BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dr. Tatum: Defining Racism

In this series, we revisit some of the foundational posts that lay the groundwork for much of what is expressed at BTSF. 'What is Racism?' originally appeared on 4/10/2010:

The writings Dr. Beverly Tatum have shaped much of my thoughts about 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 POC. 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 POCs as second class citizens in the United States (see post: Microaggressions). It is within this racialized world that POCs 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 over blackness.

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). 
To stand still and do nothing actually perpetuates the momentum of racism. We must actively walk against it's motion.

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.

See Also:
Basically Good
Defining Racism
To Be Called a Racist
Bush and Hurt Feelings


  1. I find Dr. Tatum's definition of racism interesting -- "one’s benefiting from a system of privileges based on race that are subtly ingrained in the surrounding culture, making it difficult to detect."  Academic institutions must therefore a place of great racism in that if one studies the job postings in academia many/most institutions include in the posting something along the line of "minorities (and women) encouraged to apply".   That seems to be saying that academic institutions have a system of privilege and white males are on the bottom.

    Am I missing something?

  2. Whoops! Lost track of your comment, and so am just now responding. Sorry!

    It's true that the phrase you quote is awkward for a couple of different reasons. I don't like that it often acts as a catch-all to alleviate the need for any real change, and often I don't actually believe the statement in practice. Indeed, there are still many practices that subtly discourage the application and retention of women and minorities in the work places, despite any statements to the contrary.

    You may be interested in this post where we discuss some of the issues of race and academic admissions:

    Also this series on affirmative action in general could be helpful:


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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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