«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
When we heard the joke, my one roommate Lillian said she thought that joke was “terrible.” My other roommate Mike said, “It’s true though.” We all yelled at him and said he was the worst, etc, etc. However, none of us was really mad or really offended by what he said and we probably should have been. Instances like this make me realize that people have gotten too used of people making jokes about minorities. We are too willing to accept people making inappropriate comments about minorities. I feel like I’m so used to people saying jokes like that, that I don’t even take them seriously anymore. The strange thing is that I don’t think any of my friends are actually racist, they just sometimes say inconsiderate things that they don’t really mean. (Debbie, WF, 20, Midwest) As other whites have commented, here Debbie notes how easy it is for whites to get accustomed to making and hearing disparaging comments against people of color to the point where it is taken for granted. For many whites, making inappropriate comments about racial minorities is no longer offensive; it is just the norm.
Who is a racist? For Debbie and many whites, a person who makes negative comments against persons of color is not necessarily a “racist” individual; they may just be exculpated as whites who say inconsiderate things. Making negative racial comments can be viewed as an appendage to an otherwise healthy and good white person. This claim also resonates with claims some whites make about a person’s “level of racism” based on individual character attributes. For example, as argued in Chapter 3, many whites claimed that a white person who is polite to an individual person of color cannot
be a racist. This makes sense given the social network these whites are participating in:
racism tends to be defined as an individual attribute of racist individuals. These racist individuals are often conceived as only white men in robes burning crosses. It is very clear in the journal accounts that beyond the ivory towers of academia, there is little public discourse among whites regarding the social nature of systemic and institutional racist networks and organizations.
A white man in the Midwest, Sam, makes a similar claim about what is considered
to be “real racism”:
On Sunday night I had a discussion with Frank, a white college male, about racism in our building. I asked him if he felt like there was any in the hall and he told me that he hadn’t observed any “real” racism in the building. I asked him what he meant by “real” racism and he replied that while he had heard racist jokes, he didn’t see any “clans men or burning crosses” so he didn’t take it to be a serious problem.
I asked him why he didn’t consider racist jokes to be as serious a problem as racial violence. He said that as long as nobody was directly being hurt, either by words or by more physical means, then it shouldn’t be considered real racism.
Sam tried to convince his friend Frank that telling racist jokes contributes to an environment that supports the racial hierarchy and other racist actions. Sam continues his
account indicating that Frank was “skeptical” about Sam’s claim:
He told me that he wasn’t quite sure if what I said was completely true or not, but regardless he promised to make an effort to cut back on the racist jokes and comments that he was prone to, if not because what I claimed was true, then only because I was asking him to do so as a friend. (Sam, WM, 20, Midwest) In this safe backstage conversation, Sam confronts his friend by telling him that racism is more than the KKK and other racial terrorist groups. According to Frank, racist jokes are not considered “real racism” because no one was being hurt. For many whites in the sample, telling racist jokes in the company of whites is not harmful; the only harm may come if the “wrong” person (such as a person of color, or an unsafe white person) stumbles into the backstage. Evident in Frank’s skepticism, many whites cannot understand how telling racist jokes in the privacy of one’s social group can perpetuate the racial hierarchy.
Frank cannot promise that he would stop the racist jokes, only that he would “make an effort to cut back” on the joking. He also indicates that he is “prone to” telling or
listening to racist jokes. Using language like “prone to” reveals how deep this issue goes:
telling or listening to racist jokes is automatic, like it was encoded on his genes. This suggests how imbedded the racial socialization is: like a biological drive, he is “prone to” racial joking. There is an apparent social component as Frank does not tell or listen to jokes alone. This is not an individual problem, but often what the group interactions are based upon. Many whites indicate the group dynamics (explored in the next section) support and expect racial joking. Such group interactions are, indeed, at the very core of white racism, and are essential to its production and reproduction in this society.
The joking operates to ensure that people of color are kept out of the safe backstage, and it serves to perpetuate a racial hierarchy where whites are at the top. As whites are in the majority (politically, economically, etc.), whites have the privilege to ignore the existence of the racial hierarchy, and to claim that the joking is separate from the racial hierarchy: there is no harm as it is dismissed as just jokes. For the white social actors, there are no negative consequences to their backstage interactions (unless they are caught, accounting for the measures to secure backstage borders noted in Chapter 5).
There are only social benefits, such as group bonding and perpetuating a hierarchy that actively places them at the top.
There were occasions when students were surprised not by what comments were said, but by who made the comments. For example, some white women in particular were assumed not to make racist comments, or white strangers who gained access to the safe backstage. The role of white strangers in the backstage is critical for indicating that the backstage is not categorized by intimacy or levels of closeness, as white skin alone is often a passport to allow entry into the backstage. Even when the social actor (or who says it) may be surprising, often the comment of what is said is normalized.
In this next account, a white man reacts to hearing his “cute little innocent”
girlfriend yell repeated racial slurs “to make her feel better”:
My girlfriend and I were in her room. She is white and a freshman. She was working on a computer project that was due Friday. Today is Wednesday and she was really stumped in her work … and she then got really frustrated and repeated a racial slur more then once. My girl friend is very country oriented and likes to do outdoors activities, but she went to school with a whole bunch of black people. I was pretty surprised to hear this out of such a cute little innocent girl. I told her that I couldn’t believe that she said that. It really doesn’t offend me when I hear a racial slur, but I think that’s just because of how I was brought up. So I then proceeded ask her why she said those slurs. She told me the reason she said those things was because it made her feel better. I didn’t quiz her any more about why she made a racial slur but in a way it kind of made sense to me. I mean we are all supposed to follow certain norms and when you rebel against these norms and knowing that you’re not going to get in trouble just kind of makes a person feel better. I think it is a weird out look on anger management but she said it was a way to relieve stress and to feel better. (Jack, WM, Southeast) The spatial location, in a private room, contributes to a backstage interaction between a white boyfriend and girlfriend. Jack insinuates the difference between the frontstage and backstage area. He refers to “following certain norms” in the frontstage where the norm is not to yell racial slurs. In the safe backstage it is possible to “rebel” against these norms without consequence or getting “in trouble.” Behaviors in the backstage may violate expectations in the frontstage without repercussion.
The image of a “cute little innocent [white] girl” is different than the stereotypical “Archie Bunker” image of a white who repeatedly yells racial slurs. Many times white racists are depicted in the mass media as rural, working class people in the South. Jack describes his girlfriend as “country-oriented” and outdoorsy, similar to a person who is depicted as being stereotypical against people of color. He then qualifies his statement by describing her “but she went to school with black people” hinting that someone who associates with Blacks would know better than to use racial slurs.
People often shout obscenities out of anger and frustration, breaking the social norm. Few probably give thought to the meaning and symbolism behind their chosen terms. Jack notes that he is not offended by racial slurs. As part of the racial majority, it is not expected for a white male to be hurt by racial slurs. Part of white privilege is not recognizing the damage done by racial slurs; white privilege ensures that racism is not viewed as a problem for the dominant race. The cost of racism for whites is minimal compared to the physical, emotional, social, psychological costs of racism for people of color (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Feagin and McKinney 2003).
There is a social component to the interaction, as his girlfriend did not censor the slurs from Jack, but she repeated it more than once. Her inappropriate comments made sense to him as a way of rebelling against frontstage expectations. She is still a good person who happens to use racial slurs when frustrated. Like many whites have indicated, a person who makes racial slurs does not transform into a total racist person;
they may have a racial appendage to an otherwise good core.
Unexpected person, expected comment. For Jack, it was not the comment that was unexpected, but who said it. This was often the case with white strangers who were allowed into the backstage with their white skin passport. For example, Sheila notes her surprise in meeting a white man who immediately includes her in a backstage
My friend Gary needed a ride to his friend Tony’s apartment, so I went with him.
When we walked in, one of his roommates, named Fred, started talking to Gary.
Fred was holding some sort of crowd control device, like a metal baton because he works in a club as a bouncer and just felt like carrying it around. The sight of it prompted Gary to ask him about working in the club. He asked if he ever had to stay after and clean up, to which Fred replied “I don’t do the nig jobs.” As a person who was meeting him for the first time, I felt a little awkward that he would just say something like that. But I guess since I was another white person, he figured I wouldn’t care. The strangest part of it to me was that he said it very casually, like he talks like that all the time. First impressions are important to me, and its not that I expect people to always be politically correct, but hearing such a blatant derogatory remark made me a little uncomfortable. (Sheila, WF, 19, Southeast) Sheila notes that she was surprised the white man would make a racially derogatory remark in front of her. Fred could have simply said “no” when asked if he ever has to clean up at the club, but instead he invokes a racist statement comparing cleaning up to a “nig jobs” presumably referencing “nigger jobs.” Sheila notes that being white was interpreted by Fred as she “wouldn’t care” that he made the comment. Her white skin allowed her passport into the backstage conversation, where it was assumed she would agree with his statement or at the very least that she would not challenge his assertion.
There are at least three people present in this conversation, Gary, Sheila, and Fred (and perhaps even Tony). Within this whites-only social network, no one questioned Fred’s language, presumably as the white participants knew what “nig jobs” meant, and no one challenged Fred’s racial claim.
For many whites in the backstage, even among acquaintances and strangers, using racial slurs and terminology is customary. Sheila comments at the end of the account that she does not expect “politically correct” language, perhaps acknowledging that the comment itself is not problematic, but the context which it was said, in their first meeting, was the real issue.
Other whites commented in their journals about whites who assume making racial comments would be accepted in the backstage. In this account, a white waiter
approaches a group of white women with beer and racial jokes:
I was sitting at [the bar] with 3 other Caucasian females in their early twenties on a Saturday night. We were drinking beer and having normal conversation, and since the night was slow, the waiter sat down to join us for a cigarette. He was a white male in his late twenties. He wore a work uniform and had an eyebrow ring. After normal introductory conversation he leaned in after noticing one of the black girls walking across the street. He began in a lower voice than he was using previously, “I’m not racist or nothing...” Me and my friend glared at each other uncomfortable while my other more drunken friend leans in to hear what he has to say, “but I know some damn good jokes about black people.” My drunken friend laughs and eggs him on to share the jokes. He continues to tell the joke, which has a punch line involving black people and watermelons. It was not particularly funny, and made a stereotype of all black people liking watermelon. I honestly didn’t get the joke and asked him light heartedly to stop before he told another one. The mood of the group became uncomfortable. I believe that I didn’t allow myself to take a harder tone because he was giving us free beer. He shied away from the conversation and refilled our beers, returning to talk to us about other topics.