«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
I went to [a sports bar] with some of my friends to watch Monday Night Football and eat thirty wings. To me it is the best dinner when you only have five dollars to spend. My friends were ordering sandwiches and other entrees while I was ordering the early bird wing special. One of my friends was willing to buy me a meal, but I insisted on having wings. All of the sudden I hear, “Look, Bob’s ordering the nigger special” and then many of the guys laughed. I wanted to punch the kid so bad for what he said. However, a black male college student heard what he said and asked him to apologize to him, and me for calling me a “nigger.” The white kid, in fear of his life, quickly apologized to the black male and me. It was perfect timing that the black male was there to show my friend up and correct him in his racial ways. My buddy did not say another racist comment the rest of the night. (Bob, WM, 19, Southeast) The racial trigger in this example is a food item, and equating chicken wings with Black people. The racist epithet is a source of bonding and laughing among the white men, until they are caught by a Black man outside of the conversation for using the term. Bob could have confronted his friend, as he reported being mad enough that he wanted to strike out at his friend. However, he waited for a Black man, again not in the conversation, to correct his friend.
Black men are viewed here as dangerous and violent, as Bob’s friend was “in fear of his life.” At the end of his account, Bob notes that his friend corrected his racial ways, and perhaps learned their lesson. It is feasible that the only lesson Bob’s friend walked away with was that he should secure the backstage conversation so he can safely make racial comments without getting caught.
Getting caught making a racist comment did not only take place in public locations like a restaurant. The next account takes place at a private college party, where using
profanity is part of the fun until they realize a Black woman is in the room:
Last night some people (white males and females, one black female) were sitting around playing a drinking game called Kings. In this game, one of the cards means you must make up a rule for everyone to abide by if you pick this card. The game went on for a little while and finally someone made a rule that you must swear in every sentence. People thought it was funny and went along with it until someone was telling another person to drink when he exclaimed, “Drink up, nigger.”’ As soon as the word was said, everyone in the room was silent as the guy that said the comment turns around to see an African American girl sitting behind him. As soon as he realized it, he felt very embarrassed and immature for his comment. Not only was he embarrassed, but the girl was also. Everyone in the room was uneasy and no one could think of anything to say. It was so easy for him to slip and say something like that because black people are such a minority on this campus.
When this is true, he doesn’t need to worry about personally insulting black people by using slurs because it isn’t likely that he’ll be in the presence of anyone black.
It still should not give him a reason to use racial slurs when people aren’t around because it could still insult people. (Christy, WF, 18, Midwest) In this account the white man is “caught” using a racist epithet in what he thought was the backstage. He was not caught by the African American woman, who does not appear to stop the fun, but he is caught by the other whites who stop to stare at him and the Black woman. Understandably, the Black woman is embarrassed as now everyone at the party is looking at her, probably to see what her reaction will be.
The Black woman did not ask to be a part of this situation, and it appears to be just as awkward for her as for the white perpetrator. She has the burden of responsibility in deciding how to react, such as to get mad, laugh it off, educate the white person, or just leave. Whatever she decides may have real consequences for how the white students will treat her in the future. Although she may just want to ignore the comment and wish it away, it may send the wrong message to whites that it is okay to make such disparaging comments. Similar to the last account, none of the white actors took responsibility for directly confronting the casual use of the harshest racist epithet.
Christy rationalizes that the white man “slipped” by making a racist comment because he is not used to being around any Blacks. Slipping conveys that there are moments when this type of language is acceptable, such as around other whites, but that he “slipped” and said it in the wrong context. Again, the slip does not refer to using an inappropriate word, but he used the inappropriate word in the wrong context.
Confessions The previous two sections under the heading of “Accidental Shifts” have examined the excuses whites offer when they forget they are not in the backstage, and how whites handle getting caught by persons of color on the periphery of the backstage interaction.
This third section examines whites who confess that they themselves forget they were not in the backstage. The confessions are critical at revealing whites who slipped, but were not always caught by people of color in the frontstage.
The white students often revealed that they have slipped by using backstage conversation in the frontstage. In the following account, a white man forgets that his
Asian friend is not white:
11:45 P.M. I just got back from an ice hockey referee’s meeting... I took notice to the racial make up of the referees at the meeting. At first glance, there was only 1 non-white out of about 25 referees. I wondered what it was like to be the only black kid on a hockey team … The rest of the meeting, these thoughts mulled in my mind, over and over. After the meeting, I walked back to my dorm with my friend, also a referee. I didn’t even think about it at the time, but I asked him what he thought about hockey being a predominantly white sport. He said “Andrew, I’m on your team.” I looked at him, and then I just put my hand to my forehead, and told him I was a moron. My friend “Nick” [his American name] was from China, and was on my intramural hockey team. Yet, as I quickly categorized the people in the room at the meeting, he became white. It was just another example of how whites ascribe white status to certain races, and often-times this status is associated with the tone of their skin color. I told him that I didn’t even think about it. I was just so used to being around him that the idea of him being of another race doesn’t really enter my mind. (Andrew, WM, 19, Midwest) Andrew begins his journal concerned about the only Black hockey referee and his experiences with discrimination and prejudice. Inadvertently, Andrew mistakes his Chinese American friend with the status of being “honorary white.” As Andrew states, his friend “became white” since he was so used to being around him. Andrew allowed Nick into the backstage conversation as he would with any of his white friends, but then slapped his hand to his forehead, when he realized his mistake. He minimizes the experiences of his friend Nick by classifying the hockey players solely in terms of white and Black.
In this next account, a white student reports about an incident that took place three
months ago that still causes him guilt and shame:
This happened about 3 months ago. I was hanging out with some of my friends, 5 of them white and one of them black. We were playing a card game and my black friend, James, put me out of the game and I slipped and called him a nigger. I have trouble writing about this even today because it brings back tremendous emotions of guilt and just pure shock at how stupid I could be. He seemed extremely shocked that I had used that word in front him, let alone directed at him. To me that word had no worse a meaning than calling someone an asshole, and that was all that I intended it to mean in that situation. My school is almost totally white and I have no black friends from my school. so I can usually get away using that word.
Actually it had become sort of a joke, no one at my school even considered the word racial anymore; they jokingly use it as they would any other word. This I believe completely desensitized me to what the word means to other people. I never think of my friend as black, but it was foolish of me to think that he would have the same luxury. He has to think of it all the time, and that word means a lot more to him because of that. This whole incident made me think a lot about how even though I personally believe all people are equal, I can still commit actions that are hurtful to people of other races, just because of the desensitizing of me by the people I hang out with on a normal basis. Most of my friends feel the same way too about race, they believe all people are equal and we often joke around about stereotypes given to races. This joking however if seen by people of another race or people outside our circle makes us seem like incredible bigots. (Jason, WM, 18, Midwest) The everyday experiences with racism are not momentarily experienced then forgotten, but serve as lessons learned for future accounts (Halbwachs 1950). Even though this incident took place three months ago, Jason’s mistake remains in his memory, as well as the emotional feelings associated with it.
Jason recognizes that this harshest epithet can mean supposedly nothing more to him than “asshole” but that it obviously has a deeper meaning to his Black friend James.
The collective memory for many African Americans involves the collective sharing of concrete events and interpretations of the events that cause physical and emotional pain and suffering (Houts, Feagin and Johns, forthcoming). Feagin and Sikes (1994: 24) write that to a Black person the term nigger “brings into sharp and current focus all kinds of acts of racism—murder, rape, torture, denial of constitutional rights, insults, limited opportunity structure, economic problems, unequal justice under the law” and so forth.
Similar to Andrew in the previous account, Jason notes that he never thinks of his Black friend as being Black. For Jason, his friend has become white like he is. This racial transformation in the white mind may indicate that Jason has one negative conceptualization of what he believes a “generic Black man” is like, and now that he knows James does not fit that construct, in Jason’s mind, James has “become white.” Further proof can be found as Jason admits halfway into his entry that he “has no black friends” from his school, and has limited contact with other racial groups.
Jason says that he “slipped and called his friend a nigger,” and since he goes to a white school, he can almost always get away with the term. The significance of the situation should not be ignored: Jason did not slip by using the word nigger. He slipped in his context for when he said it. The word itself was not a problem for Jason, as he justifies that the word is not even racial to him. In other words, there are situations and contexts when using this language is not an issue.
Like Jason, many white students wrote similar accounts about how commonly used the word “nigger” is today. When I first started reading all 626 journals written by white students, I was astounded by how frequently whites used the word “nigger” or “nigga” in everyday conversations. Many white students used the term in the historically negative context against Blacks. For example, Jenny (WF, 19, Southeast) described an account where seven white students are having dinner at a nice restaurant and they are describing another student: “The other girls whispers across the table to me, ‘He acts like a nigger.’” Similarly, Chad (WM, 19, Southeast) described asking a friend to grab a beer for him from the fridge, and his white friend answers, “What do I look like, a nigger?” These are not isolated or rare accounts.
White students also used the word nigger as slang or a greeting between whites.
Many white students described greeting other whites with phrases like, “What up, nigger?” or “What’s up, my ‘gro” [as short for Negro]. One white woman in the Southeast describes her friends using the atrocious phrase, “Let’s hang this nigger” to mean “Let’s get going” or “Let’s get this show on the road.” Many white students rationalize using the term as they believe it has lost the racial connotation, and it may serve to unite a (white) group, as the term can only be used without consequence in a safe backstage. A white man in the Southeast rationalizes how his friends use the phrase “nigga please”: “Nigga please is a slang saying for something that should be obvious.
For example, if I were to ask my roommate if he was going out Saturday night, he might respond by saying ‘nigga please’ or ‘obviously.’” This language is not unique to the Southeast, as it was evident in every geographic region I sampled.
A white woman in the Midwest confesses that she slipped and used the backstage
term “nigga please” accidentally in the frontstage:
Tonight my white female friend Tracy and I went over to our friend’s dorm to drink. It sounds stupid now even as I write it, but a common saying in our group of all-white friends is “nigga please.” Since we are usually around all-white people, I’ve kind of forgot how bad the “n” word is. When we say that saying to each other, I don’t even think about black people. It is just something we say.
Anyways, after we’d had a couple of beers, Monica and I decided to use the public bathroom together. As we used the bathroom, we talked through the stalls and she said something and I responded “nigga please.” It wasn’t until I got out of the stall that I realized we weren’t alone in the bathroom. There was one other white girl in the bathroom with us. I was very happy that there were no black people in the bathroom, but was embarrassed by my insensitivity nonetheless. It was the first time I realized that my words had more meaning to them than I really ever intended. What is just a saying to me, can be seen as a huge insult by other people.