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.



ACOSA response to Ferguson (My mom would approve!)

Below is ACOSA’s statement on recent events is Ferguson, Missouri.  Thanks to my colleague Monica for sharing this and asking my to post on my blog.  What organizations do you belong to and how are they responding to Ferguson and other national and international events?  “ACOSA, the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration. ACOSA is a membership organization for community organizers, activists, nonprofit administrators, community builders, policy practitioners, students and educators. ACOSA will keep you informed of the latest innovations in community and administrative practice as well as provide you with a variety of opportunities for networking and professional advancement” ( The statement is best viewed by visiting the website, as my blog formatting is a bit whacky…


The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) Statement
in Response to Recent Events in Ferguson, Missouri
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” – John F. Kennedy
In times of systemic injustice, social workers have historically chosen action over inaction. The recent
death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the national conversation it stimulated has highlighted the
extent to which institutional racism still exists in the United States. Our longstanding ethical commitment
to social justice requires social workers, regardless of their primary method or field of practice, to take
action to address the multiple manifestations of institutional racism. ACOSA calls on all social work
professional organizations, social work schools, and individual social workers to make their voices
heard, locally in their communities and organizations, and in the state and national policy arenas. Here
are some tangible steps all social workers can take to create a more equitable, safe, and just society.
We urge you to join with us in taking action.
Professional Social Work Organizations:
● Council on Social Work Education, National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of
Social Work, & Society for Social Work Research should hold special forums or symposia at
their annual meetings to discuss the social work response to the issue of institutional racism.
● The editors of the Journal of Social Work Education, Social Work, and the Journal of
Baccalaureate Social Work should publish a special issue dedicated to this topic.
● The newsletters of all professional organizations should feature a regular column in which people
can submit ideas for a social work response.
Schools of Social Work:
● We encourage all schools of social work to organize a series of events that involve faculty,
students, and community members to discuss the implications of what happened in Ferguson for
their communities and to formulate policy solutions at the local, state, and national levels
● We encourage all faculty members to facilitate conversations regarding the events in Ferguson
and their implications for the people and communities with whom social workers work. These
conversations can add context to the larger systemic issues, especially when linked to the deaths
of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Discussing the impact racism in such diverse areas as
criminal and juvenile justice, education, employment, health care, and housing is key to
advancing social justice.
● We encourage schools of social work to provide faculty development opportunities to assist
faculty members facilitate difficult conversations about race, racism, and injustice in a safe
classroom environment and among their colleagues. This enables faculty to make the
connections between institutional forces and their manifestations in the lives of our clients and
● We encourage schools of social work to highlight the work of faculty doing research with
implications in this area. Schools can provide development opportunities for faculty to translate
their research into forums that could heighten public awareness of these issues and influence
policymakers. Examples include the development of a speakers bureau for media and
community consultation when need arises, training in the use of social media, the submission of
essays, and testimony before legislative bodies.
Individual social workers:
● Write letters to the editor of your local newspapers and speak to your local and federal officials
about your concerns.
● Lead a discussion of these issues in your local church, synagogue, temple, discussion group,
book club.
● Discuss the issue with your colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Do not be silent.
● Meet with members of law enforcement in your community. Discuss your concerns and hear
theirs. Using your social work skills, facilitate discussions with community leaders
● Vote. Make lawmakers know that you vote and for what reasons.
● Organize. With members of the community most directly affected by institutional racism,
identify issues for action and take action to change conditions.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” – Martin
Luther King, Jr.

P.S. My mom would approve