President of Spelman College opens dialogue on race and diversity
For her February talk in Reisinger, Beverly Tatum didn’t park behind a podium. Instead, she had the microphone in hand and moved freely across the stage. By removing the barrier between herself and her audience, Tatum—who is president of historically black Spelman College, and a clinical psychologist—created the perfect metaphor for her approach of encouraging dialogue about race and diversity.
And though widely regarded as an expert on the formation of racial identity, Tatum did not deliver a straight lecture to her audience of 200 students, staff and faculty. She began by asking questions: “What is your earliest race-related memory?” “What emotion is associated with this memory?”
“Misinformation about those different from ourselves is so pervasive that it’s like breathing smog,” Tatum said. “We are all smog breathers—not because we want to be, but because it’s the only air available.” She encouraged generosity and dialogue in the face of racist or insensitive comments, not name-calling or ceasing communication.
Before the lecture, Tatum (whose books include Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) attended a luncheon in her honor at the President’s House, where she sought a better sense of the issues on campus. Associate Dean of Studies Regina Arnold, who hosted the luncheon, asked student, staff and faculty guests to speak briefly about their connection to concepts of race relations and diversity; attendees were frank about issues of inclusion and how the College could be a more inviting environment, particularly for students of color. Tatum listened and responded to the ideas and concerns raised at the table.
“It was meaningful for President Tatum to come and help us assess what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and where we need to go in our own process of affirming identity, building community and cultivating leadership,” Arnold said.
President Michele Myers, a longtime friend of her Spelman counterpart, was equally pleased with Tatum’s visit. “She is straightforward, thoughtful and not confrontational,” said Myers. “It’s difficult for most people to talk about race, but she talks about it as if it’s the most normal thing, which is the right approach.”
Tatum’s SLC visit was the first of a new series, “Beyond Sarah Lawrence,” that will address urgent issues facing our world.