Black Colleges, White Privilege, and 'The Color Purple'

Beverly Tatum, president of the oldest black women’s college in the U.S., discusses black-Jewish relations and Alice Walker on her recent visit to Israel.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Beverly Daniel Tatum made a bit of history this week. Tatum, the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, the oldest black women’s college in the U.S., became the first head of a black institution of higher education to participate in a delegation of university administrators that visits Israel annually. The program, sponsored by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee, promotes bi-national academic and research collaboration.

Tatum’s visit is particularly timely given the recent controversy surrounding Spelman’s most famous student – writer Alice Walker. Walker, who attended Spelman from 1961-1963 before transferring to Sarah Lawrence College, made headlines when she refused to allow her bestselling novel, “The Color Purple,” to be translated into Hebrew in protest of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

"I anticipate having a conversation with Alice Walker about my choice to come to Israel and what I've learned here,” said Tatum in an interview with Haaretz during her visit. “I look forward to that."

When asked whether or not she supports Walker’s decision, Tatum didn’t answer directly but instead responded that she would be pleased to have her own books translated in Hebrew, if they aren’t already.

“I actually think that Israelis would find my books useful," she said.

Those books include, "Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Segregation" (2007), "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria And Other Conversations About Race" (1997), and "Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community" (1987).

Before taking over at Spelman College in 2002, Tatum, a trained psychologist specializing in racial identity, served as head of Mount Holyoke, an elite college in Massachusetts. She currently sits on the boards of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Teach for America, the Institute for International Education, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Tatum is considered an expert on black-white relations in the United States. While she identifies common themes in Israeli-Arab relations here, she is careful not to draw too many parallels.

“There are a lot of similarities actually, although I've been advised by some Israelis not to impose a U.S. paradigm on Israeli-Arab relations,” she said. “Still, I think there are some lessons to be learned.”

She pointed to the example of an Arab-Christian Israeli professor whom she met on her visit who spoke about the experiences, and relatively high dropout rates, of Arab Israeli students in Israeli universities. As a student himself, he never raised his hand in class.

Tatum sees this hesitation to participate in U.S. minorities as well, the result of what social psychologists call a “stereotype threat,” in which members of a particular minority group modify their behavior for fear of perpetuating stereotypes ascribed to their minority group. Tatum gives as an example, a stereotype of intellectual inferiority.

“If such a stereotype existed,” she said, “then the students who are confused in class are going to hesitate to ask a question. If they don’t ask a question to get their confusion clarified, they're not going to perform as well.

“There's a whole body of research in the U.S. about working with students of this kind to improve their achievements,” Tatum continued, “which I think might be relevant in [an Arab Israeli] context."

Tatum also pointed out a similarity between the experience of Native Americans and European settlements in the U.S., though she was quick to clarify that it is “obviously not the same because the Jewish people have a long history with this land, which the Europeans, when they came to our land, did not.”

“But when you think about the two sets of people in conflict in the United States and how those conflicts were ultimately resolved,” she said, “there are lessons to be learned.”

Deteriorating relations?

There was a moment in U.S. history – particularly in the 1960s – when black-Jewish relations were stronger. Today, they seem to have deteriorated significantly, though Tatum doesn’t necessarily see it that way. She does share that, as a professor, she has seen white Jewish students in particular struggle with the idea of being both a targeted and privileged minority at the same time.

“The Jewish students in my classes would often see themselves as targeted by anti-Semitism, and rightly so because anti-Semitism is alive and well,” Tatum said. “At the same time, they still benefit from what we call 'white privilege,' and that is a hard thing for people to reconcile sometimes.”

The concept of white privilege suggests that Jews are able to benefit from a racial hierarchy in the U.S. But because of anti-Semitism, students may not recognize, or want to acknowledge this.

“If you only want to talk about disadvantage and don't want to talk about advantage,” said Tatum, “that often makes a conversation hard."

Beverly Daniel Tatum, an expert on U.S. race relations, shies away from drawing parallels to Israelis and PalestiniansCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Author Alice Walker. Credit: AP



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