Exercising the Hope Muscle: A Discussion with 2018 Ridley Lecturer Beverly D. Tatum

By Laura Hoxworth

Beverly D. Tatum, a psychologist, educator and expert on race relations, visited Grounds on April 10th to deliver this year’s Walter Ridley Lecture. Tatum is the author of several books, including the best-selling “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” which was selected by Curry’s Diversity Action Committee (DAC) as this year’s Curry Common Read. Originally published in 1997, Tatum’s book has become a modern classic used to facilitate healthy discussions about race. Tatum released an updated version in September 2017.

Ahead of the lecture, Tatum sat down for a brief discussion with Curry School faculty and DAC representatives Joanna Lee Williams and Marty Block. Williams is an associate professor of educational psychology whose research interests focus on race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development, and Block is a professor of kinesiology whose teaching and research focuses on the topic of kinesiology for individuals with disabilities.

Williams and Block shared how Tatum’s book, with its accessible and supportive approach to conversations about race, is helpful in facilitating discussions with faculty, staff and students throughout the year around the often-fraught topics of race and inequity.

“After what happened in August, I think we all realized there was an opportunity,” Williams said. “Thinking about a book that the entire school would engage with was one of those places where we could really dig in.”

In the discussion that followed, Tatum offered her thoughts on how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and what we can do to get there. Read a few highlights or watch the full conversation below.


On what has changed in the past 20 years

In the new edition of her book, Tatum reflected on how race relations in America have evolved throughout the past 20 years.

When thinking about how to approach conversations about race, she said it’s important to acknowledge how dramatic demographic shifts – particularly the increase in populations of color throughout the country – have changed the racial landscape in the United States. “I think for white people in our society, especially those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s when the population was much more homogeneous, there’s a sense of loss of place,” she said, “which I think is fueling some of the anxiety that we see manifesting.”

Tatum also touched on several other significant historical and cultural moments that have shaped racial tensions in the past 20 years: including anti-immigrant sentiment that emerged post-9/11, the Obama presidency, the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, unrest in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown, the election of Donald Trump, and a re-emergence of highly visible white supremacist rhetoric in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

“That context creates a sense in which young people, I think, feel quite confused about race and how we talk about it,” she said.

On what educators can do

Of course, Tatum continued, many other things have not changed – perhaps most strikingly, the extent to which many neighborhoods and schools are still segregated along racial lines. In this context, Block asked, what can teachers and teacher-educators do to improve their classroom environments?

Touching on a topic that she covers extensively in the book, Tatum advised all educators to spend some time learning about themselves and their own racial identity. “I think it’s really important for every teacher – but especially white teachers – to reflect on their own whiteness,” she said. “You can’t pretend it’s not there.”

She reiterated how important it is for all Americans, not just African Americans, to reflect on their own racial identity, as well as the assumptions and implicit biases that could affect how you interact with others. That kind of self-reflection, she said, can help teachers engage with unfamiliar communities with knowledge and compassion.

In addition, Tatum said, it’s important for teachers to understand the larger history of race and racism in America – in particular, the ways that they have affected and continue to affect the education system. “You need to have some understanding of the history of education,” she said. “That history walks in the room with you.”

On how to stay hopeful

Tatum acknowledged that for many, these topics can feel overwhelming – and that’s okay. “Racism is overwhelming,” she said. “This is a long-standing, deeply ingrained problem baked into our society from its beginning.”

Reflecting on the recent 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tatum recalled King’s observation that social progress tends to follow a pattern: forward motion, followed by backlash. Understanding the big picture, she said, can help put current events – good or bad – into context.

Practically, Tatum said that communities need two things to move forward: conversation and action. Communities can change the culture through difficult conversations, she said, and they also need to work together to dismantle the structures of racism – for example, changing policies to improve access to education and affordable housing for disadvantaged communities. “If we want to undo the history of racism, we have to address the structures that have been left behind,” she said. “One of the most important things that a community could do would be to identify something that they wanted to work on together, and then work on that to bring about change.”

On a personal level, Tatum advised those who feel overwhelmed to “think globally, act locally.” In other words, focus on what’s happening within your own personal sphere of influence and how you can use that sphere of influence to make a difference.

While these issues require a great deal of effort and energy, Tatum said she remains hopeful – and believes that it is possible to move forward. “Hope is a muscle,” she said. “I do think that this is a time when you have to really exercise your hope muscle.”


Walter Ridley was the first African American to graduate from the University of Virginia, with a doctorate in education from the Curry School. The Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Lecture Series was created to honor his legacy at the University and his contributions to the field of education. Click here to read more about the Walter N. Ridley Lecture Series.