Johannesburg – Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? is the title of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s classic 1997 book on aspects of the psychology of racism.
It is a title that was inspired by the frequency with which that exact question was raised in professional development workshops she had been conducting with school principals and teachers about how to initiate conversations about race with children.
Unsurprisingly, Tatum argues that the common experience of anti-black racism is what causes black kids to develop, at group level, a kind of oppositional identity, based in shared knowledge of being targets of white supremacist attitudes and actions around them.
Basically, the victims and survivors of oppression are accidentally huddled together at the cafeteria.
I used to find this pithy psychological take on the book’s framing question to be interesting, and perhaps even trite.
That changed when I had a conversation with philosopher Lewis Gordon, who is always brilliantly incisive on questions of race.
While praising Tatum’s work in general, he critiqued her framing question in a way that made me feel daft for not having spotted what was problematic about it all along.
Why, asks Gordon, do we shine the spotlight on black children but not on white children?
Why is the book not entitled, say, “Why do white kids not talk to the black kids in the cafeteria”?
There are many variations of this in South Africa: Why do the white kids not come to our homes in the townships?
Why do the white kids not take an interest in gqom, kwaito or amapiano?
The nexus point that Gordon was making, of course, is that we are all too keen, even as black left-wing academics or journalists or broadcasters, to anthropologise the black child, and implicitly heap a bunch of expectations on the black child to discharge the burdens bequeathed us by colonialism and apartheid.
It is unfair to do so.
It is also bizarre to let the children of hegemony, white kids, off the hook in a conversation about race relations.
The strategic response to racism cannot be to render white people invisible and to do all the anti-racism work ourselves.
That is a recipe for failure because those who built or who benefit from the racist structures of our society must be partners in the project of dismantling the remnants of colonialism and apartheid.
Otherwise, we will never get there. Why am I thinking of this, this week?
Because most of the footage of the anti-racism protest at Cornwall Hill College showed images of black teenagers protesting, and mostly black parents and other stakeholders protesting.
In some of the videos, the odd awkward- looking white staff member is literally at the edge of the protest, as is the case with white pupils also.
That breaks my heart.
The struggle for an anti-racist school and society is not a black struggle.
It is human rights struggle that should implicate every single person who is genuinely committed to inclusivity, equality and justice. Why were white staff members, pupils and parents not exercising their collective agency in solidarity with the survivors of the school’s institutional racism?
Silence, in the face of such injustice, is morally equivalent to complicity in sustaining racism itself. One former pupil told me that she is shocked that almost 10 years later, the pupils at her former school are still battling the same issues they were battling.
I am not surprised. If people who are not directly affected by racism turn a blind eye to the tears of the survivors of racism, then obviously the racism of the institution will be reproduced and will be passed down the generations.
A friend of mine put it best: “I think the reason why the hairgate protests of school children a few years ago have not led to fundamental change is because we are talking to ourselves.”
He is right. The black kids at the cafeteria are talking to themselves.And so we need to ask a different question: “Why are white teenagers, white staff members and white parents not joining in the anti-racism work?”
By Eusebius McKaiser.
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