Book Review: "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD (or how I moderated for the very first time a race panel with the longest name ever at Wiscon)

(Scene: a meeting room filled with people. At the front stands an empty podium. LaShawn soon enters from the back and makes her way to the podium, setting a briefcase on the floor beside it. She squats to open the briefcase, rifles through it for a moment, then nods in satisfaction and stands. She adjusts the microphone to her level and coughs. The room goes silent.)

LS: Hello and welcome to the book review with the longest title ever presented at The Cafe.

(Polite laughter and applause)

LS: Thank you all for coming. I wanted to do this book review in an interview format because, as you know, the reason I read the book was because I had been "chosen" (she makes quotation marks with her fingers) to moderate a panel based on this book at Wiscon. Despite the fact, you know, I’d never actually BEEN to a Wiscon panel. (glares at a table towards the back–then switches back to her enthusiastic expression). Luckily, I was able to rise up to the challenge.

(Woman in audience): I understand that you had a wacko who emailed you a 10-page document comparing atheists with people of color?

LS: (wincing) Wacko is such a strong word. Let’s just say he didn’t get why people of color needed to have a safe place to meet at Wiscon. But yeah, that email was sent to our panel two weeks ago. I didn’t exactly read it through. But the other panel members knew who he was and had a plan just in case he showed up and tried to disrupt the panel.

(woman): And did he come?

LS: Actually, he did.

(The audience gasps.)

LS: yes, but he didn’t disrupt the panel  like I thought he would. In fact, he said that he really appreciated hearing what we had to say and he thinks having safe spots for people of color is a good idea.

(The audience ahhs. Another woman raises her hand.)

Woman: How did you change his mind? Did you discuss some of Tatum’s arguments in your panel?

LS: (scratching head) Ummm…to be honest…we didn’t exactly talk about her book much. What we did was talk about our backgrounds, how we felt like we didn’t fit in to our respective race groups, how when we got to Wiscon, we met others of our race who could also be considered "weirdos", "nerds", "geeks" and "oreos", and just how, for the first time, we felt like we’ve belonged, that ‘we’ had a black table of our own now, and we wanted to explore that to the fullest.

A man: So you didn’t mention the book at all?

LS: Oh, on the contrary. We referred to the book a lot when describing our experiences. Take me, for instance. Up until last year, I would have looked at Tatum’s book and said, "Well that book doesn’t describe me. I never sat at the black table when I was a kid." But Tatum describes goes on to explain how black kids deal with their identity, how some kids live in both worlds where they see themselves as emissaries, and when I read that, I thought, holy cow, that’s me. So we did a lot of referral’s to the book. But the panel was more personal in that we were sharing our stories. I didn’t intend it to happen that way. I had planned for us to share a bit about ourselves, then I had some questions for the panel that I made when I read the book, then have the rest of the time opened to the audience for Q&A.  I did get to a couple of questions on my list, but we on the panel shared so much, I just sat back and let the stories flow. It hardly felt like I was moderating at all.

Another man: So the audience actually just sat there and listened?

LS: I was surprised they actually seemed interested in what we had to say. I didn’t think they would care all that much, but you could see it—they really wanted to listen to us and our stories. That was pretty nice. Of course, it helped that it was a small audience—about ten people, so it made for a nice intimate setting. And we did open it to comments towards the end.

Man: Sounds like you had a good time.

LS: Yeah, no drama either. (laughs) I lucked out in that regard.

Woman: But you still haven’t told us what you thought of the book.

LS: Oh yeah, the book. Awesome book. I think it should be required reading  for all colleges, heck, even high school. The beginning had a lot of psychological jargon that swam before my eyes, but once you get past the foreword and first chapter, it starts getting interesting. I especially appreciated Tatum’s advice in introducing children to the concepts of race, and starting them early in learning about advocacy. I have a six-year-old who received a picture book for a present that made me feel uncomfortable in that it showed several Mexican stereotypes. My response would be either downplay the stereotypes (for instance, read straightforward as opposed to reading the "dialect") or avoid the book altogether ("why don’t we get another book instead?") Tatum’s suggestions challenged me enough so that the next time my son brought the book, I told him okay, I’ll read it, but then I told him how it made me uncomfortable. We had a small talk about race, very simple, very short, but still effective in the long run. I like the fact that I’m no longer ignoring it, but opening a dialogue with my son that I hope will continue well after he becomes an adult.

Man: So you enjoyed the book.

LS: For the most part. (she crouches and rummages through the briefcase until she finds the book and pulls it out). I made a few notes in it. (turns the book so the audience sees all the post-it notes sticking from it) The only quibble I had with it was that since the book was written in 1999, I wondered how the internet influenced identity. Now, the version I read was the 1999 version. I understand there’s been a 2003 version, but I don’t know if it talks about the internet at all. I’d be curious to hear a panel on that, (frowns) but don’t ask me to moderate it. Please…

(The audience laughs. The woman who spoke first raises her hand.)

Woman: So how would you rate the book?

LS: Definitely five tables out of five. As for the panel, four tables out of five. But that’s only because halfway through the panel, all the coffee and tea I drunk out of nervousness and caffeine caught up with me, and I really, really had to pee, but because I was moderating, it would’ve looked stupid if I got up from my own panel and went to the bathroom, so I had to sit there in agony, while…hey…where’s everyone going? What? What I say? Oh come on…when Ellen Klages left, y’all were in hysterics…


3 Responses

  1. LaShawn, Daniel is SIX already???? How in the world did this happen?!

    Mary (from IBC)

  2. […] and there’s nothing to suggest that there won’t be drama behind the scenes there too. But after reading Tatum’s book, I can’t help but wonder if that would be a good thing.  I don’t know. Just […]

  3. […] top of those to articles, I also worked on a write-up of the panel I moderated at Wiscon last year: Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria which will appear in the Wiscon Chronicles #5 which will come out at this year’s Wiscon 35(which […]

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