead to more empathy. That doesn’t mean that just because your kid is in a racially diverse school that they’re not going to hear or expressed negative attitudes, so it’s not. If the question is, would it be better to have children in an all white environment? Probably not.
Jen: 28:17 Right. Should the question be, I mean the teachers in this school, and I know we’re not trying to make an example out of this specific school, but I think it’s probably true for teachers everywhere. They felt like they didn’t know how to talk about this topic. The words wouldn’t come or they just wouldn’t hear. They wouldn’t be around for when the taunts would take place and the children would deny ever happening. And so how do we deal with those kinds of situations?
Dr. Tatum: 28:42 Well, I think you’re exactly right that teachers do struggle with how to talk about race with children, particularly white teachers and the vast majority of teachers in the United States are indeed white. But I use an example in my book in which I talk about an incident that involved one of my children who are now young men, but my oldest son, when he was about three, attended a daycare center. Very progressive daycare center, but one that had very few children of color. We lived in a mostly white town and there are very few children of color in his preschool. But one of his friends, one of the white children in the school said something to him that he came home and repeated it to me. And that question that his friend told him that his skin was brown because he drank too much chocolate milk.
Dr. Tatum: 29:33 So my son asked me if that was true. And so of course I told him no, it’s not true. I explained to him about melanin and the fact that everybody has some in their skin and the more you have the browner your skin is and I gave a three year old’s version of what melanin is and described it as something that protects your skin from the sun and it’s what causes his white friends to get tense when they’re out in the sun. But at his school he was the kid with the most and that satisfied him. But then I wondered who had explained to his friend, his white classmate about why somebody’s skin might be brown and white. Somebody else’s skin might not be and it didn’t have anything to do with what they were drinking. So, I went to school the next day and asked his teacher who I thought was a good preschool teacher, how she was talking about difference in the classroom.
Dr. Tatum: 30:30 And she told me that it had not come up. Well, of course it had come up because I knew that from my conversation with my son. But it did lead me to think about the ways in which teachers don’t always hear the conversations or maybe when they overhear something, there can be what I call selective inattention where if you don’t really know what to say, just kinda walk in a different direction and pretend you didn’t hear that thing. So, helping educators think about how to have those conversations in meaningful ways can be a useful professional development tool. But certainly there’s lots of evidence to suggest that teachers at all levels, not just preschool teachers really struggle with this conversation. They don’t know how to have it. And when you ask them about it, they’ll say, I don’t know, because nobody had it with me. I don’t know how to have this conversation and I’m nervous about doing it wrong. And often choose silence rather than worrying about making a mistake.
Jen: 31:31 Yeah, it’s more comfortable as well isn’t it? Kim, how do you see this play out at the Higher Ed level?
Kim: 31:36 I think in very similar ways. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of lots of sort of racially either insensitive or racist comments go unchecked or uncorrected by faculty and of course I’m not there to know whether it’s a discomfort, whether it’s a denial or whether it’s a lack of awareness on the faculty’s part that it is in fact a racist comment. But I think that there is, especially in certain subject areas and it’s all too easy to say like this is not what I’m teaching, so it’s not my problem to deal with. That happens a lot unfortunately.
Jen: 32:16 Yeah. Okay. As we sort of wrap up the section on structural racism, I mentioned in the introduction that Kim had been thinking of ways and I also been starting to take action on some ways to fight for a better system as she put it while doing the least amount of damage in the current one as possible. So, Kim I wonder if you could tell us some of the things you’ve been thinking about doing and also doing and perhaps Dr. Tatum could then tell us what might be the best use of our energy and I’m wondering personally if the best use might be some combination of our unique skills and connections plus a defined need. So maybe I have a skill where I can share this information via this podcast and also I can work with my child’s preschool to address potential systems of bias that I see there among other things like voting of course. So Kim, can you start by telling us some of your ideas and then perhaps Dr. Tatum can offer her thoughts.
Kim: 33:02 Yeah. I want to start by sort of framing it as I’ve been trying to work on this as an educator, as an academic for some time. I’ve been teaching for over 10 years, so I’ve really tried to sort of educate myself and find ways to do that in my professional life, but as a relatively new mother and my daughter is 19 months old, now I’m sort of trying to think about that in a whole new realm. I really like, Dr. Tatum in your book, you use the metaphor of sort of the moving walkway at the airport as sort of the metaphor for racism and I try to find ways to kind of be anti-racist in conversations with other people and pointing out racist comments in educating my daughter. Again, she’s only 19 months, so to the extent possible, but as she gets older, providing diverse books and interactions, intervening as you mentioned Jen, as sort of the daycare or preschool when something seems off or problematic, I think there’s a difficult sort of realization as a parent, as a white parent that your child automatically has advantage just by being white in our society.
Kim: 34:18 in that sense, looking for advantages, looking to do the best for your child, automatically comes at the disadvantage of other people just because of the way our society is established. So one recent concern I had, I was looking at preschools and there was a preschool that kind of met all of my ideals as a parent, as a psychologist, but the price tag was a little bit hefty, let’s say. And I had to sort of really question whether it was an unfair advantage and I don’t know that I personally could have afforded to put her in this preschool anyway, but whether it would be an unfair advantage to sort of put my daughter in that school when so many people couldn’t. And of course that’s class more than race.
Jen: 35:00 Yeah, they’re linked though.
Kim: 35:02 Obviously. I tried to sort of think about ways that I can intervene in her life and upbringing. But my bigger sort of question, my bigger issue is sort of how to work to then sort of dismantle this like how to get rid of the moving walkway, right? How do we sort of not just walk the other way but like stop it from moving. As a parent, that’s sort of what I’m thinking about. Obviously, things like voting and getting involved politically, supporting organizations that are looking to make policy change and that type of thing. But still some of that even feels kind of not enough and distant.
Kim: 35:41 I’d love to hear your thoughts, Dr. Tatum.
Dr. Tatum: 35:46 Sure. Well, one of the things that I want to say is that it is, I mean, when we think about all the ways and for how long racism has been really woven into the fabric of our daily lives in lots of different ways, it is overwhelming. There’s no question about that. It might seem like the small thing that you might do whatever that might be is not enough. It’s better than nothing. Let me just say that. It’s better than nothing. So, I think that it’s important for each person, my students, I taught this course in the Psychology of Racism for two decades and at the end of the course I would ask students to develop an action plan. Something that they could do either individually or with a group of other students begin to interrupt the cycle of racism.
Dr. Tatum: 36:40 I would ask them to think about their own spheres of influence. Who do you influence and how? Whether that’s your child, your partner, your family members, and your extended family, the students in your class, parents in your book club. There are all kinds of, we all have a sphere of influence. Some of us have a bigger sphere than others and so what I would ask my students to do would be to identify their own sphere of influence and to think about how they could use it to tackle some aspect of racism they were concerned about whether that was maybe stereotypes in the media that they wanted to challenge or the language that they heard being used on this team sports that they played on or the jokes Uncle Fred tells at Thanksgiving when everybody’s gathered together. There are lots of different ways they could think about how they wanted to use their spheres of influence.
Dr. Tatum: 37:41 And for me as an individual, one of the things that happened was not only did my students come up with really interesting ideas and action plans that they began to implement. I didn’t require the implementation, I thought that was beyond my purview as a faculty member, but I’ve found that students, once they develop their plans, wanted to put them into practice and they often did, but I started to think about my own sphere as a faculty member, as a psychologist, and it was really that, that led me to the teaching that I did to expand it beyond just the classroom, but workshops I did for K through 12 teachers to help them learn how to talk about race in their classrooms, the writing I did, etc. So, I would say to you also as someone who has a sphere like that because of your profession, to think about how you might use it.
Kim: 38:36 Yeah. Thanks.
Jen: 38:37 Yeah, I think it leads us nicely to our next set of questions on talking with children about race because one of the spheres of influences that we all have as parents is over our children. We’ve covered this to some extent already and I think there are a lot of sort of beginner level resources about why talking with children about race is much better than the option of not talking with them about it and just kind of hoping that they’ll grow up into a person who isn’t racist, but there are far fewer resources that get to, okay, once you’ve done that first level, what happens then? So, I really want to dig into some of these questions here today that came up for me as I was sort of going into that next level down. So, I think one of the things that parents are really struggling with is what to say.
Jen: 39:20 And so you have actually recommended in your book the Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools For Empowering Young Children as a resource for helping children to learn not just how to recognize but also to stand up against unfairness. I actually went back to a review of research that I had read previously by Dr. Rebecca Bigler, she looked to anti-bias interventions and she actually mentioned that specific curriculum along with several others to take a similar approach. Her conclusion is and I’m going to quote “Unfortunately, very little research has systematically examined the effective of intervention, content, scope or duration on racial attitude change among children. Empirical data suggest, however, that the extant interventions have been largely ineffective in altering children’s racial attitudes and that this is true across the various forms of multicultural programming that had been evaluated.” We should also note that in her research she also found at least one multicultural education program implemented in schools that actually produced an overall increase in racial bias among children. I guess my question here is, these are interventions that are primarily delivered in a school environment rather than a home environment. So, I’m wondering firstly, can you help us understand why you recommended this particular program? Secondly, does it matter as much what program we select and whether or not there’s peer reviewed evidence talking about how it can actually help to reduce levels of bias? Or is it more important that we just have some kind of conversation?
Dr. Tatum: 40:43 Well, I think there are two questions there. So let’s start with the review that you referenced by Rebecca Bigler that was done in 1999 and some of the programs that she was reviewing go back even as far as the late 60s, early 70s. So one of the things that I think we have to put into context is what was the social environment and in terms of what kids we’re bringing into the classroom, right? So if we think about 1968, for example, and the assassination of Dr. King, that’s still rampant, you know, the civil rights, the voting rights act was passed in 1965, right? So we’re still talking about just emerging from Jim Crow so that you have a lot of, which is not to suggest that there isn’t still plenty of racism in the environment today, but what I want to say is that what we know about stereotypes is that once you have them in your head, it’s very hard to disrupt them.
Dr. Tatum: 41:44 The research on stereotypes in general suggests that because we have these, I’m thinking about the unconscious bias work by Mahzarin Banaji and people like that will tell us that those categories once we have them are very difficult to disrupt and we tend to remember that which confirms them and so trying to through a program which is part of a classroom environment, change young children’s attitudes once they’re already developed is challenging, but I think the Anti-Bias Curriculum developed by Louise Derman-Sparks who is an educator I’ve known for a long time, gives us guidance as to how to prevent some of those stereotypes to develop. Not to necessarily undo the ones kids already have. But if you think about young children, they are learning always new things and how do we help kids understand both that there is unfairness in the world and that it is possible to do things differently.
Dr. Tatum: 42:49 So, we can’t expect that what happens in a classroom to undo all of the learning that has happened at home or in the neighborhood or elsewhere. But at the same time, I think the principles, interestingly, my book came out with the 20th anniversary edition and so did the Anti-Bias Education Book has been updated 20 years later, if you look at the principles that are articulated, the four core goals of Anti-Bias Education are the following: I’m just going to read them and listen to see if it doesn’t seem like something you’d want for your child. Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family, pride, and positive social identities. That’s the first goal. Will express comfort and joy with human diversity, accurate language for human differences and deep caring human connections. That’s the second goal. Will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness and understand that unfairness hurts. And then the last goal, will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act with others or alone against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions. I think most parents would say, I would want my child to have those characteristics and what can I do as a parent and as someone who is engaged in schools, in my role as parent to help provide that kind of environment. It doesn’t happen automatically and as we’ve already talked about, silence certainly doesn’t get you there.
Jen: 44:21 Okay. So you still strongly recommend that book then as a tool.
Dr. Tatum: 44:24 I do.
Jen: 44:25 Okay. Okay, perfect. That’s very helpful. And so as I’m sort of thinking about these conversations and the goals that you’re talking about, it seems as though a lot of them rely on the child really telling the parents what they really think and so I’m trying to figure out what is the right balance for me to tell my child about what I think about these things. Should I be telling her that ‘such and such happened and I think it’s unfair’ or should I be telling her ‘this happened; do you think it’s unfair?’ because what I’m worried about is if she knows what the correct answer is, she might start delivering that answer rather than change her underlying ideas that may have bias in them and that maybe she doesn’t feel safe expressing to me because she knows what the correct answer is. How do you cope with that?
Dr. Tatum: 45:11 Well, I really think if I might say so that you don’t need to worry about that so much because you’re an adult and she’s four and a half, right? So what I mean by that is as the four and a half year old, she of course has her own ideas, but her own ideas are limited by her experience and so to the extent that you have more experience, she’s looking to you as the parent consciously or not for guidance. So I’m going to give you an example. When my son was four years old, we were riding in the car together with my oldest son and he made a comment about the fact that only men were doctors. Now he maybe didn’t realize he was riding with Dr. Tatum. He talked about that only men were, he made it a statement, but then there was kind of a question mark at the end, you know, men are doctors and women are nurses, right?
Dr. Tatum: 46:17 And I was like, well actually no. Why do you think so? And then he proceeded to tell me all the doctors he know, not that he knew that many, but his pediatrician was male and he’d been to see another doctor for something else and that person was male and the nurses in those doctor’s offices were all women. And so he had a limited set of experiences and had extrapolated from those experiences. Men are doctors, women are nurses. And so I didn’t say, well actually you’re wrong. But I did say that. I mean I said, not in a shaming way, but I said, well actually that’s not true. I have a doctor and my doctor is female. And we talked about the fact that there were other doctors who were women and it’s certainly true that a lot of nurses are women, but men can be nurses too.
Dr. Tatum: 47:05 We just had a conversation about it. And so I think that while it is certainly the case that you want to be affirming of your child and help them think through, you could certainly ask like, why would you think that? And then they might tell you the reason. Well, I think his skin is brown because he drank chocolate milk. Well, actually that’s not the reason. Let me tell you about that. So, there’s a need for parents to get comfortable with having conversations where they are making clear what their values are and why and that leadership, we don’t always think about parents as leaders, but that leadership helps define the universe of who is included in our universe and who’s not.
Jen: 47:59 Yeah. I just wonder if I can push back on that a little bit because it seemed as though the examples were a little bit mixed and that there are some that are empirically testable. You can test whether all of the doctors in the world are men, some of them are women, but when you start talking about ideas of fairness, it’s valid potentially for children to have different ideas about what is fair from the parent. And so what I’m trying to get at is…
Dr. Tatum: 48:24 I’ll give you an example. I’ve prepared an example.
Jen: 48:27 Yeah, I should have come prepared with one. But I guess one that came up in a conversation with my daughter was we were in the car when the senator from South Carolina, who’s name I’m going to forget had nixed one of the judicial nomination of some kind and my daughter randomly asked what are they talking about on the radio? And I said, well, there are some people in the world who think that everybody should be allowed to vote and she knows what voting is. They’ve done it in her class and there are some people who think that not everybody should be allowed to vote and that sometimes that what describes whether or not you’re going to be allowed to vote is the color of your skin. And I said, do you think that’s fair? There’s sort of an answer that I want her to give, but potentially she could have a valid reason why she thinks some people should be allowed to vote and others shouldn’t. So how do I deal with that where it’s more nuanced than one answer is right and the other answer is wrong empirically?
Dr. Tatum: 49:19 So, this is a case where we might agree to disagree, so let’s imagine I’m having a conversation on just as you described and I asked, so do you think everybody should be allowed to vote? And one of my children says, no I don’t. And then I might say, well why is that? Well, some people might not be smart enough to vote. They might have a reason and then I might say, well, I see what you’re saying, but I think everyone who is old enough and has met the legal requirement should be able to vote. That’s a right in our society that everybody should be able to vote and I think that’s a very important right which is why whenever it’s voting time, I make it an effort to go vote. Maybe the next time I go vote you can come with me and you can see who all the people are lined up waiting to vote are.
Dr. Tatum: 50:15 I think it’s really important to be clear about what the values in your family are. They might be different from somebody else’s family, but if you want her to have those values you need to be, in my opinion, I think comfortable and saying, after you’ve talked about it, here’s what my value is and here’s why. Because when people aren’t allowed to vote, sometimes they are kept out of important decisions that affect them, for example. You could have that conversation. I am going to use an example which is maybe extreme, but it comes from a father who wrote an essay about his son who was one of the white supremacist protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of the things he said was that, I don’t know where he got these attitudes. They weren’t part of our family. That’s not what we think. We don’t agree with his point of view.
Dr. Tatum: 51:15 We don’t know where he got it, but then in his essay he went on to say, but we didn’t talk about it. We were silent and in our silence, other people’s values filled in and I think that is at the end of the day why it’s important to be clear. But I want to tell a story if I might, I know we’re running out of time, but I think this is a really powerful example. I have a colleague and friend, longtime friend who is a white woman. Her name is Andrea Ayvazian. She has done a lot of work on the anti-racism sphere and she and I used to do workshops together and she has a son about the same age as my children and she told me a story about something that happened to her son when he saw this young white child on a school bus coming home from school and he was about seven years old.
Speaker 1: 52:09 I don’t think she would mind me telling this story publicly. He was about seven years old and there was a kid on the bus who had a disability of some kind. I’m not quite sure what exactly was his difference, but it was not racial, but it was a learning difference of some kind maybe a deaf child or something like that. But anyway, there was a kid on the school who was clearly different from the other children and there were some older children on the bus picking on that kid throwing little spit balls at him and this was upsetting to her seven-year-old watching this happen. And when he got off the bus he was upset and she asked him what was upsetting him and he explained to her what had happened on the bus. And she said to him, I know that must’ve been really upsetting to see those older boys picking on that kid and I imagine you didn’t know what to do. And he said, I didn’t know what to do. They were bigger than me and I didn’t know what to do to stop it. So she said, well, what did you do? And he said, well, I just got up and went to sit with him.
Dr. Tatum: 53:13 And I thought that was such a wonderful example of what it means to be an ally and for a seven-year-old to recognize unfairness and maybe not know exactly what to do, but to think, well, at least I can sit in solidarity with that kid, I can go sit next to him was very meaningful to me. And I think that’s the kind of anti-biased behavior that the authors of the anti-bias curriculum are talking about.
Jen: 53:43 Yeah. It’s such a profound example. And thank you for teasing that out. I think I have been explaining my values to my daughter, but I’ve also been doing it sort of uncomfortably because most of the time we follow a sort of child led approach where we are guided by her thinking and her ideas. And so I really wasn’t sure where that balance was. And so I think that you’ve really clarified that for me. So thank you for that. And another thing that I try and do when I am sort of discussing these issues with my daughter is to use books as a jumping off point. And I have actually noticed that when I get a suite of books about all different kinds of topics and all different kinds of people from the library that she sort of started to systematically weed out the books that have people of color on the cover and when we’re reading a book about a person of color and I asked, do you think you could be friends with that person?
Jen: 54:32 Then she will either say, I don’t know, or sometimes she’s actually said no, but I could be friends with that child who’s a white child with long blonde hair. And when I asked her why that is, she just kind of says I don’t know and she doesn’t really want to talk about it. And so I’m wondering if the parent sees that this is a topic that they want to dig into and the child is sort of expressing some resistance to this. Are there things a parent can do to sort of move that agenda forward anyway?
Dr. Tatum: 55:00 Yeah. Well one thought that I have immediately is thinking about the diversity in the child’s environment. We know that 75% of white children and their families are living in very homogeneous, racially homogeneous communities. I don’t know what your own community is like or how much direct contact your daughter has with people who looked different from her or have different faith traditions or any of that, but what research shows us that parents who have diverse social networks have children who are comfortable in diverse social communities and so that’s something to think about. How could you expand her social network beyond just what she sees in a book, but actual individuals so that she knows she could have friends who looked different from her because she does.
Jen: 55:56 Okay. And so that would be definitely a powerful way of accomplishing that. I’m wondering if there’s something else related to reading books or doing things in the home that I could be doing as well, which I’m sort of trying to do, but I’m not having as much success with as I would like to do.
Dr. Tatum: 56:13 Well, I think that there are some opportunities that present themselves naturally. One of the examples I use in my book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria is a conversation about cooking. I was with my son and we were cooking together and there were two eggs, one from a carton of white eggs and a new carton starting with brown eggs and so I had two eggs on the counter, one white, one brown and he observed that they were different and I said yes. And then I said, look at this. I cracked them both open and I said, see they look the same inside just like people, different on the outside sometimes, but the same on the inside.
Jen: 56:58 Okay. So it’s more of a seeing examples as they come and being willing to jump on those as they come rather than setting up situations that you think might be more powerful then.
Dr. Tatum: 57:08 Well, I think that it has to be just something that you do all the time. It’s not like now 10 minutes today of our diversity lesson, but something that’s just part of the ongoing lived experience.
Jen: 57:21 Yeah. Woven into your day. Okay. Thank you. That’s very helpful. Kim, I wonder if you have any thoughts as we just wrap up here?
Kim: 57:27 Yeah, just in terms of adding. I mean I agree with what Dr. Tatum has been sort of saying about being sort of a model and really a strong leader for your child and just in terms of from a developmental perspective, I think sometimes some of the more sort of child led approaches sort of deny or don’t recognize the fact that these ideas that children are not coming from inside of them. Everything that they develop is coming from the sense that they’re making of the world around them. So what you’re doing is trying to give them the best possible environment and information and tools for that and not leaving it to as Dr. Tatum said, someone else to fill it in, right? So, I wouldn’t see giving strong moral lessons as like stifling your child. I would see it as sort of giving them the type of material that you want them to have to then build their own internalized sense of what’s right and wrong.
Jen: 58:30 Thanks for that. That’s a powerful concluding note. Dr. Tatum, I’m so grateful for the time that you spent with us today and I feel as though I have a stronger foundation now with which to address these issues and so thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Dr. Tatum: 58:47 Well, thanks so much for inviting me. Thank you both and thanks for writing your book. I really love it.
Jen: 58:55 Yes, and I’ve read both editions as well and I also wanted to mention thank you to Kim as well for helping to make these questions stronger than they would have been without you. I also remind listeners that Dr. Tatum’s book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria is available in local bookstores or on Amazon and there is now that 20th anniversary edition out. So, be sure to get the updated version for all the latest and greatest.
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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at


  1. Cherly Jeune on April 3, 2019 at 2:56 PM

    Random question, is racism or social inequality a problem or the same like the United States in places like England, Australia, India, etc…
    I ask this because sometimes I wonder if it could be better or more beneficial to move my family out of the country especially with the differences in the approach to education is concerned. I currently have three brown non biracial children ages 6,4, and 8 months.

    • Jen Lumanlan on April 4, 2019 at 12:48 AM

      Thanks for the question, Cherly. I’m not an expert on this, but I do think racism exists in some form in all of these countries, and I imagine it depends a lot on ‘what kind of brown’ your children are… Different groups tend to experience bias in different ways in different countries. In England I think prejudice against Pakistanis and potentially Indians is more widespread than it is in the U.S., and certainly against blacks as well. My impression is that Australia’s problem (and probably Canada’s too) is mostly in recognizing the rights and needs of its indigenous peoples, but I don’t know about other aspects. I believe New Zealand does a decent job in working with indigenous peoples (after many years of traditional colonization) although I’m sure there could still be improvements.

      I’m afraid that moving is unlikely to be a thing that means you don’t have to interact with racism. The Europeans really messed up a lot of the world through colonization, although of course countries had their own problems before that. I’m sorry that I don’t have a better answer for you.

      Are you in the YPM Facebook group? I’m not sure you’ll get answers there, per se, but I’m sure group members would be willing to talk further about it if it would be helpful.

    • Heather on May 6, 2019 at 1:17 PM

      Hi! I am currently struggling with this at the moment. I am a white American female living in Zambia, Africa. My husband is a black Zambian and we have two mixed race girls, 3 and 1. In Zambia they are considered “colored” – not a derogatory term here but indicates a biracial person. Their race here means little and although their lighter skin color will bring certain implications, they are mostly positive but the race issues that are present in the US are definitely not present here. At some point we will move to the US and I fear how this will impact my girls particularly that race will be in their face on a regular basis and they will be subjected to the rampant discrimination that happens in the US for black Americans and non Americans.

      Jen I love your podcast and really appreciate that you tackle tough issues like this!

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