Moving Beyond Discomfort: RWU Freshmen Reflect On This Year’s Common Reading​

Five RWU freshmen discuss what they’ve learned from reading Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and her campus visit

Five students posing for a photo
RWU freshmen (from left) Matthew Papineau, Julissa Arce, Andrew Kirschenbaum, Madeline Leahy and Mackenzie Seccombe.
Juan Siliezar

BRISTOL, R.I. – As part of RWU’s yearlong series on “Talking About Race, Gender and Power,” this year’s RWU Common Reading Program brought the community together to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s landmark book, “ ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ And Other Conversations about Race.”

Started in 2006, the Common Reading Program at RWU provides an introduction to academic life at RWU for new students and serves as a vehicle to bring the community together over a shared intellectual endeavor. This year's reading comes as the nation grapples with urgent matters of race and gender, and as Tatum released the 20th anniversary edition of her seminal work.

As part of RWU’s yearlong series and the President’s Distinguished Speakers Series, Tatum recently visited RWU on Nov. 8 and shared strategies with students, faculty and staff on how to continue building diversity and inclusion at RWU. Tatum continued that conversation with a class of first-year students the next day, where they expanded on the conversation started the night before.

Reflecting on Tatum’s book and her visit, five RWU freshmen - Julissa Arce, Andrew Kirschenbaum, Madeline Leahy, Matthew Papineau and Mackenzie Seccombe – share their thoughts on talking about race and other difficult issues:

What did you take away from this year’s Common Reading Program and the events around it?

Madeline Leahy: I really took away an ideology of how to perceive the world and how to interact with people better. I learned a better way to talk about these uncomfortable conversations. Rather than arguing about it and getting angry or conjuring up negative feelings, I learned a way to sit down and explain things to try and find common ground. I feel like that’s really important, especially in our society.

Matthew Papineau: Coming from growing up in an all-white town, where I experienced almost no diversity, and then coming here and listening to Dr. Tatum, I feel like I got an opportunity to realize how to deal with racial situations better.

Andrew Kirschenbaum: I learned there are frameworks that provide racial structures to our society and that intentionally and unintentionally we contribute to those, but that recognizing and figuring out how we participate helps in starting to dismantle these hegemonic structures that we all participate in.

Madeline: I definitely agree with that. I feel like that's a really important statement.

Julissa Arce: I found the book was a good foundation. Coming to RWU for the first time and being at a school that is predominately white and being one of the few minorities in the class, it really helped me take a better look at my new community and how I can take steps in affecting change.

Mackenzie Seccombe: When we got this book as our Common Reading, I didn’t think I was going to like it because it isn’t the type of stuff I like to talk about. But now that I’ve read it, it opened my eyes to the issues discussed in the book and how we can change it.

How can the learning from the book and Tatum’s visit be applied at RWU?

Julissa: I think that now since we have the knowledge – as part of the freshmen class – we can use it to create campus events to spread that knowledge to others. We can help create the passion to create the equality we all want to see.

Madeline: The book gave us the tools to have conversations about race without anger or negative emotions so that we can come to an understanding. But we should also bring these tools out of just the racial system, so we can talk about it more widely on campus in terms of other social justice issues such as sexism, or homophobia and so on. We can apply this book to all aspects of life on campus.

Why was it important that Tatum’s book was this year’s Common Read?

Matthew: I feel it was important because of what’s going on in the country and the world right now. More people are starting to put minorities down. This book sheds light on how instead of bringing them down, we can help bring them up and support them.

Mackenzie: It was important because the book not only talks about racial issues but also talks about all the different issues in society that we have to deal with every day. It was really important to learn about that.

Madeline: In retrospect to what Mackenzie said, I think with our current political climate these issues are so important because everything is being brought to light. These issues have always been there. It’s just whether or not they are at the forefront. I think to really break down these issues, to actually come to a resolution we have to talk about it. This book is so important for that because we can’t allow these issues to just fall under the surface again.

Andrew: Also, adding to that, by conquering these frameworks and systematic oppression that’s in our lives, everyone can benefit.

Julissa: In light of all of that, many people come into college not being exposed to social injustices. Having this be the common reading of a freshman class allows students to come into this new chapter of their life with this new knowledge. It’s a great entrance to today’s world. And Dr. Tatum specifically writes about what’s been happening in our lifetime – because it’s the 20th year anniversary – and how to cope with dealing with these struggles and how to go from there.