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Examine where you stand, even if you disagree
on January 3, 2005
As you review all the "reviews" thus far written, you get a sense that Dr. Tatum's book has gotten people thinking and taking stands. I appreciate the straightforwardness with which Tatum introduces her subject -- racism. Sure, we can disagree with her definitions and use of rhetorics. But she made the definition clear and prominent enough so that we can disagree. It is hard to measure oneself by a wishy-washy yard-stick. Tatum provided a solid yard stick by which you may examine your own stance, assumptions, and conclusions. In reading the reviews, especially the critical ones, it struck me that even those who strongly diagreed with Tatum understood her basic premises and her arguments. It is upon that understanding that we can disagree. I applaud the author for clearly laying out her arguments on a controversial issue.
The main strength of the book, to me, is in fact the redefinition of racism. You don't have to agree with it, but you do now need to examine whether a "system of advantage" exists and if it does, whether it should be included in the definition of racism. I am neither white nor black, so I cannot speak of black/white issues in first-person. But I come from a family with four generations of academics. The system of school, academia, and education benefits me greatly, and I suit the system particularly through my upbringing. By analogy, I am open to the idea that past explicit systems of racial inequality do not lose its effect in a mere generation or two, especially for the black race. (Sorry to be imprudent, but Comedian Louis C.K. had this great line about, "White people want to add 100 years to every year it has been since slavery.") On the flip side, I came from a country and culture with western colonization in recent history (<200 years), foreign invasion and practical enslavement (<100 years), but not being a "minority" in my own country, people re-bound. Through my reading, I am questioning and examining my own assumptions as well as that of the author's. To that extent, I think the book is doing its most important job -- make you think.
The weakest point of the book is also in relation to the definition. The author included both internal belief and external system of advantage into her definition of racism, but only spent significant time exploring the system, but not belief. The author talks much about how the environment shapes the individual, but not how the beliefs of an individual (particularly, a black person) can alter the environment and his/her own fate. It places the black individual in a powerless position, except through the path of activism in racial issues (versus other achievements). The book largely ignores the reverse stereotypes that many whites feel from the blacks. The book simply does not name it, or implies that it doesn't count as "racism" because there is no "systematic advantage". Whatever the name, minority stereotype of the majority exists, and it should/can be addressed. I am a racial minority, and I hold such stereotypes.
The integration of identity theory with the racial issue is a valiant attempt. Sure it's not perfect, but it is a working hypothesis and I applaud the author's ability to present it in a way that is understandable and arguable.
The weakness of the identity theory presented is the overemphasis that we develop positive self identity only (or at least, first) by "sitting together" with our own kind. By that suggestion, must whites first sit whites during teen years, and rich with rich, poor with poor, woman with woman, man with man, athletes with athletes, nerds with nerds? Sure, that IS a big part of identity forming. The cost of "sitting with your own kind" is that your development gets stuck in a rut. You have few exposures to fresh ideas, ideas that would conflict with each of our narrow and individual views (and thus stimulate you to oppose, assimulate, or digest). Cognitive theories of child development places much emphasis on "cognitive conflict" in conceptual development. Though the author do advocate cross-racial dialogue, it struck me that the author overtly favors within-racial identity development, particularly for the black youth. Perhaps the argument is that blacks are "conflicted" enough by a white society, so they need not seek more. Are the black youth in America so oppressed so as not to be able to reap much benefit from other groups in identity formation? I don't know. I do question the argument "same kind first, and then cross lines" ... My gut feeling is that both should proceed more or less simultaneously.
Each of us, as readers, have our own ongoing identity development in relation to the question of race. The author, through this book, is beginning a cross-racial talk. Her clarity and honesty in the positions she had taken confront our minds, as if a "different" person is suddenly sitting at our lunch table". To that extent, I greatly appreciate the book, even while disagreeing with some ideas, agreeing with some ideas, and still digesting others.