«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
White women are not the only gender to perform roles in the frontstage. Doug
describes appropriating a stereotypical “Latin lifestyle” in order to impress Latinas:
I went to a party for my friend’s 22nd birthday tonight and it was pretty loud and wild. At one point in the night some Latin girls showed up and we got them some beers. The running joke for the night was that we were going to interact with these Latinas in a manner that we felt Latin guys would talk to them, even though we are all white. So we would talk about low riders, gang fights, tagging, and anything else that was stereotypical to a Latin lifestyle. We did it as a joke, we weren’t trying to be mean or anything, and as far as we could tell the Latinas enjoyed our little stereotyping endeavor. I think we tried to talk like Latin guys because we needed some humor to break the ice and open a path to conversation with these ethnic girls that none of us have any kind of experience with. (Doug, WM, West) A recurrent theme in the frontstage performance of appropriating race is that whites have minimal contact with the groups they are usurping. Doug admits that he and his white friends have no experience with the Latino culture, as they rely on gross stereotypes such as participating in gangs and graffiti writing.
Doug comments that his white friends are only joking, and they mean no harm.
This is a very common defense mechanism for whites to use when acting inappropriately in the front or backstage. Under the guise of “we were just joking” comments and behaviors can be dismissed without consequence. The role of joking will be further addressed later in this chapter.
The second theme of whites’ interactions in the frontstage can be seen as the opposite of performance: avoidance. While the theme of performance included the appropriation of race, the avoidance theme is characterized by avoiding race at all costs.
There are two components to this theme. The first is avoiding any mention of race while still interacting with persons of color. The second is avoiding people of color, or retreating from the frontstage.
Avoid Mentioning Race Many whites interacted with people of color yet went to great lengths to avoid mentioning race. This component is part of the ideology of colorblindness, where whites proclaim not to mention race or notice color, yet still navigate in a white world (BonillaSilva 2003; Carr 1997). Even when interacting with persons of color, the goal is to maintain a stance of not noticing color, for focusing on race is equated with white supremacy (Frankenberg 1993). In other words, to notice or talk about race is racist.
In the frontstage with a Latino friend, Mike notes that he and his white friends
avoided mentioning anything related to the race or ethnicity of his Mexican friend John:
My friends and I were at my place and we were looking for somewhere to go to dinner. It was me, two of my white friends, and a Mexican friend name John. We started to list places that we wanted to go: Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Italian, and so on. Then I noticed that no one had said Mexican. Everyone was worried about saying anything about it in front of John. I did not say anything to anyone because I did not want my friend John to feel isolated from the group. If I would have said something about my observation he would feel as though his friends were not comfortable enough around him to even suggest going to get Mexican food.
That does not say very much for the kind of friend that I am or does it? I don’t know, but the whole situation made me think about society. If I can’t say certain things around my friend then what can others say around strangers. Everyone is so worried about offending people that they limit what they say and they are constantly trying to avoid racism. If you are constantly trying to avoid being racist, you have racism on your mind. If you have it on your mind then you are going to be thinking racist things more often. People just need to be educated in diversity and be themselves, and that is all that you can do. (Mike, WM, 19, West) Similar to the white students who perform to prove they are not a racist, actively avoiding any conversation about racial matters implies that talking about race is problematic.
Mike is conflicted about his decision to avoid any mention of race or ethnicity around his friend John. He cites that his intentions are good, that he is trying to protect John from any comments about race. According to Mike, mentioning race, even in the context of a restaurant, is equated with racism and isolation. Mike hints that his white paternalism may be damaging his friendship; his good intentions may be creating further divisions with his non-white friend.
Mike notes that he and his white friends may be using cyclical and faulty logic. As the saying goes, by telling someone not to think of a pink elephant, odds are pretty high that the person will think about a pink elephant. Similarly, Mike and his friends want to avoid thinking about race so they are not racist, but this means they have to actively think about repressing their racial thinking, so now they are thinking about it even more.
The white student ends the account with the only solution he knows: we need more education about diversity. Education is thought to be the great equalizer of racial relations, however many scholars are quick to note that this may be a superficial quickfix to the larger institutionalized racial hierarchy embedded in the social structure (Schuman et al. 1997). Like many white students in the sample, Mike recognizes the impact of his interactions and he theorizes about the consequences in the larger social structure. Theorizing about racial relations is not unique to sociologists, and the white students should not be viewed as mindless dupes who lack reflexivity.
Like Mike, in the next account Patty is conflicted about her reasons for avoiding
mentioning anything tangentially related to race in the frontstage:
At work today I brought back a 12-year-old black female and her mother. The patient was being seen in our office for a weight check and third Hep B vaccine.
…The girl’s name was Mary, which without even being aware, I presumed to be a “white name.” As I called her name, I was surprised to see the black girl and her mother. I remember my thoughts being somewhat like, “they look sweet.” I weighed the patient and took her to room 10 and explained what today’s procedure would be. By habit, I checked the patient’s previous weight. She had lost five pounds. I almost commented to the girl and her mother, but chose not to because I did not want them to feel I was being racist by noticing her being overweight.
Rachel, an RN, came in to give her shot and looked over the chart, immediately exclaiming, “You lost five pounds!” Both of their faces lit up with the mother saying, “I was waiting for you guys to notice!” They were so proud. “We’ve been working hard.” I was embarrassed because I should have congratulated her and the color of her skin should not have been an issue. (Patty, WF, 19, Southeast) If Mary had been white, as Patty first presumed, she probably would not have thought twice about congratulating the young girl on her weight loss. A white woman interacting with a Black child becomes a site of conscious thought and struggle: Patty does not know if it is racist to mention weight loss to a Black child, as she associates weight problems with Blacks. Patty does not account for why she makes this association, even given the recent media attention to the growing U.S. obesity problem across all races, genders, and ages. Instead, Patty avoids what she considers to be a race issue, to the disappointment of the family.
This interaction between a health care provider and her clients would not make sense without contextualizing the account within alienating racist relations. According to Feagin (2000: 20), “The system of racism categorizes and divides human beings from each other and this severely impedes the development of common consciousness and solidarity.” The interaction holds racialized meanings: For Patty, no matter if she did or did not comment about the weight loss, she viewed herself as making race an issue.
Given this context of uncertainty for whites (where whites inaccurately perceive that they cannot say or do anything right in front of people of color), it is not surprising that many whites would choose to simply retreat, and avoid any person of color, which is the next category in the avoidance theme.
Avoid People of Color When interacting with persons of color in the frontstage, some white students opted to simply avoid them. When whites enacted this strategy, it was almost always around Blacks and sometimes Latinos. In this account, Ed’s friend avoids a shorter line because
of the Black cashier:
My white friend and I went to [the grocery store] to pick up some food for dinner.
We each had our arms full of food, and I was definitely ready to buy our food, and go home. When we walked up to the checkout line, we realized that there were only two open cashiers one was black and the other white. The black cashier had a shorter line, but my friend still insisted on waiting for the white cashier. I didn’t want to cause a scene in the store, but I was offended that his racism was going to inconvenience me. I did not want to wait any longer than I had to so I waited in the shorter line with the black cashier. I was finished checking out before he even started. I hope that maybe he won’t let his racism have such an influence on him in the future. (Ed, WM, 19, Southeast) The actions of Ed’s friends could be described using rational choice theory, where individuals calculate the potential costs and benefits in decision-making. When presented with the opportunity to interact with a Black person, the white friend opted to pay a small price (a longer wait) for the benefit of not confronting a Black person. For some white students, racism is merely an inconvenience. It is something that whites can avoid, if they avoid people of color. Although Ed writes that he disagrees with his friend, he does not confront him. By serving as a passive bystander, Ed enables the racist action (Feagin and Vera 1995).
In this next account, a group of white and Asian friends avoid a popular bar “dominated” by Blacks.
11:00pm. I was walking with a group of 18-year-olds (2 white males, 1 Asian, 2 white females). We were thinking about going into [a popular club], but as we were walking by, one of the white males said “Girls keep walking.” When we got to the other side of the street, he commented that he didn’t want us in a club that was dominated by black people. (Sarah, WF, 18, Southeast) Gender plays a critical role in whites’ frontstage interactions with people of color. In this interaction, white men operate to protect white women (note that the gender of the Asian individual is not mentioned) from the perceived danger of Blacks. White men accomplish two goals in this protection. First, it perpetuates the racist ideology that Blacks are dangerous. Second, this protection perpetuates patriarchy, as white women are dependent on white men to protect them.
The temporal and spatial dimensions of the event are critical. This interaction takes place late at night, and on a public street, both factors that heighten the perceived threat of violence that whites attempt to avoid by avoiding persons of color. One of the most common racial events written by the white students involved white men protecting white women from Black men in public places (though not always necessarily at night), as we shall see in the next section.
As I have outlined, in the frontstage, whites interact with persons of color by actively avoiding any mention of race, or by choosing to avoid the persons of color themselves. Similar strategies used by whites are defensive strategies, where whites feel they have to protect their whiteness or their symbolisms of whiteness.
In the frontstage, the defensive strategies assume that whites are being attacked, violated, or threatened by persons of color. The defensive strategies may appear to be similar to the avoidance strategies where whites avoid persons of color. Although there is some overlap between the categories, there are key differences. In the avoidance category, whites do not always assume that there is the threat of wrongdoing by persons of color. Whites may choose to avoid people of color simply because they do not like them, or they want to avoid the label of being racist. In the defensive strategies, whites sometimes (though not necessarily) avoid people of color, but they also take defensive measures to protect themselves from perceived threat.
There are two defensive strategies that whites employ in the frontstage. The first is whites defending themselves from the perceived wrongdoing of persons of color (such as assuming persons of color will steal from them, or will attempt to attack them). The second is whites defending their racial characteristics.
Defending from Perceived Wrongdoing In this category, whites assume they are interacting with persons of color who will commit a crime if given the chance. For example, in this account, Robert follows the bug
exterminator in his house assuming the Black man will steal from him:
Now that I have been trying to be aware of the racism surrounding me I am beginning to pick up on more and more things. We have a guy that comes every two weeks or so and sprays the inside of our house for bugs. Normally this is not even an issue. I usually just let the guy in and go about my business. They are pretty thorough so it takes them a little while to finish. Usually it is these two white guys and I don’t even think twice. But this particular day it was a rather scruffy looking African-American man and my birthday had just passed and there were some expensive items like clothing, electronics, etc. I let him in and walked back to my room. Completely subconsciously I returned to the living room and started watching TV, although I had no intentions of doing this before. I just wonder if this would have happened if it had been the same two guys as before.