«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS:
EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS
LESLIE A. HOUTS
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDACopyright 2004 by Leslie A. Houts This dissertation is dedicated to the thousands of U.S. college students who allowed me to read their personal thoughts, feelings and interactions.
I also dedicate this to their instructors, who encouraged them to think critically about race and who ultimately made this dissertation possible.
I thank Connie Shehan and Debra King who inspire me to become a feminist intellectual in my scholarship, the classroom, and the community. During most of my graduate school years, Connie served as the director of the University Center Excellence on Teaching; her office with the generous help of Diane Buehn and Nadine Gillis provided me with support and administrative help in beginning this project.
I would also like to thank professors Charles Gattone, Beree Darby, William Marsiglio, and Barbara Zsembik for their mentoring and guidance. The administrative staff in the department of Sociology, especially Kanitra Perry and Sheran Flowers, have been instrumental in helping me navigate the bureaucratic system at the University of Florida (UF). I am indebted to the Jerome Connors Dissertation Fellowship, and the Ruth McQuown Scholarship for partially funding this project. I thank the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Florida, and the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati for inviting me to present my preliminary findings at each of their iv colloquium series (2/6/03 and 1/16/04, respectively). The kind audience members allowed me the space to test my theoretical framework.
The professors across the country who encouraged their students to participate in this project deserve special thanks: Helena Alden, Mark Cohen, Ken Davis, Mari DeWees, Sharon Dorr, Marlese Durr, Susan Eichenberger, Joe Feagin, Dana Fennell, John Foster, Christian Grov, Clay Hipke, Shannon Houvouras, Tracy Johns, Kristin Joos, Amanda Lewis, Roseann Mason, Michael Messina-Yauchzy, Eileen O’Brien, Donald Peppard, Ana Pomeroy, Karen Pyke, Adam Shapiro, Yanick St. Jean, Rachel Sullivan, Susan Takata, Laurel Tripp, Debra Van Ausdale, Lisa Whitaker, Max Wilson, and Margie Zamudio. Without these individuals encouraging their students to think critically about their everyday lives, this dissertation would not be possible.
Having been part of the department of sociology at UF for 6 years, I have developed close friendships with many talented people. I started the program in 1998, along with Yvonne Combs, Shannon Houvouras, and Kristin Joos. Yvonne and Shannon served as my dissertation support group, and I could not ask for more qualified, caring, and intelligent individuals to call upon for help and guidance, especially at 3am.
Kristin’s talent, energy, and ambition drove her to excel much faster than I ever could, and in this process she leapt from peer to role model effortlessly. These three incredible women continue to amaze me in everything they have accomplished, and have been crucial to my success in the program.
I am thankful to the many graduate students who I look to for support, admiration, and guidance. Sara Crawley, Lara Foley, and Laurel Tripp served as wonderful mentors and friends. Each of them helped me battle the hurdles in grad school, as well as battle
Eichenberger, and John Reitzel among many others who have helped to provide a supportive, collaborative environment, and who have made grad school fun at times.
Special thanks and acknowledgments go to Danielle Dirks for assisting me in painstakingly scanning countless journals.
My family provided the foundation, and I appreciate everything they have done for me. I thank my mom Betty and dad Robert for instilling the passion to learn. My mom especially insisted that each of her daughters get an education before anything else. My siblings Dawn, Bobby, and Julie motivate me in a competitive spirit, and I love them for it. I have many extended family members who deserve acknowledgement. Mary Dusseau, Martha Houts, Vicki and Don Nelson, and Bob Wirtz helped me immensely by taking on the role of my surrogate parents. I also thank Mike’s family in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and New Jersey, who adopted me into their family with open arms.
Although I hate to admit it, I have to thank my Uncle Bob Russo for our fiery debates about racial relations. This dissertation is truly inspired by our fights, and he deserves the credit. Bob challenged me, made me cry (I’m not sure he knew that), and ultimately made me even more determined to prove him wrong.
Ultimately, I thank my partner Mike Picca. Mike has been with me for 5 of my 6 years in grad school (most of it long-distance), and he has supported me unconditionally in every way that someone can be supported: intellectually, financially, and emotionally.
Mike deserves the title “honorary sociologist,” and I am truly blessed to have him in my life.
CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION
Literature on Whites
Racial Classification Scheme
Structural and Institutional Racism
Frontstage, Backstage, and Slippage
Rationale for the Study
Summary and Dissertation Outline
Extended Case Method
Active Qualitative Research
Proving Not A Racist
Avoid Mentioning Race
Avoid People of Color
Defending from Perceived Wrongdoing
Warnings and Cautions
Safe Space from the Frontstage
5 BACKSTAGE, NEAR THE FRONT
No Change in Backstage Conversation
6 FLUID BOUNDARIES, SLIPPERY REGIONS
Context Shifts: Back to Front
Intruder Alert: Abrupt Shift
Transitioning Performances: Back and Front
Accidental Shifts: Forgetting Not In the Backstage
Excuses: Repairing the Slippage
viii Unreliable Safe Backstage
White Skin as a Backstage Passport
Not All White: Problematizing Whiteness
Frontstage, Backstage and Slippage
Gender and Race
Joking and Stereotypes
Extended Case Method
Beyond Individual Attributes: Collaborative Social Networks
Beyond Colorblind Racism
Future Research in the Post Civil Rights Era
Hope for the Future
APPENDIX A JOURNAL INSTRUCTIONS
B EXIT INTERVIEW QUESTIONNAIRE
LIST OF REFERENCES
Chair: Joe R. Feagin Major Department: Department of Sociology Social scientists have often documented in surveys the apparently liberal shift in whites’ racial attitudes since the civil rights era of the 1960s. However, a few recent studies strongly suggest that the abundance of survey data indicating that whites are more liberal in their racial attitudes today than in the past are insufficient, as whites today may be concealing true racial attitudes in some settings against persons of color. Data for this project were derived from the journal writing and diaries collected nationally from 626 white college students across the United States. Using the extended case method, I offer insights from these extensive data into institutional racism. This project explores the inconsistency in the presentation of white racial attitudes, and examines how whites rationalize the contradictions. Specifically, this project answers the questions how do whites interact among other whites (“backstage”) and how do whites interact among people of color (“frontstage”). The interactions within these two regions are strikingly different. This is illustrated in the mechanisms that whites use to protect the backstage
“slippage” between the two regions, and how whites account for racetalk in the backstage when physically near the frontstage.
As racialized interactions are social in nature, this project provides insight into how whites learn and reproduce racial attitudes and actions with their critical social networks.
Many whites in the sample described racial relations in individualistic conceptualizations, or rationalized that the positive individual attributes negated the consequences of racist interactions in the backstage. I examine critically here both the colorblind ideology and individualist perspective of racial relations, as whites’ everyday racist practices and backstage interactions sustain a racial hierarchy in the larger societal structure. This project seeks to help better comprehend what is happening in the everyday world, descriptively and analytically, as a means to understand systemic racism today.
I went over to the Smith farm this afternoon around dinnertime. I went to a small farm school, graduated with 42 kids, all white and mostly farmers. The farmers that I graduated with are all racist, everyone knows this—it’s not a secret. Todd asked how school was going and then asked when I was going to let them come down and visit. I said, “I don’t know guys, one of my suitemates is black, you would have to be nice to her.” All the guys said, “Black!?!” Like they were shocked that I could actually live with someone of another color. Then David said, “Now why would you go and do that for?” Then they agreed that nothing would be said if they came to visit and then started to talk about some fight they had gotten into with some black kids in town. The conversation was short lived and I wasn’t surprised by their comments or their reactions to Lisa (my suitemate). They are all really nice guys and I think if they came to visit that they would be respectful of Lisa. I know, however, that they would talk and make fun later about me living with a black girl. I know this summer I’m going to get shit from them about it.
(Becky, WF, 19, Midwest) The above quote was written by Becky, a white female college student, who describes an everyday racial event. Becky’s white male friends admit they would be polite to the Black woman to her face, but would behave very differently in a private location just among white friends. This account illustrates one major focus of this dissertation project: whites’ interactions among other whites (defined as “backstage”) are often very different than their interactions among people of color (defined as “frontstage”). This dissertation examines the varying ways that whites interact in the everyday world as described in everyday journal writing. This data-gathering technique is unique compared to the more traditional methodology of surveys and interviews for studying racial views, attitudes, and actions.
In this chapter, I discuss the relevant literature on whites as a racial category that pertains to this project. I first explore the research on whites’ racial attitudes as gathered via survey research, and compare that to interviews and participant observation. Second, I explore the research on colorblindness and racial classification schemes. Third, after providing this brief literature review, I then set up the theoretical framework for this project, specifically institutional racism as it develops and plays out in frontstage and backstage settings. Fourth, I define the key concepts used throughout the dissertation and present my specific aims for this project. Lastly, I set up the rest of the dissertation chapters.
Traditionally, racial and ethnic research focuses on persons of color, and their experiences with discrimination. The majority of research on whites examines whites’ attitudes and behaviors toward persons of color. Although Gunnar Myrdal (1998) in 1944 spoke of the need to study “what goes on in the minds of white Americans,” only recently in the 1980s and 1990s have scholars examined whiteness, or whites as a racial group. Scholars such as Toni Morrison (1992) and Ruth Frankenberg (1993) are often attributed as the pioneering whiteness scholars.