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Race Integration: Blacks and Whites in America




Excerpted from
A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America
By David K. Shipler

Many African-Americans describe "black culture" with definitions of contrast: black is better than white in one or another dimension, such as the inventiveness of humor, the closeness of family, the honesty of friendship, the spontaneity of feeling, the dignity of struggle, the sexuality of love, the rootedness in reality and the suffering of the street.

The differences come in explicit and subtle forms. Daphne LeCesne, an African-American psychologist at the high school in Oak Park, lived in a black area of Chicago called South Shore, and she used culture to explain issues of time, status, and organization that affect how she thought black children learned. Her comparisons were heavily value-laden. "African-American learners." she insisted, "respond to a warm, interactive style, sensitivity to relational issues, and interact with you-accept interaction from you-on the basis of your personal attributes. The reason is, in a slave culture . . . you acquire strength and power by being verbally adroit, like an old-time minister, like the orator, by just being able to pull people into your power. Whereas there's tons of research that suggests that a European style is more dependent upon positional authority: your status, your role, the job you've been given. By virtue of the fact that you are dean, you're a notch higher than the teacher, and by virtue of the fact that you're an administrator, you're a notch higher than the dean, and if you're really in trouble, oh, boy, you could be sent out to the dean and you could be sent out to the principal, and that means something. Even the fact that you are sent up the scale is kind of intimidating. It's more European to be very time-conscious and role-conscious.

"Suburban birthday parties are a wonderful example," she said, and she laughed all the way through the telling. "A great suburban birthday party for white folks-I discovered with the first party I went to-starts promptly at two, just like it says on the invitation. And if you run late, people will call you and say, 'You cotnin'?' 'Of course we're coming 'Well, we're waiting.' 'You're waiting? You're holding the party and waiting? OK, we'll be there.' You go. it starts promptly, there are no parents in sight. Everyone drops off their kids, they leave. When you stay, they look at you like, 'You have an anxiety problem or something? You know, you can go shop.' 'Well, I don't leave my kids and go shop.' 'Well, OK, line.' 'You need any help?' They look affronted: 'You think I'm not organized here?' And at four, these people come back, and they take their kids. And of course, since you came late and your kids aren't used to this, they're, like, 'Can we stay and play?' 'No, I don't think so. I'm not too sure here, either, but I don't think so.'

"A great African-American party or Hispanic party doesn't start on time. It you come on time you expect to cook. OK? And you're needed to help cook because it is an extended family event. You better have food enough for the adults, and you better have adult-quality food. It's terrible-you got hot dogs here. Where's the chicken? Don't expect it to start on time, and don't expect it to end abruptly."

Body language also sends our cultural vibrations. Whites who ran a conflict resolution program for black schools in Baltimore had to negotiate their way through a tangle of concerns about whether adult instructors could touch the children. "When we started sending in black males to the elementary schools," the white program director explained, "the kids went after them like popcorn-grab them around their legs, sit on their laps, hug them. And if this had been a white private school, I'd have been worried about hearing something from the parents or the teachers about this."

The blacks thought that touching was fine; the whites worried about charges of sexual abuse. The white director proposed that only women touch; the white women, insisting on egalitarian ism, said that they wouldn't touch if black males couldn't. The blacks argued that in their community, black males and females could certainly touch with impunity and that the white leadership should accept those mores. In the end, a "protocol" was hammered out, in which black and white women were allowed to touch but black and white men were to be essentially passive. "We let the children approach, but they wouldn't touch back," the director said of the men. "So if a child's hugging, that's line, but they wouldn't do anything. And if they touched, it would be primarily in the shoulder area. It was very interesting how the two groups saw the issue from a different perspective."

Richard Orange tries to get whites to accept black styles by showing them rapes of Johnny Carson and Arsenio Hall, made shortly before both went off the air. Orange emphasizes what he calls "my vitality and energy ;is an African-American man: I'm not Lawrence Welk, I'm Stevie Wonder. I'm not Johnny Carson, I'm Arsenio Hall. Carson doesn't move around a lot. (Larson always has a desk between him and his guest. Carson doesn't talk a lot to his audience. Arsenio interacts with his audience. Everyone defers to Johnny Carson. They bow, they salute. Arsenio interacts. You see Arsenio's audience, Arsenio touches them. Then I use that as a way to talk about what's different between us." Another difference, perhaps inadvertent, lay in how Orange used Carson's last name and I ball's first, contrasting distance with kinship, calling up the familiarity of black brotherhood.



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