Published December 16, 2019

There is active racism, passive racism, and active antiracism, wrote clinical psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum in her groundbreaking, national bestselling 1997 book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Tatum likens what she calls “the ongoing cycle of racism” to the moving walkways at airports. Active racism is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt, says Tatum, while passive racism is standing still as you’re conveyed to the same destination. Active antiracism, however, requires walking in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt. Only through active antiracism can we build a society that’s equitable, just, and inclusive.

This year, Tatum addressed a crowd of nearly 1,000 people during the inaugural event of a multi-year partnership between Virginia Humanities and the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. The new Beneath the Surface: Race and the History of Race in South Hampton Roads initiative focuses on Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach. The goal is to deepen awareness of the role history and race play in contemporary issues confronting the region and to lay the groundwork for positive transformation. A diverse, twenty-five member local advisory committee is helping guide the project, which includes additional public programs and grantmaking around the region.

“When you get to trust, then you can take action. You can take collective action.”

Dr. Beverly Tatum

Over the course of two days, Tatum used the revised and expanded twentieth anniversary edition of her seminal work to frame the conversation, not only at her evening town hall event, but also during several, more intimate dialogues with educators, government leaders, and public safety officials from across the region.

“Dr. Tatum’s work has created a lens through which I can relate to and teach my students from a place of empathy—empowering them in a world that often alienates, dehumanizes, and exploits along racial lines,” said Norfolk public elementary school educator Chris Mathews, who attended the Beneath the Surface launch.

Nearly 3,000 more people tuned in online to hear Tatum’s town hall remarks, which were livestreamed on social media. The night’s final audience question asked how we move from periodic conversations to action.

“My call to action,” responded Tatum, “is stop having episodic conversations.” Tatum encouraged everyone to commit to regularly-held, multi-racial/ethnic, small group dialogues. “In order to get beyond the superficial, in order to go deeper, you have to invest time.”

It’s the exchange of stories, over time, that leads to trust, said Tatum. “And when you get to trust, then you can take action. You can take collective action.”

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