Why do the black kids sit together?

Published 7:37 pm Saturday, August 14, 2010

I am a 2010 graduate of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, and attended this school from the age of 3. I am African-American, a race that made up 2-3 percent of the student population.

While a student at NSA, my experiences were broadened, allowing me to interact effectively with people whose social, political and ideological philosophies were much different from my own. Near the end of my senior year, I pondered those experiences, and one question arose: “Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?”

While many believe 11 a.m. on a Sunday is the hour America is most racially segregated, I believe it’s the daily lunch hour.

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With laugher surrounding them and people pouring over their food, a jock will walk into the school cafeteria looking for his friends and a girl will look for her clique.

In neither group will they find black students. They are sitting together in an enclave of their own.

But no one wants to discuss the isolation of this group.

Why isn’t this — something seen everyday — something more people talk about in our middle schools, high schools, universities or work places?

Cornel West, a professor and author of “Race Matters,” wrote, “to engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but the flaws of American society — flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.”

It’s important to understand the history and culture behind the problem, because people can’t teach what they don’t know.

Does the segregation found in nearly every cafeteria occur because black students feel alienated, altered or abandoned by the rest of the school or are the black students racist and resist integration?

The root of the problem is identification, not isolation.

At Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, there were 422 students in the upper school. Eleven students were black. The African-American experience in the institution is like no other.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “if any of us are in trouble then all of [us] are in trouble.”

Black students can feel the pain and suffering of one another and readily identify with their own. It’s not about being secluded.

Black students sit together because we identify with common ideas, issues and ideologies. No one else would understand what it means when we exclaim “God of our silent tears and God of our weary years.”

No one else would understand why we are elated about Obama, and why we were upset that there was no black history month at NSA.

Yet our actions are seen as isolation, as black students not wanting to be bothered, or who think they’re not welcome at other tables.

It’s not about seclusion, as one NSA teacher suggested in 2007, exclaiming to a table of black students, “Ya’ll fought all those years just to sit by yourself.”

Our forefathers fought for equality in society, yet “they approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately and then instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ then say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’” as W.E.B. DuBoise wrote in “The Souls of Black Folks.”

Segregation is due to instinct, not ignorance. Outsiders classify blacks as ignorant, because they are not willing to branch out of the “Afro-American” perspective, which confines them to shackles and solitary confinement in the cafeteria.

The reality is that instinct tells people of similar backgrounds to unite. It’s comfortable, human nature.

The same would be true if you were take a group of Caucasian students and place them in a predominantly black school. They would come together, because they are comfortable that way.

It is out of instinct, not ignorance, that we gather together.

What is ignorant, however, was the NSA student who told her younger brother, new to the upper school, not to sit with the black kids.

“We do not know how to talk about our racial differences. Whites are afraid of using the wrong words and being perceived as ‘racists’ while parents of color are afraid of exposing their children to painful racial realities too soon,” said Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

This is an issue that we will have to address as a nation.

Until that time comes, all the black students will continue to sit together in the cafeteria.