«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
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. (Beth, WF, Southeast) This journal entry reveals many racial themes, like a caricature and stereotype of African Americans, and the father policing the borders of “us/whites” versus “them/others.” We also see a racial trigger, where ribs, and other foods like fried chicken that are commonly associated with African Americans, serves to trigger a conversation about race (Devine 1989).
Although we see many themes, we still are left with some questions about the relational, spatial, temporal, and emotional dimensions of whites’ thinking and feeling about racial matters. If we were interviewing this woman, we could ask her questions like, “When does your father make these remarks? Is there a social component to his teasing: does it usually come up around other family members? Besides anger, how does it make you feel when he says these things? Does he make remarks about other racial groups? Do these conversations only take place at home?” In the journal accounts, the data are limited to only a one-sided conversation, where, as the researcher, I do not have the opportunity to follow-up.
A second limitation of using journals is not knowing what data are being excluded.
Asking people to write a journal of everyday racial events is a time consuming, and often energy draining activity. As I am not able to offer monetary compensation due to lack of funding, the only compensation the journal writers received was from their instructor, typically credit in the class. Many students did write reflections such as they thought an event was not racial but included it anyway. Not knowing how each student defined a racial event means that I do not know what data are excluded.
Students also admitted thinking about deleting a racial event from their journal.
For example a white woman in the Southeast admits:
When I went to pick up the laundry, I saw a young black man sitting in the driver’s side of a mini-van with the engine running. My first thought was that he was waiting for a friend to rob the store and he was the getaway driver. Even worse, I had to look into the store to see what was going on and what (or who) he was waiting for. … I am so embarrassed and saddened by my thinking and I suppose I could even omit this from my journal but it is too important to try to pretend that I don’t have thoughts like this that pop into my head ostensibly from no where.
(Kristi, WF, Southeast) This woman admits that she thought about deleting this acrimonious self-reflection from her journal, but she did not. Based on the social desirability of wanting to please the researcher by valuing racial equality, we can surmise that many other students may have
deleted such honest confessions. Another student echoes these same concerns:
As I am getting ready to turn in this assignment I looked back over some of the entries above and thought that I should change a lot of them for fear of whoever is reading them might be offended even though I was very reserved in some of the accounts of what happened. I wondered to myself is this blatant racism surrounding me just because of me and the people I associate with? Then I think back to a lot of the analysis in my sociology book for this class, and how it draws conclusions based on the white middle-upper class, college educated families and those are the people I associate with so maybe it is not just me. (Adam, WM, 21, Southeast) This student notes reflexivity, a benefit of utilizing journals I have already described, in re-reading past journals and drawing conclusions from his previous entries. He also notes another benefit of journal writing I described, which is linking his personal accounts to the sociology text. However, he notes a limitation of the journals: students could be holding back material in their accounts for fear of offending the reader.
A third limitation of journal data gathering is not knowing which students are opting not to participate in the journal writing process. In order to account for the types of students who are opting not to participate in this project, I asked each instructor to complete an exit interview that queried the approximate percent of students who participate. Of 23 instructors, some rates of participation vary from as low as 0% to as high as 80% (about 15-30% is average).
Informally, I have asked a few students why they have not participated in the project, and their answers are striking. A former white student of mine told me she did not hear any racist remarks as her friends were not racist. This comment is especially interesting as this project examines racial relations, and not racist relations. Another former student of mine, an Asian male who did participate in the project, informed me that he felt uncomfortable participating in the project as he felt he was “telling on his friends.” Each student who completed a journal was instructed to complete a cover page which left a space for students to write comments to me personally, and a few students repeated this concern. Another reason why students may not wish to participate is lack of time, or lack of interest in the project.
A potential limitation of this project is not knowing if more race-cognizant students are more likely to participate in this project or to take classes where this assignment would be offered than students who may not be aware of racial relations. The majority of students who wrote comments to me on their cover sheet tended to indicate that this project made them more aware of conversations and behaviors that related to racial relations than they would have been otherwise.
A fourth concern for this project may be that there is student bias in reporting their journal entries. I was concerned that students would feel that the more obviously racial, or racist, comments would warrant them more credit if their journals were evaluated by their instructor. For this reason, it is mentioned in the journal instructions, as well as reiterated to each instructor in a separate memo, that if the students are graded on this assignment (for class credit or extra credit) that the students know they are receiving credit for their detailed writing, systematic observations, and level of analysis, and not for the content of their journal accounts. Quite a few white students reported deleting or toning down racist accounts (as noted by Adam earlier), as opposed to inventing racial comments.
Additionally, with such a large sample size, the concerns of validity are lessened.
For example, a student writing about differential treatment with the police in Florida becomes much more believable when compared to similar accounts in Connecticut and Wyoming. Many students have close acquaintances and friends in their college classes and interact together outside of class. In many instances, more than one student in a class would write about the same event from their perspective, lending more credibility to the details of the racial event. Besides checking the data for internal consistency (within one journal, across students in the same class, and comparing students across the U.S.), the details were compared with data from other studies that focus on racial relations among whites and college students (such as Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000; Feagin and Vera 1995; Myers and Williamson 2001).
The notion of “true data” becomes inconsequential if we take on a more active approach of qualitative research. Holstein and Gubrium (1995) have written extensively about the active interview, and the underlying concept of their argument can be extended to the student’s journal writing as well. Rather than viewing the students as an empty vessel simply reporting events that have already happened, we can conceptualize the journal writing process as active “reality-constructing, meaning-making occasions” (Holstein and Gubrium 1995: 4). Meaning, issues such as whether or not the respondent is telling the truth or if the data are “contaminated” are irrelevant, as the active respondent is not merely relaying existing information, but the active subject is constructing their own reality.
Scholars are encouraged to examine not only “what” is told in narratives, but also to pay critical attention to “how” stories are constructed (Garfinkel 1967). In other words, the “what” questions examine the content of “what is happening, what are people doing, and what does it mean to them,” whereas the “how” questions analyze “how are the realities of everyday life accomplished” (Gubrium and Holstein 1997: 14).
Understanding the reflexivity of social reality assists us in acknowledging that research methods actually produce constructions of reality as much as they produce descriptions of reality.
In this chapter I have provided my rationale in selecting college students as the population of interest. I described the research design of collecting data, including the method of snowball sampling and the detailed journal instructions each student received.
Next, I outlined my data analysis, focusing on the extended case method and the categorization of journal themes. Then, I detailed the gender, geographic and age distribution of the white sample.
I followed with four benefits of using journal data gathering: (1) multiple points of reflexivity, (2) shortened retrospectively, (3) the safety of anonymity, and (4) creating a teaching moment. Then I discussed the four limitations of the journals: (1) lack of opportunity to ask follow-up questions, (2) lack of access to excluded material, (3) lack of knowledge about which students chose not to participate, and (4) potential bias in reporting. However, this last limitation only exists when we conceptualize the
This chapter will focus on the frontstage racial events, as described by the white students in my sample. In this dissertation, I define the frontstage as interactions among whites and people of color. As a general rule, whites learn it is not appropriate to express racist sentiments in the frontstage. There are many themes that emerge in the frontstage that illustrate whites’ interactions with persons of color and other whites. The content, or “what” happened, in the conversations and behaviors varied considerably as illustrated in this section. However, we can conceptualize the interactions in the frontstage as falling into general categories that illustrate “how” meaning is produced.
In the chapter, I describe the interactions occurring more or less in the frontstage, specifically how the white students interacted with people of color. There are numerous ways to conceptualize these interactions, and I focus on the recurrent themes in the frontstage as described by the white students in the sample. These mechanisms can be categorized into four components: performance, avoidance, defensive, and offensive strategies. The first component illustrating how whites interact in the frontstage is performativity, where whites admit to acting around persons of color.
The first theme of whites’ interactions in the frontstage takes some ideas from Goffman’s frontstage conceptualization where individuals and groups perform roles appropriate for the audience. The white students reported performing or acting in a way that they might not have if they were around only whites. In the performance, there are
many roles the whites could assume, but this analysis focuses on three specific portrayals:
acting extra polite, performing acts to “prove” they are not a racist, and appropriating the perceived racial role of “the other.” Extreme Politeness In the frontstage, many whites reported interactions with people of color in which they operate with extreme politeness. In the following example, a white Resident Assistant notices that her white residents act extra polite to her African American woman