A Semester of Racial Tensions

Spelman president, an expert on race relations, discusses a series of incidents that have surprised some this fall (but not her) and what they mean.

December 9, 2013
Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman College

Racial tensions certainly are never absent from campuses. But this fall has seen a number of incidents -- most notably charges that white students harassed a black student at San Jose State University for months -- that shocked some.

Inside Higher Ed recently asked Beverly Daniel Tatum for her take on what's going on, and what should be done. Tatum has been president of Spelman College, a historically black, women's institution, since 2002. Her Ph.D. is in clinical psychology and she has written several books that focus on race relations, including Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School ResegregationWhy Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, and Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community.

Following are questions answers from an email interview.

Q: When authorities charged white San Jose State University students with tormenting a black student for months, many were shocked that this could have gone on for so long with no one noticing or intervening -- even when the students allegedly hung up photos of Hitler and the Confederate flag. Were you shocked that this could happen on a college campus?

A: While the events were very disturbing, I was not shocked because regrettably the news is filled with stories of bullying, much of it done by young people, sometimes on college campuses, often related to someone's minority status (as defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation). The prolonged and vicious nature of the racially loaded harassment does raise questions as to how the behavior could have gone on for so long without it coming to the attention of someone who might have taken steps to intervene.

Yet, the role of the passive bystander in the face of someone else's victimization is also more common than we might like to think. Did others remain silent because they truly did not know what was happening, or because they identified with the white tormentors and saw their behavior as "just a joke" or because they were afraid of being bullied themselves in retaliation for speaking up? I suspect all three aspects played a role.

Q: Given that something this severe could happen on campus, are there things college presidents at other campuses should be doing to prevent such incidents?

A: I am not sure it is possible to prevent all acts of meanness. However, the leader can certainly set a tone that emphasizes the expectation that we are a community of mutual respect, and make clear that abusive behavior will not be tolerated. The leader can also model the importance of engaging in difficult conversations and talk about what it means to be an ally, an important role in the work of creating a truly inclusive community. On a residential campus, the residence hall staff are often "first responders" in cases of interpersonal conflict. Helping student leaders on campus increase their own comfort with diversity of all kinds and with the role of "ally" would be a good strategy.

Q: Also this fall, we have seen black students at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Michigan use social media to voice frustrations with their relatively low numbers and the way they are perceived. What does it say to you that these students feel the need to use social media to draw attention to their concerns -- and that they have been so successful in in fact getting attention in this way?

A: All of us want to feel seen, heard and understood by the people around us. We want to see ourselves positively reflected in our surroundings -- in the faces of other students, faculty and staff, in the curriculum, in the social context in which we are operating. White students on a predominantly white campus are likely to take for granted the affirmation they receive simply by being in an environment where people who look like them are in roles of authority and their sense of belonging is positively reinforced  However, students of color who have a history of exclusion and who remain historically underrepresented may feel a keen sense of isolation and invisibility.

For a generation raised on Facebook and Twitter, it is not at all surprising that their feelings of frustration would be shared publicly. The viral nature of YouTube amplifies their voices in a way that increases their ability to get the attention of the university administration. It is a powerful tool and they have used it effectively. Reading the posted responses of viewers however lets you know that we still have work to do in terms of educating students about the enduring legacy of racial inequality in our society.

Q: We have also seen this fall -- as we seem to every fall -- a series of parties with offensive racially charged themes, followed by apologies in which party organizers appear surprised the the use of blackface or "ghetto" themes is offensive. Why is it possible for college students today to be unaware that such actions will offend?

A: Every year a quarter of the undergraduate population graduates, and there is an influx of new students who missed the lessons of the years before. The transient nature of student populations makes it necessary to repeat ourselves continually. The social context from which our students come has not changed that much. The schools and neighborhoods they grew up in still tend to be racially isolated (largely white or mostly of color) and in my view, the national rhetoric about race is increasingly polarizing, as seen in the responses to the Trayvon Martin case and the George Zimmerman verdict. Racial stereotypes persist, and there are still too few meaningful opportunities for students to engage in the kind of cross-racial dialogue that would lead to critical thinking about them.

Q: As you look at the state of race relations on campuses nationally, are you concerned? Are these tensions inevitable or do they point to larger problems?

A: Because of the persistence of elementary- and secondary-school segregation more than 50 years after the Brown decision, today’s American youth have had few opportunities to interact with those racially, ethnically, or religiously different from them before they go to college. In a recent conversation with a white male colleague who lives and works in a largely white community, he lamented that his son had no black friends, and to his dismay, was expressing some negative attitudes toward the African-American students he did encounter. My colleague, also in his 50s, was like me a child of Brown who had been able to develop close cross-racial friendships in school, and was worried that his son would not benefit from such an experience himself. His son’s story illustrates well the fact that lack of direct experience means that what one learns about the "other" is too often secondhand information, conveyed in the form of media stereotypes.

Even when parents have positive racial attitudes, children can absorb the prejudices of their peers and the wider cultural milieu. The specific content of those prejudices, and their targets, will vary depending on where students have grown up and what their life experience has been. But we can be sure that all members of our campus population have come to college with stereotypes and prejudices about some other segment of our student body. How could it be otherwise when there is so much misinformation circulating in the environment?

As a result, higher education institutions have some of the greatest responsibility to challenge misconceptions and explore differences -- and to help students develop their capacity to connect across them. Most students do not come with this capacity for connection already developed, yet it is a capacity that can be developed.  Ignorance is common but in a learning environment it cannot be tolerated as a permanent condition. 

Q: You lead a prestigious women's liberal arts college that is historically black. Spelman is competitive in a way that many if not all of your students could go to top predominantly white institutions if they wanted to do so. Of course these students are attracted in no small part by Spelman's academics and mission. But do you think the environment today on predominantly white campuses sends some students to Spelman and other historically black colleges?

A: When I talk to students who transfer to Spelman from predominantly white institutions, they often cite feelings of campus marginalization as a factor in their decision to leave. Here is a quote from a student who sent me an email indicating her desire to transfer to Spelman. She wrote: "The black people who attend my school do not have a voice, and we operate on a day to day basis in an environment that is resistant to change and consciously racist. This environment has stalled my growth on many levels, and the worst part of all is that I am a Gates Millennium Scholar, meaning that I can go anywhere in the U.S. and have my tuition paid for in full. So, I am sure that you will understand me when I say that I would rather not put my scholarship money into an institution that is not facilitating my growth. All of these points bring me to my final dilemma. Everything that I lack at this institution, support as a black female and a facilitated learning environment, I know that I can find at Spelman. I believe that I am qualified, and have a great deal to contribute to the college and community... ."

This student did indeed transfer to Spelman, and has since graduated. Spelman was a great choice for her, but not everyone will have that choice. It is important for every institution to consider what it can and must do to create learning environments that will foster the positive growth of all of its students. Diversity of some kind exists everywhere, including at HBCUs, so we all have work to do in that regard.


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