«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Most obviously, as a student, researcher, and teacher in a college environment, I am constantly surrounded by college students, who make a convenient sample. College students can be easily encouraged to participate in research: Who else could I convince to keep a daily or weekly journal for 3 or 4 months for free or for “points” (a commodity meaningless outside of academia)? I tried to convince some of my friends, family members, and colleagues to keep a journal, and even a few professors promised to keep a journal, but ultimately it was the college students who I could depend on to participate.
A second, more important reason why college students are studied in this project is because they represent a critical population demographically in racial studies. Whites who are often stereotyped to be racist include the “Archie Bunker” country bumpkins who typically represent older, rural males in the working class, without higher education.
If we could map a stereotypical white racist, with the “greater than sign” facing the more racist individual, it would probably look like this: older younger; rural urban; no higher education college educated; working/lower classes upper/middle classes; male female. Although there is little validity to these stereotypes, it seems appropriate to study a group of people who appear to be more on the “nonracist” end of a racist continuum.
I began collecting data in Spring 2002 at a large southeast university, in an Independent Study of Racial Relations course, sponsored by Dr. Joe Feagin. The journal writings of these ten students helped to launch a national data collection process that began Summer 2002. Although I continue to collect data, the dissertation findings examine the journals collected from Spring 2002 to Summer 2003.
Starting in Summer 2002, I recruited undergraduate students to keep a regular journal of “everyday” interactions that they participate in (or observe via participant observation) that reveal racial issues. Students were recruited through my and my committee chairperson’s contacts of instructors across the country who are teaching lower- or upper-division undergraduate or graduate-level courses in disciplines where student journal writing might be expected (such as social science or humanities disciplines). The instructors I contacted were encouraged to invite their colleagues to participate in the study of student journal writing, hence beginning a snowball technique of gathering a larger sample size (Warren 2002). An aggressive effort was made to get journals from the four major areas of the U.S. (Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, and West).
Upon approval from the instructors to solicit students to keep a daily/weekly journal, each faculty member decided how the student journal writing would be used in the class (such as a course assignment or extra credit). Such decisions impacted for how long the students were asked to keep a journal, and the length required of each journal entry to merit credit, if any was offered. Most students wrote an average of one to two paragraphs per journal entry, although the length ranged from a short phrase to five pages per entry.
Of the 23 instructors who had their students participate in the project, some faculty members asked their students to write for a specified amount of time (anywhere from 2 weeks to an entire 20-week semester) consecutively, no matter what the content of the journals entailed. In the journal instructions, I discussed the notion that “no data are data” so the students would recognize the benefits of writing even on “no race” days.
More often, the students were asked to write a certain number of journals (usually 10 to
20) that included a racial event in each account. Allowing each faculty member to decide how they wanted to frame the journal writing process provided me with a nice mixture to compare accounts. For example, one of the more common themes students wrote about regarding racial events was sports, specifically whites as spectators to football or basketball games. It might be tempting to conclude that every sports interaction would invoke a racial comment, yet with the inclusion of students who wrote daily, I could readily see multiple examples of students watching sports (sometimes the same game) with no racial comment made.
The journal assignment for most students was an extra credit opportunity.
Approximately 3 professors required the assignment of their students, and one professor extended the project allowing her students to choose which structure of privilege/oppression (such as gender, sexuality, age, social class, or dis/ability) they wanted to write about. Obviously this study includes only her students who wrote about race.
I provided each faculty member with the appropriate number of journal instructions for each student. Although the journal instructions were a lengthy 5 pages long, I tried to make it detailed, yet clear for the students, such as including sections like, “When should I write [in my journal]?” and “How will I be graded?” I also included 6 examples of journals written by students in the Spring 2002 Independent Study, so the students could see the preferred format of describing their accounts.
In the journal instructions, students were advised to document and analyze racial interactions, accounts, events, and racial comments. Instructors gave their students my detailed instructions regarding what and how to write in their journals, including journal examples. [See Appendix A for the journal instructions.] Students were also instructed to be unobtrusive in their research techniques. The Informed Consent, signed by each
student who participated in the project, summarizes the student expectations:
You will be asked to keep a journal of your reactions to everyday conversations about racial issues, images, and understandings. You will be instructed about unobtrusive research techniques so that the person you write about in your journal will not be aware that they are being studied. You will be instructed to be detailed in your accounts, yet to ensure anonymity, you will be instructed to conceal all identities (even your own) and to disguise all names and identifiers 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. In your journal, you will be asked to emphasize your reactions and perceptions to these everyday events. You will have the opportunity to meet regularly with your professor to ensure all your questions and concerns are answered… Unlike other research projects that rely on journals or participant observation (see Myers and Williamson, 2001), I did not define for the students what constituted a “racial issue.” The instructions of what is a “racial issue, image, and understandings” are purposively vague, so that the students may determine for themselves what embodied a racial event.
On the last page of the journal instructions was a cover sheet that the students were to attach to their journals. On the cover sheet, students were asked to write their name, gender, race, age, sexual orientation (optional), and any comments to me. My email and telephone number were listed on the cover sheet and in the journal instructions, in the event that students wished to contact me. Students were also invited to include their contact information in the event that they wished to be contacted about their journals.
All students who participated in the journal writing activity and who agreed to share their journals with me for the dissertation project were instructed to sign an IRB Informed Consent form. Students had the option of participating in the journal writing assignment for their class, but not signing an IRB Informed Consent form, in which case their journals were not used or analyzed for the project, ensuring voluntary participation.
In other words, even if each individual instructor made the journal writing assignment mandatory for their course grade, students were still given the choice whether or not to participate in the study, with no penalty for their decision. Each instructor was encouraged to collect their students’ journals themselves, and then send them to me.
Only 1 instructor had their students submit their journals directly to me, and student participation was not high for that course. Upon receiving the student journals from the instructor, I encouraged each instructor to complete an “exit interview” questionnaire [provided in Appendix B].
After securing the appropriate consent forms from each journal collected, I followed general qualitative research procedures (Gubrium and Holstein 1997; Silverman
2000) as well as those specifically developed by pioneering analysts (Feagin, Vera and Imani 1996; Myers and Williamson 2001) to systematically and rigorously analyze the data collected. Most of the students submitted a typed paper copy, and journals were painstakingly scanned or typed into an electronic format. The electronic versions allowed me to more readily systematically code and recode the journal entries for prevalent themes.
Extended Case Method The study utilizes an alternative to grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967), the extended or iterative case method (Burawoy et al. 1991). An iterative, recursive case method constantly uses the cases (data) collected to reexamine the prior conceptual view.
This process repeats itself, developing a deeper and more nuance view of the conceptual or theoretical starting point with each added step. The initial view is tested, refined, and sometimes rejected, as additional cases and accounts are examined, until a point that reasonably exhausts the issue at hand.
In grounded theory, data are examined inductively, whereby the analysis is not set up to confirm or disconfirm specific hypotheses. In the extended case method, categories that emerge from the data were compared to pre-existing theoretical frameworks (such as Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis of the frontstage and backstage) as a means to verify, extend, or reconstruct existing theories of racial issues and development. My project attempts to extend, confirm, reorganize, or reject key ideas of the existing orientation.
According to Burawoy (1991: 279), “The extended case method looks for specific macro determination in the micro world…It seeks generalization through reconstructing existing generalization, that is, the reconstruction of existing theory.” As an example, the current conceptual approach emphasizes a dichotomy between the “frontstage” and “backstage.” Based on my research presented in Chapters 5 and 6, I theorize that conceptualizing racial events along these discrete categories may be too simplistic as there are many underlying dimensions at work in the backstage. The backstage may be better understood as a fluid category allowing for slippage between the front and backstage. There are moments when the backstage becomes frontstage, or vice versa, such as when the relational dimensions change (for whites with the presence or absence of a person of color). The backstage therefore may not be a homogenous arena, as there are varying levels of privateness and publicness to the backstage. With the extended case method, analysis begins with themes in which data are constantly and rigorously coded and re-coded as a means to extend, confirm or reject existing conceptual ideas. This reciprocal, or cybernetic, process offers the potential to develop new ideas using the concepts of previous studies.
Coding Coding was ongoing throughout analyzing the journals to ensure that insights, data connections, and new categories of data are constantly being improved. I read through each journal account multiple times as the project evolved, careful to note prevalent themes and categories. The journals were categorized on at least 4 separate occasions.
First, as an initial read-through to get a sense of the prevalent themes the students were writing about. Second, as I “cleaned” (typing or scanning the journals into an electronic format) the data, I created categorical headings for each journal account. Up to this point in the research process, the data were organized regionally by each instructor. The third coding process took place when I sorted the data into common topics. Next I bundled common groups into prevalent themes, such as “how’s” versus “what’s.” Finally, the data were double-checked to ensure the logic of each categorization.
The accounts of all white students in my sample were read, coded, and analyzed for prevalent themes. With a very large sample size, I had to make decisions about which accounts to include for analysis and exemplify in the chapters. When deciding which accounts to examine, I paid particular attention to more substantial accounts that provided detailed analysis, narrative linkages, informative stories, and a situated context. I also included accounts that occurred frequently, or on a regular basis across the students.
Within my data, there are plenty of striking accounts. My dissertation examines some of the “extraordinary” narratives, but I also seek to pay attention to mundane accounts that reveal whites’ racial thinking in everyday activities.
Fragmentary comments, such as simplistic journal entries like, “I heard a racist comment today” were not included in the analysis. For example, the following account
written by a white male (WM) in the Southeast would not be used in the analysis:
Today one of my friends made a racist comment, “All niggers are like apples; they look good hanging from the trees.” I was very offended by the remark. I was extremely upset because I have great relationships with so many members of my team that happen to be black. So I was furious and told him to keep that kind of stuff to himself. (Ted, WM, Southeast) Although this account is startling in revealing a racial joke, the student did not include the context in which the offensive comment is made. For example, we are left not knowing the race of his friend, when he said it, where the conversation took place (on the field? at a party? in a dorm room?), who else was involved in the conversation, how it was said, and what the friend’s reaction was to his comment to “keep that kind of stuff to himself.” In selecting which accounts to analyze, I was looking for some level of detailed analysis to be able to contextualize the comment.