«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
In the backstage, her white friend Dylan tells racist jokes that he would never say in front of his many Black friends. (We can seriously question how close his friendships really are, as he refers to Blacks as “Porch Monkeys.”) Hannah justifies that Dylan is not a racist person, but he just tells racist jokes. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, many whites conceptualize racist comments as an appendage to an otherwise nonracist core.
Interestingly, as I do in this dissertation, Hannah uses language like “behind-thescenes” racism to indicate the private backstage interactions. She is one of the few white students in the sample to acknowledge that the everyday nature of the backstage interactions “helps to keep racism alive.” Her cognitive awareness of the nature of the backstage is very different from her emotional justifications that her friends “don’t mean anything by it.” In other words, even though Hannah recognizes that her friend is very wrong in making racist comments, she also dismisses any thoughts of confronting him for fear that he would be annoyed at her. She knows that she should confront her friend, but the group dynamics make it difficult to challenge.
As a way to deal with the group dynamic, other whites reported subtle or passive techniques to interrupt the racial interactions in the backstage. For example, Andrea
describes an interaction at a party and how she stops a racist game:
We all sat down to have a couple beers and play some drinking games. In the particular one we played, there is a part where someone will pick a certain card and when they do, that means they select a category for the group to describe, for example types of cars, cereals, etc. My girlfriend Holly chose a “category card” and for her category she laughed and said, “slang words for black people.” I was completely disgusted, and the worst part is that everyone else (a small group of white kids) just laughed and went along with it. Well, it wasn’t funny, and when it came my turn I said I didn’t have one, and that’s when the category ends. It is just so frustrating because I know my friends mean well, and we all have AfricanAmerican friends, but they still think it’s okay to say such things; I thought she really crossed a line. (Andrea, WF, 19, Midwest) By not perpetuating the racist fun, Andrea is able to stop the racist category, but not stop the card game which is allowed to continue. While Andrea is glad the category is over, she is also frustrated that her friend Holly would come up with this category, and the other whites would support it. She believes her friends “mean well” as they all supposedly have Black friends. Researchers have questioned the many whites who claim to have many Black friends, but in practice can only identify white friends (Bonilla Silva 2001). For many whites, having one or two Black “friends” or acquaintances may allow them to tell racist jokes with a clear conscience: they cannot be racist if they have Black friends.
By not passively participating in the racist rituals, it sends a message that this type of racial fun will not be tolerated. Travis’s friend challenges the group by leaving an
environment where racism is the focus of the fun:
All the people at the house were Caucasian males. It was real late, probably 2 in the morning and it was obvious that all my friends had been drinking alcohol for a while. As we sat there, my friends started telling racist joke after racist joke and pretty much cracking jokes on every ethnic group that has ever had a joke made up about them. They laughed and laughed and told joke after joke. My other roommate returned home, he is also a Caucasian male and he came into the back.
As he sat around and listened to the jokes being told, he stood up and said, “These are really dumb jokes,” and then he left the room. After he left my friends paused from telling the jokes for a second and then they proceeded to tell more. It was surprising to see my one roommate kind of stand up to the kids telling the racist jokes. He never has expressed that he has a problem with racist jokes or has ever really stood up and told people that racist ideas are wrong. It was sort of amusing to see the dumb look on my friends face after my roommate told them their jokes were stupid… Another thing I noticed was that my friends, who were telling the jokes, weren’t offended or even mad that my roommate voiced his dislike for the jokes. Hopefully it will make them think next time though. Even though they didn’t stop telling the jokes right after he left, it quickly ended and it definitely didn’t have the same effect on the three of them as the jokes had had before.
(Travis, WM, 19, Midwest) On some level, the white men who are telling the jokes most likely realize that their joking is not appropriate, which may account for the “dumb look” on his friends faces when they are caught. Travis also comments that the white men were not offended or bothered by the racial protest. Even though Travis does not specify it, the gender of the male challenger may account for why the other men were not upset. As will be discussed in the next section of this chapter, white women who resist racial comments are often called to defend their interruptions, especially when they challenge white men.
Both white women and white men discussed the need for social support to challenge the group dynamics that are focused on racial fun. In this backstage
interaction, Don reveals that he needs support to confront his white friends:
While playing a game of euchre (a card game that is very popular here in the Midwest) on a Saturday night a hand had been dealt. …One of the players (a while college aged male) rolled his eyes and grumbled in frustrated disbelief. He stared at the table and commented in a voice clearly loud enough for anyone of the other players or observers to hear, “My hand is blacker than east St. Louis,” meaning his cards were all black and he needed red cards to take any tricks. One of the other players (also a white college aged male) laughed loudly and commented back “Blacker than Harlem?” to which the first player responded “Oh yeah!” There were no objections to the comments even though they were clearly racist. Those who disapproved simply kept quiet and continued to play the game. The two continued their banter by beginning to impersonate what they thought of as stereotypical African Americans from those regions with their voices. They said things like “Lordy, Lordy, my hand is black” and “I’m gonna pop a cap in someone’s ass fo’ dis hand.” At this point another player (a white college aged female) groaned in a disapproving way. It was only after this grumble that I felt like any verbal objections I made would be supported, and only then did I speak up and say “C’mon guys, don’t be like that.” As soon as I said this both of the players who made the comments defended themselves by saying “What’s wrong? It’s not like were racist or anything. We’re just having fun and making jokes.” I replied in a short voice that “You may not be racist, but your jokes are and that doesn’t help anyone.” After that I lead the first card signaling that I wanted to play cards on my Saturday night rather than deal with these kids and their comments. (Don, WM, 20, Midwest) Even though Don was disturbed by his friends’ racist stereotypes, it was only when another person in the backstage voiced their disapproval before Don confronted the men.
As expected, the white instigators defended their comments with the typical response:
they are not racist, it is not hurting anyone, and they are just having fun. As noted throughout this chapter, many whites who make racist stereotypes and comments clarify that they themselves are not racist individuals.
As was true with Travis, the white men did not appear to challenge Don further.
Many white women report the harassment they receive from white men when they confront them about racial comments in the backstage. Tina describes her experiences
camping, and the need for social support to confront racial comments:
During our very cold night in the woods, the conversing around the campfire somehow became a discussion of race. Among the group of twelve, all were white and college-age. Unfortunately, I cannot recall how the issue of race came up, but my ears quickly perking up when I heard one man giving his opinion of black people. He was telling the rest of the group how a black friend of his had been invited to join our camping fun that evening, but the friend declined. Evidently, this young black man then told his white friend that, “Black people don’t like camping.” During this part of the story, laughter surrounded the campfire. I, however, was dumbfounded. As another young, white man sitting around the campfire added his supporting argument that one of his black friends does not like to go hiking, camping, or any activity outdoors, there began to be a consensus that African-Americans do not like to be out of doors. I was appalled at this absurd stereotype and realized that I was not the only one, as one of the young women sitting near me looked at me and said, “Tina, aren’t you going to say something?” Indeed! I waited for the laughter to die down and somberly added, “You can’t stereotype a whole race of people because of two opinions.” There was definitely an awkward silence which followed. The initiator of the conversation laughingly replied to me, “Alright, we know you’re a sociology major, but we’re just speaking the truth!” Clearly, I was not laughing as he was, but also did not want a confrontation. So I offered the reply that saying all blacks do not like camping is like saying all whites could not dance. With this, laughter surrounded the campfire again and another male voice from the darkness said, “We can’t!” I realized they did not understand because they did not want to understand. The friend nearby who had urged me to speak up looked at me with a sympathetic glance. I felt very alone. However, I felt guilty for feeling lonely, as I realize my own whiteness still benefits me and give me the entitlement of the majority every place I go. Of course I was pleased that I had spoken up to counteract the racial stereotypes I heard, but I wondered if it had made any difference. I am sad that so many people in this world, many whom I would consider my friends, are so discriminatory and often bigoted. (Tina, WF, 20, Southeast) Even though a Black male friend had been invited to join the camping trip, this account involves a backstage interaction as only white college students surround the campfire.
Two white men each describe a Black male friend who does not enjoy camping and other outdoor activities, and the group globalizes this to mean that all Black people do not like camping. In this example, although white men claim to know the outdoor habits of all Blacks, it is disputed even in the backstage area.
There is a disjuncture between what many of the white students perceive to be the “truth” from their experiences compared to the “truth” from sociologists. The spatial dimension to racial relations contributes to this disjuncture. Most whites can structure their daily activities so they never have to interact with people of color (Feagin 1991).
Therefore, when whites do interact with one or two people of color, it is tempting to rely on stereotypes or to overgeneralize traits to the entire race. Even amateur sociologists like Tina recognize the danger in stereotyping a group of people based on two opinions.
However the group is unconvinced. Many journal accounts mirror this skepticism of academic bias, which may not always match the lived experiences of whites, which may reinforce negative stereotypes of people of color.
Stereotypes, a schema that operates to organize knowledge and beliefs, offer a cognitive shortcut in our attempts to understand other people (Fiske 1993). These schemas act as filters, straining out information that is inconsistent with prevalent themes.
Like self-fulfilling prophecies, when images fit the stereotype they are reinforced, and images that negate the stereotype are rejected. Tina’s analogy of a white stereotype backfires, as the group accepts the not-so-devastating white stereotype.
The social dimension of the racial conversation is apparent with the multiple references to laughter and that Tina did not want to kill the mood before confronting the fun. Deciding when to confront the group was also a social decision. At least one other white woman was disturbed by the stereotyping, but instead of confronting the group, she
probed Tina to say something. Tina carefully planned her confrontation to the group:
after being prodded and knowing she had some support, but also after the laughter died down. Again, the participants in this account follow gender patterns typical in the journal accounts with white women confronting white men’s stereotypical comments.
Tina reveals contradictory emotions regarding this interaction: she feels sad and lonely for speaking out against the group. She is frustrated with her friends for not understanding. Then she feels guilty for her feelings since she still benefits from white privilege, and she is pleased with speaking out. The emotional dimension is complicated, varying, and still vastly unexplored in the sociological literature.
Although Tina confronts the stereotype in the backstage, as indicated throughout this chapter, other whites have acknowledged that they could have done more to confront racist comments in the backstage. However, there are costs associated with objecting to the backstage interactions. In this account, Katie describes being uninvited to a party for
questioning a woman’s claim of a “bad neighborhood”: