Reflections: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Ch.1

I’ll admit that race & ethnicity is something that I’ve only thought superficially about.

This might be surprising considering that I was born and raised in a rather diverse neighborhood; my playground friends were Filipino, Chinese, White, Hapa, Indian, Vietnamese, and Japanese (for some reason never became friends with my Latino & Black classmates).  There was racism growing up, but there was also just friendship.  This might also be surprising since I am a son of Chinese immigrant parents.  Which meant that I led a dual life — outside the home:  an assimilated American life (albeit hodge-podge); inside the home:  a HK/Toisan family life.  Sometimes the transitions were seamless; sometimes it was awkward and embarrassing.  And lastly, because I pastor a predominantly Asian American congregation — and I also teach Christian ethics.

I can spend a whole post analyzing why this has been the case.  But it’s enough to say that over the past few years, I’ve been experiencing a shift.  A shift as a Chinese American within this world.  Within the broader circle of the American Church.  And shifts – that I attribute to God’s Spirit and the prompting from friends – within my heart.  My reading of this now classic book is part of catching up to this shift.


Beverly Tatum, the author (and a psychologist & professor), begins with the provocative title:  Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  I remember when I first saw this title, I was reminded of a recent time when I was talking with a fellow believer who is White – she not so subtly criticized our church:  Why aren’t you guys more multi-ethnic?  Why do Asians always stick together?  And that question both incensed me, but also made me wonder as well.  It is an honest question.

In the opening chapter, Tatum begins with a question one of her White students once asked her:  “Oh, is there still racism?”  She was startled by the naïveté.  But at the same time, it made her recognize that conversations about race and racial identity cannot begin unless we are able to ask honest questions.  Whites can often feel afraid or defensive.  Peoples of color (her term) can often feel angry, helpless, or also afraid.  So honesty is crucial.

But so is truth and clarity.  And the reality is that racism in our country is real.  Some of us just don’t recognize it because, as Tatum puts it, it:

Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air. 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. None of us would introduce ourselves as “smog-breathers” (and most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air? (Kindle 300-303)

So racism isn’t just “in” the individual – it is embedded into the relational and structural systems of our society.

Tatum begins by defining racism.  From David Wellman, she defines racism as a system of advantage based on race.  Meaning, it’s not just prejudice.  I found this point to be particularly profound.  Because again, racism is not just about how you and I view other people – also the system in which we live.  But also, racism isn’t just about prejudice – it is especially about how these prejudices consistently advantages one race over others.  The most telling example came from an article:  “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  The white female author, in the article, rattles off a long list of societal privileges that she has received simple because she is White – privileges she neither asked for nor earned:

Of course she enjoyed greater access to jobs and housing. But she also was able to shop in department stores without being followed by suspicious sales-people and could always find appropriate hair care products and makeup in any drugstore. She could send her child to school confident that the teacher would not discriminate against him on the basis of race. She could also be late for meetings, and talk with her mouth full, fairly confident that these behaviors would not be attributed to the fact that she was White. She could express an opinion in a meeting or in print and not have it labeled the “White” viewpoint. In other words, she was more often than not viewed as an individual, rather than as a member of a racial group. (Kindle  343-348)

Wow.  This immediately drove me to consider all the privileges that I have been unwittingly been afforded because I am male.  Yes, people may have prejudices against me because I am male (he’s such a typical guy) — but the system of our society, on the whole, does not advantage women/disadvantage men on the basis of sexist prejudices, but the opposite — almost every time.

Moreover, I have, for the most part, been unaware of how our society is set up for my advantage as a male (who is also well-educated, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and of course, stunningly good-looking).  Sexism that benefits me as a male is simply part of the smog-filled-air that I breathe.  Hence, only males can truly be sexist.

And this answers the understandably honest question:  Are only Whites racist?  Because most Whites abhor the image of Klansmen, skinheads, or Archie Bunker.  This question is usually understood as, “Are you saying all Whites are bad people?”  To which she says, of course not.  But she still says, provocatively, that only Whites can be racist.  And the reason goes back to the definition of racism.  Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans and Asians can and are prejudiced (trust me, we are).  But the system of our society does not offer preferential treatment based on those prejudices.  “Despite the current rhetoric about affirmative action and ‘reverse racism,’ every social indicator, from salary to life expectancy, reveals the advantages of being White” (Kindle  338-339).  This is where I plug, once again, comedian Louis CK’s brilliant bit on how he loves being white and even better bit on how great it is for his two White American daughters.  Anyone can be prejudiced.  But only certain prejudices lead to any advantage.  And people of color, instead of Whites, are almost always on the short end of that stick.


My only quibble with Tatum is that while this is most definitely true nationally and even regionally, I have generally tended to think that our lives are most affected locally.  What is true in one enclave, ghetto, or barrio may not always mirror what’s true nationally.  I’ll just say it:  Blacks won’t do too well in Chinatown.  Latinos might not fair too well in the Hood.  But for the most part, I think her point holds true.  Even where there are areas where the local system consistently disadvantages Whites, it’s hard to imagine that they constitute a majority.  More common are places where Whites, while still comprising the minority, still hold the majority of the power, privilege, and advantage.

In any case, Tatum says this question misses the point.  The point is what will Whites do with racism?  She compares racism with those conveyor belt style walkways at the airport — by default, it moves you forward in a direction towards White advantage (i.e., racism).  So the question isn’t simply are you racist, but will you be actively racist (walk or run forward on the belt), passively racist (just stay on the belt, passively going along with things), or be actively anti-racist (move in the opposite direction)?  While I saw her point about Whites and racism, I found myself wondering where I stood along this continuum.  I think most of us, regardless of color, are just passive, period.  This is not good as a human being.  This is inexcusable as follower of Christ.

Tatum closes with a final distinction between racial identity versus ethnic identity.  Race is a distinction we’ve made up on the basis of physical criteria–usually color; race was also originally created in the service of oppression.  Ethnicity is a distinction based on cultural criteria–e.g., language, customs, food, shared history.  So, for example, our Asian American church (mostly Chinese, but includes Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese, and White) is predominantly mono-racial, but multi-ethnic.  A helpful distinction that I suspect will come up again.  I’m looking forward to the next chapter where she explores the complexity of racial identity.

4 thoughts on “Reflections: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Ch.1”

  1. I think the 2nd to the last paragraph struck a particular chord with me… as I have been exploring this subject of race as well. “What will whites do with racism?” I think the question I have been asking is… what will we do with racism? Not just the white culture, but everyone? I confess, I was probably some form of passive racist/anti-racist, and in the course of the recent times I have been moved towards a more active stance. But how does that conform to the faith I have in Jesus Christ? How does the Gospel then reconcile this issue?

    The race issue is a problem… I was reading MLK and always wondering why he brought race into it… and then I went to Dallas and I remembered that quote by MLK about how the most segregated hour in the US is 10:30 am on Sunday mornings. I saw churches drawn on race lines, Black, White, Vietnamese, Chinese… etc. and I realized out side of Cali and in different areas… the race issue is ever present. Not only that, but once Trayvon Martin’s case verdit happened… in LA, Bay Area, I heard about protests and even freeway traffic being stopped by the protests… you tell me race isn’t still an issue… it stirred a ton of reaction … and the issue is not simply an intellectual one… it’s built on an emotional historical tie to a painful past and from the intellectual community and many of my friends of privilege… they were only seeing the facts but did not weigh the emotional historical pain that is always part of our reactions and interactions as humans. We cannot discount the emotions that come into play.

    As an Asian American, I often pose this issue from this perspective as this is what I know best. I try to see it from other perspectives but I see that the problem is also in As Am communities and how we are passively often racist or anti-racist. Our voice is often small because we are often so passive and not active enough… this challenged me to then to not be passive… but be active… in a controlled gracious Christ-like manner. The fact is as I considered my own experience as a Asian American Christian and in the role of Pastor… I have never been asked by a caucasian ministry to speak or even teach… why is that? Despite all the exposure … why am I only availed Asian ministry opportunities?! (haha maybe it’s just cuz I am not a very good speaker hahahahaa)

    I think the one conviction is that I will not stand to simply allow passively humor, media, comments, statements slide by with a laugh (oh, it’s no big deal)… rather… each moment then is an opportunity to educate and better yet to simply make aware those that may do so without much deeper thought at the implications that it affects the heart. Too long have I laughed and even participated in furthering racism in my own actions, speech and conduct that as I have explored and reflected my life in light of Jesus… I can no longer hold to those positions. It’s also a reason why Paul rebukes Peter so harshly in Gal. 2, Paul does not just see Peter’s actions as the outward act based on ignorance (Peter knew what was right and didn’t do it)… but that Paul then shows how it is ultimately tied to a sinister element of racism and partiality that was stemming from a culture > gospel perspective; it was not in line with what Jesus espoused!

    This of course doesn’t mean we are offensive or even combative in our sharing or discussions to educate, inform, or make aware… rather I find that in dialogue with leadership in SB with other Pastors and leaders, that I am starting to challenge the local Xian community to consider their passivity and to see that perhaps there is a subtle endemic racism in our culture today that is allowed to slide by. You tell me your church is integrated? Where are the minority elders and pastors? Have you ever allowed a non-white teacher/preacher to speak to your congregation? Where are the trusted minority leaders that you are willing to submit yourselves to? The challenge is up top to the leaders and those in play to have the vision and desire to challenge their organizations.

    Anyways I have a lot, a lot to say about this subject and have been reading a little bit about Asian American representation perspective… and how this may also be considered in light of the ethnic churches and the overall underrepresentation of minorities in major Evangelical organizations. What I ask is not only what do we do? But are we even listening to a balanced voice of the actual Xian community in our world today… which is largely under represented by 3rd world Xian leaders and over represented by N. American/European Xian leadership. Anyways I’m rambling now. Sorry.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Helicon.

    You’re right this is a responsibility for all of us. Although, I think the onus generally falls more heavily on those who are most advantaged by the system, which is why I think Tatum poses the question first to Whites.

    I appreciate hearing your experiences. You’re right, I’ve only been invited to speak at a White church once. So despite what our churches look on our websites, or our congregations, reconciliation and full belonging in Christ is still miles away.

  3. Interesting thoughts. Have you invited any speakers who are not asian to speak at your predominantly asian church?
    I had discussions about this topic in high school and in college. I can understand to a point immigrants who do not speak English needing to hear a service in their own language. However, it was often a point of argument and confusion about the need within our generation of Asian-American “christians” to need to “stick together.” Is it for our own comfort? What does the bible say?
    I am mixed asian and mixed white. I’ve attended “asian” churches and “white” churches. The strange thing now that I think about it is.. I never questioned in the “white” church why there were so many white people. Perhaps, there was a mixture of other races in the room that felt more natural? I’m not sure.
    But, as disciple of Christ, my goal is to reach out to people of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20) and in the past, I never felt comfortable to reach out to a non-Asian person and invite them to an “Asian” church. My brother who has never really identified with being asian felt really uncomfortable when I brought him with me to a church service at a predominantly asian church. I love the multi-culturalism at my church now. We definitely have a real mix of all nations and all races (black, hispanic, white, asian, non-Americans, interracial families, etc.) Our leadership is made of a multi-cultural mixture of people and I think it is reflective of the type of church the bible calls us to be. Anyways, those are some of my thoughts. It would be interesting as a congregation to have the members discuss why they attend services. Is it a place that they just “feel comfortable.” How is their evangelism? Do they reach out to non-Asians? Why or why not?

    1. Somer, yeah, that’d be an good discussion. I imagine there would be a spectrum of responses.

      I invites non-Asians to speak regularly – probably about 1/3 of the time. And just to clarify, I’m not covertly seeking these extra speaking engagements.

      But this goes to show, the expectations to “broaden” has generally been one-directional. Asians (and minorities, in general) are asked why they don’t bear the discomfort of joining White groups and churches (so that they can be more multi-ethnic). But it’s rare for Whites to bear through the discomfort of joining groups and churches dominated by minorities. I think your question is really valid – but I’m just wondering why the onus is so often on the minority group.

      In the Book of Acts as well as in the churches Paul wrote to, he consistently urged the strong to give up their strength and rights for the weak out of love and unity. When the (weak) Hellenistic widows were overlooked by the (strong) Hebraic servers, the solution of the early church was to appoint almost all Hellenistic deacons. When Paul saw divisions in the church, he consistently appealed to those who had power to yield like Christ-crucified in order to treat the weak as full members in the Body of Christ.

      In any case, I rejoice that there are vibrant multi-ethnic churches embodying and proclaiming God’s kingdom! Because obviously, the New Heavens & Earth will include every tongue, tribe, and nation. (Although, I don’t think it’s quite fair to label all Asian American churches necessarily as mono-ethnic since “Asian” is an exceedingly broad term, encompassing 60% of the world’s population 30% of the world’s countries. At our church, for example, we have the similar skin color, but we are predominantly Chinese, but also Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino – and White.). But given that Whites have had several generations to grow aware and comfortable in their identity in America, it seems reasonable to give Asians (and other minorities) some grace to do the same. There can’t be multi-ethnic if people lose their ethnic identity. As it is, many already do attend non-Asian churches. And I’m confident that, over time, that trend will continue.

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