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Shipler, David K. A Country of Strangers, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1997)

From Subject
Adam E Sebastian <aeseba0@ilstu.edu> A Country of Strangers (Adam Sebastian)
Danielle Lee Walker <dlwalke@ilstu.edu> A Country Of Strangers
Raymond Briggs <rsbrigg@ilstu.edu> A Country of Strangers
Robert Wayne Taylor <rwtayl2@ilstu.edu> Re: Shipler review by Ray Briggs
Maureen N Kaszonyi <mnkaszo@ilstu.edu> Re: A Country Of Strangers

Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 20:00:06 -0700
From: Adam E Sebastian <aeseba0@ilstu.edu>
Subject: A Country of Strangers (Adam Sebastian)

David A. Shipler, A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, (Knopf, 1997). Reviewed by Adam Sebastian.

How well do blacks and whites know each other in American society? Can whites and blacks really say that there is true open communication between the two races? According to this book Americans are separated by race and act as strangers because of this separation. Shipler sees a major color line in the United States built by poor communication and a lack of honesty between the races. Although Shipler acknowledges the progress made in this country with regards to race, he sees an underlying racial decay. America must become an open forum in order to end the current system of strangers. We do not know one another and this breeds racism. We must know ourselves and know our fellow Americans, in order to end the separation.

It is difficult to know where to begin. This book is packed with interview upon interview, that Shipler gathered in the five years that it took him to write this book. Shipler tries to go down deep into the American psyche and find out why there is a separation between black and white. These races seem to be at the extreme ends and so he centers on these groups. He looks at the relationships of whites and blacks, trying to shed light on the situation. Shipler does this through the stories he tells, with subtle hints of insight.

The origins of the current race relations of the United States start with the integration of blacks into American institutions. Yet even with in integrated America blacks and whites both cluster in their respective groups. Shipler cites schools as his major example. There will be black tables at the cafeteria and there will be white ones. Whites often feel it is blacks that are the ones to blame for this separatism, yet Shipler points out they fail to see the all white tables in the cafeteria as well as the all black. The answer seems to be that people will hang out with the people they are most comfortable with. This supports Shipler's view because no one wants to hang out with strangers.

In integration blacks venture out into the white world while trying to stay black. This goes unseen by whites, which are not threatened by the largely white society. Blacks must also adopt a different culture when venturing out. They may change their speech, clothes, or body language. Blacks, if separated from black culture for a long period, will often become homesick for their own culture. Blacks because of their biculturalism are more attune to what whites are like, than are whites of blacks. Shipler also addresses blacks that are criticized for acting white or whites for acting black. In such cases these criticisms may come as a result from doing well in school or the clothes one may wear.

Shipler, then talks about the mixing of the races. Of course there has always been a great deal of mixing between whites and blacks and Shipler seems to stress this as Dr. Payne did in his book, reviewed earlier in the semester. Perhaps the most insightful content in this section of the book is on the offspring of black and white parents. Parents of biracial children often don’t know how to rise their child as biracial. White parents can not teach the child survival tactics for being black. The larger society will often force a child to pick a side, with the black community trying to pull one to the black culture.

Shipler talks of history last in his section on the origins of the black and white relationship. The stress here seems to be an attempt to make history as impartial as possible and to accept the pass. One should not forget the past and move on, but accept and come to terms with it. Whites must deal with the fact that Caucasians once owned slaves and blacks must deal with the existence blacks as slaves. Shipler calls slavery a stain. Of course this can not be removed but we shouldn’t try to cover it up. Likewise we should not cover up all the positive things all Americans, including blacks did for this country. The book then continues with over two hundred pages on the images that go into the black and white relationship in America. This two hundred and some pages outline racial stereotypes in America. It is no small task to outline what people think of each other. Shipler goes on and on in a seemingly exhaustive description of what blacks think of whites and of what whites think of blacks. Images of the body, mind, morality, violence, and power are all taken under consideration. Shipler talks of the stereotypes that blacks have of blacks that have lighter or darker skin, of white men being sexually aggressive, and even of the stereotypes of the colors white and black in themselves. With regards to the mind the self-fulfilling prophecy in labeling blacks as less intelligent than whites is talked of. Also the lack of street sense that is attributed to whites is brought up. The supposed dishonesty of whites is mentioned when it comes to morality, as well as the questioning of blacks’ supposed lack of family values. The stereotype of the violent black is address along with the fear of blacks because of the stereotype. Finally in the chapter on the images of power the fear of blacks in power and the use of the first name of blacks, as a sign of disrespect, is told of. Shipler gives many more stereotypes and much more description. I believe that his writing of this section really lays everything out in the open. He gives a brilliant overview of most of the thoughts that happen between the two races.

In the next section the most thought-provoking chapter is titled, “decoding racism”. In this chapter Shipler points out that racism, in the present, is often hard to make out. There are many times when a person may say something and it will be taken as racist by some and not by others. It is often a black person that has to interpret the meaning of a white person. The two extremes that a black person could be are one who does not see racism at all in anything said and one who tends to see racism in any “adverse encounter with a white” (448). In terms of white people the two extremes are being unaware of anything one says as having the potential to be taken as racist or being afraid to say anything in fear it will be interpreted as racist. This chapter expanded on the difficulty of telling when an action is or isn’t racist. An obvious problem is the lack of true communication and understanding that both white and black communities participate in.

When I first saw this book, I thought it was going to be another long book just going on and on about the same thing. Yet I found this book to have a huge amount of insight and not all of it came from the Shipler. I found the interviews to be great and keep the book from having a slow pace. The length was obviously needed for the in depth coverage of the images of the relationship and to fit in the seemingly hundreds of people Shipler talked to.

I believe Shipler to be correct in that America is largely made of strangers between blacks and whites. He makes a fine point in saying we need to loose our fears of saying the wrong thing, we need to get dialogue going. With respect to everyday life whites are foreigners to how blacks think and even though blacks have a more insight they are almost just as confused. Americans must reach out and learn about each other in order to understand others outside of their own group. Of course this is easier said then done. For now black and white Americans don’t seem to really know each other when it comes done to it.

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Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 22:53:53 -0500
From: Danielle Lee Walker <dlwalke@ilstu.edu>
Subject: A Country Of Strangers

"A Country Of Strangers Blacks And Whites In America" by David K. Shipler Reviewed by (Danielle Lee Walker)

David Shipler's "A Country Of Strangers Blacks And Whites In America" explores the views white people and black people have of each other and of the racial problems that confront our country. The entire focus is on blacks and whites not other minorities for Shipler explained that the felt that blacks and whites were the most extreme when it came to a history of racial problems. I must point out that this book is not a history book. Not much of it focuses on history, it deals with modern day issues. When Shipler does focus on the past, he compares it to the present and how it has influenced the present. (Shipler who is white) I found to be sympathetic to blacks, but he also analyzes views on both sides.

Shipler discusses his coming of age. One man who greatly influenced him was Martin Luther King Jr. Shipler spoke of how moving his speeches were at a time of great turmoil. The fifties era is one Shipler feels where people of his generation were filled with hate for other groups. He recalled the angry faces of white children who were enraged at having to associate with blacks. Shipler claims that many people nowadays of his generation were influenced negatively to have a disregard for blacks. He also states that there is a lack of miscommunication among the races. Many people judge very quickly and he claims that a lot of times stereotypes are present. Both blacks and whites stereotype. A common problem that blacks face he states are the fact that many whites perceive them as being lazy or stupid. Black people themselves Shipler claims view white people as not having the best sanitation habits. An example he uses if the fact that some black people feel that white people have odor problems especially when their skin and scalp becomes wet. These stereotypes can be very damaging he emphasizes. There is a dominating issue of race that is practically always there Shipler claims. No matter what situation blacks and whites are in this is hard to overlook. In this day and age many white people are uncomfortable discussing racial issues for fear of being labeled bigots. Instead of communicating effectively many purposively avoid the subject. A subject that white people rarely think about. Blacks on the other hand think about race all the time because as Shipler points out are in a different world from whites. They were raised differently, even as youngters blacks are taught how being of a different race can be alienating.

I agree with Shipler, black people do think often about race. Growing up, I was taught what a different world I am in because I am black. It can be alienating. When it comes to alienation Shipler points out that many black college students feel this way is more convienent. He states that often black people in college hang around other blacks as a means of sticking together. Blacks who mingle with whites are sometimes viewed as traitors and turning against the black race. The same can happen for whites. White people at times ostracize other whites for dealing with black people. I agree with Shipler that this occurs quite often. During my time at Illinois State University I have felt alienated and ostracized. When I came as a freshman I found that I was the only black person in my Introduction To Communications class. It was awkward trying to ignore the stares from the other classmates who were all white. I gave a speech on racism and the issues I faced being black and in my opinion the tension escalated. People gave me icy stares. No one spoke right afterwards including my professor. In other classes sometimes I have found that only a few other black people were in there. Sometimes we all sat together while some white classmates stared and whispered. Occasionally a few whites sat and had conversations with us, and those who did also got stares.

When it comes to self racial segregation among black people that is something that many white including Shipler do not understand. That is something I like about Shipler, he was straightforward, he stated things realistically. Many whites do not understand as he stated why black people would want to be segregated after so many years of fighting for civil rights. That is a perfect example of how black people and white people differ in how they perceive issues. Shipler truly delves into the problems races have regarding this type of issues. Shipler in my opinion handles these controversial topics well. Interracial relationships are a major taboo among people. His discussion of this is a major example of how he discusses the past and connects it present racial issues. Thomas Jefferson when he was president allegedly had a love affair with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings who is said to have had several children by him. Shipler focused on this past racial issue and contrasted the image of Thomas Jefferson a man who delt with a black woman and possibly had feelings for her with the image of a Jefferson a wealthy president of high status in white society who was a slave master. Some people nowadays do not know how to view Jefferson. A lot of white people Shipler notes do not truly know what to say regarding racial issues. Loving v. Virginia was a case he mentioned that was a stepping stone for interracial couples. This case legalized interracial marriages in Virginia. The rate of interracial marriages has improved since 1970 by almost four times, but overall the rate of interracial marriages is a little over one half of one percent of the United States' population. Shipler connected past racial tensions faced by couples in society to the present ones interracial couples face. Children who are biracial often have a tough time dealing with society. People of both races sometimes alienate themselves from them because they are a representation of racial blending. In one chapter Shipler interviewed a biracial woman who spoke of the hardships of being biracial. She spoke of how people analyzed her skin color and the emphasis placed on her about the beauty of being light skinned instead of having a darker color. Shipler also points out that in society where people are judged on the basis of skin color, lighter skinned people are treated differently at times than other people with darker complexions. This is absolutely true. People in my experience tend to put a more positive aspect on being more light skinned than dark skinned. I agree with Shipler that this is a problem. In fact I think it is annoying.

People have throughout time judged others based on their physical appearance. Instead people should judge people for who they are on the inside not who they are on the outside. The problems people have because they judge based on their outwards racial appearance has been the basis of the book. People are ignorant, if people would view others more differently then perhaps a lot of the problems faced nowadays would not be as prevelant as they are today. Take a good look at history, and how people have often judged others on their racial background, and the consequences that followed. People need to be educated on the problems faced by past mistakes. A lot of people are unaware in my opinion that they are even ignorant when it comes to judging other people. Ignorance has long term consequences. People engage in actions that result in harm often as a result of this. Alienation, ostracizing, segragation, all of this is a good example of why people can learn from past mistakes.

America has a major problem with equal advancement opportunities for the races. Blacks as Shipler pointed out do have an extremely difficult time advancing even though they have advanced through government positions and education. However, many blacks suffer imprisonment especially males and many struggle to acheive positions that are as high as whites. Why? I think a major cause is that there are a lot of people have bad images of minorities and as a result of these bad images barriers were created to block minorities especially blacks from succeeding. The only way to succeed is to keep on trying. Racial problems create many long term consequences and it is up to the minorities to overcome these trials of life. They may be hard to overlook, but people must never use their race as an excuse as a means of being discouraged.

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Date: Tue, 27 Apr 1999 07:48:51 -0500
From: Raymond Briggs <rsbrigg@ilstu.edu> (
Subject: A Country of Strangers

Shipler, David K. A Country of Strangers, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1997) Reviewed by: Raymond Briggs rsbrigg@ilstu.edu

It has been oftensaid that all Americans are experts on race, that every citizen of this nation has an educated opinion of race relations based on what has happened to them and what has happened to others. In his book "A Country of Strangers", David Shipler refutes that oft said idea and contends that no American is an expert on race. He feels that our personal experiences shape our ideas about race and that these ideas are usually wrong in the sense that they are not based on fact and only opinion. In this book Shipler explores the racial divides that separate America. From the "black tables" in cafeterias across the nation to the line that divides white and black churches on Sunday mourning Shipler interviews not only scholars who are "experts", but mostly common people for it is the common man who's opinion counts the most and where the divide begins.

Shipler discovers that this divide is not only based n race but also on class. Economic status in America is almost as important as the issue of race. Regardless of color, if a person is poor and destitute they are at the bottom of American society. Our nation often gives up on these individuals regardless of the color of their skin. Both poor whites and blacks share a common culture of the lowly. Middle and upper class blacks often look down on poor blacks the way that middle and upper class whites look down on poor whites.

A fair amount of this book is devoted to the discussion of the past in terms of racial conflict. We are told of events by the people who were their to witness them. Both blacks and whites who participated, and some still participate, in the civil rights movement of the late fifties and sixties tell of the hardships faced in the battle for some advancement of racial equality. When not talking about the past we are confronted with images of the present. Regular blacks and whites tell their own opinions on the issue of race and this gives a chance to view the differences that class and region affect individuals ideas on the topic. Both groups discuss the stereotypes they not only have formed but also the ones that they have been taught.

The book occasionally touches on the impact of media when it comes to images of both blacks and whites with specific examples used. For instance, a white woman and black man talk about the movie "The Godfather", which is considered by many to be one of the most popular movies of all time. The black man states that the one thing all blacks who have seen the movie remember most is when the Mafia is talking about bringing in drugs they state that "leave it among the dark people, their animals anyway, so let them lose their souls…". For him and many others this statement, made by a white man, reinforces the image that black people are like animals so treat them as such. Another black women commented on the popular movie "Gone With the Wind". She states that movie reinforced the idea for her that many whites miss the antebellum period when blacks were confined to slavery in the south. Also discussed is the impact of rap music on whites. Many blacks interviewed felt that whites may see all blacks as violent and involved in crime due to the lyrics of many popular rap songs. Shipler feels that many of the images that the mass media presents us with help to from the stereotypes which help to create the racial divide and instill fear for other races.

In my opinion the most important section in the book is the third and final entitled "Choices". This section is almost entirely about how blacks and whites decode, cope, and act affirmatively about racism. Shipler believes that when it comes to racism blacks and whites make decisions constantly. Americans make choices to speak, or not to speak; to hear, or not hear, the racism that occurs everyday around them. When it comes to the idea of discussing racism in order to help cope with it blacks and whites do not listen well to each other. They infer ideas about the messages they receive from one another that do not coincide with the true meaning. Some blacks try to find racist overtones in many aspects of American life, while others try hard to be oblivious to them. According to Shipler, when it comes to communicating about race whites are not that much better. Some whites do not try to hide their racist thoughts and others even try to accentuate them. A good majority of whites take the opposite approach. These whites make sure that nothing they say could possibly considered racist, especially in the company of blacks. Unfortunately, they often apologize for being offensive even when it is impossible that they where. Shipler feels that whites rarely think about race while blacks cannot help but think about race everyday.

When doing a critical analysis of Shipler's book it must be pointed out the first major shortcoming, it's length. This book is not aimed at scholars, it's audience is of a more general nature. When dealing with an audience such as that I feel that the author should focus less on the details and more on the overall theme. While this book does have a great theme the fact that it is packed with too many details takes away the impact. Aside from that negative comment the rest are all positive. The book is plainly written which helps any reader understand what is going on. The best aspect of the book is the fact that although scholars and major figureheads are interviewed the majority of the opinions on race are contributed by unknown Americans. These people who are featured in the book helps the reader to look at he issue of race on a more personal level without having to cut through complicated statements by those who are considered "experts". Since the issue of race relations is one that involves all Americans it is a fresh perspective to hear from the average American. Shipler interviews teachers, young people, those who remember the civil rights movement, army personnel, clerks, and even a white drug dealer. These individuals have as varied backgrounds as any sample group I have ever heard or read about and that is what makes this book stand out.

At the end of his journey Shipler finds himself at a new divide. Not only is this divide between the issue of race, but also along the lines of class and gender. This divide is greater than the previous but Shipler maintains that we have to mend it if we are to overcome the division of race. The only way that we can start to do this is by opening a dialogue. If we can manage to do this Shipler feels that we can stop being a country of strangers.


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Date: Sat, 1 May 1999 14:26:27 -0500
From: Robert Wayne Taylor <rwtayl2@ilstu.edu>
Subject: Re: Shipler review by Ray Briggs

Ray, I had some comments on your review of Shipler’s book. First is you stated “…whites may see all blacks as violent and involved in crime due to the lyrics of many popular rap songs.” I think that as we have seen even recently with the Littleton, Colorado school shooting there is more of a switch to people believing singers which appeal to young white males, such as Marilyn Manson, are now being blamed just as much if not more for causing violence. Not saying this is a good thing, but maybe this will take the pressure away from the mass media forming those racial divides.

The second item I wanted to discuss was further in the paper when you discussed racist comments and overtones. Some whites “do not try to hide their racist thoughts” while others say nothing that could be considered racist. I wonder if the author talked about the reverse side of this issue, and that being the racist blacks. Is it possible that we have focused too closely on the white approach on this issue that we have completely overlooked the fact that there are blacks that act exactly the same way? The author states that he feels that whites rarely think about race while blacks cannot help but think about it. I believe this to be a false statement because whites will think of race when they are faced with the issue, but may not think about it when they are in an all white setting. I believe that blacks probably act the same way.

Good job on your paper.

Robert Taylor, rwtayl2@ilstu.edu

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Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 19:14:15 -0700
From: Maureen N Kaszonyi <mnkaszo@ilstu.edu>
Subject: Re: A Country Of Strangers

"During my time at Illinois State University I have felt alienated and ostracized. When I came as a freshman I found that I was the only black person in my Introduction To Communications class. It was awkward trying to ignore the stares from the other classmates who were all white. I gave a speech on racism and the issues I faced being black and in my opinion the tension escalated. People gave me icy stares. No one spoke right afterwards including my professor. In other classes sometimes I have found that only a few other black people were in there. Sometimes we all sat together while some white classmates stared and whispered. Occasionally a few whites sat and had conversations with us, and those who did also got stares.

Danielle, This was an interesting review. I thought the presentation you and Adam= gave of this book was also enlightening because I did not know that such= broad stereo-types existed between the races. I just want to say that I= think it is brave of you to state that you have felt ostracized at ISU. It's true that, as a "white" person I do not think of race my race often. That is why I was surprised to read that you got stared at in school. I think that it is very unfortunate that minority students should ever feel= left out, especially in an institution of higher education. I'm curious do= you think that you have felt tension with some students at ISU because they= are racist or because they may feel they are unable to relate to= minorities? Do you feel that racism is a widespread problem on this= campus, you gave the example of your communications class, was that class= representative of other classes you had? I'm really curious about this= because even though I know that ISU is far from being an integrated campus= I was not aware that there was such overt animosity between the races. Could you please comment on how you feel about this and what positive steps= students should take to help them relate to others in their classes.


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