«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Examining who has the real power and the perceived power in this situation, reveals where Carol’s values lie. Carol assumes that the power rests with the white saleswoman who controls the clothing that Carol is reportedly “addicted to.” However, from a capitalist business perspective, the paying customer wields the true power. For Carol, securing her possessions and not causing a scene is more important to her than seeking social justice. In other words, the material possessions are more valuable to Carol than equal human relations. Carol chooses the path of least resistance, and rationalizes it in her mind that the woman probably would not have changed her views, even if she did confront her.
Reading this journal entry within the context of her other accounts reveals a different side of Carol. In this situation, Carol does not confront the white manager, even though she knows this woman is in the wrong. In her journal, the account written before this one reveals Carol fighting with her boss whom she calls racist. Carol confronts her white boss at a health care center who turns away a Black family with a very ill child.
The boss refuses to work out a payment plan with the family, which is what they do for
many whites. Carol could lose her job, yet she reports screaming at her boss:
My rage finally exploding, I turned and looked at her and exclaimed, “What makes you any better than them? Your children are on Medicaid, and because you might have a little more money, and you are white, that makes you have priority over them? The way I see it, a disrespectful white is worse that a poor black!” Even though I knew I was going to be in big trouble come Thursday, I didn’t care.
(Carol, WF, 20, Southeast) Reading the journals in context, it makes little sense why Carol would jeopardize her job by yelling at her white boss, but she would not confront a store manager for blatantly profiling a Black woman. Perhaps as a college student, Carol is not economically invested in her part-time job. Further exploration is warranted into determining what causes whites to confront racism in some situations, but not in others.
Vague Language In addition to whispering, a second verbal mechanism that whites use to protect the backstage when physically near the frontstage is using vague language. This often took the form of ambiguous comments like “you know what I mean” or the pronoun “they” to mean persons of color. Here, Vanessa uses vague language instead of using race as a
descriptor while sitting next to a Black person:
Today, I was on break in between classes, [and] I decided to call my boyfriend.
During our conversation, I heard loud yelling down the hall. I could tell it was a black boy yelling, the more I listened I figured out that he was screaming at a girl.
He was telling her what she had done wrong and he didn’t want to put up with her attitude anymore. My boyfriend could hear the yelling and asked what it was. I had to wait until their argument stopped, because I could not hear my phone conversation. After I could hear again, the first thing out of my boyfriend’s mouth was, “were they white or black.” They’re happened to be a black person sitting near me so I didn’t want to say out loud “black.” I asked him which one he thought it was. He responded “black.” He was right, but it was almost like he knew which race it was from there actions. He assumed that black people would be more likely to behave in public like that. (Vanessa, WF, 21, Southeast) This conversation is a backstage phone conversation that takes place physically near the frontstage. Since Vanessa is sitting next to a Black person, she does not feel comfortable mentioning race, so she relies on vague language like “Which one do you think it is?” By using ambiguous talk, she can effectively deal with this apparent contradiction: she can safely communicate to her white boyfriend, yet hide from the Black man that she is violating the colorblind ideology.
Vanessa does not actually say that she saw the couple arguing; only that she heard loud yelling and “could tell it was a black boy.” Vanessa and her boyfriend are relying on racial markers other than skin color to define race. Voice, volume, and perhaps language may be all that they need to hear to assign racial definitions to the couple. Even over the phone, the boyfriend could guess the race of the couple, and its significance.
Rather than guessing the race of the couple, a more important question to ask might be, why is the race of the arguing couple important? It seems that Vanessa’s boyfriend is validating the stereotype that Blacks misbehave in public. This definition of “appropriate behavior” is almost always based a white standard upon which all others are judged (Collins 2000).
In backstage conversations that are near the frontstage, Vanessa reported using vague language to disguise her discomfort with mentioning race. Many of the white
students reported hearing other whites use vague language, such as reported by Jerry:
It was about 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night. My wife and I were at Wal-Mart getting some household items. The store was very full of adults and children. The people at Wal-Mart were diverse in race, gender, and age. While we were shopping, Rena and I ran into one of her co-workers [from work]. This woman lived in a town that is just down the road from the Wal-Mart we were shopping at. She mentioned that her town is submitting a proposal to build a Wal-Mart super center and that another town closer to inner city has also submitted a proposal to build a Wal-Mart super center. She commented “Hopefully if they build that store in [the inner city] it will keep certain people away from our store, if you know what I mean.” Then she looked at a young black lady that had several children yelling in the aisle. My wife and I just smiled and then said goodbye to the woman. I was a little disturbed that Rena’s co-worker had made that comment because I have seen just as many white women in Wal-Mart that had children that were acting obnoxious as black women.
(Jerry, WM, 28, Midwest) Rena’s white coworker relies on vague language like, “certain people,” “our store,” “if you know what I mean” paired with nonverbal body language to convey an implicit meaning. All of the white actors in this account understood that “certain people” meant “inner city” people of color. There was no need to explain why this woman did not want “certain people” away from “our” white, middle-class store.
Not only was there an implicit understanding in the woman’s ambiguous statement, but there was also an understanding that the inappropriate comment would not be challenged. Even though Jerry was disturbed by the comment, he and his wife both smiled and walked away. The coworker was not confronted, and her racial comment was allowed to pass without consequence. Similar to Carol who did not confront the blatant mistreatment by the manager in the clothing store, whites often remain passive bystanders to inappropriate racial comments and behaviors.
Code Language In backstage interactions that occur near the front, not only did whites use vague language, but they also used specific code language. This code assumes a common understanding of the terms, perhaps conceptualized as a created “white” language. In this
next account, a white woman is educated about a racial term:
Today my husband and I went to [a University football] game. When we were leaving it was getting dark and my husband says to me “look at all of those moon crickets.” I confusingly asked him what he had meant by that. When we got into the car, he explained to me that all of the black people walking around under the moon light looks like a bunch of crickets scurrying around. Then he said “what do you call a stoned Mexican?” “A baked bean.” (Rebecca, WF, 26, Midwest) Rebecca did not know the meaning of her husband’s racial term, and she had to be educated about the meaning of this code language. As “moon crickets” is a strange term which does not readily convey racial connotations, her husband may feel comfortable saying it near the open frontstage. However, in the privacy of their car, he can reveal to her the significance of the racial term. A number of white students in the sample described using animal metaphors, such as crickets, monkeys and gorillas, to describe persons of color. In explaining the meaning of the term, it triggers her husband to tell a racist joke against Latinos.
The code language is not only used among friends and relatives. The language is
often structured into the workplace as well:
My roommate shared another experience with me that she had at work tonight. She explained to me that whenever suspicious looking people come into the store the manager advises her to “go stock fragrances,” which really means to go on the other side of the store to keep an eye on the suspicious looking individuals that entered their store. I am sure it is just a precautionary measure taken by the manager to make sure they don’t steal anything, but my roommate noticed that the individual’s ethnic background varied, but typically they were minority groups.
(Vicki, WF, 21, West) At this place of work, the code term “stock the fragrances” is an understood phrase to mean keep an eye on “suspicious” individuals. The term can be freely said in the frontstage, yet the meaning is conveyed safely in the backstage conversation between manager and worker. Although the term “suspicious” has no inherent racial connotations, the implicit meaning is that it refers to racial minorities and perhaps poor whites. Semantically, the whites in this account use deliberate nonracial language to convey racially motivated and meaningful interactions.
The white code language at work is not uncommon, especially in service sectors
like restaurants. In this journal entry, a Black waitress is reduced to an acronym:
This has been occurring for a while, but today I heard it and decided to write about it. One of my very good friends is an African American. We work in the same restaurant, and today at work I heard our manager calling her BG. I asked her what that meant and she said Black Girl. Let’s not point out any more obviously that she is our only black employee. I truly think that my manager is racist. He didn’t like my friend when she first started working there, possibly because she was black.
(Anna, WF, 21, Midwest) In this account, Anna’s friend is reduced to simply being referred to by acronym “BG” focused on her race and gender. Anna does not indicate if her friend is aware of her title, and whether or not this term is used in front of her. As Anna had to ask the meaning, it indicates that the code is not readily known (at least to whites) and that Anna had to be educated about the term and its reference.
The food service industry is a major employer of Black employees, compared to all other major industries (Feagin, Vera, and Batur 2001). When employed in restaurants, Black workers are more likely to be found in “back of the house” positions (like cooks, kitchen staff, and custodial), rather than in positions that have regular interaction with paying customers (like servers and bartenders). According to Feagin, Vera and Batur (2001: 69), “16% of kitchen workers and 19% of cooks are black, compared with only 5 percent of waiters and waitresses and less than 3% of bartenders.” As Anna’s account indicates, many Blacks who are employed as wait staff, particularly in large chain restaurants, face differential treatment by managers on account of race.
Racial prejudices and discrimination are prevalent not only when Blacks are the servers, but more commonly when Blacks are in the frontstage of the restaurant as the patrons. Just as Anna’s friend was referred to simply as “BG,” a similar acronym is used
to refer to Black patrons:
I was at work tonight and 23 year old white guy said to me that he didn’t want this table. I asked why, and he said, “It’s a BT.” BT stands for Black Table. The he walked away before I can ask him anything else. That wasn’t the first time I heard BT. (Ellie, WF, 19, West) White restaurant servers use the code language between themselves at work, and here the code word of “BT” is already known. Ellie does not have the opportunity to question the white server further. The code language served its purpose: it quickly conveyed that the table is undesirable simply due to the patron’s race.
In the dissertation sample, there were thousands of accounts written by white students who worked in restaurants, all across the country. Literally hundreds of accounts were written about the stereotype that Black patrons were worse tippers compared to other racial groups. Because of this stereotype, many white servers admitted to not trying as hard, and giving poor service (such as not refilling beverages when asked) to Black customers. A few whites noted the self-fulfilling prophecy: whites expect a bad tip from Blacks, do not give good service, and receive a poor tip (Mok and Hansen 1999).
The nature of when stereotypes are activated as a cognitive schema also assists in the stereotype that Blacks are undesirable patrons. Schemas act as filters, straining out information that is contradictory to or inconsistent with the stereotype (Fiske 1993;
Higgins and Bargh 1987). Meaning, whites tend to remember only situations that fit the stereotype (such as the Black patrons who tip poorly), and dismiss the situations that do not fit the stereotype, rather than reject the stereotype. Blacks who tipped well were viewed as rare or inconsistent with the stereotype, rather than rejecting the stereotype outright.
As a method of conveying inappropriate racial talk, some whites will invent code terms that be safely used in backstage conversations that may be overheard in the front.
In my own experiences waiting tables, the term “white people” was often replaced for the
more accurate term “Black people”:
In this restaurant, it is very common to hear servers say “Black people can’t tip” or to complain about receiving less than 15% gratuity after waiting on black patrons.