«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Racial Joking Racial joking, either telling racial jokes or making racial comments in a joking manner was extremely prevalent in the white students’ journals. Joking serves many functions, for example, it relieves stress and tension. Joking may also serve to unite a group, such as by showing how tight-knit a group is to allow taboo joking. Joking may operate to “test the waters” of a topic and to decrease accountability: it allows the opportunity to say things that might be inappropriate or unkind. Under the guise of “just kidding around” comments can be tossed around without consequence: it is just a joke, and not meant to be taken seriously. Even with the “light hearted” joking context, most scholars suggest that the underlying context of fun reveals often hostile, hurtful, and deliberate sentiments.
The white students reported that they used or heard their white friends use racial joking against persons of color. For example, Amy writes about her white male friend
who jokingly make a racial comment to a Middle Eastern friend:
Thursday night, around 1:30 am, I headed over to the dorm next to mine to see some guy friends of mine (5 white males and 1 Middle Eastern male). All 5 white males are from the same area and had friends visiting from another college (2 white males). We were all hanging around in the dorm rooms, being social. I started talking to one of the visiting friends, Chad, about his college and fraternity. The Middle Eastern, Brad, was walking around like everyone else, when all of a sudden Chad said, “Hey hijacker!! How are you?” As soon as Chad said this, the whole room went silent. Brad calmly went up to Chad and said that was very offensive and to never call him that again. Soon after, Brad acted as if nothing had happened and we went on hanging out and having fun. I was so upset with Chad after that remark, but he did make a simple mistake and he understands that now. (Amy, WF, 18, Southeast) Chad, a white male, offensively uses racial joking by calling a man of Middle Eastern descent a “hijacker.” The white students commented that negative remarks to Arab Americans and persons of Middle Eastern decent increased after the events on September 11, 2001, such as this comment linking Brad to the planes’ hijackers.
The fun in the frontstage came to a halt as Brad had to educate the white man about the meaning of his statement and told him never to repeat it. Like many other analysts (Feagin and McKinney 2003), feminist Maria Lugones (1990) stresses the burden of the oppressed: it is up to the oppressed (who have suffered the embarrassment in this example) to educate their oppressors about the consequences and harm of their actions.
Brad could have responded by erupting in anger, leaving, laughing it off, ignoring him, or educating him. Although Brad did not choose to put himself in this situation, he is faced with the difficult decision of how to best rectify it, with optimal results so Chad recognizes his blunder. Again, it is the burden of the oppressed to police the boundaries on racial stereotyping. Although Amy states she is upset with Chad, she also appears to downplay the significance of his offensive comment by claiming it was a “simple mistake.” In many racial events described by whites, there is a social component to the racial joking. The joking did not disrupt the fun, as it did for Amy, but the joking often buttressed the fun. For example, Kendra describes an event in the dormitory where an
Asian male is asked what derogatory term he would prefer to be called:
The hall across from me is the guy’s floor. Most of the guys on the floor are white and 18 or 19-years-old. One guy on the floor is Asian, and his name is Tyson. I was hanging out over there with one of my friends. The conversation was between a white male, Kyle, and Tyson. Of course the two guys were joking, but I couldn’t help but feel like there was some sort of animosity or resentment between them.
Kyle was asking Tyson about Asians and how they are usually treated, and then he asked him what Asian derogatory term he preferred. Everyone laughed, including myself, but afterwards, I was surprised that I laughed at that. No one prefers any derogatory term when it’s aimed and directed towards you. But Tyson apparently had a carefree attitude and acted like he didn’t care. Tyson’s response was “Bitch is a good term, just call us that. That works.” Everyone laughed again and two guys patted Tyson on the back, as if he had proved something by brushing off that comment and joking about it. I guess in situations like this, it’s better to laugh it off when you know the people that are joking about it, rather than getting offended.
I’ve noticed that guys do this more than girls. Girls tend to take more offense to comments aimed at their race or ethnicity or religion more than guys. (Kendra, WF, 18, Southeast) Again, as mentioned in the performativity section, most whites have the privilege of not knowing about the experiences of other racial groups, while the opposite is not true for persons of color. The white men ask Tyson about Asians, and Kendra notes that although they were joking, there is an undercurrent of hostility. This feeling of animosity is not uncommon among racial joking, particularly as there is typically a layer of truth underlying the “fun.” Tyson had “passed the test” with the white males by allowing racial joking to continue without getting offended and without disrupting the fun. Like many persons of color, Tyson may be “picking his battles.” He may be attempting to make dorm life tolerable by acting carefree instead of acting offended at being asked to select a derogatory term, as there is a social component to the joking. Kendra notes that at the time of the event, she went along with the fun, but reflecting on the event in her journal, she realizes it may be problematic not to question what the fun was based upon.
Kendra notes that gender plays a role in this racial event, as she suggests men laugh off any confrontation, whereas women might be offended. Comparing the racial events in the frontstage, Kendra has a point about the significance of gender. In the performativity section, there are more examples of white women acting extra polite and proving they are not a racist, compared to white men. Similarly, in the offensive strategy section, there are more examples of white men using joking or confrontation compared to white women. I return to the role of gender at the end of the chapter.
As well as hiding animosity, racial joking may operate to illustrate the close bonds
Over this weekend I was visiting some friends at [a nearby university]. Three of my guy friends live together: one is Italian, one is black, and one is Hispanic.
They’ve all been good friends since high school, and it is funny to watch them interact with each other on a racial level. On this particular morning, they wanted breakfast, but didn’t want to make it. After trying to make me cook, using a sexist standpoint, they turned to using racial stereotypes on one another as a means of convincing. I forget the exact terms they used, but I know that if they weren’t such good friends they could not have gotten away with the words they were using. It was interesting to see though, how sharing a close bond with people can erase racial differences to the point that racial slurs just become comical and vacant of any meaning. It was easy to tell that words were just words between them, and though I expected some sort of tension to arise, it eventually became apparent that their friendship is blind to race. (Olivia, WF, 19, Southeast) Olivia suggests that racial slurs used among these friends serve to cement the closeness between friends of different races. She comments that the terms are “comical and vacant of any meaning” but if the terms were not used by such close friends, it would not have been tolerated. It bears mentioning that all racist interactions are collective enterprises, that is, it flows in and out of white social networks (Feagin 2000).
The context in which racial joking is exchanged is critical. For example, the term “queer” originally a derogatory term referring to non-heterosexuals, has been reclaimed by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community as an empowering term. The term does not sting when used by members of the community, for the context and meaning is understood. Similarly, when friends use racist terms as joking, it signifies a social benefit by showing how tight-knit the group is to allow such taboo joking, and to reclaim the racist term.
Joking becomes problematic when outsiders attempt to utilize the same racist joking accepted by the in-group (such as friends of different racial groups). For example, a white first year student on an athletic team learns that he does not have the same
connection to a Black man as a white senior:
Our [athletic] team here at the [university] is a real close, tight-knit group.
Everybody on the team is white, except for two people, a black guy and a Mexican guy. Everybody on the team makes fun of each other but today it got carried away a little bit too far. At around 2:00 p.m. this Thursday everybody on the team was sitting around in the locker room watching television waiting for practice to start.
A lot of the older guys on the team call the black guy “lil monkey,” just as the black guy has nicknames for all of us. We call him this because he is short and sometimes black people are referred to as monkeys. One of the freshmen on our team called the black guy “lil monkey” instead of his real name. It is okay for one of the older guys to call him this because we have all been together for a while and he is comfortable with us calling him that. When the black guy heard that he snapped and got into the freshman’s face. Some of the guys had to step in between them so they would not fight. We had to explain to the freshman that only certain people can call him that and he isn’t comfortable with you calling him that. In other words, the black guy knows that it is not a prejudice comment coming out of one of the older guys mouth, but since he really doesn’t know any of the freshmen that well that he doesn’t know how that comment was supposed to be directed. The freshman apologized and he learned his lesson the hard way. (Neal, WM, Southeast) The white first year student had to learn that not all whites are equal when it comes to racist joking. Although Neal recognizes that it is inappropriate to refer to Blacks as monkeys, the friendship apparently overrides any prejudice. Note that we are only getting the story from Neal, a white man. We do not know what the Black man feels, and research suggests that people of color often have no choice but to accept this type of joking (Feagin and McKinney 2003). The context of racial joking is critical: it depends on how it is used and who uses it. When the older white teammates use racial joking, it is part of the fun, and there is no disruption in the social activity. However in this situation, the offensive strategy of using racial joking is not tolerated by a subordinate.
Confrontation In addition to racial joking, a second type of offensive strategy used by whites in the frontstage is confronting persons of color. This typically involves anger, hostility, and sometimes violence. Among friends, the confrontation may appear like joking, but it often includes a not-so-subtle underlying message. In the next account, Derek writes about a white man who becomes a racist when he’s drunk because he is not used to being
Last Friday night, around 1 AM, my friend Sam (who is black) was walking towards the doors to go outside and get something to eat. He stops to talk to someone who he knows at the entrance to the doors. He saw Al (who is white) and starts to approach him to see what’s up. Al is with his girlfriend, and looks like he had one too many beers that night. The first words that came out of his mouth were “What up nigger” with a big smirk on his face. Well, Sam flipped out and started to go after Al.
Derek continued his journal entry:
After a day or two, I asked Al why he said those racist comments, and his response was, “where I come from, there aren’t too many black people, but now here at college, there is a lot more than I feel comfortable around, and when I get drunk, I can’t help myself I was bought up this way.” (Derek, WM, 18, Northeast) A white man openly confronts a Black man with a racist epithet, arguably the most violent and harshest term used against African Americans. Although Al had a smirk on his face, he was not joking in using the term, and Sam picked up on that. Al excuses his inappropriate frontstage behavior on numerous accounts: he was drunk, he grew up that way, and he’s not comfortable around Blacks. He offers no accountability for his actions, nor any apologies. Numerous white students in the sample point to the role of alcohol as a factor for racial confrontations. Although alcohol can be attributed to loosening one’s inhibitions, it cannot create a sentiment that is not already there.
Some whites offer no apologies or excuses for confrontation in the frontstage. For
example, Ian’s friend yells “speak English” to strangers in the mall:
Today I went to the mall with two of my friends. Both are white males age 19.
While we were walking around one of my friends started to say to people who looked foreign “Speak English.” When we would walk past a person or a group of people he would pretend to be talking to my other friend or me and he would say at a moderate tone “Speak English.” What started him saying this was when we first arrived at the mall we all heard a group of middle-eastern males speaking their foreign tongue. The entire time we were at the mall I felt embarrassed because my friend started to attract attention. (Ian, WM, 19, West) In this account, a group of Middle Eastern males not speaking English serves as a trigger to harass non-native speakers. Since the events on September 11th there has been an increase in hate crimes reported against Middle-Eastern and Arab persons (or persons perceived to be of these groups). Many white students commented about either making or hearing harassing comments to these “foreigners” particularly around the September 11th anniversary.