«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
(Gail, WF, 19, Northeast) Knowing the family’s history about making “racial comments,” Gail’s cousin warns her family in advance not to make anti-Semitic or otherwise offensive comments when her new boyfriend visits. Gail comments that her family not making racial comments is atypical; her family had to be warned in a previous backstage conversation. By indicating their collective consent to the warning and not telling racial jokes, the family recognizes that such comments are not appropriate in certain contexts (such as in the frontstage with a Jewish visitor). Stated another way, for many whites, telling racial comments is appropriate in certain backstage contexts.
Like Gail’s cousin, Jared warns his roommate that a Jewish woman is visiting,
assuming that his roommate would not want to say anything to offend the guest:
A friend of mine and her two roommates came over to play cards with my roommate and me. John, my roommate, had never met them, so he asked if they were good looking, which is a pretty normal question. Well in asking me that, I remember that one of them, who has red hair, is Jewish. I felt I had to warn my roommate of this so he didn’t make a fool of himself by making a Jewish joke. He then informed me that I should have instead warned her that he may make Jewish jokes and it’s nothing personal. (Jared, WM, 21, Southeast) Jared may have felt the need to warn his roommate about the red headed woman as John may have assumed the woman was “all white” (meaning Gentile) and it was a safe backstage. In a safe backstage conversation, Jared was taking measures to ensure that his roommate does not create an uncomfortable situation in the frontstage. This interaction could simply be a fun time playing cards. However, John is so committed to his antiSemitic jokes that he will not even reserve his comments in front of a guest. This creates the potential for alienating racist relations. The socially imbedded racist relations distort what could be an engaging relationship; instead, as evident in the language of “warning” and “make a fool of himself,” any relationship is spoiled.
John notes that any anti-Semitic comments are not against her personally, but against a “generic” Jew. Throughout the journals, many whites commented that a stereotype against an entire group never seemed to apply directly to person in front of them. For John, the Jewish jokes made in front of a Jewish woman should be “nothing personal.”
Much more common than backstage-as-preparation-stage-for-frontstage interactions was a backstage as a safe space from frontstage expectations. In the frontstage, most whites know that it is more or less inappropriate to express racist sentiments openly. In a safe backstage among only whites, racist comments and jokes are not out of the ordinary, but are often tolerated, encouraged, and even expected. There is an assumption that such comments will be protected in the backstage, and that all of the white social actors support the racial performances. (Chapter 6 deals with an “unreliable” safe backstage, such as where persons who are assumed to be white and are not, or whites who do not support the racial performance.) Recall that in Chapter 3 on the frontstage, I discuss whites performing for people of color. Oftentimes in the backstage, whites also perform for each other to shape and encourage the racial events.
Normalized Backstage So very common. Many students commented that racial events in the safe backstage between whites were expected, normal, and common. In their journals, some white students even quantified how frequently they heard racial comments just among whites. Don (WM, 21, Southeast) indicates that, “Today I heard the word Nigger about 27 times in my house. I have never really paid much attention to how it gets tossed around and how offensive it can really be.” In his journals, Don, like most white students, recognizes that there are different expectations in the backstage, where it is okay to say the word “nigger,” compared to a frontstage where it is not permissible. Don notes that it is so common to hear the racist epithet that he forgets the negative association.
In his account, Don continues, “The reason that made me think of the amount of times this word was said is because my roommate’s dad calls a few times weekly and tells us his newest jokes about blacks, Jews, and other ethnic groups.” For Don, there is a social network to support this type of racial joking. The backstage is a safe zone to perpetuate racial humor and to support the racist performances. The joking was not just among those white roommates physically present, but other whites are involved as well.
There are multiple generations within the social network, routinely supported by the expectations of “a few times weekly” phone call.
Other whites comment about the routine nature of racial jokes. Racist jokes are not a hidden, secret pleasure, but part of the fun in an open comfortable backstage atmosphere. In a safe backstage, Eileen discusses that her white male friends relieve their
boredom by creating racial slurs:
As I sit in a room with a bunch of frat guys, Phil walks in chanting “rotchie, rotchie, rotchie!!” I ask quietly what that term means and I am answered with a giggle and a quick “it’s slang for nigger, like niggerotchie.” What makes me wonder most about these guys is why they think it is funny to make racial jokes.
The guys I hang around (white college males) constantly spend their “bored time” making up new ways to criticize each other, and the easiest way to do that is to call each other racial slurs when everyone is clearly white. I don’t know what the pleasure is in calling people names that don’t even make fun of them. If there happened to be people of a different color there in the room, they would never say anything like that. So why is it so easy to make slurs when they aren’t there? I see that making racial slurs is only really “racial” when it is said to the person of the race. Otherwise, it is more of a term people use to define someone, where sometimes it has negative connotations. I just don’t understand why people choose race as a means to make fun of other people. (Eileen, WF, 18, Midwest) Phil teaches Eileen the white code language, that “rotchie” is slang for “nigger.” Any one who intrudes on this backstage might question white men who chant the word “nigger.” However, the group of white men can relax in their secure backstage by replacing the harshest of epithets with a code term “rotchie” that has no apparent racial connotations unless educated about the meaning, as Eileen was. There is a very clear white social network, as only whites are invited into the backstage and certain whites are taught the racial meaning of their code language. The white men are clearly performing, literally chanting, their racist beliefs.
In this backstage interaction, Eileen notes that the conversation is only among whites. She suggests that “if there happened to be” people of color in the room, the men would not use their racist terms in the frontstage. Her language suggests that there does not “happen to be” people of color in the room often. As many whites indicate in their journals, these men do not have to interact in the frontstage often, as their social networks are almost always all-white.
For these white men, the racial slurs are said to relieve their boredom. The slurs are unidirectional, as the white men are attacking persons of color. In this way, there are never any negative consequences for their actions. Eileen also notes her confusion that the white men would make fun of people of color who have never made fun of them. It would seem rational to mock persons who attack the group, or if the mocking were reciprocated in some way.
Eileen rationalizes and accepts that her friends are chanting an equivalent term to “nigger.” For many whites, it is not viewed as a real racial slur if it is not said directly to people of color. As they see it, their created language is simply a term to describe an entire race of people who are not like them, and the term happens to be negative. Yet, by using explicitly racist terminology backstage in their critical social networks they are reinforcing negative images of people of color in the minds of all in hearing distance.
Such performances are the way in which much white-racist thought and proclivity is passed along in this society. People of color are never invited into the safe white backstage, as they are not equal to the white fraternity men or their white associates like Eileen.
Many other students indicate that their white friends and family do not mean their frequent racist joking. Amy (WF, 19, Midwest) rationalizes her family commonly telling “black jokes”: “I know that they don’t mean what they say. They were just joking around. I’d never really thought about it as anything more than simple jokes and fun because they are always laughing and having a good time with it.” For the whites who are involved in the joking, it is just comfortable, commonly accepted, and a frequent occurrence. There never has to be any deeper acknowledgement or questioning of why making fun of Black people is normalized: it is tolerated, accepted, and often encouraged.
The common and normalized racial comments in the backstage are not only racial jokes or statements made in a joking manner. Other safe backstage comments include random racial comments. Abby describes watching television at a white girlfriend’s
apartment with a group of friends:
We were watching television; it was 10:00pm… Five of us (all white) were at the apartment when one of the guys came over and joined us. On, the television was Arissa, one of the cast members of Real World. This guy says, “That was a good shit I just took.” I then said, “Thanks for sharing that with us!” He then pointed out Arissa on the TV and said, “Well looking at her reminded me because she is black. She’s black, my shit is black, she’s a piece of shit.” This guy is pretty weird and always said outrageous things. Everyone in the room is used to how he acts so no one gave him a response. The guy who said these things is white and has a fetish for girls of all other races. He always talks about wanting to have sex with them. (Abby, WF, 21, Southeast) In this narrative, a white man felt comfortable announcing to a room full of people that a Black woman on television reminds him of a “piece of [literal] shit” for no other reason than her racial characteristics. The trigger to this offensive statement was simply seeing a Black woman on the television which for this man activates his association with feces and Black people. This man is not the first to make this connection between Blacks and dirt or feces, but he is referencing an old stereotype that justifies the “subhuman” quality of Blacks that deserve to be subjugated (Bogle 2001; Kovel 1970).
This white man may be making the connection between Blacks as human waste without even considering the meaning behind his comment. Curse words are commonly used without self-reflection, and his comment may be made with a lack of reflection to the meaning. Everyday racist actions performed by whites are often done without meaning or reflection to the association.
Within this safe backstage conversation, the other whites are “used to” this man making outrageous comments. This may account for why, in a room filled with people, no one challenged his offensive comments: equating Blacks with feces, or discussing bathroom habits that are typically not announced to friends. It may be that as his friends know he is making the comment for shock-value, and they will not give him the benefit of responding to his comment. A key feature of everyday racist behavior of whites is this tolerance of the active white officiants by passive white bystanders. The latter’s acquiesce is essential to the perpetuation of racist performances, and realities. None of the whites challenged his offensive comments, which indicates quiet support.
The backstage has a clear spatial dimension, and in this account it takes place in a private apartment setting. This ensures that only those invited into the setting will be allowed to participate. It is highly unlikely that such a comment would be said in the company of a Black person.
The last part of the account is revealing and potentially confusing: Abby notes this man’s “fetish” for women of other races. Even the language of “fetish” (defined in the dictionary as “an object or body part of irrational reverence”), suggests that the Black woman is objectified; she is not a human subject, or viewed to be a rational sexual partner choice. According to Abby, although the man equates Blacks with human waste, he has a desire to be with them sexually. The apparent contradiction of desiring an object on television (again, she is not a subject of desire, but she is objectified) that is devalued is common among the controlling image of the jezebel or “hoochie” (Collins 2000; Kovel 1970). Historically, Black women have even themselves been blamed for white men’s sexual attraction to them, even when white men view the Black women as non-persons (Anderson 1995).
Telling racial jokes or making outrageous racist comments is very typical in many white backstage interactions. In this next account, Debbie describes watching a movie with her four roommates (two white women, two white men) that lead to one of the men
to tell a racist joke: