«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
As I have mentioned before I am a white female, who is an RA in a predominately white hall. Being an RA, I get to observe a lot of behavior from residents, most of the time more than I’d actually like to. …One of my best friends is black. She is a sophomore and lives in the hall right next to mine. … One night this week I went down to the first floor to let her into the side door. She came up the walk and I let her in. As we walked down the hall and made our way to the stairwell, I started noticing how many people were stopping, and even going out of their way, to say hi to her. There are about 20 resident rooms from the side entrance of the building to the stairwell and every person in the hall at that time, along with some standing or sitting in their rooms, greeted my friend. Because I was leading the way, I knew that they were addressing her and not me. And I believe that each greeting given to her was absolutely genuine. Some even went as far as asking how she was doing and wishing her a good night. As we walked up the stairwell, those that passed us also said hello. And when we entered the second floor where I live the same thing happened. All those in the hall and some who where in their rooms stopped what they were doing and the conversations they were having to greet my friend at 1:00 in the morning.
Elizabeth also notes that she believes her white residents are sincerely genuine in their performance. Goffman’s dramaturgy is not suggesting that people are cynical performers trying to present a false image of ourselves. He argues that performers are “merchants of morality,” tailoring one of our many selves in order to fit the requirements of a particular situation (Goffman 1959: 251). The white residents should not be viewed as merely manipulative, for they genuinely were interested in expressing an overly positive image to the Black visitor of the dorm. A more important issue is why they felt they needed to present this positive image. In the following account, Fran admits why
she acts extra nice to the Black women who live in her dormitory:
I am a freshman living on an all girls floor in a dorm. I am a white, Jewish girl and it just so happens that majority of the girls on my floor is white and Jewish also.
However there are two black girls that live on the very opposite end of the hallway, and for some reason they never talk to us. I often wonder if we are intimidating and if they feel as though we would not accept them. … I often feel like I need to watch what I say and the way that I say it. I do not consider myself a prejudice person at all, however I feel like I need to prove that to these girls and I am almost overly nice to them because they are black. I always make sure I smile and say hello to them when I see them in the hallway, even though they don’t even make an effort to get to know me. I don’t really know why I feel like I have to make myself look accepting to them. To be completely honest, these girls aren’t even that nice themselves. They always look me up and down in the hallway and if I didn’t smile first, I’m pretty sure they would not even acknowledge my existence. It’s probably just that they are the minority on my floor and I feel like I want them to feel comfortable, but how do I know that they don’t already feel comfortable? My nice actions may even be making them feel uncomfortable. (Fran, WF, 18, Southeast) When Fran writes that she feels the need to watch what and how she speaks in front of the two Black women, she is illustrating that the backstage and frontstage regions are incompatible. If the two regions were compatible, there would not be a need to watch what she says. Fran ends this journal account by stating that her intention is to make the women feel comfortable in the dorm, as she notes in the beginning “for some reason they never talk to us [white women].” Given the nature of dormitories where it is difficult to maintain frontstage interactions all the time, the Black women may likely recognize the performativity of the pleasantries.
In Elizabeth’s and Fran’s accounts, the role of gender is vitally important. In both examples the frontstage audiences are Black women, and most of the performers described are white women. Although in the sample a few white men indicated performing extra politeness in the frontstage, the majority of the actors expressing politeness are white women. Particularly white women are socialized into docility and to express a “sunny countenance” least they be viewed as mean, bitter, or a bitch (Frye 1998: 147). This frontstage performance by white women may be an extension of the larger patriarchal social control dictating restricted emotional displays for social subordinates (Hochschild 1983; Lutz 1996).
Fran also says she is not a prejudiced person, but uses the qualifier “however” to indicate that she recognizes that some people may view her as prejudiced. Many white students in the sample commented that they believe in the minds of persons of color, white skin is a marker for a racist and prejudiced person. For Fran, if she acts extra nice to the Black women, even if it is not reciprocated, then it must mean she is not prejudiced. White students often make comparisons between someone being nice, fun, or polite, and their level of racist tendencies. Here, Fran is paralleling politeness and not being prejudiced: acting polite is a way to “prove” that she is not prejudiced. This leads us to the next role whites perform in the frontstage: actions meant to illustrate that they are not a racist.
Proving Not A Racist Although we could conceptualize acting extra polite as a tool to prove non-racism, white students also discuss blatant and unequivocal measures meant to illustrate that they
are not racist. For example, Maggie writes about her experiences riding the city bus:
I took the #60 bus to school from work. It was 11:30 when I left, and when I got on the bus it was crowded towards the front, so I headed towards the back. Most people on the #60 are non-white; Latino, Asian, and Black mostly, and you are likely to hear many languages. As I moved towards the back of the bus, I consciously decided to sit next to the young black man who had a seat free next to him, rather than an Asian woman or other white passengers. I did this because I think that most white people who are socialized to fear young black men would have chosen not to sit next to him, thus displaying their discrimination against him.
I wanted to show him that I do not hold this stereotype. I didn’t act any differently toward him than I would sitting next to anyone else. I pulled out my book and read, and when a window seat opened I moved to it. I guess I was just trying to treat him as a normal person, because he is, and there is no reason to fear him.
(Maggie, WF, 21, West) In this account, Maggie is performing in the frontstage the role to prove she is not a racist, and she does this by sitting next to a Black man as instead of the typical white or Asian seatmate. Maggie wanted to prove to the young Black man on the bus, and perhaps even to herself, that she does not hold the stereotype to be afraid of Black men.
Although Maggie does not believe it, she is aware that the stereotype exists, and actively uses her conscious processing to edit out the negative stereotype (Devine and Elliot 1995).
Maggie is telling us that she does not believe the stereotype, yet the underlying subtext suggests that she struggles to view the Black man as a “normal person.” She has to specifically point out that he is a normal person, insinuating that this might be up for debate. By specifically pointing out that he is normal, she is reinforcing the notion that he is not thought to be normal.
Performing the role of a proven non-racist can be expressed in other ways besides not avoiding certain people of color (here, Blacks and Latinos). In this next account, a
white woman goes out of her way to say hello to a Black man:
Today I was so shocked at the actions of an individual. This white girl and I were walking back from class and she made a comment that she was not racist. Then, she said, “Look, I will prove it.” Then, she turned to a black man, and said “Hi.” She had no idea who he was. This to me was so rude. I could not believe she did that. I think to me it symbolized that she was racist. Would she have said hi to a white man? She made me think about how racist people could be, without realizing it. (Trina, WF, 19, West) Again, here, whites are performing in a manner that they would not otherwise do with a white person. Although we are not sure what caused the white woman to claim she is not a racist, she went out of her way to prove she was not racist by greeting a Black man on the street. As noted previously, being friendly is equated with not being racist.
In the majority of the white students’ accounts in which they reveal performing in the frontstage to prove they are not racist, the whites are performing for Blacks or other whites. Similarly, by whites proving they are not racist, it suggests an underlying component that there are racist tendencies to overcome. Trina interpreted the woman’s overt friendliness as rude and racist.
Appropriating Race A final role whites perform in the frontstage is appropriating the perceived racial role of “the other.” In other words, the white students would act the way they believe the person of color would act. As the following examples illustrate, this lends itself to whites
stereotyping how Blacks and Latinos/as act. Susan writes:
I was in the dorm hallway with three other girls (two white and one African American). The African American puts her hair up every night in a bandana wrap as a way of protecting it because it is so fine. One of the other girls I was talking with was intrigued by this and questioned her. So the African American girl explained what she did, and the other girl immediately perked up getting involved, “Can you do that to my hair too? We can all pretend we’re black for a night!” I was a little shocked that she was forward enough to say something like this, but it didn’t seem to bother the other girl. The African American girl just went on to explain that we probably couldn’t do it with the other girls’ hair because it so different from “black hair.” I was in awe of the whole situation, but it seemed to work itself out without any conflict. (Susan, WF, 18, Midwest) Most whites can structure their days so they minimize contact with people of color;
Blacks and other persons of color cannot (Feagin 1991). This leads to a knowledge asymmetry, where Blacks know a lot about white culture, but whites have the privilege not to know anything about Black culture (Waters 1990). For Susan’s white friend, asking questions and ultimately attempting to take part in a Black woman’s hair tradition was a method of interacting in the frontstage.
Wanting to pretend to be Black for the night illustrates bell hook’s “commodification of otherness” where “ethnicity becomes a spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 1992: 21). The white woman does not desire cultural appreciation, but cultural appropriation, in using the racialized image for her own entertainment. While she can have the fun of pretending to be Black for one night then return to her privileged white lifestyle, her Black hall-mate does not have the same option.
In the next account, Karen admits to assuming a Black dialect when interacting
with Black men in her dance class:
In my social dance class, there are about 25 white males and about 5 men of color.
At the beginning of class today, we were doing a mixer. As part of the mixer, we rotated around the room and in the period of about ten minutes, I found myself dancing with every one of the guys in the room….What surprised me when I came to several of the black students in my class was how drastically my personality changed for the 30 seconds or so that I was with that partner. Immediately, my voice became louder and my gestures more exaggerated. The two of us would immediately hit it off and start joking about dancing and what we did over the weekend. As I talked to one particular black student, I especially noticed how my speech pattern changed. I think that subconsciously I was trying to model my speech after that of my partner. I soon found myself talking with a “black dialect” of sorts. It was really very strange. My speech patterns never changed when I danced with the white students. Maybe that was because we, as whites, have more similar speech. Maybe it was because I was trying harder to connect with the black students since we didn’t have our skin color in common. (Karen, WF, 20, Midwest) Karen admits to acting differently when dancing with the Black men than the white men.
She theorizes that her appropriation of Black culture (taking on a Black dialect, speaking louder, and exaggerating gestures) is a means to connect with the Black men. Although Karen has a lot in common with the Black men (such as they attend the same university, are enrolled in the same course, as well as commonalities by age, geography, and interests), the social significance of skin color takes precedence over all other factors.