«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Ironically, it is also common for a white server (almost always male) to enter the kitchen and yell, “I hate white people.” Initially this statement may seem out of place in an all/mostly-white establishment. However, these comments are always uttered after the server has waited on non-white patrons. By replacing the word “white” for what would be typically “black” the server saves public face, and the sarcasm is usually dismissed with a laugh. (Author’s personal notes 1999) Most whites have learned that it is not appropriate to be blatantly racist, yet they may continue overt racist practices and beliefs under a guise of code words and euphemisms.
Yelling “I hate white people” is a safe way to express an underlying racial message. The (usually male) server does not have to recognize his racist tendencies, and the comment can be dismissed as a joke.
The use of code language is a systematic method of implying racialized attitudes and practices without the overt knowledge to the victim of racism. When using these code words, whites can get their racialized message across, yet maintain their naiveté and innocence for they have not technically violated racial language. By hiding race, it allows whites to keep a clean conscious and maintain moral integrity. White servers may defend their innocence of racism, yet still reinforce the racial hierarchy.
Lynn reports that at her restaurant, the term “Canadians” is code word for Blacks:
My roommate Roxanne is a hostess at [a popular restaurant] and she told us that she has always questioned the veracity of complaints thrown at her by servers who whine about poor tipping by black customers. …The servers at [the restaurant] have verbally attacked Roxanne for seating them with black customers. Roxanne usually yells at them for coming to her to tell her not to seat “Canadians” (a code word for black Americans at this restaurant) in their section. I have had similar experiences while working as a hostess at this restaurant. …. This idea of “Canadians” is quite disturbing when people in the restaurant understand that it is the equivalent of using “niggers.” (Lynn, WF, 22, Southeast) The white servers in this popular restaurant use a safer term “Canadians” (though still problematic) to convey to the hostess that they do not want Black patrons in their section.
As Lynn views it, the term Canadian is the social equivalent to the racist epithet “nigger.” Research suggests that other restaurant code words to refer to Black patrons include terms like “Cousins” and “Moolis” (Dirks and Rice, forthcoming). Through the common vocabulary, white servers are able to safely express racial meanings with other whites who know the language, even if they are physically near the frontstage.
Other restaurant code language described by whites in the sample, include terms that refer to the presence of too many Blacks either in the restaurant or in a server’s section.
For example, Gary (WM, 19, Southeast) discusses a night he was waiting tables and eight African Americans entered the restaurant, “The server looked at me and said, ‘Boy, it’s getting pretty dark in here.’ She then proceeded to complain about getting the party because she assumed that she was going to get a bad tip.” Besides phrases like “it’s getting pretty dark in here,” other whites reported hearing phrases like “nightfall is approaching” to refer to the arrival of persons of color. Patricia commented that the phrase “in the ghetto” was used to refer to numerous Blacks that
were in her section:
Tonight there were quite a few remarks about tables coming in. I know that most non-white people are usually stereotyped as bad tippers and this isn’t always true.
But there is a stereotype for a reason, because most of the time it is true. I don’t consider myself a racist at all. In fact, before I moved [here] I didn’t have very many close white friends. All of my friends were either Asian or Black. But I still find myself being prejudice towards blacks. While I did not make any remarks, I did notice my mood change when I was sat 2 all black tables in a row. A little later another black table was sat in my section and somebody made the remark that my section looked like “the ghetto.” While I don’t have any bad feelings towards black people, or think they are any less of a person or human then myself or anybody else, it is a well known fact in the restaurant business 75% of blacks are bad tippers. I don’t feel too guilty because in the past I have worked with other black servers, and even they hate waiting on black people, not because they are racist, but b/c it is like waiting on somebody for free. And worse yet, we are missing money because another table would potentially tip much better in their place. As I expected, all three black tables I had tonight tipped less then 10%. One was even a 5% tip. I did not treat them any different, and could not find a single justifiable reason for such a bad tip. (Patricia, WF, 22, Southeast) As related to this chapter, a white server uses the code language of the section “in the ghetto” to refer to the many Black patrons in Patricia’s section. Patricia’s account is so common among the white students, it warrants further consideration. Patricia uses many semantic moves to prove she is not a racist (including saying “I don’t consider myself a racist at all”). She offers that she has many Asian and Black friends and she provides a disclaimer that she cognitively knows that the stereotype of Blacks and tipping is not always true. However, Patricia admits to being prejudiced towards Blacks, but claims that it is based on experience and economics, not race.
As we have seen in other journal accounts, Patricia specifies that she does not think that Blacks are less than human, as if this point were up for debate. She also calls out that she does not feel guilty about her feelings, as she can legitimize it by referring to Black servers who feel the same way that she does.
Patricia notes that she received a poor tip from her Black patrons. At the end she notes that she did not treat them any differently (presumably compared to her white patrons), and that she is not sure why she was tipped less. However, at the beginning of her entry, Patricia admits that she is prejudiced towards Blacks, and that her mood changed. Waiting tables is emotional work: servers are required to smile, appear gracious, and accept their servile position. In order to receive a good tip, it often entails doing more than just meeting the needs of the table. For example, a server doing their job means providing a drink refill when it is asked. Yet, doing a job well means anticipating that the patron will need a refill and replacing it well before the last sip is taken. There is this “gray area” in defining and measuring “good service” (defined by actions, as well as attitude), compounded by racial expectations. Given this, it is often difficult to convince a white server that doing a “good job” with a white table does not compare to doing a “good enough job” with a Black table.
Patricia rationalizes the stereotype of Blacks tipping poorly by claiming “it is a well known fact that 75% of Blacks tip poorly.” Many white servers in the study used statistics as facts to illustrate that Blacks are poor tippers. For example, Fred (WM, 24, Southeast) claimed, “There are black people who tip the 15% that they should and some even 20%, but on average 90% tip poorly.” Few whites in the sample referred to the widespread mistreatment of Blacks in restaurants by whites, even though there is extensive literature documenting the mistreatment (Feagin and Sikes 1994) This section has discussed in detail the code language that whites use with family members and coworkers to convey racial meanings. Numerous examples were provided in the restaurant, where there is a clear frontstage and backstage. By using terms like “Canadians,” “BT,” “BG,” “in the ghetto,” and “getting dark” whites are able to more comfortably hold a backstage conversations, even if it may be overheard by persons of color in the frontstage.
Thus far I have described two processes that whites use when having backstage conversations that are near the front: verbal and nonverbal. A third way that whites deal with protecting the backstage is to not change the conversation style at all. This is the least frequently reported type of interaction with students in the backstage near a person of color. These conversations tend to be uncomfortable for some whites, and may lead to consequences.
In the backstage among whites, it is safe to refer to a store owned and operated by Middle Eastern persons as “Habhibs,” a racist term. Typically white students do not use
this same racist term in the frontstage, however, Matt describes otherwise:
There is a store down the street called [store name]. Two Middle Eastern people own [the store] and everybody knows the stereotypical name is Habhibs. So not trying to be racist my friends and I actually call it Habhibs. It just makes it easier and more people know what we are talking about when we say lets go to Habhibs to get something to drink. I know it’s not the nicest thing but we don’t physically call it Habhibs in front of him. Today my friend went to the store pretty inebriated and in the store he received a phone call and said he was at Habhibs while purchasing something to drink. I don’t know his real name but he got very offended and kicked him out of the store and told my white friend never to come back. (Matt, WM, Southeast) Matt’s white friend did not protect the backstage conversation from the front, and because of this, he suffered the consequence of getting kicked out of the store. Matt legitimizes why he and his friends use the racial term: it is convenient as his friends know what store they are talking about. He also comments that there is no real harm as they do not (normally) say it in front of the store owners. Matt uses semantic moves and disclaimers like “trying not to be racist,” suggesting that perhaps they have tried but failed to be non-racist, as they continue to refer to the store as “Habhibs.” The role of alcohol is often used as an excuse for diminishing one’s accountability.
Perhaps if the white student were not drunk, he would not have referred to the store using the safe backstage name. Although alcohol can be attributed to loosening one’s inhibitions, it cannot create a sentiment that is not already there (Feagin and McKinney 2003).
Alcohol is not the only factor accounting for students who carry on backstage conversations near an unprotected frontstage. In this next account, white women have a
private race conversation in a public coffeehouse:
Today I went to go for some coffee with some of these girls I know. As we were waiting online a discussion arose about one girl who had been randomly roomed with an African American for the fall semester. The other two girls gasped when they heard this exclaiming that they didn’t know what they would do if they had been so unfortunate. One girl said, “I would be out of there so fast. Black people just don’t live the same way we do.” She then continued to explain how when she got the name of her roommate, she was so worried that it sounded like a black name. She said she was so relieved to come to school and realized she was white.
Meanwhile, every single person on line was listening to this conversation; I was so worried that some of them would get offended. (Lisa, WF, 18, Southeast) The white women do not stop their conversation even though they are in a public coffeehouse line. As noted previously in this chapter, college students many times do not have a choice as to who they will be paired to live with in the dormitories. The white women “gasped” when finding out that a white woman had been “so unfortunate” to room with an African American. There is an obvious us-versus-them dichotomy established, as one woman claims that they do not “live the same way we do.” Lisa does not note what the racial composition of the coffeehouse line is: it is entirely conceivable that only whites were in the coffeehouse, perhaps suggesting a secure backstage. However, Lisa’s hesitation and concern that someone would be offended suggests that the setting was not a safe backstage. In Chapter 6, I further explore the notion of an unreliable safe backstage.
In this chapter, I have explored conversations that take place in the backstage, but that are physically near the front. In most of these interactions, whites take precautions to protect the backstage location, however this is not always the case as the last section illustrates. I outlined the nonverbal mechanisms (body language, waiting for the intruder to leave, and avoidance) and verbal mechanisms (whispering, vague language, and code language) that whites utilize in protecting the backstage. Racial action has a repertoire of verbal and nonverbal language that is shared and reinforced among whites in the backstage. (I further analyze this white social network of the learning, sharing, and reinforcing of racial actions and attitudes in Chapter 7.) Examining whites who carefully guard the backstage boundaries against people of color illustrates the different expectations in the frontstage and backstage interactions. If there were no difference in whites’ interactions in the frontstage and backstage regions, there would never be a reason to secure the backstage boundaries. In Chapter 6, I explore further the slippage between the frontstage and the backstage, and the implications for
In the previous chapter, I described how backstage and the frontstage are not distinct separate regions. There is often slippage between the two regions, and for many whites, measures must be taken to protect the safe backstage. For example, in a backstage conversation that is physically near people of color, the white students reported using verbal and nonverbal mechanisms to protect the safe backstage. This chapter continues that conversation, focusing on the “slippage” of the shifting contexts and unreliable boundaries.