«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Again I’m in a situation where a friend makes a comment that I do not like and I get offended by. I am very protective of my family. I do not accept people making fun of them even if it is unintentional. This encounter was quite heated and I got a little angry. Yesterday there were four of us, all white guys, walking home from class. Brian, Kris, Don and I were just talking about the usual stuff. We passed by an attractive white girl with blond hair. She looked like the typical good-looking girl for our campus. Now my school is not very diverse. The minority population is very small. So this blond girl was holding hands with a black male. They were just a normal college couple. My friend Brian makes a negative remark about interracial couples. He says they are wrong, should be outlawed, and he not approve of any interracial couples. He said a good white girl that has a boyfriend that is not white is tarnished forever and they dirty. First of all this is an awful thing to say. Anybody should be extremely offended by what he said. Kris just half laughed. Don did not say anything, but I lost it. I was even more offended because one of my sisters had married a man who was Hispanic, Native American, and part black. Basically he had just called my sister dirty and a bad person. I started questioning him in a non-aggressive manner not letting go of my position.
He just kept going on about how all of the girls are wrong and bad. So then I said, “So you are telling me to my face that my sister is dirty and a bad person?” He was confused and asked what I was talking about. I got angry and told him about my sister and her husband. He tried to backtrack since I was so angry but he could not.
He was like “uh, I didn’t mean it like that” or “I didn’t mean her” and stuff like that, but I knew he full of garbage. We got into it for a while. Basically it was me yelling at him, but he was apologetic and tried to get out of it. He did not have much to say after that. How could someone be so ignorant? I am still a little fired up about it. One problem is that I would have done what I did if my sister was not in that situation. So maybe I am not the supporter of equality that I think I am. I guess someone should say something no matter what, but I did and I am glad I did.
(Dave, WM, 20, Midwest) The backstage among four white friends is understood to be safe space to make disparaging comments about interracial relationships. The common racial identity (they are all white) may translate to an assumed common racial ideology: it is assumed that the men will all share common racial understandings and beliefs in the backstage.
The racial trigger in this example is observing an interracial couple on campus.
Given that the school has few people of color, it can be taken for granted that interracial couples are relatively rare on this campus. Throughout the journals in this sample, hundreds of white men in particular made negative comments about white women involved with Black men. Like Brian, many referred to white women involved with Black men as “race traitors” and as “tainted” or “tarnished forever.” The white women are seen as trading in their white privilege and connections to white male power (Ferber 1998).
Interracial relationships, especially Black-white, are still relatively uncommon (Harrison and Bennett 1995), and not surprising given the strong emotional resistance as illustrated by Brian. Brian could be described as a “border patroller” operating to police the racial borders, often as a means to maintain white institutional power (Dalmage 2000). Especially in Black men-white women intimacies, Black men are seen as a threat to patriarchal whiteness.
Within the four white men, each one of them acts as one of the four different categories of white participants. Brian is the “officiant” performing the principal action;
Kris, who just laughs, serves as an “acolyte” supporting the agenda of the officiant; Don acts as a “passive participant” who watches and understands the meaning of the racially hostile conversation. Although Don may feel uncomfortable or may not agree with Brian, he does not interrupt the interaction. Only Dave acts to actively resist the “racial rite” (Feagin, Vera, and Batur 2001: 20). Dave also questions why he felt such a strong emotional connection to fiercely debate his friend, and wonders if it were not personal to him whether he would have still confronted his friend. Many proponents of white antiracism suggest that to get whites involved in the fight for racial equality, the fight needs to be personal in order to develop true empathy (O’Brien 2003).
Brian relies on a stereotype of a “generic interracial relationship” as being dirty, wrong, bad, and generally negative. However when he is confronted with a personal connection, a friend’s sister, Brian tried to backtrack by saying “I didn’t mean her.” As we have seen throughout this project, when whites are confronted with real situations that contradict their stereotype, whites often try to contend with this cognitive dissonance by claiming the example is an exception to the rule, rather than reconstructing the rule.
In this section I have examined that the backstage for whites is considered safe to make disparaging comments (against interracial relationships, Asians, Blacks, Jews), unless someone says otherwise. White skin is often assumed to be a passport into the safe backstage, and a marker for an assumed common racial ideology. The next part under this section of “unreliable safe backstage” looks further at problematizing whiteness.
Not All White: Problematizing Whiteness “Race” is more than skin-deep or just a matter of skin color. It involves a complex network of physical and cultural racial markers, political and social meanings, and self and perceived identification. In the journal accounts, a few students make disclaimers that they are often assumed to be “white,” but that they are not really “all” white. This is true for students like Dan who identify as white but are also part Chinese. It is also true for students who are light skinned Latinos, who indicated that they are often presumed to be “just white.” There were also whites who, often for family or relational reasons, did not “feel” completely white. This was typically the case for students who had stepparents or siblings who were not white, or persons involved in interracial relationships. Meaning, there was nothing in the persons’ physical background to suggest that they would not be anything other than white, but for personal reasons, these students often indicated that they did not identify as completely white. This is different than the research that suggests some whites “play the white ethnic card” in order to distance themselves from the white oppressor label, and ignore their white racial privilege (Gallagher 2003). Often these whites did not deny their white privilege, but accepted it and challenged it in their daily lives.
As described in Chapter 4, the backstage is assumed to be a safe space to relax the frontstage expectations. However, it is not always easy to determine a person’s race, and even if the race can be determined, it does not necessarily mean an inherent agreement about what constitutes appropriate frontstage and backstage behavior. There are numerous examples in my sample of an “unreliable safe backstage” that problematizes whiteness. Typically, Person A will make a racist joke or racist comment, and Person B in the backstage will get angry, hurt, and will “come out” that the comment directly impacts them. For example, Heather describes “coming out” to a white classmate who
tells a racist joke in class:
Paul, this white sophomore in one of my classes was telling jokes. He looked at me and told me a racial joke that went like this: “How do you get black people to stop jumping on the beds? You put Velcro on the ceiling.” I looked at him and told him that I found it offensive. He looked at me and told me that I should not because I am not black. I told him that I had 3 adopted African American sisters and he laughed in my face and thought that I was telling him a joke. I let him know that I was serious and that he should be careful when he’s telling racial jokes because he does not know everybody’s history, and that it makes him sound uneducated. It makes me upset that people think that they can tell racial jokes simply because you’re not the color that they are making fun of. (Heather, WF, 19, Southeast) This account again illustrates the role of gender and white women in policing the frontstage/backstage boundaries, and the role of “joking” or racial humor. According to Heather, they are not in a safe backstage area. The backstage literally shifts to a frontstage region where the racist joking is no longer appropriate. It is critical to note that in some contexts, this type of joking is viewed by such whites as appropriate.
Heather does not tell the white male that he should not tell racist jokes. She tells him to “be careful” because he does not know who is safe and not safe in the backstage.
According to Paul, the only people who should be offended at the joke are those that it directly affects. Like so many whites, he does not comprehend that such antiBlack racist thinking could come at a cost to whites as well as to the target group (Feagin 2000). When Heather tells Paul that she has African American sisters, he laughs at her, assuming this type of interracial intimacy must be a joke.
Heather’s white skin was a passport into the backstage area, but as she challenged the definition of whiteness, the boundaries shifted and the frontstage crashed in. Other
white students used a similar strategy to stop a white person from telling racial jokes:
Some kid was telling us some racist jokes out at the beach one day, and I joked him out by saying that my dad was African-American, which is true (He was born in Liberia. Technically, he’s a blind African-American blues musician, but he’s white and he can still sorta see, although he’s legally blind). Anyhow, the kid started tripping over himself to apologize, which was funny, but I explained to him how he was just born there. I don’t know if my explaining myself like that is an example of institutionalized racism, also. It might be, because it’s almost like saying “Aha, just got you there! All’s well, carry on with your prejudice.” Well, through experience, I’ve found that saying that usually shuts the person up and moves the conversation on to other things, which is good, I guess. (Joe, WM, 20, Southeast) Like Heather, Joe’s white skin is assumed to be a passport to a safe backstage until he problematizes his assumed race by coming out as the child of an African born white man.
In this way, Joe uses creative measures to stop the racist joking. He could have just confronted the white man and told him to stop. Heather tried this and the white instigator would not let up. Both Joe and Heather have found this creative approach of relying on African American family members (biological or adopted, Black or white) may be the best method to stop white racism with maximum results and the least amount of effort.
Joe alludes to this approach by saying “through experience, I’ve found that usually shuts the person up.” Joe recognizes that in later revealing that his father is actually white, that he may be redoing the racism he tried to undo: at first he aligned himself with a subordinate group to stop the racist jokes, and then he purposively distanced himself from the same group.
Joe rationalizes this as he is still able to get the conversation away from racist joking, which is his main objective.
In both of the accounts written by Joe and Heather, there is the social component to the anti-Black joking. Like so many other accounts have indicated, within this social network it is assumed to be safe to mention racist jokes among whites, unless whites are otherwise stopped. Whites learn and tell these jokes through interactions in social networks that support this racial humor. Unless the backstage boundary is disrupted, it is assumed to be tolerated and is often encouraged.
Joe problematized his whiteness by relying on his father’s technical identity. In the next account, Jeff creates a fictive racial identity in order to disrupting the backstage
After class my roommate and I decided to go to the fish store to look at some fish tanks. I happened to be wearing a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and my baby blue beanie [skull cap]. As I walked in the store, the salesguy looks at me and says, “Don’t only black people where beanies?” That really upset me. I told him I had family who was black and I actually had some black in me. He says, “Oh, Sorry,” like he owed me an apology or something. I was actually just joking around about it to see what he would say, but boy did I make him feel stupid. (Jeff, WM, 19, Southeast) Again, the backstage is not only among friends and family, as here a white salesclerk invokes a white backstage conversation by calling out that Jeff’s attire is identified with Blacks. Jeff further identifies himself with the Black community by pretending and telling the white stranger that he is part Black himself.
Jeff says that he told the white stranger this because he was “just joking around” but he also indicated that he was angry at the man. Jeff could be angry at the man because: (1) he made Jeff question his fashion style, and/or (2) he aligned Jeff with Blacks. Jeff may have felt offended to be categorized with Blacks, so he further aligned himself with Blacks as a way to get back at the sales clerk. Whatever Jeff’s motive, he succeeded in making the clerk feel guilty. The clerk apologized, not for making the initial comment to Jeff, but for “getting caught” in an insecure backstage conversation.
Like Heather and Joe, Jeff problematizes his whiteness as a means to teach a white person in the backstage a lesson about making racial comments. These three white students revealed that they were not “all white” and actively created the shift between the unreliable backstage into the frontstage.
In this chapter, I have examined some of the slippery regions between the front and the backstage. I examined three parts to the context shift. First, I analyzed accounts when whites were able to account for the context shifts (such as when an intruder enters into the backstage, or when whites carefully craft their transitioning performance).