Diversity Symposium: Tatum on Conversations About Race

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

While teaching the psychology of racism at University of California Santa Barbara, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum recognized a crucial gap in college curricula. Though she was teaching at a college level, Tatum realized that prior to taking her class, many of her students had not had a chance to talk about the impact of race and diversity on their lives.

With this knowledge, Tatum dedicated herself to race relations and education, becoming a renowned scholar, author and teacher. She shared her experiences last Thursday with a full audience of Swarthmore students, faculty and staff, as the keynote speaker for “Cultivating a Diverse and Inclusive Community: A Diversity Symposium at Swarthmore College.”

The symposium is a new initiative, sponsored by the offices of the President, the Dean of Students, the Provost, and of Equal Employment Opportunity, as well as the Black Studies Program and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program.

“What really struck me was that many students [at UC Santa Barbara] said they had never had an opportunity prior to my class to really talk in public, in a diverse classroom, about issues of race and racism, and yet everybody’s life is impacted by it,” said Tatum, in an interview with the Gazette.

Tatum’s presentation, titled “Can We Talk About Diversity?” confronted issues of difference by asking why as a nation we are often discouraged from talking about key aspects of our identities such as race, gender, religion, ability and sexuality.

“We can not talk about race very well or very easily because we’ve been taught from an early age that we are not supposed to,” said Tatum.

Using Swarthmore students and faculty to demonstrate this phenomenon, Tatum began by asking audience members to think back to their first recollection of diversity. Based on a show of hands, Tatum said that although audience members could recall recognizing difference as early as 3 years old, most did not relay these feelings or observations with an adult.

We remain silent, according to Tatum, because of the “discomfort” we as a society feel towards talking about diversity. This lack of dialogue leads to a “cycle of socialization” where stereotypes, misinformation and missing history become internalized and redistributed in our society, manifesting in cultural cleavages and prejudice.

Tatum concluded that in order to foster social change, we must break the silence.

“There is a cycle of socialization that we all participate in and each of us can take responsibility in interrupting it,” she said.

In an interview with the Gazette, when asked what Swatties can do to break free of the cycle of socialization, Tatum explained that students have a unique opportunity to address these issues.

“A residential college environment is typically the first opportunity that many students have had to engage in people who are different than themselves on important social dimensions,” she said.

Tatum said that ultimately, students must educate themselves on diversity and privilege and be ready to talk about these issues.

“When we engage each other in conversation we start to get a better understanding of the ways in which that cycle is being perpetuated and the ways in which opportunity and responsibility that each of us has to change it,” said. Tatum.

Following Tatum’s presentation, many audience members stayed for a short question and answer session to discuss strategies for embracing diversity at Swarthmore. Tatum received enthusiastic reviews from students.

“This was one of the most useful talks I’ve been to during my Swarthmore career. It was both accessible and relatable,” said Cecily Bumbray ’12.

Despite this praise, students raised concerns whether or not Tatum’s words, or the broader message of the Diversity Symposium can create a notable change in Swarthmore’s campus community.

“It is difficult when it seems like many crucial individuals are missing from the conversation, though I certainly believe these efforts are meaningful and to an extent, effective,” said Stephanie Styles ’14.

For more on Swarthmore’s Diversity Symposium see Dr. Harper’s talk in Race and Achievement.


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    Tashalyn77 says:

    My four year old commented yesterday about our “dark skin” neighbor as a descriptor since he did not recall his name. I immediately knew who he was talking about but I was curious why he had chosen that descriptor besides all the other possible choices – perhaps it was the easiest, since we don’t have much activity with him. I think Tatum is on to something, next time I will try not to be in control of the situation and instead have a conversation about it w/ him.

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