Overcoming the Culture of Silence on Race . . .
"Raise your hand if you've ever had a difficult, distressing, ultimately unproductive discussion about race."
A roomful of hands usually shoots up when I've asked that question of students in my psychology of racism courses.
Even though we live in a nation where issues of race are continually in the news, few of us have learned how to talk across racial lines.
Our silence, aggravated by persistent social segregation, means that college is often the first opportunity many Americans have to live and work in a multiracial setting, and to engage in multiracial dialogue.
And I've seen how hard it can be and how frightened many people are to begin a conversation about race. But I've learned that dialogue about racism can be a powerful catalyst for change.
My students, both white and of color, readily admit their fears in their journals and essays. Some white students are afraid of their own ignorance, afraid that because of their limited experience with people of color, they'll ask a naive question or make an offensive remark.
While this sometimes does happen, silence is not without risk - students of color often interpret it as racist support for the status quo.
Because of the culture of silence about racism in many white communities, white students often haven't had practice at pushing past inhibitions to speak. They notice that students of color speak about racism more often and, they assume, more easily.
One white student observed: "In our class discussion, when white students were speaking, we sounded so naive and so 'young' about what we were discussing. It was almost like we were struggling for the words to explain ourselves ...
"It dawned on me that these students had dealt with this long before I ever thought about racism.... [It's]almost like I was hearing about it for the first time. For these students, however, the feelings, attitudes, and terminology came so easily."
She's correct that most of the students of color in that classroom are more fluent in the discourse of racism and more aware of its personal impact on their lives than perhaps she had been. But she is wrong that their participation is easy for them.
An Asian-American woman in my class wrote about the difficulty of speaking: "I understand that some [white people] are trying, but sometimes they need to take bigger steps and more risks.
"I am always taking risks when I share my experiences of racism. However, the dominant culture expects it of me. They think I like talking about how my parents are laughed at, or how my older sister is treated on welfare. Even though I am embarrassed and sometimes get too emotional about those issues, I talk about them because I want to be honest about how I feel."
Who will tell her story if she doesn't?
An African-American student wrote: "One thing that I struggle with ... when it comes to discussions about race is ... that I tend to give up when I start to think, 'She or he will never understand me. What is the point?' Then I have practically defeated myself."
The anger and frustration of people of color is hard for some white people to tolerate.
One white woman in my class told me: "Often I feel that because I am white, my feelings are disregarded or looked down on in racial dialogues.... I also realize that it is these feelings that make me want to withdraw from the fight against racism altogether. However, I acknowledge the need for white students to listen to minority students when they express anger against the system that has failed them without taking this communication as a personal attack."
This is what one young student of color hopes for. She isn't seeking sympathy but dialogue partners who are willing to listen when the conversation gets hard.
We can all benefit from what my students are learning. For meaningful dialogue, fear must give way to risk and trust. Different life experiences will lead to differing, often conflicting, perceptions of reality. But when people make the commitment to remain engaged, shared under- standing and a collective vision for the possibility of social change can be achieved.
It's worth the effort. As a society, we pay a price for our silence. Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence.
As students go off to college, let's hope they pack a little courage, and they find others equally brave to help them engage in the dialogue we need to make a difference.
* Beverly Daniel Tatum is professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. This article includes some interviews from her book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and other Conversations About Race" (Basic Books).