«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
This past weekend I attended the [university] football game. It was a very crowded game, and by the time I arrived there were few seats left to sit in. My friends and I walked around looking for somewhere to sit where we could all fit. We wanted to stay in the student section because it is fun being around other students. We saw two rows behind each other where we could split up and sit all together. As we started walking towards the seats there was another group of like 4 girls in front of us. They were heading in the same direction we were, and we thought they were going to take the seats before we did. When we got near the rows, one of the girls said “keep walking” to her friend. The girl turned around and asked her why, and she pointed to the rows in front of the row where they were going to sit, and made a face. When I saw this I looked to where she was looking and noticed that there was a large group of black students sitting together, probably like 20 of them. I was leading my group of friends so when the other girls passed the seats up, I sat down in the row. I told my friend who was sitting next to me what the girl had said. I couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t sit there because there were blacks sitting in front of her. There are thousands of people at football games, people of all different races. I must admit that the black population at [our] University is small, but there are still many black students.
In the first group of white women, no one stopped the leader to confront her or call out her racial actions. The other white women, acting as acolytes, simply followed the officiant in performing the racial rite (Feagin and Vera 1995). If Ruth, who was not a member of the first group, observed and understood the implications of “keep walking,” we can speculate that others not involved in the group, including persons of color, also understood the racial meanings.
Gender certainly impacts racial relations in the backstage and frontstage. As evident in the last two accounts, white women often report fearing and avoiding Black men. This fear and avoidance is often taught to them by other whites. In this next
account, a white woman gets in trouble for having a Black man visit her at the house:
I went home for the weekend and decided to visit one of my friends who was also home. Her name is Michelle, and she is an 18 year old white female. Well as I was going over to her house my cell phone rang and it was one of my best guy friends Troy. Troy just happens to be black. He asked what I was doing and if maybe he could come with me because he knows Michelle also. I said that it would be fine not knowing what was in store for me and Troy. When I finally arrived at Michelle’s house it was around 6:30 at night, her family was eating dinner. Troy was actually the first one to apologize for interrupting their dinner, and then I did. So Michelle, Troy, and I went outside and were just talking thinking about what we were going to do that night. Well not even 2 minutes into our conversation her mom came out and asked to talk to her inside. Troy and I didn’t think anything of it, but then we heard screaming. I wondered what the heck was going on. Michelle then came out and said it was probably best if we left and to call her later. I asked what was going on but she didn’t want to talk about it right then. I called her later that night at around ten, and she then told me the sudden urgency of us leaving. Michelle said that her father didn’t like black people in his house or hanging out with his daughter. Then thinking back on it I remember her father not even uttering two words to me or Troy. Michelle asked me not to tell Troy about any of this because she was embarrassed about what was said and the way her father was. Of course I agreed and it was never discussed again. I really do not understand how anyone can be that way. I guess I am lucky my parents raised me differently. (Kerri, WF, 18, Southeast) Linguistically, it is common for whites to report that a white person “is white” but a Black person “happens to be black.” For purposes of this chapter, the focus of this account is that it reveals a conversation in the backstage that is physically near the frontstage. In this interaction, there are multiple backstage and frontstage regions. The interaction with Michelle, Troy and Kerri can be conceptualized as frontstage. The backstage can be seen as the conversation between Michelle and her parents, as well as the interaction between Michelle and Kerri on the phone later that evening.
For Michelle’s parents, they create a backstage interaction by actively removing their white daughter from the frontstage. Michelle’s parents force her into the backstage of her home, and when Michelle returns to her friends, she responds to Kerri in a vague manner that she “didn’t want to talk about it then.” Kerri finds out later in the safe backstage phone conversation that Michelle’s parents, especially her father, would not tolerate an interracial friendship. Throughout this exchange, Troy is purposively kept out of the loop. The white parents purposively sever the friendly relationship between their daughter and a Black man, yet Troy is never informed about the meaning behind the backstage yelling.
As evident in the last few account, whites often use verbal mechanisms to protect the backstage, when they are physically near the front. At the football game, Ruth noted that the white women indicated to “keep walking” to avoid the Black men. In the last account, Michelle tells Kerri in a vague language that she “didn’t want to talk about it right then” when they were physically near their Black friend Troy.
There are three other verbal mechanisms that whites use to protect the backstage boundary when near the front: whispering, using vague language, and using code language. Each of these three illustrate an attempt to secure the backstage, while trying (often unsuccessfully) not to arouse any attention to the persons of color in the frontstage.
As a function of the colorblind ideology, whites appear to be uneasy directly speaking about race in the frontstage. There is fascinating, yet relatively undocumented, phenomenon that when race is mentioned in conversation between whites, it is whispered. Take for example a situation that happened to me while I waiting tables at a
It was about 12:30am after a busy Saturday night; the restaurant was closed. Most of the servers had either gone home, or were in the back of the restaurant finishing their chores. All of the servers in this restaurant are white. The front stage portion of the restaurant was empty except the bartender who was near the front entrance of the restaurant, and I was in the back (near the restrooms) cleaning tables. A fellow server approached me, and as he waited for me to finish refilling a salt container, he told me in an animated voice that he had a great night and even got a compliment.
His voice then dropped and he whispered, “and they were black!” It is intriguing that he would lower his voice considering I was the only person in the restaurant within hearing distance. (Author’s personal notes 1999) There are a number of reasons why a person would lower her or his voice to a whisper.
First, it may serve a functional purpose such as in a library or church so as not to disturb other people. Second, the voice may be lowered so only the person you are talking to will hear you, such as in the case of gossiping. Third, whispering may be used when speaking about a taboo topic such as “She died” or “He has AIDS.” When whispering,
the signal conveyed is that there is discomfort in the appropriateness of the conversation:
either the place or context of the conversation is uncomfortable, and/or content of the conversation is uncomfortable. The irony in whispering is that it often creates more attention to the situation than speaking in normal volume.
This server whispered the racial comment probably not for fear of someone overhearing him, as it was a relatively secure context (the restaurant was closed, and all the restaurant personnel were white). He could have been uncomfortable speaking of race, perhaps uncomfortable with recognizing race and violating the colorblind ideology.
Additionally, he may have known that he should not be addressing race since his comment reveals racist undertones as he was surprised to receive a compliment from Black customers.
Within the journals, the students often commented about the change in voice tone
and volume. Here a student reveals a friend who tells a racist joke and whispers it:
Today one of my friends who is 21 years old and is a white male told me a racial joke when he saw me at school. It was about African Americans and was very negative. The punch line of the joke pretty much states that all African Americans are stupid. When he was telling me the joke we were on the University campus and it was right after classes let out at 9:50am, so there were many people walking around. When he was telling the joke to me he came up to me real close and was almost whispering it in my ear. At the same time he was looking around probably making sure no one could hear him. (Steve, WM, 19, Midwest) Measures had to be taken to protect the backstage conversation, when it was located in the frontstage. The white student violated the cultural personal space boundary (“he came up to me real close”), particularly significant between male friends (Hall 1966).
Protecting the backstage trumped over cultural personal space boundaries. In addition to getting physically close to Steve, the white friend whispered the joke, while looking around to make sure no one heard it. With this level of protection (surveillance, whispering, getting physically close), it sends a clear message that he is aware that this type of joking is not appropriate openly in the frontstage.
The backstage region is not only a space where white friends and family interact.
In this next account, a white store manager whispers to Cathy about following a Black
woman around the store:
Being in a bad, depressed mood I decided to lift my spirits and take myself shopping. …[I went] into a popular, all-girl clothing store (targeted at the younger generation), I noticed that the store was empty. There were two workers behind the counter, both white and one seemingly older than the other. I’m guessing that she was the manager. Being the only customer, I quickly helped myself to the racks of clothing. Both of the women were extremely helpful and gave great customer service. I felt bad because I had been there for so long trying on so many different outfits. It was surprising that neither of the two women got frustrated with me.
While checking out, both of the women were behind the counter helping me.
While the manager was ringing me up and the other woman was folding my clothes, a black girl around my age walked into the store. She did not look like she had much money, but she was entitled to shop in the store just as much as me. Not to mention, one should “never judge a book by its cover.” I saw the manager stare at her with suspicion. She leaned towards her co-worker next to her, and mumbled, “Go over there and keep a close eye on her. I have a bad feeling.” I turned back to look at the girl shopping. She looked like she wasn’t causing any harm. As the co worker headed over to the black girl, I just stood there amazed by what was said.
The manager leaned over the counter and whispered, “You never know who you can trust anymore.” I just stood there and thought about what this woman just said to me. What was the difference from me walking in the store by myself and the black girl, besides our color? I could have had all the intentions of shop lifting, and with the manager being so close minded, would have never had any suspicion because I was white. If I weren’t so addicted to shopping I would have left without my clothes. I felt bad, but was there really anything I could have done to change the woman’s mind. Maybe, but I seriously doubt it. (Carol, WF, 20, Southeast) In this narrative, whispering is a tool used to secure the backstage location so that the Black woman does not overhear the conversation. Even though the two white women do not know each other, the store manager assumes that Carol’s white skin is a common bond, or a “passport” into the backstage.
This account reveals the differential treatment, or racial profiling, that many whites reported observing against people of color (often Blacks). Many whites wrote in their journals about similar situations: they observed blatant racial profiling like Carol wrote about, and whites also wrote about being told to mistreat people of color by their white employers. For example, many white students in the sample wrote about being instructed by their bosses to tell a Black person that the “job is already taken” yet to accept applications from whites. This type of differential treatment was most common in employment situations (such as retail and restaurants), as well as observing interactions with the police.