Why do students self-segregate in high school?

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Both a question and a book by Beverly Daniel Tatum, this addressed the developments in racial identity that occur during adolescence. My friend Kate recommended this to me a few years ago and as a teacher it's one of those questions that sometimes comes up; as a white person (I don't like the capitalized version. It's somehow offensive to me.), I have limited insight (regardless of effort, some things I'll just never fully comprehend) into the self-segregating tendencies of teenagers. Tatum, who is Black, speaks to the developing racial identities of adolescents and posits that no matter how supportive the environment is, racism exists in the world and as a result, kids need a similar peer group to relate to. Not that it has to be their only group.

Tatum also believes that in a society where we define racism as "a system of advantage based on race," only whites can be racist. While everyone is capable of racial prejudice, white people are the only ones who "systematically benefit from racism." Which, I guess, makes sense. I don't know if I've invented ideas out of guilt, like reverse discrimination at some institutions or the idea that a sympathetic white friend can be just as good as a same-race friend, but I do recognize that there are still underlying messages in our daily lives, workplaces, and in media that are highly prejudiced.

Finally, she asserts that there are three options for whites: active racism, passive racism (laughing at jokes, letting discriminatory practices go without protest, avoiding difficult racial issues), and actively anti-racist. I'm really enjoying this book and while I like to put myself in that last category, I hate the feeling that I'll just NEVER "get it" because I'm white. This book makes me feel like an outsider, which I guess I am, and which I guess is how many people of color feel regularly. But hey! I don't like that. I am a person of color, in my actual skin tone, in my personality, and in my beliefs. I feel like calling everyone else people of color is exclusionary in a sense.


  1. The concept of racism being a 'white' only possibility is in itself a racist statement. The root problem I have with tis is that it there is an inherent 'problem' I have with the definition of racism by Tatum. This is an antiquated concept and is in fact harmful to cocnepts of racial reconciliation.
    To highlight the contention doesn't this exclusive definition of racism focus primarily on economic status (which of course can lead to other concerns)? I feel the prolem is that this ignores deeper issues such as fullness of life, seeing life from a completely different perspective, persoanl social maturity, etc.
    I find it ironic that the title of the book really actually speaks out against this very definition which it the basis of Tatum's work.
    Is race taken into consideration when the 'black kids' sit exclusively together?
    Is there racism by 'white kids' when they sit together?
    Individuals of Middle Eastern descents?
    Individuals new to this coutry (whether white, black, yellow, brown, or blue) tend to congregate together. This is why we have a 'Chinatown', a 'Little Italy, etc. Individuals want to be able to relate to one another from a common frame of reference and experience. That being said this does not lead to the fuller life, the appreciation of 'another's' perspective, and understanding that we should all strive for.
    When we grant one group or another control over an issue (in this case buying into Tatum's definition) then we are in fact taking power away from the oppressed group. Which obviously is the opposite of what we need to do with oppressed groups and indiviuals.
    I do appreciate Tatum's suggested responsibilities. I would, as it is likely obvious now, suggest that she broaden the scope and burden of responsibility to respond to this important issue.
    I would suggest that instead of taking more power away from oppressed groups we shoul din fact be swinging the scales of power in the opposite direction (not to imply it is the oppressed groups respobnsibility to fix these problems in anay way, shape or form) while each sharing equal burdens for our responsibilities in our roles. In that light I believe that:
    We ALL have a role to play in working towards fixing discrimination problems (sex, creed, race, etc.)
    We ALL share a responsibility to do our part in this (each of us as oppresssors and the oppresssed). [Note: If you read this statement the same as you read the previous please re-read it as this is very importnat facet.]
    We are ALL victims of discrimination (the oppressed are obvious but again the oppresssors do not benefit in much deeper and richer ways either).
    I am a white American male.
    American white males are the primary oppressors who have predominantly made this bed that we sleep in that is disrcimination in this country.
    Clearly putting the burden on responsibility exclusively in the hands of the primary oppressor will not tend to lead to a betterment of the situation but a continuation of the problem.

    (I apologize for the long comment. This is obviously [I hope] somethign that is close to my heart and a hot button issue to say the least.)

  2. Thanks for the heart-felt and thoughtful comment. I agree with much of what you said; have you read this book? Many of your points are shared by Tatum. She argues, too, that the traditional oppressors suffer by excluding themselves from living a fuller life, as well as that it is a burden for all to share. I would ask you, in light of your comment, if you feel that individuals who actively seek to explore others' cultures and are friends with people from a variety of backgrounds would still benefit from having the support of members of their own race/ethnicity to fall back on (as in, sitting together in the cafeteria, or living in a particular neighborhood)? Can we balance mingling with building a support network?