«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
I realized though this experience that I have to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings and watch that I don’t say anything that could be perceived differently than how I meant it. (Brenda, WF, 20, Midwest) Although many white students reported that they did not consider the n-word to be racial, Brenda certainly recognizes the terrible racial connotations when she accidentally says it to an unknown audience. Brenda reflects on her vocabulary choice, and comments that “it sounds stupid as I write this” indicating that she acknowledges the inappropriateness of the phrase. However, she also comments that the term is completely appropriate in her all white circle of friends, as they have the privilege to use the term without understanding the historical connotations of the term, or the consequences to African Americans when it is so casually and callously uttered.
At the end of the account, Brenda does not say that she needs to stop saying the phrase, but that she needs to be more careful that she does not accidentally say it around people who do not understand her meaning. In other words, in this confession, Brenda is not sorry that she says the term, but that she needs to ensure that it is only said in her safe backstage. There is a social character of the backstage group that not only allows, but perpetuates this type of interaction. Brenda is not alone when she says “nigga please,” but she is playing out the racist talk in social networks. In her all white group, the members have learned and shared this code language, and actively exclude people who may perceive their talk differently.
In the first two sections of this chapter, I examine the slippage that is either accounted for, or accidental between the frontstage and the backstage. In this last section, I explore the “most slippery” of the shifting regions, the unreliable safe backstage. A secure backstage may not be possible when “whiteness” is a problematic category. I examine two parts of this section: whiteness as a passport into the backstage, and problematizing whiteness. These two categories are not mutually exclusive, but are part of the same mechanism of ambiguously defined racial meanings and identifications.
White Skin as a Backstage Passport Throughout this project, I have defined “backstage” as racial events occurring among persons within the same racial group, or among whites. There are moments when individuals are assumed to be part of the white backstage, yet they came out not being “white” or “all white.” Hence, the backstage slips into the frontstage, not on account of an intruder entering the area or whites forgetting who were in the backstage, but whites not realizing that the participants are not completely “white.” For example, Dana writes
about her friend Megan assuming that the backstage is safe to make a racial comment:
On Thursday September 12, my friend Megan (a white female) went on her first date with Steve. As their conversation began they discussed typical first date topics like family, friends, home, etc. Somehow Megan began talking about how squirrels in The Bronx are black and so people call them “squiggers.” When Steve did not laugh Megan wondered why he did not think it was funny. As the conversation progressed and Steve began to talk about his family, he revealed to Megan that his dad is black and mom is white. Right then, Megan realized why Steve did not find her joke to be so funny. Megan felt horrible. Without realizing it, Megan hurt someone that appeared to be just as white as she was. Comments that can seem to be harmless to most people can really hurt someone. I realize that even the most open minded people can hear a racist joke and repeat it without truly every realizing the depth of its implications. (Dana, WF, 19, Midwest) Megan assumed that her new date Steve “appeared to be just as white as she was” and that it was a safe backstage region. Steve’s light skin allowed him passport into a white backstage conversation. Dana indicates that comparing Black people to the n-word and to animals is “harmless to most [white] people” unless it is said in the frontstage or a slippery backstage.
Megan felt comfortable around a “white” person that she did not know that well to repeat this innovative racial phrase. She apparently felt horrible about making the comment, but only after she was caught saying it in the wrong context. Megan did not feel horrible making the comment, but felt bad only when she realized the backstage was not secure. Using the looking glass self (Cooley 1902), Megan may imagine that she looks racist and insensitive in the eyes of her new date.
The term “squiggers” was not invented by Megan, and she is not the first white person to call Blacks a derivative of the term “nigger.” [An internet search reveals that this term can be quickly found on such websites like www.urbandictionary.com (retrieved 2/13/04).] Although Megan did not invent the term, she is perpetuating the racist talk in social networks. She learned it from her social network in New York, and carried it with her into this date in the Midwest. Additionally, this account is not written by Megan, but by her friend Dana, so there is an added layer of social interaction involving this racial comment. Racist ideas are supported and reinforced in social networks and through friends’ collaboration. Dana alludes to this sharing of racial ideas at the end of her account when she states “even the most open minded people can hear a racist joke and repeat it.” The interactive social component involves the exchanging of ideas, the sharing of code language, and the meaning behind the terms.
In the next account, the backstage is considered safe for a group of white men to exchange “Black jokes” but slips into the frontstage when Jacob makes an Anti-Semitic
Location: At the Golf Course. Today I went golfing with one of my friends (Elijah) and a kid from our fraternity that we didn’t really know to well (he just transferred here from another school). So we are out on the course and having a good time until all of a sudden, the new kid says, “Hey, do you guys know any black jokes?” Elijah said yeah, and told about three or four, and we all kind of had a good laugh about it. And then I told a joke about Jewish people, and he got real straight faced and said, “I’m Jewish.” My stomach dropped. I apologized probably 15 times. I have not felt that bad in I don’t know how long. He made me really think about how I stand on people that are different than myself. I then realized because of this one ignorant comment that it is really not fair for me to act they way I do and think the way I do. Most of the time, I have this vision inside of my head about what I think of someone before I meet them, either because of what they look like or where they come from. If I see a girl driving a nice car around Miami, I will assume that she is a spoiled bitch and did absolutely nothing to earn money to buy a car like that. Every time I’ve met black people on campus that I did not previously know I would think of them as lazy or unintelligent. I do the same generalizing with people from other fraternities than mine. I’m no different or better or worse than anyone on this campus, we just hang around different people.
Actually, many of my close friends I generalized and stereotyped before I met them! I have finally for the first time decided that I want to change. I’m going to try being nicer to people; not just minorities but everyone. What good has come from my stereotypical ways? Why be miserable because I think I hate someone before I meet them when I could be happy most of the time? (Jacob, WM, 21, Midwest) The racial event takes place at a local golf course in the Midwest, traditionally a “very white” location. This is a secure backstage to tell racist jokes against Black people; the joking against Blacks does not ever become an issue for the group of white men.
However, the anti-Black area does not translate into a secure region against other racial or ethnic groups.
The white man new to the social network initiates the anti-Black jokes. The joking serves as a source of bonding and group unity through the laugher and good times.
Jacob’s intimate social network not only tolerates this type of joking, but supports and promotes performing racial humor. The men are learning new jokes from each other (or supporting old ones they already knew), and reinforcing that this type of humor is acceptable and encouraged.
Strikingly, none of the white men indicate any discomfort in this type of social interaction. The joking only becomes problematic when it shifts to a topic that one of them has a vested interest in protecting. What was considered a safe backstage to tell anti-Black and anti-Semitic comments slips into the frontstage when the new group member comes out that he is Jewish. The man who initiated the racist joking suffers when his white skin is translated as a passport into a “white” and “Gentile” backstage.
As noted in many other accounts, Jacob does not feel bad for telling the racist joke, but he feels bad only when he is caught making these comments in an unsafe backstage.
Jacob freely admits in his journal that he holds negative stereotypes against specific racial and gender categories. Many other students in the journals, like Jacob, freely admitted to stereotyping all Blacks as lazy and unintelligent. Jacob did not invent this stereotype; he learned it from his socialization, possibly from agents such as family and peer groups, media, and other social organizations. In turn, he plays out the racial action in his own social networks.
Jacob now acknowledges the social costs to his racist thinking: he is miserable hating an entire group of people, and there is the cost of feeling bad when he slips out of an unreliable safe backstage. Although Jacob could be celebrated in wanting to change, we should be justifiably skeptical in his new found attitude. Jacob needs to do more than “just change” his thinking. He would also need to change his social networks that support and expect the racist thinking. Jacob would also need to acknowledge that it may be possible that the benefits of his racist joking (such as group bonding) may outweigh any costs.
Not all of the accounts took place in informal social interactions like on a date or at the local country club. This next account takes place at a work setting. A white man who is included in a backstage conversation against Asians reminds the group that he is not all
I was at work and it was break time. Sean and Todd, both are thirty something white males, were discussing side jobs they once had. Sean said he worked as a mechanic and did overflow work for Nissan. He said, “Nissans are the most difficult transmissions to work on because the “chink” that designed them didn’t know what he was doing.” I was shocked that he would say that in front of me.
My response was, “What did you just say?” He said, “No offense, Dan.” “How am I not to take offense to what you just said,” I replied. Sean said, “I didn’t direct it towards you.” Sean knows that I am half Chinese because we had discussed my heritage before. I said, “First of all, Nissan is Japanese car. Second, that person that designed that transmission has more brains in his left testicle than you have in your whole body. And thirdly, you’re a stupid, uneducated, asshole who should think before you speak! But I guess that is asking to much from a fucking retard!” I got up and walked away. Moments later I got really mad at myself because I never wanted to be one of those people that used race as a source of conflict. I should have just sat there and smiled. Next break period Sean apologized in front of all thirteen employees. I was very impressed. (Dan, WM, 29, Southeast) I mentioned in Chapter 2 that the students self identified their racial categorization on the cover sheet that they submitted with their journals. Dan is part Chinese and white, and on his cover sheet, he indicated that he is white. In this situation at work, he assumed by his coworker Sean to be white, as he is included in the backstage anti-Asian hostility. Dan clearly takes issue with being included in the conversation, and confronts his coworker.
When Sean realizes that this was not a safe backstage, he offers an excuse (he meant the Nissan engineer, not Dan) and placates Dan by telling him he “shouldn’t take offense.” Dan rightfully corrects Sean’s ignorance about the company he is criticizing, but he later regrets his outburst. Dan equated correcting his coworker for making a racist comment, with “using race as a source of conflict.” People of color are often accused by whites of “playing the race card”; this often is used to discourage people of color and sympathetic whites from confronting white racism (Tatum 2002). Internalizing this need to stay silence, Dan admits that he was angry at his own outburst, and wished that he sat there and smiled.
In the journals, there were very few instances like Dan where a student confronted a racist interaction and regretted challenging the act. Much more frequent were students who observed a racist performance, but said nothing and regretted remaining silent. In this next account, also relatively uncommon in the journals, a white man is glad that he
challenges his friend’s ignorant comment about interracial relationships: