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  • Reverend James Squire

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Photo by Nesa by Makers

When my son was a student at Princeton University, Vicki and I became Co Chairs of the Princeton Parents Association of The Philadelphia Area. We were receiving news about the issues that Princeton was dealing with at the time. I remember that one of the mailings that we received was a concern that although Princeton was admitting more black students, the university was struggling to find ways that the students could be more integrated in the life of the school. They always seemed to be seated together at meals or joining the same clubs. The university was very interested in all students having cross cultural communication.

There is a classic book revised and updated in 2017 that addresses the psychology of race. It is “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria”. Its author, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, recently retired as President of Spelman College. The title is catchy like pop psychology. Don’t be fooled. The content is a brilliant blend of theory and personal experience. If you want to understand the Black Lives Matter movement, read it! It is all there.

The book and my Ethics course intersected at many points. For example, we study friendship in ethics. We see that friendship is found in shared experience or shared purpose. Students told me that they often take their problems to their friends and not to an adult because their friends know what it is like to be them. Black students are very aware of their blackness. Dr. Tatum reflects that black students/people are often seen in a warped sense of who they really are. They are trying to figure out who they are so they have to also reject stereotypes given to them. Dr. Tatum refers this process as “oppositional” identity. “When feelings rational or irrational, are invalidated most people disengage.”

One of the things that were important for me to know about was the complex process of identity formation in Black people. The other thing was that Dr. Tatum makes a point about the election of Barack Obama as President and Michelle Obama becoming first lady. Obviously I knew how important this was for our nation, but they also became role models for people to see two Black people who were kind, cool, and who demonstrated the power of getting an education as a stepping stone to success.

I had an experience in Paris of all places that helped me to understand why all the black kids sit at the same table in the cafeteria. It is a metaphor for that black experience. Paris is a city where the French people love to speak French to people who they encounter more so than in any other country where I have traveled. One day I heard some Americans talking nearby. I found myself gravitating to them just to feel as though someone knew what I was talking about and share some stories of what places I had found to be terrific locations to visit in the city. If there was a cafeteria table there, I am sure that I would find myself with fellow Americans who I could literally understand and who could understand me. It’s important to feel that safety and understanding. It is no different for black students during lunch!

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