«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
There are 3 main sections in this chapter: First, I examine moments when the white participants are aware of boundary shifts. The white actors can account for the change, even though they may not have a lot of time to change performances. For example, I discuss situations where there is an abrupt, but aware, shift such as when an “intruder” enters the scene. In this section, I also account for moments when whites carefully craft the shift, such as quickly transitioning from backstage to frontstage, and backstage again.
Second, I look at moments when whites forget they are not in the backstage. I divide this section into three parts: whites who forget that a person of color is in the setting; whites who “get caught” by persons of color just outside of the interaction; and whites who “confess” that they slipped in the backstage.
Finally, in the last section of this chapter, I examine the unreliable safe backstage.
Unlike the other two sections where racial categorizations appear to be clear (even if whites forget that not everyone in the interaction is white), in this section race assumes an ambiguous category. In this section I discuss two components, whiteness as a “passport” into the backstage, and whites who problematize whiteness. For example, there were a few whites who “came out” as not being all white, even when nothing in their biological and cultural background would suggest otherwise.
Typically when the social context shifted and it was accounted for, it moved from a backstage to a frontstage conversation. By “accounted for,” I mean that even though the shift may have been abrupt, it was noticeable to the white actors so they could alter their performance. The switch between regions occurred for two main reasons. First, an intruder entered the scene, forcing whites to modify their interactions. Second, there are cases where whites purposively manipulated the stages and shifted contexts.
Intruder Alert: Abrupt Shift In his dramaturgical analysis, Goffman notes that there are times when the audience segregation fails between the frontstage and backstage and an outsider stumbles into the backstage. At that time, the performers in the backstage may abruptly shift to an act that is fitting for the intruder to observe (Goffman 1959: 139). For example, George writes
about his white friends’ interactions when Black students entered the student union:
I was hanging out at the Union with a bunch of friends, all being white kids from Wyoming. Our conversation was about nothing important, but when a couple of black kids walked up, everybody got kinda quiet and weren’t being themselves anymore. I’m not sure if they stopped talking because they felt threatened or if they thought they might accidentally say something that would offend the two black kids. But it was obvious that the black kids were definitely the cause of the conversation changing. (George, WM, 21, West) There was a clear backstage conversation among white men, yet the intrusion of two Black men shifted the region to a frontstage interaction. Goffman notes that in this case, the whites need to shift to a performance that is fitting for the Black students to see.
However, the white students seem to be unsure about their frontstage performance as “they were quiet and weren’t being themselves anymore.” In the frontstage, the white students here are afraid they may “accidentally” say something that would offend the two Black students. This concern about saying the wrong thing indicates that in the white mind, there is a right and wrong way for whites to interact in the presence of Blacks. According to George, the whites collectively felt potentially threatened, awkward, and uncomfortable. The white men did not just individually change their interaction style, but as a group, their social networking changed.
In George’s account, the concern is that whites will do something wrong to violate the new frontstage. However, in this next account, the whites at a party are worried that
the newly arriving Black guests will do something wrong:
I was at a party with a bunch of my friends. The party was predominantly white.
We were all having a good time and there had been no trouble. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. At about eleven a group of people showed up.
Almost everyone in the group was black. They were greeted well and told they were welcome to stay, but you could tell that the mood of the party had changed ever so slightly. Everyone was a little more serious and tense. I noticed that people watched the group of people to see what they were doing and where they were going. The group did look a bit like trouble, but they seemed nice enough.
At the end of the night they went home. Nothing was stolen, broken, etc. There had been no problems all night long. Everyone at that party it seemed, was just waiting for those people to do something wrong. But everyone was wrong. They had been no different from any of the other people at the party except for the fact that they were black. I found this to be very, very sad. A lot of people at that party had such bad stereotypes about black people that they changed the way they were at a party. They obviously did not have as much fun if they were constantly watching and worrying. (Mike, WM, 19, West) The white backstage interaction changes when a group of Black people enter the party.
The interaction starts with whites laughing and having a good time, and then transitions to a serious, tense, and apprehensive atmosphere. Although there is extensive literature on racial profiling in public places (Walker, Spohn and DeLone 2004), much less is known about the private surveillance of Blacks while in the company of whites. The white students keep a police-like eye on the new guests, waiting for something bad to happen. Mike’s language paints a disturbing picture. Using terms like “those people” who looked “like trouble” conveys a sense of otherness about the Black men: they are different than us, simply due to race. The underlying assumption is that they will steal, break things, and otherwise act unruly.
The location is not a public environment, and we can speculate that the Black men were probably invited to this party by some white person there (they were greeted well and welcomed to stay). Based on Mike’s account, the assumption for many whites is that a private environment will be white, and there is surprise when “black trouble” walks in.
Their reaction suggests that for many of the whites at the party, there may be very little friendly social interaction across racial lines.
As further testament to limited cross-racial friendships, Mary notes how her usual
group of friends act differently around a Black man:
After Thanksgiving dinner my friends and I regrouped for one last night of fun.
My group of friends consists of whites and Asians. However, on this night we had a black guy hanging out with us. He was one of the nicest and one of the funniest people I have ever met. Many of my guy friends make comments that are uncalled for about race, age, gender, etc., but tonight they seemed to be on their best behavior so to speak. I think they really had to think before they spoke. This is a lesson they never practice. We all had a very fun night. (Mary, WF, 18, Southeast) The white and Asian friends collectively censor their backstage comments when they were hanging out with a Black friend. As Mary says this is an exercise they never practice, it implies that the group does not typically hang out with Black people. This extra effort to sanitize their stereotyping comments reveals that the group is aware that such comments are inappropriate and wrong. They clearly know who the “target” is of their usual derogatory comments. Rather than rethinking their comments in general, the group just watches what is said when the Black friend is present. There is apparently no consideration given to the damaging character of racial and gender stereotyping for whites as well as Blacks, nor is there an attempt to end such stereotyping.
Mary specifically calls out that it is the males who instigate the inappropriate comments about race, age, gender. In other journals in the sample, many white students wrote that it is white men who typically make racist, sexist and homophobic comments in the backstage. As noted in previous chapters, some white women make inappropriate comments, but disproportionately in the data, it is white men who make sexist and racist remarks.
Mary notes that her usual group of friends is not only white, but also includes Asian friends. The inclusion of Asian friends here is interesting and might not involve full breaking of the color barrier, as certain conforming-to-whiteness Asian Americans are awarded “honorary white” status by whites, at least temporarily (Aguilar-San Juan 1993).
In this section, I have examined and accounted for shifts in context, such as when a Black person enters a typically white scene. In the next part of this section, I examine other context shifts such as when whites purposively manipulate the shift in the backstage and frontstage. Again, in both of these situations the actors are not completely caught off guard, as whites can often instantly change their performance in the new context.
Transitioning Performances: Back and Front The characteristics of this transitioning performance include manipulation and fakeness. Whites in the backstage are privy to the carefully crafted performance in the frontstage, while people of color are only apprised of the frontstage performance. Joanna reveals her disgust at a white stranger who tells a racial joke to her, and then engages in
conversation with a Black man:
I took my driving exam (and passed!!). It was lunch time and the test center was busy. I had to wait in line before I could be seen by the next assistant. There was a girl waiting behind me in the queue, we exchanged general chitchat. …She was white, with very short bleached blond hair, approximately 25 years old. We started discussing test questions from the book, and making fun of how stupid some of them appeared to be. She read one of the questions, “What do you do if you are approaching a stop light, and see someone on the side of the road with a white cane?” I laughed at this question, and said jokingly “isn’t that extra points?” She turned looked at me, smiled, turn to see who was around her and then in a very quiet voice moving her head closer towards me and answered, “No, that depends on what colour they are.” I was amazed and shocked at what she had just said. I looked around and noticed that the guy [just near] her was black, and there were several other ethnic groups around. I choose not to make a big deal of it — and therefore didn’t react or say anything. After this comment, our interaction was limited. I chose not to converse with her, apart from the occasional nod of the head or answering yes or no. However we were still sat next to one other. I was disgusted at the sincerity in her voice, how so much hatred could be exposed though so few words. I just wanted to finish the test and leave. The girl then turned to the (black) guy and asked if his questions were as stupid as ours, he smiled and said yes. This bothered me more, because not only was she racist but also two-faced. She got up and left the table, departing saying “Good luck to you both” (myself and the black guy). I was infuriated because the comment (“no that depends on what colour they are”) was said so nonchalantly, she didn’t think anything of it. And it appeared that she thought I would agree with her, and think the same thing. The thing that troubled me the most was that she was so comfortable saying it to me, it made me wonder how I appeared to others. Because the last way I would want to portray myself would be as a racist or not excepting to those different to myself. (Joanna, WF, 21, Southeast) In a previous journal entry, Joanna reveals that she is an international student from Europe, and is involved in a long term interracial relationship with a Black man. Most of her journal entries were insightful, as this one illustrates. Joanna recognizes and is disturbed that her white skin is interpreted by some as a marker that she shares the same racial ideology as other whites. Here, her white skin is a passport that allows her into the backstage of a woman she just met.
It is critical to note that the backstage is not only between trusted friends and family, but the backstage also involves interactions among white strangers, often based on the (sometimes false) assumption that all whites share a common ideology. As discussed in the last chapter, the white woman took careful measures to protect the backstage: she looked around, used a quiet voice, and got physically close to a woman she had just met, all to ensure that her inappropriate comment is not overheard in the protected backstage.
Note too the critical assumptions of the interaction. The white woman assumes Joanna would: (1) understand what the comment refers to, (2) agree with her comment, and (3) not confront her on her racial comment. Although Joanna did not agree with the woman, she specifies that she chose not to say anything, indicating that on some level, Joanne recognizes that she had the option to respond in many ways. Joanna could have verbally confronted the woman by yelling or softly telling her she did not agree. She could have questioned her about what she meant, or why she said it. Joanna also had the option to leave the testing center or at least move away from the woman.
As it relates to this chapter, the white woman being discussed did not have to include the Black man into her conversation. The white woman crafted the stages: she purposively kept the Black man out of her backstage conversation with Joanna for purposes of telling a racial joke, but brought him into the frontstage, allowing Joanna to see both performances. Although whites have learned it is not appropriate to be outwardly racist in the frontstage, as noted in Chapter 4, oftentimes these expectations carry over into the backstage. The woman may have included the Black man into the conversation to prove to Joanna that she is not racist, as she might have sensed that Joanna did not appreciate the comment.