Six reasons why we shouldn’t worry about the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria

kids in a cafeteriaDr. Beverly Tatum just released (September 5th) a 20th anniversary version of her ground-breaking and well-informed book Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria: And other conversations about race.  She discusses the phenomenon at Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity.  This is a topic I think about a lot as the mother of a Black child.

In my son’s small, private, predominantly White school I noticed that in his particular grade all the Black students are in one classroom and all the East Indian students are in another classroom (those are the two major non-White groups in his particular school). This got me thinking. School has begun and at public and private schools – elementary through high school – the Black students, the Latino students, the Asian students, etc. are probably sitting together in the cafeteria as I write this.  And on that note, so are the band students, the drama students, the athletes, and so on…AND here are some reasons why school social workers, teachers, or administrators should NOT be concerned:

  1. Yes, they are sitting together and it is o.k. We like to sit, play, live, and work with people who make us feel safe and comfortable and the fact is, that is often people who look like us. If I spend all morning and all afternoon in situations that make me feel unsafe and/or uncomfortable or with people who are different than me and I am the minority in numbers, then I want to be able to share a meal (a sacred joyful time in many households) with people who make me safe and comfortable.  Usually, this means being with people with whom I share some values and beliefs based on our identity. We have to remember that students, particularly those in middle and high school, are figuring out their multiple identities and how those identities intersect. Students are navigating a complex world both internally and externally. To help promote student wellness, let the girls sit with the girls and the drama students sit with the drama students and the Black students sit with the Black students…if they want. Now, this does not mean that you should tolerate purposeful exclusion, discrimination, or mocking, but rather accept that students (like adults) need to create their own safe spaces. AND you and your colleagues should think about how you can systematically and intentionally create spaces for cross-cultural dialogue that may bridge any gaps at lunch tables or on playgrounds.
  2. Forcing students to sit together in some orchestrated inclusion situation will always back-fire. Let it happen organically. You cannot force people to like each other just because it is a rule in a student handbook. Rather, you can teach students to talk to one another and to hear each other’s stories. You can create spaces and facilitate times for dialogues and learning. Cultural competency is a value and a skill that should be integrated into our schools’ academic curriculum and co-curricular activities. The dialogues about this should be ongoing. Cultural competence should be reflected throughout every aspect of our schools. Students may still choose to sit together by identity group and with ongoing dialogues there will be more awareness and understanding of why.
  3. Have you paid attention to what the students’ other needs are? The Brookings Institute estimates that 1 in 6 children come from food insecure household. Add to that the fact that at least half of our school-aged children have a mental health need. And these are just two examples of need.  Our students have a multitude of needs and obstacles that need addressing before we can even get them to attend to sitting and playing together. If a student is struggling at home, in their personal life and space, it is even more challenging for them to be ready to discuss and embrace sitting with people different than them.  A student may be worried about what others know and think of their situation. Or, a student may be too distressed to attend to their neighbor. Just think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – individuals need food, shelter, safety – basic necessities before they can begin to think about and get situated in belongingness and love for others.
  4. The guilt or discomfort we may feel about students sitting together based on identity groups or shared interests has nothing to do with them. How you or I or our peers feel about race relations or interacting with groups of different social identities is not how the children of the 21st century feel. Not a scientific study with proven significance, but still worthy of mention, Good Morning America has done a series called “Black and White,” in which Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts interview children about their thoughts and feelings about race. When Roberts asked them if their different skin color makes them different from each other the children answered in unison “No.”
  5. We should not place our expectations, guilt, hurt, anger, etc. on them. Students have their own emotions to deal with as it relates to equity, inclusion, and social justice. They don’t even always use the same language to describe it. We need to see them and hear them and let them develop their own space and ways of facing race relations in the 21st century. Inter-racial friendships may be challenging for some kids to form as Nadra Kareem Nittle points out. Children, and especially young people are navigating their own identities and navigating someone else’s adds some sort of pressure or complication to their lives. When your school begins to create a cultural competency plan, include the students and the parents.
  6. Diversity work in schools and anywhere is best done when it becomes part of the integrated fabric of the school and is not just an add-on 1 day or 1-semester program.   If you want the students to sit together in the cafeteria or anywhere else, then the school needs to have an ongoing, comprehensive, effective, and impactful plan that begins on day 1 and never ends. The National Education Association has great resources that schools can utilize as a starting place. Teaching for Tolerance is another good place to look.  Remember too that cultural competence needs to be shown in who is hired at the school and who holds leadership positions. Diversity and cultural competence needs to be seen in photos, posters, and textbooks year-round. And parents and guardians (as extensions of the schools) need to also have the tools to facilitate such conversations at home and with their families.

So, I am okay with the fact that my son is in the same classroom with the other 3 Black students in his grade. I know that he has always played and sat with all the children in his school, and vice-versa. In reconsidering our concerns about all of the Black children sitting together, social workers should help teachers figure out why this is or is not okay for each child, and administrators should think about what will work best for each school’s culture.  The famous Black scholar W.E.B. Du Boise wrote that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” It is now the 21st-century and we should ask ourselves what are we doing if this problem still exists? We also need to think beyond the dichotomy of the Black and White binary and make sure we pay attention to the diversity and intersectionality within our schools and neighborhoods and speak to that specifically, and not just speak to Black and White students

In the coming decades, the population of our country will continue to become increasingly diverse. Soon, we will need to ask ourselves “Why are the White students sitting together in the cafeteria?” And then we must be prepared to answer that question and do something about it.



My unedited Op-Ed piece on cultural bias and politics

Facilitating learning

Facilitating learning

I am sure that I am slowly getting black-listed in my city, but oh well. My profession and my role as a mother demand that I speak up. Here’s hoping I can get myself positioned to actually make real meaningful change.

This piece (waiting for my personal editor to edit so I can send off), is a follow-up to this piece:

Taxation with representation: Unraveling cultural bias in schools from the top down

It is election time. Our neighborhoods are cluttered with placards of candidates’ faces and slogans of individuals running for a variety of positions.  Politics in Massachusetts can be confusing especially to someone who did not grow up here.  One key question that voting individuals should be asking themselves is “Am I being taxed without being represented?”  Being taxed without being represented in government is an idea that dates back to the beginning of our nation’s founding.  This sentiment can be extended to parents who have children in school districts that do not have school committees that visibly represent the people who live in the district and attend the public schools. Cultural bias in our schools is often perpetuated because our Superintendents and the individuals on our school committees do not represent the rich diversity of our cities.  In order for our schools (policies, curriculum, events, etc.) to be culturally competent the people who are elected to represent and lead our schools must visibly represent those who attend our schools.

The Commonwealth reports having 408 school districts with a total of 1,860 schools (1,154 elementary schools; 313 middle/junior high schools; and 393 secondary schools).  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) reports that in 2014-2015 there were 955,894 students enrolled in those schools.  Based on student enrollment, Massachusetts has eleven school districts that rank in the nation’s top 1,000 school districts.  From pre-kindergarten through high school we educate a large portion of America’s students.  Nine of those districts will hold elections for open positions on November 3, 2015.  School committee elections in this state matter a lot.  Of our ten largest schools districts Boston and Springfield, which are the two largest school districts do not have any seats up for election this year.  Worcester, the third largest school district has six seats up for election.  Brockton, the fourth largest school district has seven seats up for election.  At fifth, sixth and seventh largest Lynn, Lowell, and Lawrence respectively each have six seats up for election.  The eight largest school district, New Bedford has three open seats, Newton at number nine has eight seats, and Fall River, the tenth largest school district has six open seats.

Out of the eight districts with seats up for election the five most diverse cities (by U.S. Census numbers) are Worcester, Brockton, Lynn, Lowell, and Lawrence.  ESE 2014-15 report on enrollment by race (just the highlights on the highest numbers of non-Caucasian students) shows that Worcester has 39.6% Hispanic student enrollment. Brockton is 55.2% African American, Lynn is 56.4% Hispanic, Lowell is 30.1% Hispanic and 29.4% Asian, and Lawrence has 91.3% Hispanic student enrollment.  We know that Census numbers and reports by social identity are incredibly useful but not 100% accurate as not everyone fills out the forms. However, the numbers are a good indication of who is attending our schools.  Massachusetts is not lacking in racial and ethnic diversity. The Commonwealth is 51.5% percent female.  Because sexual orientation is not assessed by the U.S. Census, the more difficult social identity statistic to calculate is that of the LGBT population.  Based on data for same-sex households, Massachusetts reports approximately 20,000 same-sex households and an adult LGBT population of 4.4% (which is 7th in the nation).  All those numbers to illustrate that Massachusetts is diverse on paper and if you live here you know that in reality we are more diverse than that.

In terms of race and ethnicity most of the school committees in the Commonwealth appear to be unbalanced, especially in proportion to the number of students of color served in those districts. Examples of that include the city of Lowell where students of color make up approximately 69.3% of enrollment in the district’s schools but the school committee is composed of seven Caucasians.  This was highlighted in the recent incident where a student was racially bullied.  Lawrence has a school board that is ethnically representative of its city.  Lynn has a public school website that is culturally competent in that it can be translated into other languages for ease of use.  The other diverse cities with open seats do not appear to have school committees that are representative of the diversity they serve.

Why does it matter that our school committees be representative of the student population being served?  One, because we are a nation founded on the ideal of representation.  Two, because committees help to guide policies and curriculum and hire Superintendents.  Three, because policies and curriculum and Superintendents need to be culturally competent and responsive to the needs of students and families of color who are in the majority.  Yes, Caucasians can be culturally competent and respond to the needs of students and families of color. However, in our own state and throughout the nation we have seen instances in which predominantly Caucasian school boards have not been responsive to students of color and their families.  Public schools and school committees should follow the lead of colleges and universities.  Hiring only takes place when a diverse pool of candidates has been achieved.  Diversity is not just written on a piece of paper for the accrediting bodies to see cultural competence is an active practice.

I hope the state and cities consider sponsoring forums to educate more people of color on how to run for elected offices.  I hope more candidates of color step up to be candidates.  I hope our school boards become as diverse as the students they serve.  This November vote to make our school committees look like the students and families they serve.  This November vote for cultural competency and taxation with representation!

YAY for Malala: Honoring My Mom Day 13 (or there abouts)

teacherAs a woman of color living in American I never take my education for granted. The two oldest siblings in my grandmother’s family were the only two who were allowed to & able to go to college. They are proud Tuskegee and Fort Valley State graduates. My mom, who did not grow up in the south but still faced obstacles as her New York guidance counselor told her she should go to trade school. She ended up earning a Master in Social Work degree from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). My path was made easier through the scarifies and struggles of my grandparents and parents, although not without challenges. Like many 1st year students I goofed off a lot and skipped some classes and that first report card shocked me back into shape!

Each academic year in one of my books I put a picture of Charlayne Hunter-Gault;  in another book I put a picture of the Little Rock Nine; and in another book a picture of James Meredith.  The pictures are my inspirational reminders.  I think I am going to add a picture of Malala Yousafzai.

Today I sent all my students an email and challenged them to:

  1. appreciate fully the privilege of an education,
  2. come to class prepared,
  3. not procrastinate,
  4. be engaged and proactive learners,
  5. think critically,
  6. inspire someone else to pursue a higher education or complete high school,
  7. pledge to tear down any obstacle they see for others in receiving an education, and to
  8. hold me accountable for facilitating discussion and learning.

I, in return challenged myself to give them 100%+ each day I meet them and to hold them accountable for being responsible for their own learning.

We should ask ourselves “What would Malala do?”


teacher  I have recently been introduced to a different meaning for cellphones in the classroom.  Most of us in academia have policies about NO CELLPHONE USE IN THE CLASSROOM!  In K-12 I think phones are not allowed inside the classroom, in college we ask students to” turn the ringer off.”  Students often find a “good reason” why they are texting in class…I find no good reason in any circumstance…if it’s that important – go home!

But recently some situations have arisen that have made me think twice about the uncomfortable union of academia and cellphones:

(1) A student without a textbook the first couple of weeks of class took a picture of the assignment questions so that she could complete the homework (I wondered why not borrow a book from a classmate or go to the library…..?)

(2) Another student who was unable to use the computer software to create her diagram (ecomap & genogram) drew them by hand, took a picture, then sent them as an email attachment with her paper (I was thinking…you could scan them…)

(3) A student whose paper got lost in the e-learning system, took a picture of her paper and sent it to me via email….the same with a student whose test answer truly disappeared from my view sent me a picture of his answer to prove he had indeed taken the quiz!

(4)Some colleagues text their students reminders or check-in if they’ve been absent from a class because “Students don’t check their email” (I still don’t want students to have my cellphone number!)

(5) And of course you can use cellphones as “clickers” in the classroom to do class surveys or quizzes

While I am not sure I like the cellphone as the first choice for solving some of the above problems, I am impressed with the creative use of this technology (I am no techno-phobe, but #1-3 had not occurred to me at all until I saw it done).  It makes me wonder about how my 2 year old will interact with teachers and faculty int he future.  I hope not primarily by cellphone.


Hair and Cultural Awareness

Observations and Ramblings about my hair and some recent encounters related to hair:

I teach a range of courses in a School of Social Work. One of the courses I teach is a course on diversity. In social work we refer to the use of skills, ways of thinking and behaving, and understanding in such a manner that a person’s various identities are considered – cultural competency. I’d have to write another blog just to fully cover cultural competency, but suffice it to say that it can occur in many small and larger ways in any number of contexts.

A couple of days ago I was pleasantly caught off guard when the director and owner (CB) of my son’s day care center complimented me on my hair.  Like many women I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my hair and have changed my hair more times than I care to remember.  Hairstyle, length, and texture are especially touchy subjects for women of color.  Hair can be political for women of African descent living in American (think of the puffed out afros of the 60s and 70s). People sometimes have strong negative reactions to natural hair, braids, dreadlocks, etc. stating that none of the mentioned styles are professional (that’s another blog post for another time)



Currently I am wearing my hair semi-natural. Semi because it still has chemical in it and it’s not completely natural and I’m putting styling product in it to enhance the natural kink (or curl as the styling product states on the label). Needless to say my friends who have known me for some time might ask “What is going on with you and your hair?!” So anyway…it’s cute in a “I’m not sure what to really do with it” way. I’ve been thinking a lot about raising a son who sees his mom with natural hair so that he knows that beauty is not necessarily about straight relaxed perfectly combed hair. I’ve never had strong feelings about what’s going on with my hair until I had my son, so this is all kind of new. I typically change my hair a lot but it has nothing to do with wanting a certain type of hair, it has more to do with boredom and the fact that I have options and it’s fun to play around with hairstyles, wigs, braids, waves, etc.  Anyway…as I was dropping my son off CB was in the room and she just commented on my hair being natural, she said she liked it and that it worked for me because I have a pretty face. I smiled and laughed because it was something my mom would say! But I felt nice…most Caucasian women I’ve known don’t know enough about black hair to know when my hair is natural or not. My friend PC always notices my hair and sweet in her encouraging comments and questions – it’s always a nice cultural exchange! My pleasure in CB’s comment had less to do with me being cute and more to do with my satisfaction that I knew the day care we chose really had a culturally competent leader (as required by NAYEC).

Day care center teachers are notoriously white and female. So enrolling our African American son in a suburban day care center caused me some anxiety. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and until I moved to Atlanta had not seen African Americans in the majority let alone in positions of power and prominence. And I don’t expect great diversity where my son goes to daycare because the center, while adjacent to a city full of immigrants, is located in the suburbs. I chose this day care because it is owned and operated by a woman, it is not a franchise chain, and it is close to home. The teachers are wonderfully nice, my son is safe, well cared for, learning new things, and the kids are incredibly cute! I teach cultural competence for a living and write about it as often as I can. It is a skill that encompasses many levels of understanding, behavior, and thinking. It is more than just knowing when a black woman’s hair is natural versus straightened with chemicals. In this context this simple small exchange said a lot to me. The fact that CB displayed cultural competence around something as benign as my hair was a pleasant bonus!

Flashback to a week ago when my son and I were at the mall with my friend BD (culturally competent Caucasian woman). We stopped to play at the indoor playground. I was a little bit nervous because he’s young (15 months) and the children there are appeared to be at least 3 years old and older. But in fashion true to himself, my son jumped right in there with the other kids and slid down the slide (head first) and climbed into the cars and ran around the carpet enjoying himself as if he had been there a thousand times! There was a little girl who was about six years old or so and she was the type of child that likes children younger than her – you know the type who will end up being a teacher or a social worker – she kept holding the hands of the younger kids, but in particular kept wanting to hold/lift up my son. Her mom kept telling her to let my son run on his own and to not hug/hold him. I was bordering on being annoyed and thinking “how cute.” And then she patted his head and said “He has fluffy hair!” My friend BD looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said “It’s time to go.” So we smiled, scooped up my son said “bye” to the little girl and left.

Do you take on a 6 year old around cultural competency? Probably not. I’m an educator so maybe the “right” thing to have done was to say to the girl “Yes, different people have different kinds of hair, that’s what makes the world so beautiful” or something like that. But I’m not always in my culturally competent educator mode and sometimes I just want to enjoy my time out with my family and friends. I’m hoping that the little girl will grow up to meet many different kinds of people with many different types of hair and that she will appreciate each person and her hair for who she is!