«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
Even though I have a large sample size, I strived to maintain a holistic component to each journal entry. Rather than simply see each individual journal entry in isolation, I strived to contextualize each account in order to maximize the details. Many students would reference previously written journal accounts, such as a specific event or the history of a family member, so it was necessary for me to consistently refer back to the journal in its entirety and not broken down by prevalent themes.
While coding, I kept notes (eventually typed next to the account) detailing how the events may have built on each other. I also made special notes of apparent contradictions within the same journal. For example, a white female (WF) in the Midwest describes an event on March 10, 2003 about her mother’s reaction to watching a popular television
program, Fear Factor, where contestants voluntarily engage in disturbing behaviors:
My mother (white female, age 48) and I were watching Fear Factor one night and on the show the contestants had to eat cow, sheep and fish eyes. There was a black female contestant on the show and it was her time to eat the eyes. My mother looks over at me and says, “I hate to say it but she’s black...she probably likes that stuff.” (She had a smile on her face when she said it and was almost chuckling) I didn’t know what to say so I just kind of looked away and continued to watch television.
I wondered where she thought of that from. (Marian, WF, 22, Midwest) Two weeks later in her journal, this same student writes about her mother’s reaction to
hearing her son make a racial comment:
We were sitting watching the news like always again and my brother (White male, age 28) of course had to say something about the war and the people we are fighting. So we were just sitting there listening to the news anchor talk when my brother just blurted out “Ya know, I would much rather spend my tax dollars on the war instead of fat shines dropping babies like cigarette butts.” I was appalled to hear that come out of his mouth. I have never heard anything that harsh directly in front of me, especially a family member. I wasn’t sure what to say, I just sat there open jawed in awe. My mother of course slapped him upside the head and yelled, “Who teaches you things like that? Not me!” My brothers’ response was “The world does but mostly the media.” It made me stop and think about the theory that violence in the media or on television. Does it really create hatred or does it just amplify what is inside the person waiting to come out? (Marian, WF, 22, Midwest) By contextualizing the account in her entire journal, the account written on March 24th takes on a different dimension of a mother’s apparent contradiction. The picture of a concerned mother worried about where her son is learning about fat shines, a derogatory term for African Americans (Burchett 2001), is distorted when we pair it with the account of her mocking African Americans while watching television. These contradictions were not uncommon throughout many students’ journals, but were rarely noted by the student authors. Although most of the accounts will be presented in a disconnected isolated fashion, I have made a concerted effort to carefully analyze the accounts as a whole.
I continue to collect journals for future projects, yet this dissertation examines data collected from Spring 2002 through the Summer 2003. During this time, 934 college students of many racial groups have submitted journals. The sample is racially diverse, approximately 67% white, 12% African American, 10% Latinos or Hispanic, 6% Asian American, 5% other racial group or not identified.
Although I am specifically seeking to study white Americans, I extended the journal writing opportunity to members of all racial groups who gave consent to share with me their journals. The inclusion of people of color to share in the journal writing process provided the opportunity to examine the larger picture of racial relations and its effects. In order to keep the data manageable, the dissertation sample includes only those students who self-identified as “White” (or a congruent term such as Caucasian or Anglo) on their cover sheet. Many students indicated their ethnicity and nationality as well, such as White/Swedish, or Black/Jamaican. Students who identified as White/Hispanic were included in the study, but students who indicated only Hispanic or Latino were not. This self-identification of race allowed students who either identified themselves as white, or those who indicate that others identify them as white (such as “Hispanic, but look white”) to be included in the analysis. To keep the manuscript readable, I simply refer to the students as “white.” Of the 626 white students who make up the dissertation sample, 68% are white women and 32% white men. The higher rates of women participants should not be surprising given that more women tend to take classes in disciplines where journal writing might be expected (such as Sociology or English).
Despite aggressive efforts to maintain geographic diversity, the majority of the white students (63%) are from 5 universities and colleges in the Southeast (Florida and Georgia). The next largest geographic participation came from the Midwest with 19% of the sample (from Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin). Students from the West (Arizona, California, Washington, and Wyoming) comprised 14% of the sample, and the remaining 4% of the students are from the Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, and New York).
Most of the students in the sample voluntarily signed up for a course in which race and ethnicity was at least tangentially discussed, and all of the students in the sample voluntarily submitted a journal to me on racial relations. Although the white students have this in common, this is also where the commonalities end. The comments and ideologies expressed by the students in the journals varied considerably, as did their social class and geographic location (ranging from a small rural town in Wyoming, to a major metropolis like New York City).
Most of the students in the sample are in the traditional college student age range (18 to 25 years), although there were many students in their late 20s and 30s, and a handful of students in their 40s and 50s. Even with most of the students in a traditional age range, I want to caution the reader not to think of the students as a homogeneous population. The students are not simply white kids who (sometimes) attend class, study on occasion, and hit the local bars…although this was certainly true on some occasions.
Most of the students talked about working, commonly in retail or restaurants, but also in the military, autobody shops, and in hospitals. Students talked about varying life experiences, such as being away from home for the first time and feeling scared, to discussing their spouses and children. They talked about the neighborhoods they lived in, and the homes they owned.
In the exit interview, I asked professors to comment about the type of student who participated in the project, as I was concerned that I would only get journals from a “certain type of student” such as a vehement antiracist, or an emphatic defender of colorblindness. On the whole, most professors did not identify any one type of student who was more likely to participate in the project. In my own classes, it seemed that the students most likely to submit their journals were those who engaged in other extra credit opportunities to achieve an academic goal (such as trying to keep an “A” or avoid an “F”), rather than linking the student participation rate to a specific racial ideology.
As noted previously, the students were given an opportunity to provide feedback directly to me on their cover sheet. Of the students who wrote comments, the vast majority of the comments were similar to this one provided by a 19 year old white man in the Southeast, “This assignment made me realize how many racial remarks are said every single day and I usually never catch any of them or pay close attention.” Students typically noted a feeling of being extra sensitive to observing racial issues while participating in the project that might otherwise slip under the radar.
Other students used the request for feedback as an opportunity to provide further explanations about their personal history. For example, a 20 year old white man in the
I would like to start by saying a little about myself. Unless you understand the viewpoint from which I am writing I feel that it will be very difficult to understand in what I am recording. I come from a very small town with little to no diversity.
This has been nothing more than a subject that has been taught to me from a textbook stance. I do not fear diversity. In fact, because of my lack of exposure to diversity, I have a strange form of curiosity of those different from me. If what you read can be interpreted as racism or negative, please change it in you mind so that the wording is in no sense degrading. Once you have done this you will understand what I am trying to say. (Dennis, WM, 20, Midwest) Many students included background information about their families, and a few, like this student, noted a “disclaimer” on how to read (or re-read) the accounts from a nonracist perspective. As this account illustrates, even though the researcher was not physically present in the data collecting, and even though most of the students had not met me, they were still concerned with what I thought about them and making sure that I understand them from their perspective.
Although most of the comments were encouraging, from “interesting study” and “Good luck with your project,” one student did take issue with my research project. A 20 year old white man in the Midwest commented on his cover sheet, “This [project] causes us to look at things superficially by race. Racism [sic], and logically racism, are wrong and superficial. You are reinforcing this perspective.” Although I appreciate the student’s feedback, I am unclear how examining race in one’s daily life equates with a superficial analysis. I would not agree with his claim that “racism is superficial” given the literature detailing the physical, emotional, psychological, and societal costs of racism (Feagin and McKinney 2003). Despite his negative comments toward the project, this student’s journal accounts were no different from the rest of the sample.
Benefits As few sociological studies utilize journal writing, it bears mentioning that this data gathering method proved to be very useful. Unlike an interview or survey conducted at one point in time in which participants retrospectively reconstruct events, this project offers the advantage of allowing students multiple points of reflexivity. As the journals were kept for days and weeks at a time, students were able to recognized patterns in their own journals. Reflexivity occurs at the moment the event occurs (“I thought this at the time”), at the moment the event is reconstructed in the journal writing (“Writing this up I think”), and in reviewing the event reconstruction at a later time (“Re-reading what I wrote, I think…”).
Students also are able to shorten the length of time between participating in an event, and reconstructing the details in a journal (or retrospectivity). Although some students wrote about accounts that happened to them in their childhood or years before, most were writing about very recent events. A shorter time frame between the event and journal writing increases the likelihood that specific details are remembered. In the journal instructions, I encouraged students to jot down their notes quickly after an observation, and suggested that they may even find it useful to carry small pads of paper to jot down notes. Although I had my doubts that any of the college students would take my advice, at least one participant acknowledged jotting down notes. A white woman in the Southeast wrote about her experiences having dinner with a white male co-worker who complained bitterly about African Americans, “We all began eating pizza while I secretly grabbed a pen and a pizza coupon to write on. Every couple of minutes I would get up and run to the bathroom to write down everything that I remembered.” A third benefit to using journal writing to gather data for a large scale project is that this process allows students some level of safety in their anonymity. Although this is a debatable point, students may have felt it was easier to confess their feelings to someone they have never met. A few instructors facilitated this safety net by having their students submit the journals directly to me, or had the students seal their journals in an envelope ensuring it would not be read by the teacher, an authority figure who ultimately determines their grade.
Another benefit to using journals to collect data is the opportunity to use the accounts as a teaching moment in the classroom. Researchers have long examined the benefits of using student journals or diaries in the classroom as a means to evaluate knowledge at a higher cognitive level (Wagenarr 1984). Journals allow students the opportunity to connect
concepts (such as institutional racism) and personal examples from their own lives. In the spirit of the sociological imagination, students are able to contextualize their individual experiences into the larger socio-historical cultural context (Mills 1959). By using journals to gather data and to stimulate teaching conversation, it best advances the “teacher-scholar” model praised by many academics.
Limitations Journals of everyday interactions provide an opportunity to examine (especially backstage) events to which an interviewer is not ordinarily privy, and this approach has only been used in a few studies (McKinney 2000; Myers and Williamson 2001).
However, there are limitations to using journals for data collection. A first limitation is not being able to ask follow-up questions from material solicited. For example, consider
the following journal entry: