«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Survey Social scientists have often documented by means of surveys the apparently liberal shift in whites’ racial attitudes since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s (Hyman and Sheatsley 1964; Lipset 1996). There is much significant survey research on whites’ racial attitudes. Survey data indicate that the rate of whites who publicly profess blatant racial stereotypes has declined, but it is still substantial. For example, a 2001 National survey indicated 58% of whites applied at least one negative stereotype to Black Americans (such as lazy, violent, prefer welfare, or complaining) (Bobo 2001).
However, a few recent studies strongly suggest that one factor in this liberal shift involves whites saying one thing in public, and saying (and doing) something contrary to that in private. Specifically, two recent studies (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000; Myers and Williamson 2001) suggest that the abundance of survey data indicating that whites are more liberal in their racial attitudes today than in the past are insufficient, as whites today may be concealing true racial attitudes in some settings against persons of color.
Whites operating under a colorblind ideology may be more likely to ignore race in certain contexts (such as the oft-quoted phrase, “I don’t see color, I just see people”), yet still interact only in white social networks (Feagin 2000; Feagin and Vera 1995).
Colorblindness Literature Colorblindness among whites is often conceptualized as an extension of white racial transparency. 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). In this way, whiteness remains invisible as it perpetuates privilege, normalcy, and power.
Within this framework, it is easy for whites to ignore “race” within themselves, and to extend this avoidance of race among others, yet still navigate in a white world. Even when interacting with persons of color, for many whites the goal is to maintain a stance of not noticing color, for focusing on race is equated with white supremacy (Frankenberg 1993). In other words, to notice or talk about race is racist (Carr 1997).
Scholars like Leslie Carr (1997) argue that the colorblind ideology has replaced evolutionary racist ideology. Unlike what many whites will argue, ignoring race is not a solution to institutional and systemic racism, but it is a new form of racism. From a white standpoint, major social institutions are not white, but just “normal and customary” (Feagin 2000: 100). Many whites have adopted a colorblind position, whereby they claim that there is no longer a problem of racism if people do not acknowledge race.
Among the most cited research on white racial attitudes is conducted by Ruth Frankenberg (1993), who examines among other issues, colorblindness. From her 30 indepth interviews with white women in California, Frankenberg outlines three paradigms of racial construction: essential racism, colorblindness, and race cognizance. As well as contributing to racial theory with these three shifts in race conceptions, Frankenberg’s book is a landmark because it attempts to analyze the emotionality, or the “deeper feelings” of race relations and racism. Through personal interviews, Frankenberg offers a better understanding of whites’ emotions regarding racial relations that range from innocence to guilt, and fear/anger to pride/superiority.
In addition to Frankenberg’s research, currently only two other in-depth interview projects explore white racial attitudes; all three suggest that whites harbor very racist attitudes (Feagin and O’Brien 2003; Feagin and Vera 1995). Feagin and Vera (1995) limit their analysis of whites to one chapter of a larger project, but many key features used by these scholars are beneficial to this project. These authors rely on analyzing racial events, which they suggest reveal “the ways in which actions create and reflect structures both in and through time” (Feagin and Vera 1995: 17). Similar to Frankenberg (1993), Feagin and Vera (1995) hint at the range of often negative emotions (particularly fear and hatred) whites express toward people of color, especially African Americans.
Emotions, thoughts, and actions are often tailored according to the social location of the racial events.
Feagin and Vera (1995: 143) suggest that regarding racial events, we can use Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical analysis to explain how whites act differently in the public frontstage versus the more private backstage area. This similar conception is found in the social psychological literature referred to as modern racism, where the surface level (or public frontstage) covers deeper racist attitudes (in private backstage areas) (Dovidio and Gaerthner 1991). Compared to the recent past when overtly racist comments were tolerated and expected, now social pressures exist to avoid such overtly racist statements. However, subtle measures and tests in psychology suggest a racist core is still intact (Pettigrew 1989).
Bonilla-Silva and Forman (2000) argue that a new racial ideology of colorblind racism accounts for whites putting on an antiracist mask over an often prejudiced and racist core. They argue that this antiracist façade is captured in survey responses that may not accurately reflect whites’ true feelings. Whites report more prejudice in in-depth interviews than in surveys, and they also rely on semantic tactics in interviews to appear less racist (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000). For example, white college students may use hesitation, disclaimers, and ambivalent statements to save face and appear less racist while still conveying a (colorblind) racist ideology. Given the findings of Bonilla-Silva and Forman, the methodological approach used to gather information is critical to examine for how it impacts what data are, or are not, captured and how it is framed.
Bonilla-Silva and Forman confirm the social psychological literature, and also contexualize it in a social and historical context of racism.
Social Psychology There are also numerous racial experiments in psychology and social psychology (Devine 1989; Helms 1992). The research of Patricia Devine provides useful ways to think about stereotypes, particularly when they are activated or repressed. Devine and Elliot (1995) suggest that on the whole, everyone is aware of racist stereotypes, such as “Blacks are lazy” and “Jews are materialistic” no matter what level of prejudice a person holds. In other words, even if a person does not believe the stereotype, people possess knowledge that the racial stereotype exists.
Devine and her colleagues suggest a two-step model of the cognitive process: the automatic processing brought up by a stimulus (such as a member of the outgroup); and the controlled (conscious) processing that can ignore, refute, or confirm it. She suggests that less prejudiced persons use their conscious processing to edit out negative stereotypes. Although Devine’s work is respected in her field, some scholars take issue with the implication that negative stereotypes are automatically activated in everyone.
Fazio and colleagues (1995) suggest that considerable variability exists in people’s automatic processing of negative stereotypes.
Racial Classification Scheme Some researchers have used Goffman’s theoretical orientation to describe whites’ “schizophrenia” of racial relations, where whites say one thing in public, yet say and do something contrary to that in private (Feagin and Vera 1995; Myers and Williamson 2001). In the frontstage, whites learn that it is not appropriate to express racist sentiments; yet in the backstage, whites can relax this expectation.
In addition to conceptualizing racial events into Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis (1959) of performing in the frontstage and backstage, other researchers have categorized narrative events in other classification schemes. Feagin and Feagin (1989, 2003) describe the sites and range of discrimination along three distinct forms: overt discrimination (obvious to the victim and perpetrator), subtle discrimination (obvious to the victim, but not overt), and covert discrimination (hidden and difficult to document). Benokraitis and Feagin (1986) use a similar typology to describe various forms of sexism.
Additionally, Yamato (1987) utilizes similar categorization of four different manifestations of racism: aware/blatant, aware/covert, unaware/unintentional, and unaware/self-righteous. According to Yamato, the level of awareness is from the perspective of the white perpetrator. Like Feagin and colleagues, she differentiates between blatant (or overt) events and covert events that tend to be more difficult to document. We can find criticisms in Yamato’s categorization, such as the categories may not necessarily be discrete and fixed, but may be more fluid and overlapping. However, she does offer key elements of racial events to consider, such as examining the level of awareness and intention of the (white) perpetrator.
In this dissertation, I provide my own classification scheme based in part on Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor. I discuss frontstage, backstage, and the slippage between the two regions. I conceptualize the borders around the backstage region, and how whites protect a safe backstage, even when in the presence of people of color in the frontstage. To better understand the framework for this project, I will further detail Goffman’s perspective.
Goffman’s Dramaturgy In sociology, Goffman suggests that people use impression management (they present themselves using certain techniques) to sustain a performance that fits the requirements of a particular situation. As though we are actors on a stage, he suggests that there are two structural features of dramaturgy: the frontstage and backstage.
In the front region (“frontstage” in this dissertation), individuals and groups (referred to as “performance teams”) perform the roles that leads the audience to form an impression. According to Goffman, the front is “that part of the individual’s [or team’s] performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (1959: 22). Goffman also notes that in the front, performers typically conceal behaviors, attitudes, and emotions that can be expressed in the backstage.
According to Goffman, the backstage is a place “where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted” and “where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude” (1959: 112-113). Errors and mistakes are often corrected in the backstage before the frontstage performance. The backstage is characterized by a less formal atmosphere, where the actors can openly violate expected role behaviors.
There is a critical barrier between the frontstage and the backstage, for if the two intersect (such as when an outsider intrudes into the backstage) it leads to a “spoiled performance.” In the event of a mismanaged performance, remedies must be made, such as performing a new role fit for the intruder, or offering an aligning action or verbal account.
Goffman’s dramaturgy framework is typically discussed as a “micro” perspective, stemming from the symbolic interactionist theoretical paradigm. Goffman examines symbolism and the meaning of everyday interactions within the social context. In this project, I argue that the everyday interactions in the frontstage and backstage are not tangential to the social structure, but they make up the racialized social structure, within the context of structural and institutional racism.
Structural and Institutional Racism The literature on white racial attitudes often does not situate the research within a theoretical framework, such as a framework of institutional or systemic racism. This theoretical framework asserts that systemic, or institutional racism is composed of individual and collective attitudes, ideologies, and behaviors (both subtle and overt) that systematically support a racial hierarchy that privileges whites and limits the social reality of persons of color (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967; Feagin 2000).
My dissertation seeks to overcome these critical shortcomings in the literature by examining everyday racial events as described by white college students in theoretical perspective. The term “everyday” is used deliberately: it does not mean only an occurrence that occurs repeatedly on a daily basis. In sociology, “everyday” has a more specific meaning. Dorothy Smith (1987: 98) is credited with implementing the idea of the “everyday world” which “begins in the actual daily social relations between individuals.” She argues that the everyday world must be seen as being organized by multiple social relations that are not observable from within it. According to Smith, the focus of the everyday world is on how lives are organized by social relations and how individuals are located institutionally; this approach provides the foundation for “everyday racism” (Essed 1991).
Essed specifies that everyday racism is racism but not all racism is everyday racism; everyday racism constitutes the systematic, repetitive, familiar, and cumulative practices involving the (socialized) complex relations of attitudes and behaviors. Such discriminatory patterns and practices involve more than the actions of a few individual bigots, and also include the systemic practice of racism built into major societal institutions. By racism, I mean systemic racism: discriminatory patterns and practices which involve more than the actions of a few individual attitudes, but rather the systemic practices of racism built into society’s major institutions (Feagin and Houts 2004).
Everyday racism means experiencing multiple layers of incidents, feelings, reactions, pains, and responses at any one time, and the accumulation of these over an individual’s, family’s, and community’s lifetime (Feagin and Sikes 1994). Although Feagin and Sikes (1994) were referring to experiencing racism as the target, this project will examine everyday racism from the perspective of white participants. As described by Essed, it is these types of repetitive, familiar practices and these effects that I examine in this project.