Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
– Beverly Daniel Tatum
I just finished the 20th anniversary edition of this book – with an updated prologue and epilogue. Like my last Bookish entry (Memmi) this one is going to take a while to digest.
The first thing to say is this really shouldn’t be your first book on race and racism. Or even your third or fourth. It’s dense. It requires a lot of unpacking. And although she explains that she decided to write the book when she realised she needed to “bring an understanding of racial identity development to a wider audience” (pg77) the book is not something that most people will find easy to digest.
I should probably start with explaining that it’s not about “race” but how one’s own identity – encompassing race – develops. I learned a lot but I am stubborn and carried on through the stats and took notes and had the luxury of time to sit and think and read and sit and think and read. I think that for most people it’ll just be beyond them in terms of time and energy to invest. And that’s a shame. I think it’ll just be too much for all the people who could really benefit from learning what is in here.
Here are some great, big picture lessons though:
Race is a social construction.
Race is a human-invented classification system no different than the Dewey Decimal system. Geneticists agree.
Society is important
A big part of defining yourself can come from what the world around you says about you and about others like you. Everyone needs to see themselves reflected in the world.
We need to talk about race and racism
If we want to move past a racist society we all have to step up – and white people most of all. You have to work to identify your own sphere of influence and consider how to use it to interrupt the cycle of racism.
Racism doesn’t just harm Black, Indigenous, People of Colour – though obviously it effects them most directly.
We all lose – when human potential is left by the wayside because it doesn’t seem to fit with the perceived norm.
We need to talk about racism – the break the silence. White people might be afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing – I am always concerned about this – but the work cannot always fall on the shoulders of Black, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern peoples (to name but a few). The consequences for me to speak out are far less harsh than for some others.
I cannot wait to know all the information out there; I can no longer wait for perfection; I have to keep taking my small, deliberate steps each and every day. In those steps I find hope.
Okay so a thing I am doing more than I used to is read. Sometimes I read light and fluffy things; other times grim and dark police procedurals, sometimes newly released stuff; sometimes it’s older. Fiction, non-fiction, heck I’ve even read some plays recently.
I am going to share what I’m reading and what I thought about it – while reading and when finished and then maybe in some cases (like this first one I am sure) I’ll have an update later when I’ve digested it more and maybe done a bunch of reading about what it is that I have read. I already have a tag for “reading” so I’m just going to stick with that for now.
The reason I am starting this now is that my current library book is making my brain hurt so I wanted to get my thoughts down etc.
The Colonizer and the Colonized – Albert Memmi
Memmi was born in “French Tunsia” in 1920 (he only just died in 2020 at 99 years old (link is to a NYT obituary – you may need an account). His mother was a “Tunisian Jewish Berber” and his father was “Tunisian-Italian Jewish.” Lots of divisions there. He was actually in a forced labour camp during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia.
In the preface of The Colonizer and the Colonized he writes:
…oppression is the greatest calamity of humanity. It diverts and pollutes the best energies of man – of oppressed and oppressor alike. For if colonization destroys the colonized, it also rots the colonizer.
I wonder how Memmi would have responded to a suggestion that he say “the best energies of people” or “of all” instead?
Memmi is very cognizant that in some areas he is more akin to an oppressor than the oppressed: Yes, he was Tunisian and thus “treated as a second-class citizen, deprived of political rights…” BUT he was not a Moslem [that time I learned there were different ways to spell Muslim]. “The Jewish population identified as much with the colonizers as with the colonized.” The Jewish population were just as badly off as the Moslem population but they turned to the west as saviours really so that “the Jew found himself one small notch above the Moslem on the pyramid which is the basis of all colonial societies.”
So he acknowledges that, as Jewish, he has some perch to hang his colonizer writing on; the Tunisian heritage is the perch for the colonized writing. But what about male? Are women of no concern? Well, in brief, nope: “A woman is less concerned about humanity in an abstract sense, the colonize mean nothing to her.” Oh FFS. Sigh. And on I go.
There is that fundamental idea of a pyramid – Memmi returns to that: “such is the history of the pyramid of petty tyrants: each one, being socially oppressed by one more powerful than he, always finds a less powerful one on whom to lean, and becomes a tyrant in his turn.”
This is seen so much in the US south – there are lots of books / research on the idea of driving a wedge between impoverished white and Black people in the south so as to keep the Black people oppressed and the whites constantly striving for acceptance by the rich whites – never recognizing (a) that acceptance will never come and (b) they have far more in common with the poor Blacks than they ever will with rich white Americans.
Some points truly hit home – “
…the few material traces of [the colonized’s] past are slowly erased, and the future remnants will no longer carry the stamp of the colonized group. The few statues which decorate the city represent (with incredible scorn for the colonized who pass by them every day) the great deeds of colonization.
A reminder – this book was first published in the 1950s. But people still argue today – in 2021 – that removing these statues would be “erasing history.” *insert eye roll here*
Memmi goes on later:
if only the mother tongue was allowed some influence on current social life, or used across the counters of government offices…but this is not the case. The entire bureaucracy, the entire court system, all industry hears and uses the colonizer’s language.”
I have never been good with languages – my brain doesn’t seem to like studying them and I always found other things more fun – but what joy it would have been to hear Indigenous languages as often as I heard French and (because I grew up in the west end of Toronto/Tkaronto) Ukrainian and Russian and Polish and Maltese (though I probably should have tried harder with that last one).
Most Canadians came here from somewhere else: my dad immigrated in 1968. My mom didn’t have to – she was born in August in northern Ontario only a couple of months after her mother and my oldest uncle arrived in Canada on a Polish ship. Lots of people fled war and famine and disease, seeking a better life. But a better life for us shouldn’t be at the expense of other people – there has got to be a way we can make it a better life for all of us.
We have no way of knowing what this land would have looked like had colonization never happened; but we can certainly see what has happened because of colonization. And it’s up to us now to work to make it better.
Why can’t we give back? Schools, streets, parks. Why do they all have to be named after colonizers? Why can’t we invest more time and energy into learning about Indigenous peoples and their histories and names and customs? Why are 57 versions of desperate housewives an option instead of more like First Contact or just opening up to more Indigenous creators?
Why can’t we tax churches and the wealth of the top 1% and actually collect those taxes and use that money to give clean water to Indigenous communities? Why can’t we impose term limits on elected positions so that people stop looking at that as a career that they can coast through and not actually accomplish any meaningful change for the people of this place? Why can’t we stop throwing money at police and carceral options and start throwing it towards education and health care?
This is one of those books I will definitely have to go back to in the future – I probably really should take a poly-sci or philosophy course to truly understand what Memmi is getting at. He explains the book wasn’t intended to be a work of protest or even a search for a solution – instead “it was born out of reflection on an accepted failure.” He says right at the start that it wasn’t true that he knew how impactful the book would be.
I’m including a list of online resources I found when googling the book. Like I said, I’m setting aside the book for now – returning it to the library even; but in a bit I’ll read some of these writings (and any others that come up) and maybe even re-read Memmi.