«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Why couldn’t I say “two black men” in front of a black woman without someone being uncomfortable? Why couldn’t I share the black man’s views from the movie in front of her? Did it make my white friends and I uncomfortable or would it have made the black girl sitting next to me uncomfortable? Honestly, I think both. We, as white students, did not want to make her feel uncomfortable or look racist or “un-P.C.” in someway. Guessing here, I think that she would want to speak her opinion if she over-heard our conversation but would feel outnumbered or she could become offended. I don’t exactly know how to deal with this situation but it definitely made me think and question how we deal with racial issues, which is in privacy. (Julie, WF, 19, Midwest) This account clearly illustrates the difference in conversation styles between the backstage with her sister in the car, and a conversation with her white friends in a more public cafeteria. We could conceptualize the interaction in the cafeteria as a backstage conversation located physically near the frontstage. Although Julie notes that the cafeteria is almost all white, the presence of just a few people of color makes it an insecure safe backstage. Julie’s friends protect the backstage region, by silencing the conversation about racial matters.
Julie questions why her friends are uncomfortable talking about racial issues while physically near a Black woman. The white friends appear to be utilizing the “discourse of essential sameness,” or colorblindness, where the goal is to maintain a stance of not noticing color (Carr 1997; Frankenberg 1993). Under colorblindness, focusing on race is equated with white supremacy. In other words, to notice or talk about race is racist.
The white friends were clearly uncomfortable, and they assume that the Black woman would be uncomfortable as well. Julie predicts that the Black woman would be offended at whatever comment the white women make. In Chapter 3, I discussed that a common technique for whites interacting in the frontstage is to avoid any comment about racial matters, as many whites perceive that they cannot say or do anything right in the frontstage with people of color. Here, too, Julie assumes that the white women will say something “racist or ‘un P.C.’ [politically correct]” and that the Black woman would confront them. Julie and her white friends expect the Black woman to disagree with their conversation about race (meaning, she could not possibility agree with their conversation about racial matters), and the best course of action is to discuss racial issues in the private backstage.
The body language, like giving an eye roll, was not always paired with a clear verbal message. Many times the nonverbal message was implicitly understood between whites. In this next account, Shannon comments about a backstage conversation with her
white friends that was located near the frontstage:
I was standing in line at a fast food restaurant on Friday at about 1p.m. with two of my female friends (both white and 20). There was a black family in front of us in the line. One of my friends was trying to explain a contestant on a reality show she had seen the night before by saying, “That black girl...” My other friend’s eyes widened and she motioned to the family in front of us, as if to say my friend should not be referring to someone by saying they’re black, if people of that same race are in ear shot. I didn’t think it was an offensive comment, as she was just trying to describe a person more effectively. I also doubt that my friend would have had the same reaction had my friend referred to someone by saying, “That white girl...” (Shannon, WF, 20, Southeast) Although no verbal comments were made, the white friends clearly understood that the body language of eyes widening and motioning to a Black family meant it was not safe or appropriate to mention a person’s racial characteristics. In this situation, it seems that race was mentioned only as a descriptor for a television contestant, although we do not know for sure since the conversation was abruptly stopped. Unlike describing someone by their height, age, or gender, using race as a descriptor was often viewed as problematic for many of the whites in this sample.
The symbolic meaning behind race is unparalleled to other demographics. For example, discussing gender in front of women or men is often a taken for granted normality. However, for many whites, evening mentioning race in front of people of color is uncomfortable as it violates the norm of colorblindness. Even in my own experiences, it is not uncommon for someone to be talking in a normal voice, yet then say “He was black” in a whisper. For many whites, being colorblind and mute is the best way to deal with racial matters.
Shannon notes the asymmetry related to mentioning race, as it would be acceptable to say the “white girl” but not the “black girl.” As whites are the dominant group (economically, politically, culturally, and statistically), whiteness is rarely defined or examined (Entman and Rojecki 2000; Haney Lopez 1996). Whites enjoy the privilege of racial transparency, or not having a color (McIntosh 1998). Therefore, it is assumed that a contestant on television would be white unless noted otherwise (except in certain contexts like a “white basketball star”). In this way, whiteness remains invisible as it perpetuates privilege, normalcy, and power.
Waiting For the Intruder to Leave After body language, a second nonverbal mechanism to protect the backstage is actively waiting for the “intruder” in the frontstage to leave the backstage area. For
Tonight I went by work to check the schedule and I noticed one of my friends was working. He is a white college student around the age of twenty-three who comes from an upper-middle class family. It was late and there were not many people there… I discussed with him my choices concerning classes I could take for the next few semesters and also the universities that offered my major. I mentioned that I have been considering changing my major since there are only two schools that offer my program. Then I retracted my statement and mentioned there was a third but I didn’t want that to be one of my options. I mentioned it was a school known for being predominantly black. He looked around and waited for one of the black cleaning ladies to pass then in a quiet, laughing, whisper asked, “What, you don’t want to go to [the predominately black school]?” Afterwards, he went on to saying how I would come back talking and acting differently. Then he started acting out exaggerated body movements and using slang words with an accent.
(Dawn, WF, 21, Southeast) A white man waits for a Black cleaning woman to pass by before making a racial comment. The mechanisms he used to protect the backstage include waiting for the “intruder” to leave, and talking in a quiet, whispering voice. When it was a safe location, the friend exaggerated his body movements, mocking Black persons. For Dawn, the predominantly “Black” school was not even regarded as an option to consider. Other white students in the sample wrote about measures they would take to ensure they were not in a situation where whites were in the minority (such as dropping a class or leaving a party).
Similar to Dawn, Betty notes that a white male friend waits for a Black student to
leave the area before making a racial comment:
Tonight I went to the library on campus to study with a friend. We were sitting outside taking a break and it was really late and quiet. Another student was talking loudly while walking in the library and my friend and I looked at each other waiting for one of us to make a comment. Knowing my friend usually makes remarks about black people being loud I was waiting for him to make a comment about the black guy that just passed us. He mentioned that black people are always loud and when I asked why he thought that he said it was because they had big lips.
He waited until the guy was inside the library and no other students were around before mentioning this to me. (Betty, WF, 23, Southeast) This comment illustrates the measures that some white students take in having a backstage conversation located physically near a person of color. In this conversation, Betty describes two unspoken understandings between herself and her white friend. First, there is an understanding that a racial comment would be made, as she notes that her white friend usually makes remarks about Black people being loud. Second, it is understood that the comment would be made after the Black student left and the backstage was secure again, as she noted that she “waiting for” the comment.
The white man invokes an old, yet still contemporary, stereotype of Blacks having large lips (Pieterse 1992) which Betty’s friend claims accounts for their loudness. The white students actively wait for it to be a safe space before making the racial comment.
Some scholars argue that the blatant racism (or “in your face”) racism is “preferable if one must suffer it” compared to this backstage or covert form of racism that is purposively hidden from the target audience (Yamato 1987: 21). Some scholars argue that the covert or hidden form of racism is harder to confront and remedy (Benokraitis and Feagin 1995).
Avoidance In the previous section whites waited for people of color to leave the area before continuing the backstage conversation. In this section, it is the whites who leave. When physically near the front, a third nonverbal way that whites maintain the backstage area is to avoid or leave the front region. This avoidance is very similar to the discussion in the frontstage chapter (Chapter 3). This commonality illustrates the similar mechanism that whites use when interacting with (or avoiding) people of color in the front and backstage.
In this account, Becky talks to her white friend on the phone who confesses that she
will not go into her own living room for fear of interacting with her Black roommates:
My friend Linda was paired up with three random roommates this year. It is a four bedroom apartment and it is Linda (white) and her three black roommates. We never hang out there because Linda never really comes out of her room. Today I was talking to her on the phone and asked her to turn the TV on (in the living room) to a certain channel. Her response was “No, I can’t. My roommates are out there and I’m scared.” She feels really uncomfortable around them and hasn’t even made an effort to get to know them just because she feels like the minority. I understand that she feels uncomfortable but that is how black people probably feel most of the time since they are the minority. (Becky, WF, 19, Southeast) This interaction takes place via a private phone conversation in the backstage. College students are in a unique situation where it is entirely possible to be paired to live with someone they do not know or do not regularly interact with. It is not uncommon for many college students to dislike their roommates. However, Linda reveals not that she dislikes her roommates, but that she fears them due to their racial characteristics. The white students in the sample revealed very powerful emotions when interacting with people of color. The emotions varied by situation, but the more common emotions expressed included fear, anger, awkwardness, and guilt.
It is entirely conceivable that this is first time Linda has been a racial minority. As a minority in her own home, she retreats to her bedroom and “never really comes out.” Becky understands and validates Linda’s uncomfortable feelings, but insightfully equates it to how the Black roommates must feel on a daily basis. The interaction (or lack
thereof) between Linda and her roommates illustrates an alienating racist relationship:
what could be an engaging and egalitarian relationship is distorted into an alienated relationship (Feagin 2000).
In this next account, two white women avoid interacting with a Black man who
knocks on their door:
Today is the last day of my documentation and something interesting happened.
It’s Saturday, one of the few days for me to rest. I had just woken up and it was almost the afternoon. My roommate and I were cleaning the house a little bit. We live in a decent neighborhood but not the best. Some people refer to it as the ghetto, but it is not that bad. Anyway, someone knocked on our door, which is unusual. My roommate went and looked through the peephole. She noticed it was a black person and she was sketchy about the situation and why he was knocking.
She came back to me and we decided not to answer the door. The person could have been harmless and very nice. We decided not to find out just because it was a black guy, we were protecting ourselves. It’s crazy that we discriminated like that.
I wonder if it would have been different if the guy had been white. (Marge, WF, 21, Southeast) Marge invokes race by noting that she lives in the “ghetto” typically a place of lowerincome people and racial minorities (Myers 2003). She defines a Black man at their door as a “sketchy” situation, and rather than find out why he is there, the white women protected their safe backstage area by avoiding the Black man. Marge acknowledges that avoiding the man is “crazy” but also a form of “protecting” themselves. Like other white women in this sample, Marge questions if it is the race or the gender of the Black man that they feared. Such a question elicits colorblindness where whites rely on the semantic move of “it’s not race, it could be gender” in order to safely rationalize their avoidance of a Black man.
For some white students, it is more than avoiding people of color in the frontstage,
but actively leaving a frontstage location to protect the backstage: