«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Second, I examined accidental shifts between the boundaries. There were three instances when this most likely occurred: when whites forgot they were not in an all white interaction, when whites were caught by people of color on the periphery of the interaction, and when whites confessed that they forgot (even though they may not have been caught).
The last section of this chapter examined the unreliable safe backstage. I discussed that a secure backstage may not be possible when “whiteness” is a problematic category.
I examined two parts in this section: whiteness as a passport into the backstage, and problematizing whiteness. This section illustrates the challenges faced by actors in the interaction when whiteness is assumed and when racial meanings and identifications may
Throughout this research, I explore the patterns and inconsistencies in the presentation of white racial attitudes across space. Specifically, this project answers the questions how do whites interact among other whites (“backstage”) and how do whites interact among people of color (“frontstage”) in regard to racial matters. I also examine how whites view racial matters generally, rationalize contradictory views, and maintain divisions between the fluid “stage” boundaries and slippery backstage regions. In this final chapter, I review the findings presented in this project, and examine how this research calls for the modification of current theories. The last section of this chapter examines how the findings of this research impact racial relations in the post civil rights era, and the possibilities for future research.
Within this project, I have described how whites interact in the frontstage in regard to racial and ethnic matters, such as by performing to prove that they are not a racist, and actively avoiding any mention of race or avoiding interactions with persons of color. As I mentioned in Chapter 3, a general rule in the frontstage interactions is that it is not appropriate for whites to express racist sentiments in the frontstage. Many white students expressed a fear of appearing racist in interactions with people of color, and would take measures to convey a non-racist ideology.
I have also described how whites interact in the backstage among only whites. I examined the backstage as a preparation stage for frontstage interactions, but more commonly it is a safe space from frontstage expectations. The backstage is characterized by normal, expected, and common racial interactions, typical not only among white friends and family, but also with white strangers as evident throughout this dissertation.
Within the backstage, it was not uncommon for frontstage expectations to creep in, as illustrated by whites who confront each other about racist comments even when no persons of color were present. There is a clear group dynamic and embedded social network in the backstage, and this will be explored in the next section of this chapter.
The interactions between the frontstage and the backstage regions are strikingly different. This is illustrated in Chapter 5, where I discuss the mechanisms that whites use to protect the backstage boundary when they are physically near a person of color in the frontstage. This protection often included verbal warnings and manipulated language, as well as nonverbal techniques such as avoidance and uncomfortable body language. Some whites did discuss that their interactions were no different between the frontstage and the backstage, but these interactions were rare, and were characterized by discomfort.
This project also examines the “slippage” between the two regions, such as the accidental and accounted for shifts between the frontstage and backstage. In Chapter 6, I analyze white skin as a passport into a backstage conversation, and the potential for tension when whites themselves problematize whiteness. The examination of the manipulations (either accidental or created) between the frontstage and backstage regions, and the embarrassment when the regions shift, illustrates the importance for whites of keeping a backstage safe from intruders.
Most of the descriptions suggest the racial events in the frontstage between whites and people of color are uncomfortable, hostile, and hurtful. Additionally, many of the interactions in the backstage are racist, manipulative, and calculated. However, this may not tell the complete story of the white college students’ interactions. It is possible that many white students had pleasant conversations and interactions with Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, but that they were so commonplace and ordinary that the students felt there was no need to provide the details of these interactions. However, this is unlikely given the research studies that show social segregation of whites from students of color even on multiracial campuses. It also should be mentioned that many students wrote about backstage interactions that did not involve hurtful comments against people of color.
Having said this, it does not negate what the students did write about as presented in this research project. Overall, the journal accounts are written from the perspective of only white college students. Most of the whites in this sample did not give much thoughtful consideration to what people of color would think and feel about their frontstage or backstage interactions. They do not see the world from others’ point of view. The spatial dimension of whites everyday racial interactions contribute to this white-only worldview. As noted throughout this dissertation, most whites can structure their daily activities so they never have to interact with people of color (Feagin 1991).
Therefore, when whites do interact with one or two people of color, it is tempting to rely on stereotypes or to over-generalize traits to the entire race. These stereotypes act as filters, straining out information that is inconsistent with prevalent themes (Fiske 1993).
Like self-fulfilling prophecies, when images fit the stereotype they are reinforced, and images that negate the stereotype are rejected.
There are many underlying themes consistent within the racial events outlined in this project that occur in the frontstage, backstage, and slippage regions. In this section, I describe four prevailing themes: white to black oppression, the role of gender and race, joking and stereotypes, and language.
White-to-Black Oppression As the United States becomes more multiracial, particularly with the increasing representation of Latinos, scholars are increasingly talking about a shift away from the white-to-black model of oppression (also known as the black-white dichotomy), and toward a three category system (to include Latinos and Asians). Throughout the dissertation sample, many white students did discuss interactions with or stereotyping about Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Middle-Eastern and Arab persons. These interactions were often geographically determined. For example, there were more racial events involving Native Americans in Wyoming, and Asians in Washington compared to the Southeast and the Midwest.
However, disproportionately as evident in this project, most of the interactions in all geographic regions involved whites commenting about Blacks. Even as contemporary demographics change, some things stay the same, with more than one white person commenting, “Is this 2003 or 1803?” This reference to “historical racism” was particularly prevalent in racial events involving whites’ casual use of the harshest racist epithets (noted in Chapter 6). The students are not simply reproducing inappropriate stereotypes, but the students are actively producing and reproducing white supremacist ideologies. Undeniably, the harshest and most negative comments and events in this dissertation journal involved white racism targeted to Black men and Black women.
Thus, clearly, there is a very fundamental character to white-on-black stereotyping in most whites minds, which generally goes beyond the stereotyping of other racial groups.
Gender and Race Throughout the project, I described the role of gender in whites’ everyday racial interactions. Typically gender impacted racial interactions in two direct ways. First, white men tended to instigate and perpetuate backstage racism more than white women.
White women more often assumed the role of policing the backstage borders, and holding white men accountable for their racist comments and actions. This finding resonates with other researchers who suggest that white women can more readily empathize with racism by approximating with their experiences with sexism (Feagin and Vera 1995; McIntosh 1998).
Additionally, gender role socialization may account for the differences between white women and men in racial interactions. White women may be more likely to disrupt white men’s racist interactions as women’s gender socialization includes fostering a nurturing and supportive environment for all participants. On the other hand, men’s gender role socialization often includes an autonomous “toughness” or a lack of concern for others, which may account for why more white men perform racist talk and action compared to white women.
In the frontstage interactions between whites and people of color (discussed in Chapter 3), gender role socialization may again account for why more white women utilized strategies such as performing extra politeness and avoiding people of color compared to white men. Although some men reported engaging in avoidance and defensive actions, many more white men reported participating in offensive strategies such as racist joking and hostile confrontation.
Besides white women patrolling white men’s racial events, a second gender distinction in the racial interactions is white women indicating their fear of Black men.
Only a few white men in the research sample revealed that they were afraid of Black men, but much more common were white men who suggested that they protect white women from the perceived danger of Black men. This protector role for white men more closely matches the male gender role socialization, so it is not surprising that it is more common for men to report the protector role than admit fear.
White men protecting white women from Black men accomplishes two goals.
First, it cements patriarchy by reifying white women’s need for white men. Very few white students questioned the assumption that Black men posed a dangerous threat, but instead took this fear as a normal, taken-for-granted assumption. This stereotype of Black men as posing a threat to whites, especially white women, is deeply embedded in the white collective memory as a means to justify white imposed slavery, legal segregation, systematic lynching, and de facto segregation. However, this myth is consistently unfounded, given that the vast majority of violence and rape toward white women is perpetrated by white men (intraracial, not interracial) (Feagin 2000). Within the white college students in this sample, statistically, most of the white women should be more worried about defending themselves from their white male protector, rather than the mythical Black criminal male.
Second, white men protecting white women from Black men discourages any intimate relationships between whites and Blacks, maintaining white racial purity. Most contemporary interracial relationships between whites and African Americans are between Black men and white women (as opposed to Black women and white men) (Dalmage 2000). Therefore, white men actively keeping white women afraid of Black men maintains racial isolation and segregation.
Joking and Stereotypes A third theme throughout the backstage and frontstage is the role of joking. This includes comments made in a joking way, as well as explicit racist jokes. As mentioned throughout the dissertation, joking operates to “test the waters” of a topic, and it serves to decrease accountability. Under the guise of “just kidding,” comments can be tossed around without consequence to the white instigator.
Throughout the journal accounts, most of the joking comments revealed very old racial stereotypes. The stereotypes were not invented by the white students, but most referenced and reinforced age-old stereotypes such as the “industrious Asian,” “cheap Jew,” or “criminal Black.” Although many whites claimed to be “equal opportunity” racists through their humor, almost none of the racial joking committed by whites was directed at mainstream Anglo-Saxon-Protestant whites.
As noted in Chapter 3, racist joking was sometimes used in the frontstage directly at persons of color. However, more often, racist joking was reserved for backstage interactions, away from the racial target. When whites were “caught” making a racist comment or joke such as in an unsafe backstage, most whites revealed that the negative stereotype did not directly apply to the person of color in front of them. For many whites, racist jokes often applied to a “generic” person of color. However, given the spatial dimension of racial interactions, many whites admitted only relying on the “generic” person of color as they did not regularly interact with people of color.
Most whites know the frontstage expectation is to not make racist comments. As many whites have very few frontstage interactions, they do not often “practice” being non-racist. Many whites claimed that they did not know very many people of color, as they actively avoided people of color. For example, Mick (WM, 19, Midwest) noted that the journal writing activity made him aware of how little contact he has with people of color, and admitted, “I shy away from diversity because I was afraid. I know this sounds stupid, but I was afraid of being accused of being racist that I would avoid confrontation whenever possible.” The white students comment not only about the lack of interaction with many people of color, but also relying on gross stereotypes for information. As presented in Chapter 6, Jacob admitted, “Every time I’ve met black people on campus that I did not previously know, I would think of them as lazy or unintelligent.” Many whites admit that they do not have any meaningful interactions with people of color, so relying on stereotypes is often their only source of knowledge. As whites do not know many people of color, and know little about the group beyond gross stereotypes, it makes sense why racist joking is so prevalent in the backstage.