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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dr. Tatum: What is Racism?

The writings Dr. Beverly Tatum have shaped much of my early journey on race and race relations, particularly her book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? 

Dr. Tatum does not characterize racism as overt discrimination or individual acts of hate. Rather, she defines it as one’s benefiting from a system of privileges based on race that are subtly ingrained in the surrounding culture, making it difficult to detect. In this sense, all white people are racist; we benefit from this system of privileges. I am a racist. It is possible for people of color to be prejudiced on the basis of race, but the social system is never in their favor. This is racism.

Dr. Tatum compares racism to smog:
 “sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in” (p. 6). 
It is not that one wakes up and chooses to discriminate, but rather, if one is a member of the majority, there is an institutionalized system of advantages that is in place. This system has consequences that affect the everyday lives of people of color. Both in big ways and in small. For example, no one has ever assumed that I, a White middle-class female, attend my school because of affirmative action. No one as has ever assumed that I am there on an athletic scholarship either. When I go to the store, the manager does not follow me as I shop and I can assume I will find pantyhose or band-aids that match my skin tone.

Though these examples may be small issues, they regularly affect people of color, and are symptoms of the greater smog we breathe. It is the accumulation of these insults that yield major consequences in the treatment of people of color as second class citizens in the United States (see post: Microaggressions). It is within this racialized world that people of color are paid less for the same work, hired less often with the same resume, incarcerated longer for the same crime, charged more for the same mortgage. All of these problems are related to an underlying system that favors whiteness.

Finally, Dr. Tatum compares modern racism to a moving sidewalk:

“because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of American institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it, is business as usual…[when] people do not disrupt unfair systems of privilege, they are—willingly or unwillingly—on the moving sidewalk, receiving White privilege and inadvertently enabling racism” (p. 11). 
If we stand still and do nothing, we actually help perpetuate the momentum of racism. We must actively walk against it's motion to prevent its consequences.

Does an act of racism require the 'intent to hurt'? Is hatred a prerequisite? Need it be large blatant acts, or do small insults (both conscious and unconscious) accumulate to establish a larger culture of problems and inequality?

I consider myself a racist in the same way that I consider myself a sinner in need of forgiveness (see post Basically Good). People bristle at both characterizations (“I’m a generally good person, I don’t need Jesus”; “I’m not a racist, I’m color blind”). But to me, these terms simply identify the latent issues that I know I still have to work on, which is better than pretending the issues aren't there at all.

All this to say, when we realize the advantages we have, we may think more carefully about how we use our privilege to rectify the situations of the burdened, to walk against the 'moving sidewalk' of privilege and racism.


  1. Would pretending it does not exist be racist?

  2. I know some folks have the privilege of pretending it does not exist while others reminded on a daily basis. From above: Racism is "benefiting from a system of privileges based on race "

  3. I know some folks have the privilege of pretending it does not exist while others reminded on a daily basis. From above: Racism is "benefiting from a system of privileges based on race "

  4. I was recently talking to @KevinRobinsonDP  from Accord1 about the above definition of racism ( "benefiting from an institutionalized system of privileges based on race that are subtly ingrained in the surrounding culture, making it difficult to detect"). He suggested that black folk can be racist depending on how you define 'institutionalized system." He suggests that although black folk can't be racist when we are talking about the United States's system, they can be racist when looking within smaller systems. For example, within the system of predominantly black church in which the power is held by black leaders. Thoughts readers?

  5. Indeed. Important points here. It seems to me it would be very hard to view even a predominantly black church in isolation from the larger social structure in which congregants find themselves on Monday morning.


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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