Why Are All The Chinese Children Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.29.03 PMI remember clearly how angry I was as I started reading Beverly Daniel Tatum’s brilliant book, Why are all the Black Children Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Her “open-and-shut case” attitude regarding the question of white men suffering “reverse discrimination” enraged me. Simply put, Tatum asserted that white men were in the dominant class and could not, therefore, by any stretch of the imagination suffer anything close to the depth and scope of what a minority group suffered. But as the pages wore on, I found myself less interested in what the book said about my socio-political reality and engrossed in her insightful commentary on the experience of minority students in a school.

Prof. Tatum has been the president of Spelman College, one of the nation’s premier HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities), since 2002 and has had a distinguished academic career. Her perspective on the experience of black students in schools reflects decades of observation, academic research, and practical experience. Among other things, she explains in this book that the solidarity of a minority group in a school setting tends to be interpreted by the administration and faculty in a negative way – when it should be interpreted in a positive way (which allows the school to leverage that solidarity to good and healthy effect).

In the 1990’s educators began noticing that the black children tended to sit at separate lunch tables. What tended to be interpreted as self-segregation and divisive behavior, Tatum argued, should instead be interpreted as a healthy expression of cultural identity. Moreover, she advocated using the students’ solidarity as a vehicle for strengthening their collective sense of self (and belonging) and for teaching the rest of the community about that culture/cultural identity.

Tatum’s book changed my perception of the student groups that were popping up in student bodies around the country (versions of Black Student Unions) – and allowed me to see the potential for positive change that these groups represented, rather than the threat to the majority (white) culture that surrounded them.

Today I cannot help but notice the eerie similarity between the black students of the 1990’s and the Chinese students at our boarding schools today. Or rather, I cannot help but notice how eerily similar the adults’ reactions to the Chinese students are to the adults’ reactions to the black students in the 1990’s. Once again, I find the adults seeing the negative aspects (separatist, English-avoiding, etc.) of the Chinese students’ quite natural desire to be with one another– and over-looking the potential for leveraging this strong affinity for their cultural identity.

Once a year we may celebrate the Asian New Year – but there could be so many other moments in the year when our schools might benefit from the Chinese students’ desire to be Chinese. Wouldn’t it be interesting (and educational) to publish a paper with stories in both Chinese and English, for example?

Perhaps we will accomplish more in the way of developing their English-speaking skills by honoring their desire to be together – by creating appropriate times/spaces for them to do so – and “passing them the mic” (so to speak) while asking them to teach the non-Chinese portions of the population about Chinese culture (surely they would have to have strong English skills to do this).

No doubt many people in the TABS universe are already doing things along these lines – I would love to hear what they are!

Dr. Goodman is the Head of School at Andrews Osborne Academy in Willoughby, Ohio.

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