Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses race, community, and campus

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum on “The Shriver Report Live” in 2014. Photo courtesy of Time Magazine.

By Colton Williams
Executive Editor

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, visited the University on September 9 and 10 to participate in a public discussion and Q&A called “The Cost of Silence: Conversations on Race and Community.” 

The discussion, held at Convocation Hall to a packed crowd, was set up as a dialogue between Tatum and Cassie Meyer, Director of Dialogue Across Difference. The conversation primarily centered around issues of race and university life, and Tatum was able to display her expertise in dialogue with the audience. 

The author of the bestseller Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, Tatum is a renowned clinical psychologist who focuses on race in education and racial identity development. Prior to her tenure at Spelman, Tatum was on the faculty and served as acting president at Mount Holyoke College.

Tatum was brought to the University through the faculty’s involvement in the 2018 Institute on Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts, hosted by the Council of Independent Colleges, which was directed by Dr. Tatum. Since then, faculty have participated in professional development with Dr. Tatum’s work in mind. 

To begin the dialogue with Tatum, Cassie Meyer opened with a brief, albeit difficult question: “Why is it so hard to talk about race?”

“This is my favorite question,” Tatum said, “because it’s a question we all have some experience with.” Tatum then engaged the audience and asked them to answer simple questions about race, by show of hands. 

After the questions, which prompted the audience to think about their earliest race-related experiences and memories, Tatum drew a thread through exactly why it is so often difficult to talk about race. “We have an audience full of people, many of whom had an early childhood experience that was unsettling in some way, and most of you did not talk to anyone about it, when you were at an age when that is not typical,” she said.

Tatum emphasized throughout the discussion that avoiding the topic of race is a significant problem in trying to create diverse, multicultural communities. Particularly in schools, and predominantly white institutions such as Sewanee, it can be difficult for both students of color and white students to engage in healthy conversations about race.

The day before her public conversation, Tatum visited with students herself to talk about these issues. Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21), president of the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding, moderated a discussion between Tatum and around fifteen to twenty student leaders at Sewanee. 

“It was definitely engaging,” Tu said. “It was good to hear our experiences as student leaders, and particularly student leaders of color validated, because Dr. Tatum has dedicated most of her life to this question.”

Tu added that there was a real willingness on the part of students to engage in these difficult conversations, aided by Tatum’s advice. “This question now is how do we take that willingness, and put it into action,” she said. “How do we keep those conversations going? How do we keep them sustained? And then at the end of it, when we’re done talking, at some point we have to figure out how to implement changes institutionally to make sure that we’re all living up to our ideals of diversity and inclusion.”

Keeping the momentum of Tatum’s visit, and transferring that into sustained and ongoing conversations about race, identity, and the campus was also a focus of the event. Tatum emphasized the need for empathy, and that empathy leads to action that creates better communities. 

“Empathy is going to occur when people come into genuine contact, and that doesn’t just sitting in the same room or in the same class,” Tatum said, “but that kind of engagement, the kind of cross-racial dialogue engagement with people who are genuinely listening to the experiences of marginalized people, and that listening leads to empathy.”

“Dr. Tatum told us that we have to be honest about the fact that this place is a work in progress and that is one of my biggest takeaways from her visit,” said Lakeisha Phillips (C’22), one of the student leaders who met with Tatum. 

“Often times, I find myself frustrated about the slow movement towards diversity at Sewanee. I always want things to happen quickly, I even find myself trying to help push that change too. Understanding that Sewanee is a work in progress when it comes to diversity will be so beneficial in helping us move forward as a university,” said Phillips.