Books and Breakfast: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria
This month’s installment of Books and Breakfast, which is brought to the Indianapolis community by a partnership of the Desmond Tutu Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center (MLKCC), and Butler University, was centered around the Beverly Tatum’s book, Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? On July 2nd, 2016, a diverse group of ten individuals from around the Indianapolis community participated in a discussion regarding the book’s central themes on systemic racism and identity development of America’s youth.
Prior to the July 2nd meeting and discussion of the text, two employees from the Desmond Tutu Center, Allison Troutner and Caroline Whang, and Butler University professor, Dr. Terri Jett, spent their Thursday mornings with children participating in the MLKCC’s youth summer program. At these hour-long discussions, Troutner, Whang, and Jett discussed three specific chapters from the text and hosted an open discussion about racism with the youth ages 9-14. At these discussions, youth shared their experiences of racism, education, and posed questions about racism such as, “Can’t anyone be racist?” or “Why don’t we know about or see successful black people?” The questions that the youths posed during these meetings were the basis of the discussion questions for the July 2nd Book and Breakfast.
On the day of the event, Dr. Jett arranged for the Indianapolis Public Library’s Bookmobile to be parked outside of the MLKCC for the duration of the event so that both kids and adults could easily sign up for library cards. This initiative was incredibly successful, as more than twenty kids signed up for their first library card.
Waseema Ali, the Managing Director for the Desmond Tutu Center began the discussion with the open-ended question of, “is racism only for white people?” which was a focal point of the first chapter of the novel, entitled “Defining Racism.” This question was a result of one of Tatum’s crucial arguments when she states, “people of any racial group can hold hateful attitudes and behave in racially discriminatory and bigoted ways. We can all cite examples of horrible hate crimes which have been perpetrated by people of color as well as whites.” (Tatum, 10) These sentiments were echoed throughout the Books and Breakfast attendees, who shared their own stories of their own experiences of racism; many of which did not involve white people.
One of the focal points of the July 2nd discussion was in regards to education, and specifically the lack of a role that people of color play in America’s history textbooks. This was problematic for many of the Books and Breakfast participants, and one stated, “[teachers] always start with slavery. I hate that.” Many at the table agreed this fault in America’s educational system is a large contributing factor to the problem of systemic racism that effects today’s African American youths. While discussing this issue with the youth at the MLKCC, many of the kids had comments about how they see African Americans portrayed in the media. One of the camp volunteers made the astute observation that if you type ‘white teens’ into Google Images, the first search results will show white teenagers laughing and playing. In contrast, the first images that surface when Googling ‘black teens’ is of young black men’s prison mug shots. These stereotypes that are perpetuated by today’s media paired with a lack of positive role models of color for young people were one of the most crucial contributors to systemic racism in Tatum’s book and were key discussion points during Books and Breakfast.
Youth participating in the MLKCC’s summer camp began trickling inside the center from their football practice around 11:00am and utilized the Bookmobile to sign up for their first library card. This shift prompted other significant topics for the Books and Breakfast discussion, which included an intergenerational dialogue about racism and about how racism specifically affects those living in the Indianapolis area. One young women expressed concerned that the city of Indianapolis was attempting to shut down the MLKCC in an attempt to gentrify the surrounding areas and turn it into a ‘New Broad Ripple.’
Evidence of this systemic racism was clear when one of the leaders of the MLKCC camps asked a group of students how many of them had one, permanent teacher for the entire year, and only one student in a room full of 20 raised his hand. Finally, Sarah Haas, a volunteer for the Desmond Tutu Center acknowledged that African-Americans are not the only targets of racism here in Indianapolis. She spoke of anti-Asian rhetoric that is rampant near her home on the south side of Indianapolis.
The group concluded their discussion by focusing on how we can work to change these issues and used Tatum’s Chapter 10, “Embracing a Cross-Racial Dialogue,” as inspiration for our discussion. One woman spoke of her church congregation’s resistance to a growing Black Lives Matter movement within their church, and this prompted the group to discuss the importance of having people of all races participate in this discussion of racism. Tatum ends her book by stating,
“We all have a sphere of influence. Each of us needs to find our own sources of courage so that we will begin to speak. There are many problems to address, and we cannot avoid them indefinitely. We cannot continue to be silent. We must begin to speak, know that words alone are insufficient. But I have seen that meaningful dialogue can lead to effective action. Change is possible. I remain hopeful.
Written By: Caroline Whang