«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
As whites strive for colorblindness in the frontstage, and even in the backstage, the reality of the normal backstage racial inequalities creates undeniable tension for many whites. For most whites, even when participating in a backstage that included racist jokes or joking, there was still recognition that the racial performance was inappropriate or wrong. In order to contend with cognitive dissonance, many whites attempted to downplay the interactions, such as calling it humor, or rationalize that it was not hurting anyone. Whites also attempted to shift the focus away from race, and onto other structural features such as gender or social class. For example, operating within colorblind racism, many white women claim that their fear of Black men is due to “gender, not race,” or when following and profiling Black women while shopping, it is due to her “social class, not race.” The concept of colorblindness or colorblind racism is evident in the data, but the terminology of “colorblindness” may be problematic. As presented throughout this project, the students’ journals are more than colorblind. They still operate in a white world, and most racial joking is not colorblind, but race specific (white racism targeted to people of color, particularly Black men and Black women).
On the surface, racial relations have changed, as less openly racist epithets are tolerated and expected in the frontstage, but this is not always true in the backstage, where racist epithets are supported and often encouraged. As colorblindness is the goal on the surface in the frontstage but is far from true in the backstage, perhaps a clearer terminology is “two-faced racism.” The term two-faced racism more accurately reflects the different expectations and manifestations of racial relations in the frontstage with people of color, compared to the backstage among only whites. As an alternative to colorblindness, two-faced racism more readily highlights that racial interactions for whites are often: (1) hypocritical in nature, and (2) dependent on where the racial event is socially located. More importantly, two-faced racism suggests that even the “nice, polite” performance in the frontstage still contributes to the structural racial hierarchy.
Hope for the Future Throughout this project, the vast majority of the journal accounts and analysis are downright depressing. However, there is a glimmer of hope for backstage and frontstage interactions that can be gleamed from this project. As mentioned previously, most of the whites in this sample took their white world for granted. When asked to reflect on their everyday lives and deconstruct what they consider to be “normal” interactions, many white students responded with genuine shock at the number and substance of the racist comments that they took for granted. In using student journal writing as a data gathering tool, it required students to critically examine their own normalized experiences. As this project has attempted to illustrate, racial relations would benefit from mandating that whites in the Post Civil Rights Era critically examine their own everyday experiences.
Too often well-meaning whites agree that racism is a problem with other whites, but never take the next difficult step to analyze how they themselves may be contributing to the racist hierarchy.
Additional hope can be found in the number of white students in the sample who reflected the tension in wanting to fight for racial equality, even in small ways such as confronting their friends, yet who may not have had the courage to speak out. Perhaps in seeing how other whites confronted their friends even in backstage group dynamics (such as in Chapter 4), it can provide inspiration to other whites who understand that everyday racist comments do support the racial hierarchy.
Future Research This project has attempted to better comprehend what is happening in the everyday world, descriptively and analytically, as a means to understand systemic racial relations and the racialized social structure. Future projects will consider comparing the journals of white students to their students of color counterparts.
There is still much critical and exciting research to be conducted on specifically whites’ racial attitudes and how whites interact in the frontstage and backstage in regard to racial matters. This project utilizes journal accounts, and the data are limited to a onesided conversation, where, as the researcher, I do not have the opportunity to ask followup questions. Future research projects could triangulate journal writing with in-depth personal interviews, as a means to further clarify the data gathered.
Through interviews, there is the possibility to get a better sense of the type of students who are keeping the journals, and which type of students are not represented.
Interview questions could also access data that are not readily apparent in the journals, such as where the students learn racial attitudes and comments, and what motivates their backstage interactions, such as racist joking.
I mentioned that some of the students presented contradictory information, such as Carol in Chapter 5, who confronted her boss about making a racist comment, but not a store manager at a clothing store. Through interviews, we could directly ask why some whites police racial activities in some situations but not in others. Knowing what causes whites to confront racism, and what hinders whites from challenging racism, would better enable whites’ preparation to protest racist events that they encounter.
Expanding the sample is another possibility for future research projects on whites’ racial attitudes and interactions. This project examines only white college students, most in the traditional age range of 18 to 25. It would be interesting to compare this sample to older adults, as well as younger students, such as those in high school. Also, most of the students in this sample are coming from two-year colleges to prestigious state universities, but none of the students are from the very elite schools such as the Ivy League. Comparisons could also be made with persons who are not afforded the opportunity to attend college, such as working class whites (although many students in this sample identified as being in the working class or middle class). Future projects could also further explore geographical differences. This project is heavily dominated by white students in the Southeast and Midwest, so subsequent studies could further examine whites in the Northeast and West.
Throughout this dissertation and especially in Chapter 5, I note the importance of language in the backstage, such as whites whispering, or using vague and coded language to convey racial ideologies. Many scholars argue that language does not merely convey preexisting ideas, but it actively constructs thought as noted in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Whorf 1956). Given this, more work needs to be done on the racial language whites’ use. For example, scholars could examine the shared assumptions and prevalent metaphors whites utilize in the backstage.
Racial events involve not only cognitive and behavioral processes, but also fierce emotional responses as well. Many of the white students revealed a range of neutral or negative emotions, such as feeling indifferent, guilty, angry, afraid, or disgusted when interacting with people of color in the frontstage. Although emotions were often at the forefront of whites’ everyday experiences with racial events, only a few scholars have critically examined this emotional dimension (Feagin 1997; Helms 1990; O’Brien 2001).
Experiences with racial events are experienced at both the cognitive and emotional level, for both the victim and the instigator. There is still much work to be accomplished in order to better understand whites’ racial attitudes, interactions, and emotions in the
Oftentimes, with regards to racial issues, what we say and do in the “backstage” (or private) area is very different from what we say and do in the public “frontstage.” Racial issues are an ever-present factor of our everyday lives, yet we often ignore race, talk around it, or only mention it in private settings. This exercise will require you to think beyond your everyday interactions, and analyze “your everyday world” as a social scientist.
The goal of this study is to examine what really goes on in our everyday “backstage” lives with regards to what we think, act, and say about racial matters. You will be asked to keep a journal of your observations of everyday events and conversations that deal with racial issues, images, and understandings. You should look for incidents involving not only whites and blacks, but also other racial groups such as Asian Americans, Latinos, and Middle-Eastern Americans. The issues do not have to be racist, but just when race and ethnicity comes up (or does not come up).
Unobtrusive Participant Observation In your observations, please use unobtrusive research techniques so that the person(s) you write about in your journal will not be aware that they are being studied. In other words, you may not interview anyone you observe as a researcher, but you may interact with people as you usually would.
Please be detailed in your accounts, yet to ensure anonymity, it is important that you conceal all identities (even your own) and disguise all names of persons you write about. Even though there will be no identifying markers in the journal, please keep your journal in a safe, private space so that it is not read by others. Before you turn in your journals, please include the cover page provided to you.
Writing Up Your Observations In your journal, you will be asked to emphasize: (1) your observations, and (2) your reactions and perceptions to these everyday events. Please note details, such as: are you observing a middle aged white female, or a teenage Asian American male? It is helpful to note the approximate age, race, and gender of each person you mention in your journal.
As well as noting what happened, be sure to note where the observations took place, when it took place (such as was it on a Saturday night? On your Tuesday lunch break?), and with whom you were with. Often these dimensions of time, place, and other actors are critical when people feel comfortable talking about race and when people do not mention race. When you are “in the field,” ask yourself, would this happen if the time or place was different? Ask yourself if this person would make such a comment if the people involved were different (such as, if this person were in a mixed race group, or with all Latinos).
It will also be key to note any “race triggers” that you notice. For example, are there objects or people that trigger when people talk about race? In the sample journal entry below, the student mentions that ribs, a race neutral food item, triggers her father to
talk about Blacks:
I went home to South Florida to visit my family for Spring Break. At dinner, my father…kept making remarks about black people, saying things like, “I love ribs, maybe I have a little brotha in me! What do you think about that?” He made comments like this because he knows that it makes me angry and he thinks because I am only twenty that I don’t know anything about what black people are really like. I am having a hard time figuring out what to say to him when he makes these horrible comments and I am planning on going home [back to the University] sooner than I thought I would because of this.
When writing down your observations, be sure to be detailed in your comments on the manner and way in which people interact. Such as if someone makes a comment sarcastically, or whispers certain words that deal with race, be sure to note the sarcasm or volume change. Be sure to note occasions when race is brought up unexpectedly. For
It was about 12:30am after a busy Saturday night; the restaurant was closed, and most of the (white) servers had either gone home, or were in the back of the restaurant finishing their chores. The front of the restaurant was empty except the bartender who was near the front entrance of, and I was in the back (near the restrooms) cleaning tables. A fellow server approached me, and as he waited for me to finish refilling a salt container, he told me in an animated voice that he had a great night and even got a compliment. His voice then dropped and he whispered, “and they were black!” It is intriguing that he would lower his voice considering I was the only person in the restaurant within hearing distance.
Also be sure to note the occasions when race is blatantly ignored:
Monday night I was with a group of girlfriends (4 white, 1 Latina) watching tv.
Sue [not her real name] mentioned another girl, Betty, and was trying to describe to the other girls who Betty is. I should mention Betty is from Korea. Sue described her as kinda short, ponytail, and works out around the same time that we do (which describes just about every girl at [our school]!!). I don’t know why Sue didn’t mention she is Asian—it would have made describing her a lot easier.
If you are finding that you have not noticed any racial issues to write about, write that down as well! Jot down what you did that day (did you go to the gym, go to class, have lunch with three white friends, then hit the library). Be sure to include the racial composition of the people you interacted with (such as, “all whites,” “mostly whites” or “group mix of Asians and Blacks”). In Sociology, often even “no data” are data! Be sure to put on your sociological imagination and think critically of what you observe.
When Should I Write?
If you can, you should jot down your notes as quickly after your observations, so the details will be fresh in your mind. You will be surprised how quickly you will forget key details if you do not jot it down right away. You should make it a point to write in your journal at least once a day, even to note that you did not observe any racially connected events.
How Should the Journal Look?