«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Joking is a very effective method of perpetuating racist fun for three critical reasons. First, the content of the racist jokes actively conveys the sentiments of racism, and perpetuates the racial hierarchy that keeps whites at the top. In order for jokes to be effective, it must resonate with or make sense to the listener. There must be a common culture and language between the joke teller and the listener, in order for the joke to make sense (which accounts for why it is often impossible to translate jokes across languages).
This common ideology explains why so many contemporary racist jokes utilize centuries old racist stereotypes. Many white students in the sample told or heard jokes with the punch line referencing African Americans eating watermelon or stealing televisions.
These jokes “make sense” as they resonate with the white collective memory of Blacks as lazy and Blacks as criminal (Bogle 2001). Imagine a joke with the punch line referencing “cheap African Americans” or “lazy Jews.” These analogies do not make sense within the racist stereotyping, and they never appeared in the 626 white student journals.
However, jokes made in the reverse about “lazy African Americans” and “cheap Jews” were very common as there is a common racist foundation to support the jokes.
A second reason why racist joking is so prevalent among whites is because it minimizes and dismisses the racial comments. Racial ideologies are exchanged and perpetuated, while simultaneously dismissed as “it was just a joke” and not meant to be taken seriously. As the goal, racial joking often slips under the radar of active consciousness (or so many whites claim). Numerous students in the sample reflected that they never realized how frequently racist jokes were exchanged, until they were asked to critically deconstruct their everyday worlds.
A third reason why racist joking is so effective is that if (I purposively state “if” and not “when” as racist jokes are not commonly challenged in backstage interactions) racist jokes are challenged, explanations are often reverted back to the protester of racist jokes, rather than the perpetrators. An empathic white who interrupts racist joking very often has to answer questions such as, “What’s the matter with you? It’s only a joke. It isn’t doing anyone any harm. Don’t you have a sense of humor?” Instead of the joke teller being held accountable for the racist jokes, typically it is the challenger who must defend the confrontation.
Joking and racial humor are complicated when it is also used to undermine racist stereotypes. Stand up comedians, popular television shows (such as South Park, and Chappell’s Show) and interracial friendships often use racist joking in a sarcastic manner to illustrate the absurdity of the stereotype. As Olivia notes in Chapter 3, racial joking is also used to show how close the friendship is to allow the racist joking. The context of racial joking is critical: it depends on who uses it and how it is used. Many whites have a firm grip on the sincere fiction that the racial playing ground is equal (Feagin and Vera 1995). As such, when whites hear Black people in the mass media (often not in person) refer to each other using the term “nigger” as a means to reclaim the harshest of racist epithets, they truly do not understand that using this same term in an all white backstage setting can be problematic.
Language I mentioned in the last chapter that when I first started reading the white students’ journals, that I was astonished at the racist language that was so casually used by hundreds of whites across the U.S. Much of the language used by whites today in the backstage harkens back to the overt, blatant racism of the Pre-Civil Rights Era. Although all people of color were targets of racist language, the heaviest brunt was against Blacks.
In this sample, hundreds of whites referred to Blacks as “niggers” or “Negroes.” Whites also utilized direct comparisons with Black men and Black women as: (1) animals, (2) criminals, (3) feces, (4) dangerously violent, (5) sexually available, and (6) welfare leeches. These underlying metaphors were not accidentally or occasionally used, but were consistently and artfully woven throughout the accounts. It was not uncommon for whites, especially white men, in backstage groups to spend time and energy inventing new racist language (such as “rotchie” as noted in Chapter 4).
Within backstage groups, whites rehearsed and performed racist language, jokes, and stereotypes, and actively taught the white code language to other whites. As well as using overtly racist terms, whites also used vague language and code language to convey racial messages in both the frontstage and an insecure backstage. For example, whites commonly used phrases that dichotomized “us” versus “them” (such as “those people” in “our [white] store,” as noted by Jerry in Chapter 5). Whites often utilized apparently colorblind statements (“it’s not race, its gender”), and even corrected other whites who violated the colorblind goal. Using colorblind language is further explored in the theoretical section of this chapter.
When whites were caught using racist language, such as in an unreliable safe backstage (Chapter 6), it often was not the language that was considered problematic, but the context in which the language was used. Whites would often warn each other when using racist language was not appropriate, such as cautioning when a person of color was nearby, or when a person might be mistaken for a “safe white.” The implicit message that these white students are giving one another is clear: it is not the racist language itself that is problematic, but the context in which racist language is used that may be problematic. In other words, there were many contexts in which using racist language was appropriate; in many backstage settings, it was tolerated, expected, and encouraged.
For many whites in the backstage, racist language was excused with the claim that it was not hurting anyone. Even for whites who reported feeling offended at racist language, the vast majority took no accountability for correcting or challenging the racist language. Ultimately, in the majority of the accounts, the onus of responsibility for challenging and confronting racism was people of color who were actively and purposely denied access to the backstage. Backstage racist language was only consistently addressed when people of color were accidentally privy to a backstage conversation (as when the borders were not patrolled, or when whites forgot there was a person of color present).
Having outlined briefly the descriptive findings of the frontstage and backstage, and the prevalent themes in the regions, I now discuss the theoretical implications of the racial events analyzed in this study. I revisit the extended case method, and examine how the descriptive findings of backstage and frontstage interactions impact research on: (1) the individual attributes (agency) and social networks (structure) of racial relations, and (2) colorblind racism.
Extended Case Method In Chapter 2, I explained that this study utilizes the extended case method (Burawoy et al. 1991), where categories that emerge from the data are compared to preexisting theoretical frameworks as a means to verify, extend, or reconstruct existing theories of racial issues and development. Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, a guiding framework for this project, emphasizes a deliberate dichotomy between the “frontstage” and “backstage” regions. Based on the data presented, conceptualizing racial events along these discrete categories may be too simplistic as there are many underlying dimensions in the backstage. The backstage may be better understood as a fluid category allowing for slippage, accidental and deliberate, between the frontstage and backstage.
The backstage is not a homogenous arena, as there are varying levels of privateness and publicness to the backstage.
Goffman notes the performativity that defines the frontstage interactions, and I note whites’ performance (typically acting extra polite, or appropriating racial assumptions) in the frontstage. However, there is also a layer of performance in the backstage among whites as well. For example, in Chapter 4, Trevor writes about his white friends transitioning from making fun of Jews, to Blacks, to Italians and finally Latinos. These men are not telling racist jokes to pass the time, but they are performing for each other, and creatively fleshing out the details (such as describing the details of the ribbon and lace on a basket filled with kittens, all while conveying the message of “You’re a Nigger”).
Although not as common as performances in the frontstage, there is also accountability in the backstage, such as white women who hold white men accountable for their racist actions. Perhaps instead of conceptualizing racial events in categories of frontstage, backstage, and the slippage between the regions, the backstage may need to be further broken down into “front-backstage,” such as whites who bring frontstage expectations into the backstage as when whites hold each other accountable as they would in a frontstage.
Beyond Individual Attributes: Collaborative Social Networks Throughout this dissertation, I note that most whites did not, or could not, conceptualize racial relations at the macro-level. Most whites could only think about their interactions at the micro-level, revealing an individualistic (as opposed to structural) perspective of racial relations. The white college students actively suppressed any recognition of how their individual actions may contribute to the larger social network and structural component of racial relations.
In the sample, whites often used individual character attributes to signal, or excuse, racist tendencies. Two common responses from the white students illustrated this only micro-level focus of racial relations. First, many whites claimed that an individual who was polite in the frontstage to a person of color was a non-racist individual. This also included whites who relied on one or two Black “friends” to indicate that they could not be a racist person. As noted in this project, researchers have questioned the many whites who claim to have many Black friends, but in practice can only identify white friends (Bonilla Silva 2001). For many whites, having one or two Black friends or acquaintances may allow them to tell racist jokes with a clear conscience: they cannot be racist if they have Black friends.
Second, many whites claimed that they or their friends who make racist comments were ultimately not racist individuals. In this research, I compare this to a “good” nonracial core that happens to have a “bad” racist appendage. Many whites went to great measures to prove they were not a racist, acknowledging that a racist identity for most was a very negative thing. When whites did indicate who they thought were racist individuals, many used popular images of extreme racists such as Klansmen wearing white robes and burning crosses.
Most whites in the sample minimized or denied individual agency to the contribution of the larger racial social structure. Although most whites did not acknowledge the social network of racial relations, the accounts provided by the students illustrate that racist actions in the backstage were viewed as normal, natural, and common. Much of whites’ backstage interactions were defended, justified, and rationalized. For example, racist joking was often excused and dismissed as “just fun” that did not hurt anyone.
Whites’ racist action has a repertoire of verbal and body language (noted especially in Chapters 3 and 5); it is shared, learned, and reinforced within the white social networks, and with whites’ collaboration. This networking of learning and sharing is a critical dimension to the racist action. Throughout the journal accounts, there is in actuality no racist individual, but social networks and groups that support the racial hierarchy. The white students are not inventing racist concepts and jokes, but are actively relying on centuries-old deeply embedded and institutionalized racist ideologies. Even the whites that are inventing racist terms (like “rotchie”) are typically working in groups and relying on the preexisting underlying racist metaphors. Within white social networks, the white college students are learning, teaching, and reinforcing racial ideas, language, actions, behaviors and emotions.
Whites commonly acknowledged that even in a secure backstage the racial interactions were not appropriate. In the backstage, disclaimers were often made such as “that is wrong” (as Trevor notes in Chapter 4), and whites purposively waited for a person of color to leave (as noted in Chapter 5) before continuing with their racial event, illustrating the recognition that certain comments were not acceptable. Even though most whites recognize that the racist interactions are not appropriate, within the white social network, there is a clear expectation that racist fun will not be interrupted in the backstage. As noted in Chapter 6, it is assumed that the backstage is safe to make racist comments, unless cautioned otherwise. The inclusion of white strangers into the backstage, with their white skin passport, provides further credence to the shared assumptions in the white social network.
Within the white social network, individuals often acknowledge the inappropriate nature of backstage racial events, yet there is great social pressure not to disrupt the racial interaction. As I have noted throughout this project, the majority of white students did not confront other whites in the backstage, even when they wanted to. For many of the whites who did challenge backstage racial comments, they described needing support from other sympathetic whites who may have lacked the courage to confront themselves.
Beyond Colorblind Racism Throughout the journals, whites indicate that they strive to maintain a goal of colorblindness. For many whites, the goal is to operate on the assumption that race and ethnicity is optional, and that to eliminate racial inequalities, whites should simply ignore race. In a vacuum this may work, but in a social world where racial hierarchies embed every social institution, this becomes impossible. Whites may strive to ignore race at the micro level, yet they still operate in a white (macro-level) world, and carry around racist thoughts, images, and stereotypes.