Why We Must Talk About Race – Birthing a New Social Narrative

Beverly D. Tatum, Ph. D, Spelman College President

Excerpted from a speech given at YWCA Boston’s Academy Women of Achievers Celebration Luncheon, June 1, 2010

Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to see all of you here for this YWCA Women of Achievement Luncheon. I see many familiar faces in this place, and it is great to be among friends. And to those of you I am meeting for the first time, we share in common a commitment to social justice because that is why we are here. The mission of the YWCA – Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women – is bold and powerful, and clearly there is no better place to be than right here lending your support to that vision. Thank you all for coming!

I want to especially thank Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, President and CEO of YWCA Boston for her leadership, and my sister, Patricia Daniel Keenan, for extending the invitation for me to be here today amongst all of you. The title of my talk was, as you have heard, “Can We Talk About Race?” but I changed it and I hope you will soon understand why. The new title is ” Why We Must Talk about Race? Birthing a New Social Narrative.” Here’s why I changed it. As I was preparing, I visited the YWCA Boston website, and read about the Stand Against Racism effort that the YWCA launched on April 30, and read Sylvia’s posting, titled “10 Days in the Throes of Racism.”

In it she lifted up the dichotomous response of the first 10 days – more than 40 organizations and 2,500 people signed up to participate in this first annual event, and yet she also received a slew of hate mail postings in response to her blog. Also, she contrasted the image and hope of a little girl holding a sign in Arlington saying “I love diversity” with that of a Boston teen expressing anti-immigrant sentiments on the local news.

Such contradictions are not unique to this city or this context, but they remind us of why it is so important to be able to engage one another in dialogue about issues of race and the legacy of racism in our society.

I have an example of my own to offer. Just after the 2008 presidential election I was asked to write an essay for an on-line publication called Inside Higher Ed, specifically in response to a series of ugly campus incidents which took place just before and after the election – incidents such as the hanging of an effigy of Barack Obama at the University of Kentucky, the appearance of a noose on a tree at Baylor University, the dumping of a dead bear plastered with Obama posters at Western Carolina University, and the post-election Facebook posting by a University of Texas student of a call for “all the hunters to gather up, we have a #$%&er in the white house.” These four examples seemed perplexing among a generation of students that voted so enthusiastically, 2-1, for Barack Obama.

How can these incidents, like those Sylvia described in Boston, be understood at this transformative moment? I am a psychologist, and I bring that lens to what I see in the world. But I also know my U.S. history. Let us remember that in every period of great social change, there has been a backlash – often violent – in response.

A shifting paradigm generates anxiety – even psychological threat – for those who feel the basic assumptions of society changing in ways they can no longer predict. Immediately after the election, sixty-seven percent of Americans expressed pride in the racial progress the election represented, even if they did not vote for Barack Obama. Yet twenty-seven percent of the poll respondents said the results of the election “frightened” them. Some of that fear could be related to disagreement with Obama’s policies or related concerns. But for some small segment, perhaps like those involved in the campus incidents, the fear may be related to an unvoiced and maybe even unconscious recognition that the racial calculus of our society has been changed by the election, a change that threatens the position of privilege white people have occupied for so long.

Such a sense of threat can lead to irrational, potentially violent behavior, and of course, the fear of such violence is underscored by the not-so-distant history of brutality and murder which accompanied the struggle for civil rights (including voting rights) in our nation. Such acts are like severe birthing pains – painful contractions which no one wants – yet they are signs of something new emerging.

Certainly the election of 2008 changed a fundamental social narrative in American culture. That narrative has been replayed on television and in movies and in politics throughout all of our lives. It can be summed up in this way: In a heroic struggle, after all the twists and turns of the plot line, the white guy (usually the blond) wins. The black guy, if there is one, is usually eliminated from the story before the end. You have all seen that movie! Today the story has a new ending. We can no longer predict the winner based on race (and perhaps, soon, not even on gender.) The possibility of an unpredictable ending makes for a much better story and a much better society.

Yet lack of predictability creates anxiety. As we collectively get used to the new narrative, how should we respond to what I interpret as expressions of fear? We have to be able to talk about race. We have to name the unnamed, and bring to light those old assumptions which are now being challenged. We have to talk about race if we are to seize the teachable moment. We have to be able to talk about the legacy of racism in our society if we are to understand current events in a meaningful social and historical context. Surely we must never allow hateful incidents to take place unchallenged – and we must provide opportunities for more
speech, more dialogue about how various groups of people are experiencing the social changes we are all witnessing. And, we need to lift up the power of cross-racial coalitions, a power we all witnessed in the election of Barack Obama.

Effective team building across lines of difference is a powerful example of 21st century leadership, one too rarely seen in our history but essential for our future. We need to highlight it fully as a model for our children – and ourselves.

A new social narrative, a new paradigm, is emerging, and we have to serve as midwives for it. We have to support it, nurture it, give it room to breathe, or it will be lost to the old way of thinking and acting. None of that can happen without talking about race.

There is much more that could be said about this new narrative and its implications for race relations in the age of Obama, but for the purpose of our brief time together, I want to lift up the notion of anxiety that comes from a changing paradigm and the psychological response to it. Because it is not just the reality that a Black man can be President that is threatening the status quo – it is the collapse of the American economy and the financial threat that many are experiencing, it is the ruptured sense of security brought on by 9/11 and other terrorist attacks on American soil, it is the slow recognition that the United States might not always be #1 in the world, and perhaps especially that white people will not always be the majority group – even in Boston.

Each of these statements represents a challenge to a set of assumptions, deeply held, by many in our nation – and anxiety – even fear – is the result.
And how do we deal with fear? As human beings, like other animals, typically we either withdraw or attack. In the current climate of incivility, we see evidence of both patterns. The withdrawal takes the form of “circling the wagons” – pulling in and pulling away from those we feel threatened by. When we are afraid, we quickly begin to categorize who is for me, who is against me. We start to think and act in terms of “us” and “them”. We withdraw into our circles of safety, and we attack those we believe are outside that circle and who pose a threat.

That is what we see in Arizona with the new laws against immigrants. It is what we saw in the example of the student at the University of Texas, he sent out his message to those he saw aligned with him, and said gather up, “there is an N… in the White House.” It is why we are seeing a sharp rise in hate groups, and in racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number has grown by 54% in the last eight years, and as cited on the YWCA Boston website, in Boston, racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes have risen by 39% over the last three years.

Living in a time of rapid social change, one might ask, how am I supposed to manage my anxiety and my fear – by lashing out? Certainly that response grows more common because our society seems to have given us permission to do so. We see more and more examples every day of people out of control – you tube videos of teens fighting literally to the death, rude and unruly behavior in the “real lives” of reality television, and on the nightly news. What is the daily lesson?

I call these symptoms “birthing pains” because something new is emerging, but let us be clear, the moment of birth can be a dangerous time. And I think we are living in a dangerous time and should take that danger seriously.

When I listen to the polarizing rhetoric of radio and TV commentators, full of “us-them” language, I think of a book, I recently read, Left to Tell by Immaculata Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. She speaks of the hostile rhetoric that was on the radio airways before and during the genocide, demonizing the ethnic minority to which she belonged. That rhetoric was made especially powerful because it came from the country’s leaders.

I do not mean to suggest that what we are seeing in the U.S. today is on par with what was happening in Rwanda. But I do want to make clear that what we say matters, and leadership matters. The expectations and values of the leaders can change the tone of the community, and the nature of our conversation.

Fundamentally, we know that human beings are not that different from other social animals. Not unlike wolves, we follow the leader. Yes, we have an innate tendency to think in “us” and “them” categories, but we look to the leader to help us know who the “us” is and who the “them” is. The leader can define who is in and who is out. The leader can draw the circle narrowly, or widely. When the leader draws the circle in an exclusionary way, with the rhetoric of hostility, the sense of threat among the followers is heightened. When the rhetoric is expansive and inclusionary, the threat is reduced. It sounds simple, but we know it is not. It requires courage, and sometimes means we must speak up against strident voices. But that is what leaders do.

The leader has to ask the question, how is the circle being drawn? Who is inside it? Who is outside it? What can I do to make the circle bigger? In our society today we have too many young people – often young people of color – who have been drawn out of the circle, out of the picture – confined to a social and economic death sentence because they do not have access to the resources they need – quality education, housing, health care, social support – the kind of resources that the YWCA Boston is working to provide and toward which it directs its advocacy. All of you here can help the YWCA draw those circles differently.

We live in a time when fear is rising – and us-them lines are being drawn in a way that does not bode well for the health of our society. We cannot lock people out and expect success. As Martin Luther King once said, we are caught in a “web of mutuality,” and that means we must look to include, rather than exclude; we must expand opportunity for all, not limit it; we must recognize talent in communities of color, not overlook it; we must set the example, knowing that others will follow.
Each of us has the opportunity to exercise that kind of leadership.

And we must. I taught a course on the psychology of racism for more than 20 years, and as students learned more about the enduring nature of racism, they often felt overwhelmed and helpless to do anything. I used to say to them, the same thing I will say to you: You have more power than you think. Everyone has a sphere of influence – family members, friends, co-workers, colleagues in your book club, members of your congregation – when you think about it, your social network is broad. Use it!

Let us claim our heritage, the heritage of heroes and sheroes like Howard Zinn and Dorothy Height, men and women, white and of color, who would not keep silent. We are all part of a chain of change agents, men and women who in large and small ways have taken a stand, asked the difficult question at the meeting, risked some discomfort, and used their social power and privilege to interrupt the cycle of oppression – regardless of its source.

I want to close by reading an excerpt of a poem, written by a Spelman College graduate and noted author, Pearl Cleage, written in 2006 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the founding of Spelman College. Her words were directed to the Spelman community of women, but they seem quite fitting here for all of you here:

If there ever was a moment to change the world,
This is that moment
That moment when everywhere we turn
The air is filled with the sounds of women
Weeping for their children,
Husbands calling for their wives,
Babies born into chaos and confusion
A world desperately in need of changing.
A world filled with questions
To which we must find answers
That are grounded in our humanity
Shaped by our compassion
And informed by our membership in this unique community of women [and men]
Who accept responsibility for changing this world…
And this must be our promise:
We will not be the ones to break the chain.

We will not be the ones to break the chain.

Thank you all for being here, and doing the work that you do, leading this community to eliminate racism and empower women. 

A psychologist and pre-eminent authority on race, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D. is president of Spelman College and the author of several books including the acclaimed Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and her most recent book, Can We Talk About Race?