Author, who urges more talk about race, to speak at Coast Guard Academy event

April 4, 2019

Imagine you’re in a group and someone takes a picture. You get a copy of the picture afterward. What’s the first thing you do? Look for yourself.

Psychologist Beverly Tatum uses this metaphor to explain why every educational institution should be thinking about what she calls affirming identity.

Students want to see themselves included in the curriculum, reflected in the teachers and staff, included in extracurricular activities. A lot of students naturally will see themselves included, Tatum said. But students from underrepresented backgrounds often don’t see themselves included, and that can lead to feeling marginalized and a strong sense of not belonging. Research has shown that motivation, dropout rates and academic performance are correlated with feelings of belonging.

“When looking at school environments or social environments, it’s like seeing ourselves represented in that photograph. If you don’t see yourself, you might think “What’s wrong with this photograph?” or “What’s wrong with me?” Tatum said during a phone interview Thursday.

Leaders and educators need to get in the habit of asking “Who’s missing from the picture?” she said.

Tatum, author of the book “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” will provide the keynote address Friday morning at the Coast Guard Academy’s annual event that focuses on diversity, inclusion and mentorship, known as Eclipse.

Her work has focused on facilitating conversations about race and racism, which, she said, we’re “programmed” not to talk about. We get messages from family, in the workplace and other areas of our daily lives to remain silent about these issues.

Educational institutions like the Coast Guard Academy, which develops future leaders for the Coast Guard, need to create spaces where students can have conversations about the structural nature of racism in society — how it operates, why it’s still a problem, what can be done about it, Tatum said.

She said an example of a place that has done this successfully is the University of Michigan, with its pioneering of intergroup dialogue. The university offers courses where an intentionally mixed group of students comes together to talk about social issues, such as an even number of white and black students talking about race, or Jewish and Muslim students talking about conflicts in the Middle East. The courses also teach students how to facilitate these kinds of dialogues.

“One of the things we know is that in the U.S. today, many students come to higher education from segregated schools. Public education today, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, is still quite segregated,” Tatum said.

Oftentimes at higher education institutions like the academy, students are coming to a place that’s much more diverse than where they came from. And if you came from a segregated environment, you probably haven’t had much opportunity to have conversations with different groups of people, particularly around controversial issues, Tatum said.

To that extent, places like the academy are “natural laboratories” to learn some of those skills, she said.