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Home > Blog > The Black and White of Lunchtime
Out of Our Minds
Sunday, June 27, 2004 11:18 PM
The Black and White of Lunchtime
Kevin Salwen on Culture

I have always being fascinated by racial interactions and have written in the past on this site about the true meaning of diversity. So, I became intrigued when my schoolteacher wife began reading 'Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?' by Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum. In it, Tatum explores how race in our society impacts our behavior. In particular, I was intrigued with this section about why blacks and whites often segregate in the corporate cafeteria:

In 'A Tale of O,' psychologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter offers some insight. She highlights what happens to the O, the token, in a world of Xs. In corporate America, black people are still in the O position. One consequence of being an O, Kanter points out, is heightened visibility. When an O walks in the room, the Xs notice. Whatever the O does, positive or negative, stands out because of this increased visibility. It is hard for an O to blend in. When several Os are together, the attention of the Xs is really captured. Without the tokens present in the room, the Xs go about their business, perhaps not even noticing that they are all Xs. But when the O walks in, the Xs are suddenly self-conscious about their X-ness. In the context of race relations, when the black people are sitting together, the white people notice and become self-conscious about being white in a way that they were not before. In part the question reflects that self-consciousness. What does it say about the white people if the black people are all sitting together? The white person wonders, 'Am I being excluded. Are they talking about us? Are my own racial stereotypes and perhaps racial fears being stimulated?'


As a white person, I'm not sure I agree that I feel 'self-conscious' about being white when I see blacks sitting together. But I find race in corporate America a riveting topic well worth discussing.


2 comments

Elizabeth Albrycht - 6/29/2004 1:58:00 PM
I completely agree with Yvonne. My first reaction to this post was -- that is my experience as a woman! I wonder if the men are feeling that self-consciousness, however. I haven't really sensed it. Maybe race is a more powerful driver of it than gender?

An interesting research project here...
Yvonne DiVita - 6/28/2004 9:58:48 AM
Good post, Kevin. Women can understand and relate to this immediately. We have been Os in a roomful of Xs longer than any other group. Gender differences are so pronounced and noticeable, we go through the scenario above on a daily basis.

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