«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
After school, I hung out with a friend of mine and a couple of her friends that I didn’t know (all White). They were smoking outside and talking about a party going on this weekend. One of the girls made a comment that it might be in a bad neighborhood. She also said that we need to be careful because the neighborhood has a lot of Black people. And I jumped in and asked if that is why she thinks it is a bad neighborhood because a lot of Black folks live there. She looked and me and asked who I was. I introduced myself and she responded by saying, “You’re not invited.” I couldn’t believe that but I realized that she thought I was trying to offend her. The fact is that she couldn’t even back up her comment by saying that, “This is the reason why I said that...” The fact of the matter is that she just said that it was a bad neighborhood because Black people live there not because she heard of a mugging or killing in that neighborhood. Right? (Katie, WF, 20, Midwest) As noted throughout this chapter, the backstage is not only among friends and family;
here a white stranger feels comfortable sharing her racial views with Katie. After Katie confronts her, the offended woman could have rethought her bias or justified her comment, instead she quickly uninvites Katie to the party.
The social dimension of white women discussing the dangers of occupying space with a lot of Black people reveals a common gender component to backstage racial conversations. Throughout the journals, there are two common ways that gender plays out in the backstage. First, white women often police the actions and conversations of white men. A second way that gender impacts backstage conversations is white women discussing the dangers of interacting with Black people, specifically Black men. In this account, white women are warning each other to be careful of the mere presence of Black people. Mentioning violence, gangs, murder, or muggings is not necessary to convey a “bad” neighborhood, as these terms are already connected to the description of a Black neighborhood. The implicit message is clear: Black people occupy a space that is not safe for whites, especially white women.
Gender. As noted throughout this chapter, disproportionally in the data, it is white men who make racial jokes or comments, and white women who confront them. There are times when white women make jokes, but much more often it is white men. In many accounts, like this one written by Dee Dee, there is a gendered component to the social interactions.
It was my 20th birthday tonight and we had a party at my house. Everyone there was white. Anyway, I don’t remember how it came up, but one of my guy friends, Ron said the “n” word. Another one of my friends, Samantha, gets really mad when she hears people use that word. She says it is dirty and disgusting. When Samantha heard Ron use this word she really reamed him out. My other guy friend’s thought it was real funny that Samantha was yelling at Ron so much so they started putting the “n” word into every sentence. A lot of people laughed at first, but pretty soon even the people who had originally thought it was funny started to feel uncomfortable. This stupid word game went on for about 10 minutes or so, before they finally got bored of it. There really was nothing any of us could say; because it seemed like saying anything would just egg them on. This is another example of how people my age who are white just have no concept of how hurtful that word is to another race. I’m sure if we could feel how black people feel when they hear that word, we would never say it again. I know that none of my friends want to hurt anyone’s feelings; they are just immature and ignorant sometimes. (Dee Dee, WF, 20, Midwest) The interaction is spatially located at an all-white house party. The participants have control over who is, and is not, invited in the backstage. At some point in the party, Ron uses a harsh racist epithet, and Samantha’s fierce objection to the term is the catalyst for it being used in every sentence and the humor associated with it.
This racist term has a dark and violent history and is arguably the harshest epithet used against African Americans. Dee Dee speculates that the men used the term as they are immature and ignorant, but they are ultimately good people who “don’t want to hurt anyone.” However, the white group seems aware of the term’s dark symbolic meaning and blatantly disregards it, as there are no consequences and it serves a social benefit by showing how tight-knit the group is to allow such joking. Again, the backstage context is clear for this type of joking, no matter why it is used, probably would not have been done in the presence of other racial groups.
In this account, joking is used within the protected backstage boundary. Joking obviously serves many functions: it relieves stress and tension, it unites a group, it operates to “test the waters” of a topic, and it also serves to decrease accountability.
Joking allows the opportunity to say things that might be inappropriate or unkind. Under
the guise of “just kidding around” comments can be tossed around without consequence:
comments that are just a joke are not meant to be taken seriously.
As it pertains to this section, this journal entry illustrates a gendered relationship.
Typically, in interactions between white men and white women, the men serve as instigators of racist talk or action, and the women operate to police racist activities.
White women also play a supportive role, but more than men they operate to channel, slow down or stop the racist actions, as here Samantha yells at her male friend Ron. This finding resonates with the research of Peggy McIntosh (1998) and Tiffany Hogan (cited in Feagin and Vera 1995) who suggests white women can draw on experiences of gender oppression to understand racial oppression.
Dee Dee is caught in a complicated situation, as it is her birthday party, she does not want to spoil the social event. By choosing to remain passive, white bystanders send the message that comments are permissible. The backstage context often involves great social pressure not to resist her friends.
Other white women note that the real function of racist joking among white men
may be to harass and mock white women:
I was over at a friend’s house the other night and since she lives with boy roommates I’m used to hearing offensive talk. Sometimes when I come over they get all goofy and try to impress me especially if I bring a friend or something. Well on this night they were joking around and someone got on the subject of telling African American jokes. They all knew about 10 jokes apiece so of course each one had to take turns telling them. They could tell after about the second joke that I didn’t appreciate them because I wasn’t really smiling or laughing but for some reason they like to bother me so they continued telling the jokes. I know they’ve told the jokes many times before because my friend rolled her eyes in recognition.
They weren’t telling the jokes for each other’s benefit, but to see how far they could go before I got upset. I tried not to give them the benefit, but I eventually left the room. The jokes ceased right afterwards. (Elaine, WF, 19, West) Elaine notes the social network of telling jokes against Blacks: each white person knew about 10 jokes a piece, indicating how committed the group is to learning and memorizing, then performing their jokes for each other. Elaine notes that the white men shared their jokes as part of their backstage ritual (illustrated by the woman roommate’s eye roll). She believes the men were telling the jokes to get a reaction from her, indicating that even in the backstage, the white men knew it was inappropriate. When the stimulus (Elaine) left, so too did the racist joking.
Other students make comments about the role of gender in the backstage. Carissa
commented about her group of white friends who got on the topic of Black people:
Then they got on the subject of so-called nicknames for black people. Some mentioned were porch monkeys, jiggaboos, tree swingers, etc. The one thing I took notice of was that not one girl made a comment. Most of them just seemed to stare off and pretend to not hear anything. Is this because women are more sensitive?
Or are they just afraid to express their true feelings? (Carissa, WF, 20, Southeast) Many white students indicated a clear gender division with backstage relations. Carissa speculates that it could be women’s socialization to be caring and concerned about other people’s feelings that may account for women not actively contributing to a racist conversation. Similarly, it could also be women’s socialization that accounts for women not always challenging men: in this account, the women in Carissa’s social circle did not confront the men about the racial comments. Further research is necessary to fully understand why there are apparent gender distinctions in the backstage.
In this chapter I have examined how whites interact in the backstage. Specifically, I examined the backstage as serving two functions. First, the backstage is often a preparation stage to get ready for the frontstage interactions. Within this stage, the backstage white participants often educated other whites about correct racial terminology.
Also, whites used this as an opportunity to warn or caution other whites about future interactions.
A second, and more common use of the backstage was as a safe space to relax frontstage expectations. In the safe space, racist events may be common and normal, even among strangers when it might seem unexpected. Within this region, I analyzed what the white participants construed as a “racist person” compared to a person who happens to make racist comments. I also examined the group dynamics, including when and how whites confronted each other in the backstage, and the role of gender in the
So far, I have described the characteristics of whites’ interactions in the frontstage (Chapter 3) and in the backstage (Chapter 4). The frontstage and backstage are not discrete and isolated regions. There are many moments in the racial events when the backstage is fluid, and whites utilize mechanisms to protect the backstage boundary.
I refer to this fluidity as the “slippage” between the front and back region.
Goffman (1959: 126) notes “that many regions which function at one time and in one sense as a front region and at another time and in another sense as a back region.” For example, there are moments when the context shifts, such as when an “intruder” enters into the backstage, and the regions shift. This slippage is usually unidirectional: the backstage often slips into the frontstage (or the backstage becomes the frontstage), but there are fewer instances in the data when the frontstage becomes the backstage.
Chapters 5 and 6 discuss this context shift, and the implications for whites’ interactions. Chapter 5 discusses racial events that occur in the backstage, but are physically located near the front (or near people of color). The students discuss a variety of mechanisms to maintain the backstage boundary. This chapter highlights three types of border protections: nonverbal mechanisms, verbal mechanisms, and mechanisms that are no different than those used in a “safe” backstage.
In accounts that take place in the backstage, but are located physically near the frontstage, three nonverbal mechanisms maintain the backstage boundary: body language, waiting for the intruder to leave, and avoidance. Many of these mechanisms are similar to those discussed in the frontstage and the backstage. This repetition is not problematic, but rather further illustrating the overlap between the two regions.
Body Language The white college students in the sample often use a nonverbal, but still clear body language signal to indicate that the backstage conversation was not secure. In the following account, a group of white friends are in the university cafeteria talking about a
I did not think that I was going to have to do a journal entry today, but then I went to this class. [She discusses watching the film “The Color of Fear” in class.] I left that class thinking a lot about what I had seen and about what the men had said. I ran into my twin sister on the way back to our room and told her about this class and the video. We talked about it in the car on our way to the grocery store, where I did almost all the talking. She listened and then told me I need to speak up in class if I have an opinion. … After a few hours I met a group of my girlfriends, all of whom are white, upper-middle class, female college students. We went to go get dinner in our dining hall. The conversation was typical and we carried on as we usually do. The cafeteria was about half-full and was comprised of almost all white people. Toward the end of dinner, I decided to bring up the movie and wanted to hear their opinion as well as share my views. I began to describe the video by telling them the composition of the men talking. I was explaining it when I said “…and there were two black men in the circle.” One of my friends quickly quieted me and gave me the eye roll to look to my left. I looked over and a black girl was sitting two seats down from me. I then looked back at my friends and one of them said, “Be Careful” referring to what I was going to say next. They were afraid she might hear our conversation. I then decided to end the story and not go on. I went back to my room after dinner thinking about the importance of what just happened.