«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
In Ian’s account, there is a layer of safety and protection for the white student. He is with his friends who did nothing to stop him, even though Ian writes that he is embarrassed. Also, the interaction takes place at a shopping mall where there is a level of surveillance. The surveillance is not enough to stop him from harassing strangers, but it is enough to protect him in case anyone fought back. Physical violence is not typically tolerated in a shopping mall, so the white student could feel confident in verbally harassing strangers, knowing that at worst he could be expelled from the mall, but there is no immediate threat of physical violence from the confrontation he is creating.
White confrontation often involves more than a verbal assault in a relatively safe space like the shopping mall. In the following entry, Mandy describes how her friend, a Black male, was harassed and beaten by five white males after driving home a white
On Friday night my friend Jesse (a black male) was picking up a friend (white female) to give her a ride home. When a car pulled up behind him on the street and started honking and screaming “Move your car, nigger.” Jesse laughed thinking it was some of his friends yelling at him. He got out of the car smiling and laughing and the white male driver of the car continued yelling things at him. After his friend got in the car, Jesse pulled away to take her home and pulled into the parking lot behind [a Hall on campus]. The other car followed and pulled in next to Jesse.
My friend then realized that the car had five white males inside and they all jumped out and circled around him. Then the driver came up and continued to yell racial comments and punched Jesse in the face. He continued to punch Jesse until he had blacked his eye and knocked one of his teeth out of place. When Jesse told me about this incident I was completely shocked. I did not think that outright hatred like that really happened anymore, especially not at a place as safe as [our university]. I did not know what to say to him to make him feel better. I honestly felt ashamed that someone of my race is capable of such cruelty. Have times really changed all that much or will there always be people who are willing to hurt others just for fun? I feel so upset that I had to see one of my friends get hurt in order to realize how much racism still exists on a daily basis. (Mandy, WF, 19, Midwest) Jesse thought the yelling and racist epithets were said by friends jokingly (part of the offensive strategy), but later realized it was meant violently. In this interaction, white men violently confront a Black man in the frontstage interaction. Similar to the defensive accounts where white men protect white women from the perceived (sexual) violence of Black men, here white men lash out physically and verbally at a Black man seen driving with a white woman.
In this confrontation, the white men had all the advantages: the element of surprise, the safety in their numbers, and the physical location. Five white men beat one defenseless, unassuming (and no doubt surprised) Black man behind a building on campus. Mandy writes that she is shocked, ashamed and bewildered that her safe white campus could be dangerous for her Black friend. The white woman does not know what to say to her friend, for her experiences on the university campus are strikingly different.
This chapter describes how whites interact with people of color in the frontstage. I categorize the interactions into four components: whites performance (such as whites acting extra polite, proving they are not a racist, or appropriating race); avoidance (avoiding any mention of race, or avoiding people of color); defensive strategies (defending from perceived wrongdoing, or defending whiteness); and offensive strategies (joking, or confrontation). Most of the descriptions suggest the racial events in the frontstage are uncomfortable, hostile, and hurtful. However, this may not tell the complete story of the frontstage. It is possible that many white students had pleasant conversations and interactions with Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, but that they were so commonplace and ordinary that the students felt there was no need to provide the details.
Having said this, it does not negate what the students did write about, such as acting uneasily, avoiding race, and joking about race. The implications of these interactions will
In Chapters 3 (Frontstage), 5 (Backstage, Near the Front), and 6 (Fluid Boundaries, Slippery Regions), I describe the mechanisms that whites use to protect the backstage while in the frontstage, or when the backstage is in jeopardy. In this chapter, I describe the characteristics of the backstage, or how whites interact among other whites during racial events. The backstage is a complex network of interactions. Many components play a critical role, such as who is allowed (and not allowed) in the backstage, what language is tolerated or expected in the backstage, and what actions take place.
In this chapter, I describe the two main themes of how the white students interacted with other whites in the backstage. By themes, I am going beyond simply the content of “what” is said. Although this is critically important to provide a description of the content, my goal is to access “how” interactions transpire, or the underlying mechanism that operates in the backstage. The first theme in the backstage is that the backstage operates as a preparation stage for racial relations in the frontstage. A second and much more common theme is that the backstage is a safe space to relax the frontstage expectations. As this was much more common, most of the attention is directed there.
In the data, one theme that emerges is the backstage as a preparation stage for frontstage racial relations. Here whites teach each other how to act, or not act in the frontstage. The interactions tended to be either: (1) educational in nature, or (2) cautionary, such as offering a warning. Backstage interactions that were educational tended to focus on whites correcting each other’s vocabulary terms or myths and misconceptions about people of color. This specific socialization that is educational in nature is different than whites teaching each other racist jokes and beliefs (I discuss this in the safe backstage), as these jokes are not meant to be shared in the frontstage.
Educational Racial education in the backstage, as part of the preparation for the frontstage, was most common between the white college students and young children or older whites. In
this account, a white woman educates her grandmother about correct racial terminology:
On this particular afternoon my friend Yvonne’s mother and grandmother were visiting my friend from California [everyone is white]. …After a little bit of casual conversation, …Yvonne began to list the restaurant options. Upon her mention of the Chinese restaurant uptown, Yvonne’s grandmother interrupted and began to tell a story. She said, “Oh! I have something funny to tell you! The other day I was at a restaurant and I had a lovely Oriental waitress—” She didn’t get any further because Yvonne interrupted her. “Grandma!” my friend exclaimed, “People are not ‘oriental.’ Food is oriental and clothing is oriental, and there is even a part of the world often referred to as “The Orient.” But you can’t say that people are ‘oriental’!” Yvonne’s grandmother looked at her, completely shocked that she had been rebuked, but she was also pretty confused. “Well, then, Yvonne,” her grandmother said, “What are they called??” Yvonne told her grandmother that people from China or Japan, etc. are often referred to as Asian, or even directly by their heritage, if it is known, such as Chinese or Japanese. But she laughed again as she said. “Not oriental!” Her grandmother was pretty oblivious, you could tell, but accepted the mistake she had made and went back to her story, making sure to emphasize that she had an Asian waitress this time. I couldn’t help but laugh at the way Yvonne had called out her grandmother, but was grateful she had. (Caroline, WF, 21, Northeast) The backstage can be an educational setting where whites learn the correct terminology for racial groups. Even though there are no Asians present in this interaction, Yvonne felt it was important to teach her grandmother that describing someone as “Oriental” is not acceptable in the frontstage, or in future backstage interactions. Yvonne is preparing her grandmother for future interactions in the frontstage. Even though it is a backstage conversation, there is still a level of accountability where whites sometime act to keep each other in check.
This account also highlights the social component to the backstage: whites are actively teaching, learning, and reconceptualizing racial language and ideas. Yvonne corrects and teaches her grandmother the preferable term, and allows her grandmother to continue her story only when she repeats the new term. Yvonne’s mother and Caroline who wrote the journal account were also involved in this event, and allowed the education to persist without interruption. Caroline even admits that she is grateful that Yvonne corrected the mistake even when there were no immediate consequences of the term “Oriental.” Many white students indicated that their grandparents often used “incorrect” terms such as referring to people of color as “colored,” “Negro” or “Oriental.” The vast majority of these students did not inform their elders that these terms are no longer socially acceptable, often for fear of seeming disrespectful or because the students did not like the tensions from family confrontations or saw changing their opinions as “hopeless.” Caroline is one of the few students to confront and educate someone a generation or two older than she is.
Whites also taught each other in the backstage about who was or was not allowed in a safe backstage conversation. In this account, a mother teaches her family not to say
racist jokes in front of children:
I was eating Thanksgiving dinner with my friend and his family (southern-Baptist Caucasian family). There were several generations at the house. Everyone had a comic attitude, always looking for opportunities to crack jokes. At one point, my friend’s cousin said the word “nigger” but I didn’t hear what she was talking about.
However, I heard my friend’s sister-in-law say, “Don’t say that stuff around the kids, last week they almost got kicked out of day-care for calling a boy that.” The moment the kids left, my friend’s brother said, “What do you call a nigger with a wooden leg? Shit on a stick.” I felt really uncomfortable, especially since my parents would have smacked me in the face just for saying that word, let alone the context in which it was used. Everyone but me laughed, and I tried to pretend to, but I could feel myself being really fake. (Will, WM, 22, Southeast) The backstage interaction takes place in a private home among only invited white family and friends. A white mother uses the backstage as an opportunity to teach the other whites not to say certain things in front of the children. The children have not yet learned to censor their racist talk in the frontstage, so the adults have to censor the backstage until the children leave.
The adults are preparing the children for the frontstage, so the usual racial language must be censored until the children learn that there are different expectations in frontstage and backstage. Already the children have said the racial term in daycare, indicating that they have heard the racial language before, and understand the content and the meaning.
Other scholars have examined children’s racial attitudes and behaviors, and note that children are very quick to pick up adult’s racial ideologies and experiment with them in interaction with other children (Van Ausdale and Feagin 2001).
As soon as the children leave the setting, the racist language continues. The friend’s brother uses the harshest racist epithet in the context of a racist joke, which parallels (disabled) human beings with feces. Will notes that there are several generations involved in the conversation, and he feels social pressure to laugh at the joke, even though he is uncomfortable. The white family apparently felt no discomfort at telling this harsh joke in front of an invited stranger. Though Will could confront the family or sit silently, he notes the strong pressure not to resist or go against the racial talk.
Many white students commented that even though they may not have agreed with racist humor, they did not want to disrupt the performance that was oftentimes “just part of the fun.” Warnings and Cautions In this preparation for the frontstage, whites also caution each other about future interactions that may take place. For example, whites often warned each other in advance when an unsafe backstage may transpire. This was often the case with persons who might be mistaken for a safe “white” backstage member, such as a Jewish person or light skinned Latino. It was also typical in situations where a person of color is not expected, such as a Black roommate (as evident in the account in Chapter 1, when Becky warns her friends back home that her suitemate is Black).
As described in Chapter 6, whites would often try to avoid an unreliable safe backstage, where persons who are assumed to be safe backstage members come out as not being completely “white.” In this account Gail’s cousin warns her family that her
new boyfriend is Jewish:
I went home to visit my family for birthday celebrations and because my cousin brought her boyfriend and they were both home visiting from San Francisco. None of my family members made any racial comments, but before we met my cousin’s new boyfriend, she just asked everyone to watch what they say. My family can sometimes say some racial things that might offend people who don’t know our family that well, and how everyone interacts. Also, my cousin wanted to make sure nobody made any cheap Jewish comments because her new boyfriend was Jewish.