WSU President Barry Maloney, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Student Trustee Manasseh Konadu

To Combat Racism, Talk About the Elephant in the Room, Says Race Relations Expert Tatum

February 8, 2019
By: Nancy Sheehan

The audience at a talk on Wednesday, Feb. 6, by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a nationally noted author and race relations expert, got to see a big elephant take the stage with her—at least in their imaginations.

“Let’s imagine there was an elephant sitting right up in front of this stage—a big, stinky elephant,” she said. “Then let’s imagine I asked all of you to pretend that elephant is not there. Work really hard, put that elephant out of your mind. Don’t think about it, don’t touch it, don’t notice it.”

After acknowledging how hard it would be to overlook such a huge animal hanging out on the stage, Dr. Tatum suggested the elephant anecdote could be a metaphor for racism and our customary resistance to confronting it. “It would be hard to ignore it (the elephant), and yet that’s how we behave with the issue of racism,” she said. “We try not to talk about it. We try to pretend we didn’t see it.”

Dr. Tatum’s spoke on The Cost of Silence: Why We Can’t Talk About Race and Why We Should as part of the University’s African American Read In Day and ALANA Preview Day. She is president emerita of Spelman College and the author of several bestselling books including Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

This attitude toward racism is an emotional stance most of us learn at a very early age, Dr. Tatum said, before asking for a show of hands of those who could remember their first race-related experience. Then, she asked how old the hand-raisers were when the incident occurred. Most, as it turned out, were between the ages of 5 and 7 years old which is a common age for first recollections of such usually fraught occurrences, Dr. Tatum said.

She then asked if the respondents remembered talking the incident over with an adult, and most indicated that they had not. This lack of open discussion is quite common and something that teaches people from an early age that race is something that one should just keep quiet about, she said.

We learn that “this is a toxic subject that people don’t want to hear about and that they don’t want you to talk about,” she said. “So, I think it’s really a challenge. One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my work is to try to create spaces where people have permission to have this conversation because racism is still a problem in our society, and you can’t solve a problem without talking about it.”

Dr. Tatum holds a bachelor’s degree psychology from Weselyan University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan, as well as a master’s degree in religious studies from Hartford Seminary. She also has been acting president at Mount Holyoke College and a faculty member at Westfield State College from 1983 to 1989.

Aldo Garcia-Guevara, Ph.D., who served as moderator for the talk along with Tanya Mears, Ph.D. (both from the History and Political Science Department), asked Dr. Tatum what led her to investigate tough questions about race during her career. In response, she offered a personal story:

Born in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1954, she moved to Bridgewater, Mass., in 1958 with her family because her parents didn’t want her to go to school in a segregated system.

Although she was born the same year that Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that established segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, de facto segregation remained the norm in most Florida schools, even at the college level.

Her father, an art instructor at Florida A&M University, an historically black institution, who held a master’s degree, wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in art education. The local university he wished to attend, Florida State, would not admit blacks, however. But, due to the recent Supreme Court decision, the state was obliged to provide access to education for students of all races. The state of Florida got around that requirement by providing transportation out of the state to colleges that did accept black students.

“So, he got his doctorate at Penn State in Pennsylvania, and he traveled from Florida to Pennsylvania to make that happen,” Dr. Tatum said. “The state of Florida didn’t pay his tuition, but they paid his transportation.”  After he completed his degree, the family moved to Massachusetts where, in 1959, Dr. Tatum’s father became the first African American professor at Bridgewater State University, then known as Bridgewater State Teachers College.

In Bridgewater, Dr. Tatum’s parents enrolled her in public schools, where she often was the only black student in the class. “I had this unique experience of being aware of being black, but at the same time being surrounded by white people,” she said. “It was kind of an insider-outsider experience and I think that has helped me in the work that I do around talking to racially-mixed audiences because I have a pretty good understanding of the kinds of communities that a lot of the white students that I taught at Mount Holyoke and at Westfield State came from.”

But most of those students, also learned to ignore the elephant in the room because they were trained from an early age not to talk about race. Opening up avenues of communication and fostering meaningful dialogue in a supportive environment are important steps toward ending racism, according to Dr. Tatum. “When you give people permission to pay attention, to talk about it, it’s, like, ‘Wow, what a load off my mind to be able to have this experience,” she said.

Dr. Tatum’s talk was sponsored by the Third World Alliance; the Office of Multicultural Affairs; the President’s Office; Provost’s Office; Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity; Student Involvement and Leadership Development; English Department; History and Political Science Department; Admissions Department, Ethnic Studies and MassEdCo.

Celebration of Black History Month continues with:

Black History Month Poetry Slam and Showcase Thursday Feb. 28- 5;30p.m.- Blue Lounge (Student Center)
The tradition of storytelling is often used to share historical and significant community/familial experiences. Please join us as we are hosting our 2nd Annual BHM Poetry Slam that will feature our WSU campus poets and their original works of art/poetry. If you are interested in performing, please email .

Leave a Comment

See for yourself what #woolife is all about.

The best way to learn about Worcester State University is to tour our beautiful campus. Be sure to let your student tour guide know your interests so they can personalize your tour.

See the tour schedule