Emory Report
November 24, 2008
Volume 61, Number 13



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November 24
, 2008
‘State of Race’ mulls pain of change

By Beverly Clark

President-elect Barack Obama’s historic campaign provided a rich context for the ninth annual “State of Race” talk held Nov. 17 with featured speaker Spelman College President Beverly Tatum.

Tatum said the election of soon-to-be President Obama represents a significant paradigm shift in our society and period of great social change that is as positive — and as painful — as any new birth can be.

“There is always a backlash to great periods of social change,” she said.

As a jumping off point for a conversation with the audience on various aspects of race and society, Tatum read from her Nov. 13 Inside Higher Education essay, “Birthing Pains and the Emergence of a New Social Narrative.” The essay addressed the historic significance of Obama’s election and the negative incidents that have flared up in response.

“A shifting paradigm generates anxiety — even psychological threat — for those who feel the basic assumptions of society changing in ways they can no longer predict. Such a sense of threat can lead to irrational, potentially violent behavior, and of course, the fear of such violence is underscored by the not-so-distant history of brutality and murder which accompanied the struggle for civil rights [including voting rights] in our nation,” Tatum said. “Such acts are like severe birthing pains — painful contractions which no one wants — yet they are signs of something new emerging.”

Tatum then fielded questions, ranging from whether or not historically black fraternities and sororities are a form of self-segregation (she doe not consider it to be), to California’s Proposition 8 debate on gay marriage, to the inspiration for her influential book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.”

The book grew out of her teaching on the sociology of racial dynamics, and a demand from other educators at all levels for guidance in teaching about race relations. “We teach what we’ve been taught as part of our socialization and it sort of repeats itself until we can become aware of the cycle and break it,” she said.

In closing, Tatum reminded the audience to “keep breathing” as society labors through this powerful change.

The annual State of Race talk is a signature event for Unity Month, a celebration every November of community at Emory and the diverse individuals who create it. For more information, visit http://www.unitymonth.com.