Reflections: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Ch.2

The author Beverly Tatum does something interesting in this chapter.  She dives into the complexity of identity – but not merely to understand ourselves better, but as a possible path to understanding each other across the racial conversation.

Who we are, Tatum suggests, is not so straight-forward.  We are multi-dimensional–e.g., I am a young, Gen X, middle class, Chinese Christian heterosexual male.  But how we view ourselves is also a product of a multi-faceted process.  A la Erikson, how we view ourselves results from this back and forth process between observation and reflection:  All day long, I intuit what you think about me, I observe what is considered normal in the world, I observe what the world thinks about people like me — and I reflect, react, and internalize those things.  So identity isn’t just this innate quality, rooted merely within myself – it is also located within my social context.  How I view myself as a young Chinese man in 2013 America is very different than as a young Chinese man in 1013 China.

One of the biggest components of our self-perception, Tatum says, is our membership in either a dominant or subordinate group.

One of the interesting things she notes is that when she asks people to describe themselves, White people almost never introduce themselves as White, while people of color almost always indicate their color or ethnicity.  The reason is because when we are in a dominant group, we tend to take that element of our identities for granted.  When the external world already privileges this aspect of my identity – the harmony is so great that it falls back into my unconscious.  On the other hand, when we are not in the dominant group – we know it.  And we’ve all been there:  when I walked into a room of all women, all well-dressed people, all tall people, etc.  This experience of being “other” is so pronounced, that it tends to be the part of our identity that we become most aware of.

There are at least seven categories of “otherness” commonly experienced in U.S. society. People are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. (p. 22)

The reality, though is that most of us belong to both dominant and subordinate groups.  I am subordinate because I am Chinese, young, and (in our area) Christian (curious, in her area, it’s an advantage).  But I am dominant because I am male, well-educated, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and once again, stunningly good-looking.

But to return to the contrast between dominant and subordinate groups – it’s pretty stark.  Because the dominant group, by definition, sets the rules, defines what’s normal.  Everyone else “is labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways” (p.22).  An example that I run across frequently has to do with study habits/value of education.  I’ve heard of people who bemoan how Asian parents for being “too strict” and putting “too much pressure” on their kids.  Meanwhile, it’s insinuated that Blacks are “lazy” or otherwise less intelligent.  Think about what is being said here. The implication is that Whites are neither too strict nor too lazy, they are, as we learned from Goldilocks:  Just right.  In any case, this is an example of the dominant group seeing what is “normal” as merely a reflection of themselves.  (To be fair, my family was quite insistent that I never become as lazy as anyone because in their cultural mindset – their way was not only right, but normative).  Another example is when men complain that women are “too emotional”.  Who defines what is the right amount of emotion?  The dominant group, which is men.

Of course, these are all stereotypes with only degrees of truth.  But when someone in the subordinate group bucks the trend, they are merely seen as anomalies.  That’s why Biden’s compliment to Obama was seen as backhanded:  “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” (read:  because normally you guys aren’t!).

But stuff like this shouldn’t surprise us, because most dominants are clueless – most think their experience is normative.  They literally have no idea.  But who can blame them when the culture and media all simply parrot back their views and values ?  Subordinates are familiar with the experience of the dominants because the dominants own the culture and the media, but rarely the other way around.  That’s why if you want to go mainstream, you often have to “whitewash” yourself:  Blacks lighten their skin, Asians change their eyes, Jews change their noses, etc.  You have to suppress your identity.

Of course, this makes many of us want to reject the dominant culture altogether – which leads to ghettoism.  The negative result, Tatum says, though is that it disconnects subordinates from the networks, skills, and resources that would otherwise help improve their plight — all of which are connected to the dominant group.

And so this where even earnest race relations have often fallen apart.  Earnest Whites can easily become discouraged by the charges of still being racist.  Meanwhile, people of color, are still angry by how clueless Whites continue to be.

From here Tatum says that the complexity of our identities can be an asset.  If you are White, she says it might be easier to understand the perspective of minorities by drawing on your own experience of belonging to a subordinate group — as a young person, female, person with disability, growing up poor, etc.  If you are a person of color, you might understand that cluelessness better if you realize you too are a clueless dominant — as a heterosexual, able-bodied person, a man, or some other kind of dominant person.  Tatum says of herself:

If I am impatient with a White woman for not recognizing her White privilege, it may be useful for me to remember how much of my life I spent oblivious to the fact of the daily advantages I receive simply because I am heterosexual, or the ways in which I may take my class privilege for granted. (p. 23)

In other words, perhaps the first step is to realize that both the threads of clueless dominance and helpless subordination run through all of us.  None of us are exempt or immune.

The thesis of this chapter resonates deeply with me as a Christian.  People often say that at the heart of Christianity is love.  Actually, it’s Jesus.  But yes, love is central.  But so is the belief that we are all sinners.  More specifically:  we are all victims of sin, but we are also all perpetrators of it.  I cannot decry the corruption of politicians without also being humble about the greed in my own heart.  I cannot turn my nose at Miley Cyrus without implicating my own pride and insecurities.  I cannot point at the speck in my brother’s eye without bumping into the plank in my own.

There are sinners on both sides of the racial conversation.  As an ethnic minority here in America (but certainly not the world!) – it’s so easy to just shake my head at the majority.  I was recently talking with a friend about Rick Warren and also the Exponential Conference – and he said something that startled me:  Most white people just don’t get it.  That may or may not be true.  But the Cross of Christ reminds me:  I am a clueless sinner too.  This does not negate the sins of the majority.  In fact, I believe the Cross puts the onus on the dominant – not the subordinate; reconciliation and love, in light of Christ crucified, is always the ethical responsibility of the strong, not the weak.  But even so, the Cross still stunningly calls me to humility and patience.  Ponder this long enough and you’ll realize how offensive, yet radical this is.

Personally, I think the Cross takes us much further than Tatum does, but it seems promising that it’s in the same direction.  Because my interest in this topic is not to stoke racial animosity or pride – but in seeking racial righteousness in the Church, and peace in the world.

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.

I’ve been asked if I know Francis Chan. And the answer is: As well as I know Jeremy Lin.

Recently, there’s a been a spate of incidences that have made a number of us Asian American Christians feel…not 100% part of the Body of Christ.  And so in response, this open letter has been circulating (click to view & sign):


Rachel Held Evans, a prolific Christian blogger, who is white, has posted this letter as well and has been asking Asians to share about their experiences.  Here’s what I wrote:

I’ve been asked if I know Francis Chan. And the answer is: As well as I know Jeremy Lin.

I’ve been asked why “you guys” only hang out with other Asians. Or what’s up with the “Asian invasion”. Which is such an interesting question from my now-enlightened white Christian friends.

I’ve been treated as the “Asian friend” (c.f., the gay friend, the black friend, etc.). It’s a little weird being a relational accessory. Curiously, I get this more often from my enlightened liberal friends.

I’ve had white friends demonstrate their faux-rage at how deeply offended THEY are at bigotry towards Asians. It’s great to have empathetic friends; but at times, it feels like they’re over-compensating.

Occasionally, it’s riled me up. More often, it offends or elicits a quiet eye roll. The reality is that if you are used to being the dominant culture – it’s hard to see the people and the world in any other way. E.g., I am a male, most of the time I am just enjoying my male privilege without a thought. This is why I appreciate Louis C.K.’s bit on how he loves being a white male – so honest and yet provocative.

So while I pray and seek dialogue for the sake of inclusion and righteousness, I realize that we need patience and the Spirit’s power – it’s hard to see past your own experience (especially if you’re used to being in charge).

I support this letter because it is honest, firm, and still loving. I’m not generally convinced it’s particularly Jesus-like to DEMAND justice and mercy; better to DO justice and mercy. And pray that the Spirit will use our Christ-honoring means to bring about a Christ-glorifying end.