I felt called to teach about racism.
Beverly Daniel Tatum
President Emerita, Spelman College
My career went in a different direction than I planned. I was planning on becoming a clinical psychologist, and while I did get my license and had a private practice for several years, here’s what ultimately happened:
I was writing my dissertation as part of my Ph.D. in clinical psychology while living in Santa Barbara, CA because my husband had an opportunity to work at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Though I was enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I no longer had to be in Ann Arbor to complete my work. My dissertation topic was on the experiences of Black families raising children in predominantly white communities. At the same time, my husband was working as a dissertation fellow at the Center for Black Studies at UCSB and I got to know some of the faculty members who were teaching in the Black Studies department.
When we arrived in 1979, UC Santa Barbara had about 500 faculty members and of those, maybe 10 were African American. Particularly since the Black population in the UCSB community was so small, the Black faculty went out of their way to be welcoming to us and we were often invited to their social gatherings. I became acquainted with the chair of the Black Studies department who asked me if I was interested in teaching a course on “Education and the Black Child” on a part-time basis because I had worked at the University of Michigan as a teaching assistant for my thesis advisor and my degree specialization was in clinical child psychology. I said “sure,” the course went well, and the following year they needed another course taught, this time on group exploration of racism—a course required for students majoring in Black Studies. It was a new subject area for me, but I was willing to give it a try. At the end of the course, I got surprisingly good feedback like, “This class has changed my life,” and “Why did I have to wait to be a senior in college to have these conversations?” The power of that feedback convinced me that I was being called to teach about racism, so I continued to do so.
Later, in 1989, after my family and I had moved to Massachusetts and I was teaching at Westfield State University and working in my private practice, a letter crossed my desk from Mount Holyoke College saying they were looking for a clinical psychologist with research and teaching interests in minority mental health. I saw myself in that job description. I applied and was hired as an associate professor of psychology and education, achieving tenure soon after. It was during this time at Mount Holyoke College that I started writing about how to teach about racism. One of the articles I wrote, “Talking about race, learning about racism: The application of racial identity development theory in the classroom” was published in the winter of 1992 as the lead in the Harvard Educational Review and really picked up traction. This was when my career really started taking off, and the rest is history!
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, is the author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race. She was the 2013 recipient of the Carnegie Academic Leadership Award and the 2014 recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology.