«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
(Jillian, WF, 20, Southeast) The white bartender recognizes that it is inappropriate to tell jokes as he provides a disclaimer of “I’m not racist, but…” With the disclaimer, it gives the man permission to tell racist jokes with a clear conscious, as he has clarified that he is not a racist. The joke, about Black people and watermelons, was not invented by the bartender, but he learned it most likely from other whites. Even in this account, two women report being uncomfortable, but it only takes one (drunk) woman to encourage the man’s racist joking.
Alcohol is commonly used to excuse a person from any accountability, but alcohol cannot create a racist sentiment or an atmosphere that condones racist interactions if it is not already preexisting.
Here, there are advantages to going along with the racial fun: racist jokes provide an environment of bonding, unity, and in this example, free beer. This interaction also illustrates the difficulty in going against other whites and calling out a person for being racist. In the white backstage, the expectation is that racial humor and comments will not be confronted or challenged. Whites often report how difficult it is to confront white friends, family members or strangers; this illustrates the concrete expectation not to disrupt the backstage as a safe space from frontstage expectations. Jillian had the support of her friend, who also “glared” uncomfortably, but even they could not confront the racist jokes that are typically dismissed as “just part of the fun.” Group Dynamics In the backstage, there are real social networks operating, including variations of who is involved, and who is actively excluded. Often, white skin alone will grant a person passport in the safe backstage. I explore when this is problematic in Chapter 6.
Many students commented that racist comments were more prevalent in group situations, than if only two whites are in the backstage. In his journal, Trevor describes a recent
meeting with five white male friends, all current college students or recent graduates:
When any two of us are together, no racial comments or jokes are ever made.
However, with the full group membership present, anti-Semitic jokes abound, as do racial slurs and vastly derogatory statements. Jewish people are simply known as “Hebes”, short for Hebrews. Comments were made concerning the construction of a “Hebeagogue,” a term for a Jewish place of worship. Various jokes concerning stereotypes that Jewish people hold were also swapped around the gaming table, everything from “How many Hebes fit in a VW beetle?” to “Why did the Jews wander the desert for forty years?” In each case, the punchlines were offensive, even though I’m not Jewish. The answers were “One million (in the ashtray) and four (in the seats)” and “because someone dropped a quarter,” respectively. These jokes degraded into a rendition of the song “Yellow,” which was re-done [in our group] to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It contained lines about the shadows of the people being flash burned into the walls (“and it was all yellow” as the chorus goes in the song). We also spoke of a mutual acquaintance who happens to be Jewish. The group feeling was that he insulted Jewish people far more than any of us did. …This led to an entire diatribe on a discussion of the rather revolting personal habits of the Jewish person previously mentioned. It should also be pointed out that the most often uttered phrase in the group is “That’s just wrong.”
Trevor continues his journal entry with another example of racialized joking:
A member of the group also decided that he has the perfect idea for a Hallmark card. On the cover it would have a few kittens in a basket with ribbons and lace.
On the inside it would simply say “You’re a nigger.” I found that incredibly offensive. Supposedly, when questioned about it, the idea of the card was to make it as offensive as humanly possible in order to make the maximal juxtaposition between warm- and ice- hearted. After a brief conversation about the cards which dealt with just how wrong they were, a small kitten was drawn on a piece of paper and handed to me with a simple, three-word message on the back.
If this were not enough, the group now turns to jokes about Italians and Mexicans, groups
that many whites still stereotype viciously:
After that little incident, the group dynamic switched over to a more personal so less offensive topic: Italians and people of Italian descent. …Then the jokes about the sex drive, smell, and intellect levels of stereotypical Italians began. This I found shocking, as two of our members are very proudly of Italian descent. Some jokes were repeated from a stand-up comedy special dealing specifically with the quirks of stereotypical Italians living in New York. Of course, no group is particularly safe from the group’s scathing wit, and the people of Mexico were next to bear the brunt of the jokes. A comment was made about Mexicans driving lowriding cars so they can drive and pick lettuce at the same time. Comments were made about the influx of illegal aliens from Mexico and how fast they produce offspring. (Trevor, WM, 22, Midwest) Trevor notes the social character to the racist joking. There is a clear group dynamic as he acknowledges that comments are more likely to surface when all 5 of the white men are together, as opposed to when only 2 are present. Trevor indicates that the most uttered phrase is “that’s just wrong,” which may possibly be said sarcastically or jokingly. At least some among the 5 men sometimes realize that the extent of their racial humor is inappropriate. While some in the group acknowledge their transgressions, they continue the racial comments, transitioning (apparently seamlessly) from Jews, to Blacks, to Italians and Latinos. Utilizing a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of this typical racial joking must outweigh any potential costs, otherwise the group joking would rationally cease (assuming these interactions can be analyzed “rationally”). The benefits such as group bonding, laughing, and having a good time, must supercede any costs such as knowing what they are saying is “wrong.” When a group member interrupted the fun to question the offensive “Hallmark card” idea, the group did not stop the racial comments, but continued the racial fun, and moved to the next target.
Trevor notes that no group is safe from their “scathing wit” as they even poke fun at Italians, with whom two group members identify. Scholars like Brodkin (1998) suggest that ethnic whites often poke fun at themselves as a means to assimilate fully into “white America” and to access the rewards and benefits of whiteness. Although Trevor comments that no one group is safe from their joking, there were apparently no comments made against mainstream Anglo-Saxon-Protestant whites.
Each individual is not inventing the stereotypes that they rely upon for their humor.
Trevor notes where the jokes are learned from, such as: from other friends outside of this group, from television and stand up comedy routines, and from each other. Trevor’s journal account is striking, not only as it highlights the social dynamic to racial comments, but it is a multi-dimensional account. These men are intelligent, college educated and some college graduates, who among other things are using their knowledge about World War II to create offensive song lyrics from a contemporary song. They are not simply telling jokes to pass the time, but they are using their talents to describe rich details, and to flesh out their racial performances. In their version of a Hallmark card, they describe the details of the ribbons and lace on a basket filled with kittens. The men are collectively using a lot of creativity, time, energy and effort to define and illustrate their racial comments.
Other students commented in their journals about moments when racial comments in the backstage were more likely to surface. Molly describes a conversation she had
with her white boyfriend:
We were talking about the usual stuff when he started telling me about the guys he works with. Andy works for a construction company, where most of the men are in there thirties or forties. They all are southern boys, or what other people would call “rednecks” or “hicks.” He told me about some of the jokes they like to tell, which insult women and black people. I asked him if he laughed and he said “of course I did, they were funny jokes.” I thought this was bizarre because my boyfriend isn’t racist in the least, although he is also of southern upbringing; yet he can laugh at jokes with racial or sexist content. When I asked him if he thought it was ok to make fun of black people or belittle women, he smartly answered no in fear of me ripping into him. What was most interesting to me is that I know he would never listen to or tell jokes like that unless he was in front of this particular group of friends. This proved to me how people can change their feelings and attitudes depending on what group they are hanging out with. (Molly, WF, 18, Southeast) Like Trevor, Molly notes the social character to racial joking. Although she suggests her boyfriend is not racist, within certain group dynamics, Andy would listen or tell jokes.
She describes the construction company where he works as having “southern boys” or “rednecks” (actually, the latter is a derogatory and stereotypical term for working class whites) insinuating that they are the type of white men to tell misogynist and racist jokes.
Molly suggests that Andy’s southern upbringing explains why he can find humor in racist or sexist jokes. Thus, there is a tendency in all these accounts for whites to excuse or rationalize the racist actions. Comments that are humorous are not simply random statements, but humor is socially derived based on a common vocabulary and ideology (which explains why translating a joke across cultures is often impossible). Although Andy claims that the jokes are just funny, the jokes were framed within a common understanding that insulting women and Black people are appropriate targets. Molly notes that Andy is savvy enough to recognize that his backstage antics with his coworkers is a different context than with his white girlfriend.
Within certain contexts and group dynamics, there is often an understood agreement among whites as to what is appropriate in a safe backstage. However, this is not always the case. On occasion, some whites will bring frontstage expectations into the back. In the next section, I describe whites who confront each other in the backstage, particularly as it relates to the role of gender.
Confrontation. As described in Chapter 3, the frontstage expectation is usually that whites will not make racist comments. Many white students described moments when this frontstage expectation crept into the backstage. The white student journal writers sometimes reported holding their friends accountable for comments made in a safe backstage. However, it was much more common for whites to report “going along” with the racist “fun” in the backstage, even though they knew it was wrong. Some students reported feeling guilty, but not knowing how to confront their friends, or they feared what the consequences would be.
For example, Tonya describes a weekend with 13 white friends who were all white:
For the rest of the weekend, two or three people kept using the word nigger whenever we would mention a black person. I know they wouldn’t dare say it in public, but I thought saying it in the apartment was just as bad. Whenever someone said it, I tried to ignore it, but then I decided to say something. I casually told them, “Geeze, guys, do ya have to use that word?” At the time I didn’t want to put a damper on the situation. I later realized I should’ve been firmer when I said it because they’ll probably keep saying it in the future. (Tonya, WF, 19, Midwest) Tonya notes that she tried to ignore the racist epithet so casually used, as she did not want to interrupt the fun. Reflecting back on the interaction, she realized she should have pressed the men further to stop using the racist terms. Many students made comments that they wished they had confronted the racism in the backstage. Rarely did students confront a racial comment that they wish they had not, and I discuss this in Chapter 6.
Other students make excuses for their friends’ racial joking:
After a long night out of drinking at the bars, three of my friends (a white girl and two white boys) and I went back to my house to drink a little more before we ended the night. My one friend, Dylan started telling jokes. Most of them were dumb and
in good fun, but he told this one joke that was racially oriented. Dylan said:
“What’s the most confusing day of the year in Harlem?” “Father’s Day... Whose your Daddy?” Dylan also referred to black people as “Porch Monkeys.” Everyone laughed a little, but it was obvious that we all felt a little less comfortable when he was telling jokes like that. My friend Dylan is not a racist person. He has more black friends than I do, that’s why I was surprised he so freely said something like that. Dylan would never have said something like that around anyone who was a minority. I realized something the next day when I was thinking back on this night.
It is this sort of “joking” that helps to keep racism alive today. People know the places they have to be politically correct and most people will be. However, until this sort of “behind-the-scenes” racism comes to an end, people will always harbor those stereotypical views that are so prevalent in our country. This kind of joking really does bother me, but I don’t know what to do about it. I know that I should probably stand up and say I feel uncomfortable when my friends tell jokes like that, but I know my friends would just get annoyed with me and say that they obviously don’t mean anything by it. (Hannah, WF, 20, Midwest) Hannah describes the clear differences between the frontstage and backstage interactions.