«BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS: EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS By LESLIE A. HOUTS A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE ...»
(Robert, WM, 21, Southeast) Robert admits that when the exterminator is white, he pays no attention and goes about his usual activities. However, when a “scruffy looking” Black man enters his house, he “subconsciously” returns to the room the man is working in. Carr (1997) suggests that whites use colorblind racism to appear not racist: by describing the Black man as “scruffy” and specifying the expensive items around, he could be referencing prejudice based on social class and not race. However, at the beginning of the entry, Robert states that he is more aware of his own racism, so the defensive strategy is used racially.
Robert subconsciously or consciously assumes that the Black man will do wrong. This heightened level of surveillance over Black men is one defensive strategy used by whites in the frontstage.
Another defensive strategy used by whites is to avoid persons of color. Similar to the account written by Sarah in the “avoidance” category, here we see white women
afraid of Black men:
Last night a friend and I were walking downtown to find somewhere to eat. We passed a group of white men in their early 30s who began asking us where we were going to see if we would stay with them at the bar. My friend just laughed and we kept walking, thinking nothing of it. A short way down the road was a group of black men about our same age standing on the corner goofing around. My friend grabbed my arm and told me to turn around. I did, and we went back to the other corner to cross the street there so we wouldn’t have to pass the group of black men.
When I asked her why she made me turn around she said, “We are two young girls walking alone at night. We have to be careful who we walk by.” It was funny that the thought did not cross her mind when we passed the other group earlier. (Kim, WF, 19, West) In this account, the temporal and spatial dimensions underscore the perceived danger the white women feel from Black men. At night, at a downtown public location, Kim’s friend feels afraid of specifically Black men. Together, the defensive strategy used to protect themselves from the perceived danger is to walk in the opposite direction of the threat.
This account is different from many racial events described by white women. In this situation, Kim’s white friend jokes with a group of white male strangers, yet runs from a group of Black male strangers. Many white women will argue that it does not matter what race a man is, that (especially at night) any unknown man would elicit fear.
For example, in the following account, Donna reinterprets her white roommate’s fear of
two Black men:
On this particular Monday evening, I actually was not in the dorm room, but had gone home for a doctor’s appointment. I did not actually witness this event, but it was the first thing my roommate wanted to tell me as soon as I got home the following day. My roommate had been sitting in the room reading an assignment when there was a knock on our door. As usual, she just yelled “Come on in,” as we would any other time, thinking that it would be the girls down the hall. Two rather large black males who were around twenty years old and wearing baggy pants with shirts that showed off their rather large, muscular arms, walked into the room. She said it totally caught her off guard and she was a little nervous. Not only was it two guys that she didn’t know, but she had her nightgown on and felt quite vulnerable.
They introduced themselves to her and told her that they lived on another floor in the building, and they were just trying to meet some people. They talked to her for a little while about her classes and where she was from. They ended up being two of the nicest people she had met so far. We still don’t know how they got onto our floor which makes us a little nervous because we don’t just want anyone wandering around. She told me that she felt bad after they left for being frightened just because they were black, but I told her that I am sure no matter what color they would have been that she more likely would have been nervous because it just isn’t normal for two guys to come walking in our dorm room. (Donna, WF, 19, Southeast) Donna’s roommate directly states that her fear was caused by the men’s race, as she was not expecting two Black men to enter her dormitory room. She states that she felt vulnerable: she was in her nightgown, and she described the men as being muscular and large. Donna’s description references the white fear of Black men sexually violating white women. Although the roommate specifically states she was afraid of the Black men, Donna reinterprets her story to the more socially correct fear of men in general regardless of race. We can see colorblind racism at work: Donna is relying on the semantic move of “it’s not race, it’s gender” in order to safely express the interactions of the frontstage.
In the next account, Heidi notes that her white boyfriend uses a defensive strategy
to protect her from a Black man:
Tonight I was downtown with my boyfriend, going to one of the local clubs. As we were walking back to the car at approximately 2:15am, we passed a black man dressed in tattered clothes standing beside a building. My boyfriend immediately grabbed me tighter, and switched me to the other side of him so that he was in between myself and the black man. I asked my boyfriend why he had done this, and he responded with “I just worry about you.” After talking to him for a bit about it, I found out that he did this because of multiple reasons. These reasons were: 1., because it was late at night and the man was thus hidden by the shadows, 2., because the man was dressed in attire that suggested that he may possibly be homeless, and 3., because the man was black (although this reason was not directly stated, I sensed that it was a reason by his response.) Although I noted this, it didn’t bother me. I feel that this is because I appreciated my boyfriends concern, and because I think that his being affected by the person was mainly due to his positioning and clothing rather than his color. (Heidi, WF, 18,Southeast) Black men continue to be demonized in our culture, viewed as unpredictable violent criminals (Russell 1998). We certainly see examples of this reflected in the white minds of the student journal writers. The threat of urban Black men preying on white women’s safety and sexuality increases in the public space and at night.
This account weaves social class, specifically the assumption of homelessness, with race. In defending the actions of her boyfriend, Heidi utilizes an excuse of colorblind racism. She attempts to avoid race terminology, and preserves the mythological nonracialism through semantic moves (such as, “[it] was mainly due to his positioning and clothing, rather than his color”) (Bonilla-Silva, 2003: 70). Like most semantic moves to avoid race, she “slips” by mentioning that race may play a role (her third reason) in explaining her boyfriend’s actions.
Heidi interprets her boyfriend’s actions (pulling her tighter) and words (“I just worry about you”), not as racist, paternalistic and inappropriate. Instead, she interprets the interaction as a token of his concern for her safety. According to Patricia Hill Collins (2000: 164), “White women’s inability to acknowledge how racism privileges them reflects the relationship that they have to White male power.” Unlike most women of color, many white women benefit from private patriarchy economically, socially, and physically, as Heidi is protected from the perceived threat of the Black man.
To summarize, in the frontstage, the first type of a defensive strategy is whites defending themselves (and other whites) from the perceived wrongdoing of persons of color. This is done through surveillance, avoidance, and physical protection from people of color. A second mechanism of the defensive strategy is defending whiteness.
Defending Whiteness Social scientists have long examined the stereotypes associated with people of color. For example, Devine and Elliot (1995) suggest that even if individuals do not believe it, most people possess knowledge of racial stereotypes such as the “industrious Asian,” “cheap Jew,” and “criminal African American.” Although it is not as commonly researched, according to the white students, there are also stereotypes about whites. The white students commented that the assumptions people of color have about them range from white’s lack of skill in certain cultural areas (such as whites cannot dance and have no taste in music), to those based on economics (all whites are rich) and privilege (all whites are racist). Therefore, in many frontstage interactions with people of color, whites reported utilizing a defensive strategy against whiteness assumptions.
Tara describes defending her race to a Black man:
I was talking about music with a black guy. The guy made a comment about how I actually had some pretty good music for a white girl. I responded, “I’m white, not stupid.” We both laughed. (Tara, WF, 18, West) White students commonly reported that because of their white skin, they were assumed not to know how to dance or appreciate good music. Calling out the stereotype and making a joke about one’s whiteness can facilitate bonds between whites and people of color, as is the case with Tara.
It should be noted that most of the stereotypes against whites are not truly damaging to anything like most stereotypes against persons of color. Similarly, many white stereotypes are due to the racial social structure that whites themselves created.
For example, Charlotte defends the assumption her African American coworkers have
about her not needing money:
I work as a pharmacy technician in my spare time from school. My pharmacist, as well as all of the other techs excluding myself and one other woman, are all African American. We all get along fine, although I can tell, as well as the other lady, that the others are the pharmacists’ “girls,” as he calls them. Anyhow, when we get our paychecks there is always discussion about how I supposedly don’t need the money, which in actuality is quite the opposite of the facts. I normally just blow it off, but yesterday at work we were going to get our checks again and a similar comment was made. I asked them why they always say that because I was curious to see what the response would be; because I had the suspicion that my lack of need for money had to do with the fact that I was a white female in college and so that meant I had money. My pharmacist answered as I thought, also pointing out that I don’t work many hours a week and over the summer I went on two vacations with my boyfriend. I corrected their false assumptions and explained the facts. One being that the only reason I am in college in the first place is because I received a full scholarship to attend [college] to play soccer and that rather than looking at my few hours a week at work as a lack of need for money, it is really my squeezing in what I can on top of my schoolwork and soccer obligations like practice and traveling and games because I badly need the extra money to get by. My father died last November and I am totally financially independent of my mom because she can’t support herself, my brother, and me all at the same time. I work two jobs in the summer to help save money for the upcoming semester’s expenses because I know I won’t have a lot of time to work during the season. Also, I added that the two vacations that I went on were totally paid for by my boyfriend and had I had to pay for them, I wouldn’t have been going anywhere that summer. They all just said that they had no idea and that they just assumed... Maybe next time they’ll think before just assuming someone’s status based on their race or education. I know I may not be as badly in need of the money as the other girls who work with me who are raising multiple children by themselves, but that doesn’t mean that my need is any less significant to me and my life. My family is definitely not a white, “middle class” family by the definition. We’d be more working-class if even that. This situation did provide me with some insight into race however. I was surprised to find myself offended by having to defend my status and need simply because of assumptions made by my race. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to have to live with such instances daily, and constantly have to defend yourself just because of the color of your skin. It must be frustrating and tiring! (Charlotte, WF, 22, Southeast) Charlotte goes to great extent to disprove the assumption that a white college student has economic privilege. She describes to her African American coworkers her economic situation, such as paying for college through athletic scholarship, and working for “extra money” to get by in college. Charlotte’s father passed away and she does not benefit from the private patriarchy of her father. However, she does admit benefiting from her heterosexual privilege as her boyfriend has paid for two of her recent vacations.
This account suggests that Charlotte has to defend herself from the stereotypes that whiteness equals an assumption about economic comfort. However, she also comments that she knows her situation is not nearly as bad as those of her coworkers. Her coworkers may not benefit from an athletic scholarship, a full-ride to higher-education that will benefit Charlotte throughout her lifetime. Her coworkers may not also benefit from heterosexual privilege or from white privilege [a later journal account indicates her boyfriend is white]. In this defensive account, Charlotte ends by recognizing what it must be like for persons of color who have to defend themselves against harsh stereotypes every day.
Having described three of the components whites utilize when interacting in the frontstage with persons of color (performance, avoidance, defensive), I will now discuss the last component: offensive strategies. By “offensive,” I mean interactions that take place in an aggressive or forthright manner similar to an offensive strategy in sports. I do not mean “offensive” as disrespectful or rude, although that certainly surfaces. Offensive strategies are characterized by initiating a conversation about race or a racial comment in the frontstage. Two offensive strategies that whites use in the frontstage are racial joking, and confrontation.