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«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»

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In this project, I examine the meaning and symbolism of everyday racial events and interactions within the social context, specifically within the framework of institutional racism. Whites’ interactions in the frontstage and backstage are not tangential to the social structure, but they make up the racialized social structure. Throughout this project I rely on terms like “racial events,” “frontstage,” and “backstage.” Although other scholars have used these terms, I will clarify how these terms are defined in this project.

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Racial Events In this research, I examine “racial events.” In defining “event,” Atkinson and

Coffey (2002: 811) said:

In order to be observable and reportable, events in themselves must have some degree of coherence and internal structure. An “event” in the social world is not something that just happens: It is made to happen. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The structure of events is narrative in form. Gubrium and Holstein (1997) suggest that events are a collective, shared cultural resource; rather than finding meaning within the phenomena itself within a social vacuum, the meaning lies within what it is linked to and how the narrative is organized. Narrative accounts, experiences, and memories are enacted as a type of social action, such as the performativity of social life described by Goffman.

Racial events can be examined among their various dimensions, including the content as well as the relational, spatial, temporal, and emotional dimensions (Houts, Feagin and Johns, forthcoming). Although “events” are typically conceived as an “action” or “behavior,” events also encompass sentiments and attitudes. In defining racial events, Feagin and Vera (1995) highlight the dimensions of (1) the social actors;

(2) located in social structure, spatial setting, and temporal frame; and (3) motivated by attitudes and emotions.

Within racial events, Feagin and Vera describe that white social actors often fall into different categories of participation. Using the metaphor of a religious “racial rite,” these scholars define whites as playing one of three roles: the officiants of active racist behavior who initiate and instigate a racial event; the acolytes who support the actions;

and the passive participants who act as inactive bystanders understanding the meaning and consequences, yet allowing the racial event to continue (Feagin and Vera 1995: 9).

They also recognize the role of the (often less common) white active resisters of racist behavior.

This project seeks to examine these cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of racial events, as described by white college students. In addition to focusing on the meaning and significance that white actors place on the interpretations of data, I also analyze the language used, the actions that take place, and the organization of the network of people involved in the racial events. In other words, I examine the social networks of who is allowed entry into the interactions, as well as who is denied access to the racial events.

Frontstage, Backstage, and Slippage In this project, I focus on the frontstage and backstage of racial events. I define frontstage as racial events occurring among persons of all racial groups. As this project focuses on whites, the frontstage involves interactions with whites and persons of color.

In the frontstage, most whites have learned it is not appropriate to express blatantly racist or racial sentiments. Many whites suggest employing a colorblind ideology in the frontstage, where the goal is to ignore any indications of “race.” Throughout the project, the frontstage is identified as a “performance” where whites understand that certain racial activities, behaviors, and emotions, are concealed in the frontstage, yet are more safely expressed in the backstage.

I define the backstage as racial events occurring within the same racial group (real or perceived). This means that the backstage includes racial events that take place with only other “whites.” (Chapter 6 problematizes whiteness and actors who are assumed to be white, but come out as “not all white.”) As the frontstage is characterized by expected nonracist appearance, in the backstage the frontstage expectations can be relaxed and openly contradicted. Although the backstage often deals with white friends and family members, as evident throughout the chapters, white strangers are often assumed access to a safe backstage. I use the metaphor of white skin as being a “passport” into a safe backstage, where racial (and racist) performances are not only tolerated, but often sustained and encouraged.

Goffman comments about “spoiled performances” such as when an outsider intrudes into the backstage. I refer to this as the “slippage” between the backstage and the frontstage. The slippage is typically unidirectional, meaning that the frontstage crashes into the backstage, or the backstage turns (abruptly by accident, or carefully crafted on purpose) into the frontstage. This may occur when whites do not completely secure the backstage borders (Chapter 5), or when whites forget that they are not in a safe backstage (Chapter 6).

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As this project seeks to understand events that occur in the whites’ everyday racial events (that is, a covert arena that necessarily excludes the presence of an “active” researcher), data were collected by means of journal writing of college students across the U.S., modeled after the pioneering research of McKinney (2000), Myers and Williamson (2001), and Miller and Tewksbury (2001). For example, Myers and Williamson (2001) look “behind closed doors” to see how racist discourse is manifested in everyday conversations by using trained undergraduate informants to record conversation they heard or participated in. Their findings suggest that contemporary racial relations can be labeled as schizophrenic where the public face is antiracist and colorblind, yet the private talk shows rampant racism at the microlevel.





This dissertation seeks to expand on earlier research methods and conceptualizations in several ways. The only previous study in this area, Myers and Williamson (2001), limited their sample to college students at one University. My project includes a much larger sample size (626 white students compared to under 50 students), and is more geographically diverse than this earlier study. Additionally, other studies focus on racetalk (like boundary marking, policing, and maintenance). This project examines conversational discourse, as well as racial events, interactions, and its key dimensions.

Conceptually, my project seeks to better comprehend how whites think and feel in racial terms by analyzing racial events. I examine the content (“what”) of the racial events and observations, but I focus on the underlying mechanisms that operate (“how”) in both the frontstage and the backstage. For example, in the racial events, I examine the role of gender and race, joking and stereotypes, and the language used by whites in the frontstage and the backstage. I also analyze how white students contend with any tension between striving for a colorblindness ideal in the frontstage, yet maintaining very protected white-only social networks in the backstage.

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This project is important because it seeks to further delve into the white mind, specifically by examining the everyday racial discourse, behavior, and emotions. These attitudes are not individually but socially determined and constructed. Dyads and groups are critical to examine as racial attitudes and behaviors are constructed socially: through groups, individuals learn, perform, and alter their racial conceptualizations (Halbwachs 1950).

Although social scientists have examined the “more public” behaviors and attitudes captured in survey data and interviews, there is relatively little information on what is happening in whites’ everyday “more private” lives. This project seeks to help us better comprehend what is happening in the everyday world, descriptively and analytically, to help us understand systemic racial relations and the racialized social structure. The backstage area should not be conceptualized as tangential to the social structure, because critical and definitive racialized practices often occur in the backstage area (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000; Feagin and Vera 1995).

To better understand the importance of this study, I outline three specific reasons why this project is sociologically significant to the racial literature. First, this project provides insights into the white mind and the propensity to act. In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal spoke of the need to study “what goes on in the minds of white Americans.” However, exactly 60 years later, whiteness studies are still a relatively new area in race literature.

Scholars like Toni Morrison and Ruth Frankenberg in the 1980s and 1990s are often credited with being the pioneering whiteness scholars.

Second, I particularly want to research the racial thinking of “ordinary” white Americans, which few studies examine. Much commentary today on whites focuses on the racial thinking of those at the extreme end of the racial continuum, such as white extremists like Ku Klux Klan members or Neo-Nazi Skinheads, or more recently the work of white antiracists (O’Brien 2001). However, in my project I want to focus on how even “well-meaning ordinary” whites may sustain a racial hierarchy (Collins 1998).

Further understanding the racial structure of U.S. society from the perspective of those who shape the racial hierarchy will advance the knowledge of contemporary racial relations in sociology. When sociologists and other social scientists better understand white racial attitudes and ideologies, scholars can better understand contemporary racial relations with the goal of changing public policy in the direction of a more racially just society. This is a significant and timely project to better understand racial relations from the white actors’ perspective, especially as some census data projections indicate that whites will become the numerical racial minority within the next 50 years.

Third, choosing to study college students is deliberate. Although college students are an often-researched and convenient sample, they represent the next generation of leaders. As education is often thought to be the great equalizer of racial relations, I wanted to specifically study those popularly believed to be more “racially aware” than, say, the stereotypical white racist “Archie Bunker” types.

–  –  –

In this chapter I have provided the context for the rest of the dissertation. I have provided the literature on whites and the theoretical perspective that the dissertation will embed in: institutional racism and symbolic interactionism (esp. performativity and Goffman). I have defined the key terms that provide the foundation (racial events, frontstage, backstage, and slippage). I have described the specific aims of this project, and provided rationalizations for why this is an important study.

In the rest of this project, I examine the multiple ways whites participate in the social networks in the front and backstage. In Chapter 2, I describe the methodology used to gather the data. As very few sociological projects use journal writing as a data gathering method, it is important to specify the unique advantages and challenges provided by this methodology. I also describe the sample of students who volunteered to participate in this nationwide project. Chapter 3 describes the frontstage, specifically looking at how whites interact among persons of color. Specifically, I focus on the measures whites actively take to control the interactions (such as performance, avoidance, defensive, and offensive measures). Chapter 4 examines the backstage region, focusing on the group dynamics and confrontation styles whites’ use in the safe backstage. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the slippery regions between the frontstage and backstage. In Chapter 5, I analyze how whites interact in the backstage when it is physically near the frontstage. Chapter 6 examines the context shift between the front and backstage, focusing on the unreliable safe backstage, and problematizing whiteness.

In Chapter 7, I provide analysis for the regions, focusing on the mechanisms that drive

–  –  –

In the physical sciences, the Heisenberg principle refers to the process whereby measuring an object changes its very nature. I faced a similar conundrum in my research.

My research objective is to study how race plays a role in the everyday lives of whites.

However, as a researcher, I am challenged: How do I access data that are purposively hidden from public discourse? Myers and Williamson (2001: 8) relied on trained students, or “informants to secretly record private conservations” acting as “participants as observers.” Rather than training selected students from a single university in orientation sessions, I wanted to extend my research beyond a limited sample and geographic location. There remains a stereotype that racial relations are only problematic in the South. Given this southern-stereotype, I felt it necessary to extend my data collection to other geographic areas.

Instead of privileging one form of data gathering over another, scholars often agree that “the problem under investigation properly dictates the methods of investigation” (Trow 1957: 33). Because of the covert nature of the backstage, I used student journal writing to gather data. Although student journals (also known as diaries) are often used as a teaching tool in the classroom (Miller and Miller 1976; Wagenaar 1984), it is not a common method of data gathering in sociology, particularly for a large sample.

I selected U.S. college students as the population to study for two main reasons.



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