«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
In the sample, many whites made the parallel argument that being polite to a person of color is equated with not being a racist. As we saw in an account in Chapter 3, if a white person is nice to a person of color, then it means they are not racist or prejudiced.
Joanna takes issue with the white woman making a racial comment, and then being kind to a Black man, and calls her “racist and two-faced.” People of color are not ignorant to “happy faced racism” and often indicate that verbal confrontation is preferable to the hypocritical and deceitful gestures (Yamato 1987).
Similar to Joanna’s account, Crystal observers a white friend’s father in the
backstage and in the frontstage:
One of my (white) friend’s Dads took a few of us (all white) out to dinner tonight.
My friend is from Boston, and her Dad was going on and on about what a great city it was. He talked about how it was a great city for people our age and how we should all come visit sometime soon. Her Dad said that one of the reasons it was such a great city was because unlike all the other big cities he could think of, there weren’t a lot of black people running around. Sue (whose Dad it was) was obviously embarrassed. I think the rest of us all thought it was a little weird he would say that, but none of us even talked about it after because we didn’t want Sue to feel weird. We also know that parents were raised in a different time period and it just seems that parents, more often than kids in our own generation, just have a different view of minorities. I don’t think they are bad people for it, I just think they have to be a little more open-minded about things.
After dinner, we went back to Sue’s house to hang out and talk. One of Sue’s roommates (Monica) is half black, half white. Sue’s dad was very cordial and seemed to take real interest in what Monica talked about. He did not seem to be racist at all. He even told Monica that she should come out to visit Sue at their home sometime. It is always weird to me to see how people like Sue’s Dad group minorities all together, but when they meet someone who actually is minority it seems that the stereotypes they usually think of never seem to apply to that person.
(Crystal, WF, 20, Midwest) Crystal observes Sue’s father make a racial comment against people of color in a backstage conversation, yet act very cordial around a biracial woman in the frontstage.
The white man is actively manipulating his racial presentation to best fit the frontstage interaction, compared to his backstage interaction. According to Goffman, individuals are not cruel and cunning in the manipulation, but individuals have multiple “selves.” Depending on the situation, individuals (and collective groups) engineer the presentation of the self to best fit the situation. As some whites are privy to both the backstage and the frontstage, the presentation comes across as manipulative and artificial.
Crystal comments that age generation is often a factor in racial attitudes, and excuses the white man for making an inappropriate comment as he was raised in a different age cohort. In the sample, many white students commented that they would not confront a parent, or grandparent for making a racist comment for this reason. More than one student wrote something like, “Racism will die when Grandpa dies.” The underlying assumption is that younger whites are more racially tolerant and accepting than older whites. Scanning most of the accounts in this chapter alone illustrates that this naïve thinking is far from true.
In Crystal’s account, a person who exhibits some racist tendencies (typically a negative attribute), can still be a good person (a positive attribute). Personal racism can be a mostly non-critical appendage to an otherwise good core. In the previous account written by Joanna, a person acting nice is assumed to be not prejudiced or racist. Many students compare a person’s personality or personal attributes to their “racist tendencies.” There are many implications for comparing personality type or performance to racial tendencies. Examining race only at this micro-level ignores the structural implications, and denies how racial actions and attitudes may impact social networks. Individually, these may be very kind, well-meaning whites, but they still contaminate the social network.
Sue’s father notes that “a lot” of Black people is not “great,” but he seems fine with controlling (and limiting) the number of people of color he associates with. Other scholars have noted the segregation patterns initiated by whites to maintain a whitemajority location (Massey 2001). In the sample, many whites reported controlling their surroundings to maintain a white-majority population, such as by actively leaving situations where whites were not in control.
Crystal notes that the white man and others like him group people of color together in the abstract, but often their real experiences do not match the stereotype. To account for this cognitive dissonance, whites could reevaluate the abstract stereotype to match the actual lived experience. However, as Crystal comments, most whites have a firm grip on the stereotype and when confronted with a “real” person of color, they operate on the assumption that she or he is simply an exception to the rule.
In both Crystal’s and Joanna’s accounts, the social actors took into consideration their performances in the frontstage and backstage. The interactions were carefully planned and crafted. However, in many settings whites are not always able to make such provisions. Whites are not always able to predict when the frontstage would crash into the backstage, or when the backstage would transition suddenly to the frontstage.
In other settings there are disrupted performances, and there is a need to repair the situation with aligning actions, such as excuses, accounts, or setting up a new performance. This section will examine spoiled performances, and the methods that whites took to correct the accidental slippage between the backstage and frontstage.
There are 3 components to this section. First, I examine whites who forget that a person of color is in the interaction, and that it is not a “safe” backstage. Second, I examine whites who “get caught” making an inappropriate comment by persons of color located just outside of the interaction. Third, I examine the whites who confessed in their journals the moments when they slipped between the backstage and frontstage. This last part is significant, as in most of the other journal accounts whites “tell” on other whites.
Excuses: Repairing the Slippage Most whites took careful measures to ensure the people of color were not included in the backstage, such as whispering, using code or vague language (see Chapter 5), or avoiding people of color (Chapters 3 and 5). However, there are moments when whites forgot that persons of color were in the interaction. In this first account, a white woman
forgets that her Black man friend is in the car:
Tonight some of my friends and I decided that it would be fun to go downtown for the night to party. The people that I went with were all students from the same college that I attended. We go to a school that is pretty safe and very far away from any major city or town, so [downtown] is very big and different to most of us. The people that I went with were 2 other while females, 1 white male, and 1 black male.
As we were driving through one of the more primarily, black, run down neighborhoods, one of my girlfriends said, “Quick everyone, lock your doors.” Then we all looked at her with a look in our eyes that told her that she had said something stupid. All of us know that our black male friend would probably feel offended since he somewhat identified with the area that we were driving through.
The she said again, “Wait, what am I talking about, Zack (the black male) can protect us.” This comment again was not quite the right thing to say. It seemed as if she was making the situation more uncomfortable than it already was. (Caitlyn, WF, 19, Midwest) Caitlyn begins her entry contrasting the safe, white, college town her school is in compared to the downtown, mostly Black city they were visiting for the night. Although she says that her friends are not familiar with the downtown area, she also claims that Zack, her Black friend, can identify with the “black, run down neighborhood.” The spatial location of this account takes place in a private car among friends, as they travel through a public area thought by these whites to be unsafe. In the journals, many whites (especially women) indicate that is it automatic to check the security of the car doors while in the presence of Blacks (especially men). The white woman apparently did not think twice about checking the security of the doors, and announcing to her peers that they do the same. White (especially women’s) fear of Black men is so ingrained in their thinking that it appears to be beyond a conscious thought process, to a subconscious and deeply rooted level. The white woman in this account assumes that she needs to protect herself from Black harm.
The white woman forgets that she is not in a safe backstage among only whites, and her friends give her a nonverbal cue to indicate that she violated the frontstage boundary by crossing into backstage conversation, and that she needed to repair the situation. As a means to remedy this spoiled frontstage performance, the woman acknowledges her mistake and shifts to include Zack into the performance. The role she assigns for Zack is to be the white protector against harmful Blacks. In other words, she is assuming that her Black friend can protect her from other Black men. Zack no longer is her friend, but is her protector from other men who look like him.
In this next account, a white man forgets that he is not in a safe backstage, and
makes a racial comment at a crowded party:
I was with one of my friends (male Caucasian, 19 years old) during a party to celebrate a football win. There were many races of people there, Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic mostly. The young people ranged in age from 18there were more females than males and the total people there were about 100.
The fact that females outnumbered males was one reason why we attended the party, but our friend also threw it, he is a Caucasian male, 19 years of age. My friend that I came to the party with was talking to me and two girls, the one I was with was Hispanic and 18-years old, and the other was Caucasian and the same age.
Before we knew it the party began to get out of hand and a few people, all Hispanic, that were drinking ran into our little group disrupting our conversation.
Before my [white] friend could stop himself he said, “Damn Mexicans!” Suddenly the people around us got dead quiet. The girl I was with looked at my friend with an angry stare. She said, “Not all of us are Mexican, I am Jamaican, and I do NOT appreciate you saying that!” She went on, “I don’t care why you said it, and I don’t care who you said it to, but if I hear you saying ANYTHING like that again, I will have to personally hunt you down and kill you.” The room was dead quiet and I was shocked. Everyone was staring at us. From the back of the crowd, someone whispered, “What happened??” The answer slowly came, “I don’t know man...” After what seemed like an eternity of silence, we left. I will never forget that as long as I live. My friend and I do not talk about it that much. I still date the girl I met at the party, but she cannot stand being in the same house as my friend. Let’s just say my friend has not heard from his girl since then. (Alex, WM, 20, Southeast) At this party, a white man presumably forgets that he is not in a safe backstage conversation. Alex indicates, “Before my friend could stop himself,” indicating that this racial comment was an automatic reaction to the situation. The friend did not stop to process the meaning of what he was about to say, and what the consequences might have been. Many white students indicated in their journals that most of their interactions are just among white people, so there is little practice to edit their performance for the frontstage.
Alex’s girlfriend rightly puts the white man in his place. In just a few words, she educates him (“Not all of us are Mexican”), tells him how she feels, tells him there is no excuse for his comment (either in the frontstage or in the private backstage), and tells him the consequences if he says it again (“hunt you down and kill you”). Even though she had no idea the man was going to make an ignorant comment, the onus of responsibility is on her shoulders as a person of color to respond to the comment (Lugones 1990). As evident from her forthright and eloquent response, she was certainly prepared with an arsenal of potential responses.
At the party, Alex notes that there were whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. The category Hispanic, or “Mexican” as noted by Alex’s friend, is often an umbrella category for “brown people” when the actual descent is not known (Dávila 2001). Even Alex notes that his date is “Hispanic” at the beginning of the entry, yet she clarifies at the party that she is Jamaican. Since Alex is clearly writing this account after the incident took place, it is unclear why he would not indicate her correct ethnicity.
By forgetting that he was not in the backstage, the consequences lead to social awkwardness and disrupted fun. This is true not only for himself, but also for his circle of friends, and for the other party-goers. The remedy for a spoiled frontstage performance in this case was to leave the situation.
Getting Caught In the previous section, the white participants forgot they were not in a safe backstage. In this section, the participants may not have forgotten, as many whites made their comments on purpose, but did not expect people of color to overhear. Although whites often take precautions to ensure a safe backstage (such as outlined in Chapter 5), this was not always the case. Whites did not always secure the backstage boundary, and many times unsuspecting outsiders not in the backstage were witness to an unfortunate performance.
In this account, a white person is caught making a racist comment at a restaurant
and is forced to apologize: