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BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS:
EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS
LESLIE A. HOUTS
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Leslie A. Houts
This dissertation is dedicated to the thousands of U. S. college students
who allowed me to read their personal thoughts, feelings and interactions.
I also dedicate this to their instructors, who encouraged them to think critically about race
and who ultimately made this dissertation possible.
A proj ect of this magnitude would not have been possible without the support and
assistance of so many wonderful people. I foremost would like to thank each member of
my dissertation committee: Joe Feagin, Connie Shehan, Debra King, Hernan Vera, and
Jay Gubrium. They have generously offered their time, support, and expertise during this
dissertation project. I am especially truly grateful to have Joe as my chair. Joe
encouraged me intellectually, but mostly he believed in my abilities. I will cherish our
conversations at Books Inc., Borders bookstore, and Poe Springs.
I thank Connie Shehan and Debra King who inspire me to become a feminist
intellectual in my scholarship, the classroom, and the community. During most of my
graduate school years, Connie served as the director of the University Center Excellence
on Teaching; her office with the generous help of Diane Buehn and Nadine Gillis
provided me with support and administrative help in beginning this proj ect.
I would also like to thank professors Charles Gattone, Beree Darby, William
Marsiglio, and Barbara Zsembik for their mentoring and guidance. The administrative
staff in the department of Sociology, especially Kanitra Perry and Sheran Flowers, have
been instrumental in helping me navigate the bureaucratic system at the University of
Florida (UF). I am indebted to the Jerome Connors Dissertation Fellowship, and the Ruth
McQuown Scholarship for partially funding this proj ect. I thank the Women' s Studies
Program at the University of Florida, and the Department of Sociology at the University
of Cincinnati for inviting me to present my preliminary findings at each of their
colloquium series (2/6/03 and 1/16/04, respectively). The kind audience members
allowed me the space to test my theoretical framework.
The professors across the country who encouraged their students to participate in
this project deserve special thanks: Helena Alden, Mark Cohen, Ken Davis, Mari
DeWees, Sharon Dorr, Marlese Durr, Susan Eichenberger, Joe Feagin, Dana Fennell,
John Foster, Christian Grov, Clay Hipke, Shannon Houvouras, Tracy Johns, Kristin Joos,
Amanda Lewis, Roseann Mason, Michael Messina-Yauchzy, Eileen O'Brien, Donald
Peppard, Ana Pomeroy, Karen Pyke, Adam Shapiro, Yanick St. Jean, Rachel Sullivan,
Susan Takata, Laurel Tripp, Debra Van Ausdale, Lisa Whitaker, Max Wilson, and
Margie Zamudio. Without these individuals encouraging their students to think critically
about their everyday lives, this dissertation would not be possible.
Having been part of the department of sociology at UF for 6 years, I have
developed close friendships with many talented people. I started the program in 1998,
along with Yvonne Combs, Shannon Houvouras, and Kristin Joos. Yvonne and Shannon
served as my dissertation support group, and I could not ask for more qualified, caring,
and intelligent individuals to call upon for help and guidance, especially at 3am.
Kristin's talent, energy, and ambition drove her to excel much faster than I ever could,
and in this process she leapt from peer to role model effortlessly. These three incredible
women continue to amaze me in everything they have accomplished, and have been
crucial to my success in the program.
I am thankful to the many graduate students who I look to for support, admiration,
and guidance. Sara Crawley, Lara Foley, and Laurel Tripp served as wonderful mentors
and friends. Each of them helped me battle the hurdles in grad school, as well as battle
the massive Florida roaches. I also enthusiastically thank Ruth Thompson-Miller, Susan
Eichenberger, and John Reitzel among many others who have helped to provide a
supportive, collaborative environment, and who have made grad school fun at times.
Special thanks and acknowledgments go to Danielle Dirks for assisting me in
painstakingly scanning countless journals.
My family provided the foundation, and I appreciate everything they have done for
me. I thank my mom Betty and dad Robert for instilling the passion to learn. My mom
especially insisted that each of her daughters get an education before anything else. My
siblings Dawn, Bobby, and Julie motivate me in a competitive spirit, and I love them for
it. I have many extended family members who deserve acknowledgement. Mary
Dusseau, Martha Houts, Vicki and Don Nelson, and Bob Wirtz helped me immensely by
taking on the role of my surrogate parents. I also thank Mike's family in Florida,
Georgia, Kentucky, and New Jersey, who adopted me into their family with open arms.
Although I hate to admit it, I have to thank my Uncle Bob Russo for our fiery
debates about racial relations. This dissertation is truly inspired by our fights, and he
deserves the credit. Bob challenged me, made me cry (I'm not sure he knew that), and
ultimately made me even more determined to prove him wrong.
Ultimately, I thank my partner Mike Picca. Mike has been with me for 5 of my 6
years in grad school (most of it long-distance), and he has supported me unconditionally
in every way that someone can be supported: intellectually, financially, and emotionally.
Mike deserves the title "honorary sociologist," and I am truly blessed to have him in my
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. .................... iv
AB S TRAC T ......_ ................. ............_........x
1 INTTRODUCTION ................. ...............1.......... ......
Literature on Whites .............. ...............2.....
Survey ................... ........... ...............2.......
Col orblindness Literature .............. ...............3.....
Social Psychology .............. ...............5.....
Racial Classification Scheme .............. ...............6.....
Theoretical Perspectives ................. ...............7.......... ......
Goffman' s Dramatur gy .............. ...............7.....
Structural and Institutional Racism .............. ...............9.....
Key Concepts ................. ...............10........._.....
Racial Events ................. ....._.._ .... ...............10.....
Frontstage, Backstage, and Slippage ................. .........___........ 12.........
Specific Aims............... ...............13..
Rationale for the Study ................. ...............14.._.__ ....
Summary and Dissertation Outline............... ...............16
2 METHODOLOGY ................. ...............18.......... .....
Research Design .............. ............... 19....
Data Analysis.................. .. .............2
Extended Case Method ................. ...............23................
Coding .............. ...............25....
Sam ple .............. ...............27....
Journal Writing ................. ...............3.. 1..............
Benefits ................. ...............3.. 1..............
Limitations ................. ........... ...............33.......
Active Qualitative Research .............. ...............37....
Summary ................. ...............3.. 8..............
3 FRONT STAGE .............. ...............39....
Performance ............. ...... ._ ...............39...
Extreme Politeness .............. ...............40....
Proving Not A Racist............... ...............43.
Appropriating Race .............. ...............44....
Avoidance .............. .... .._ ...............47....
Avoid Mentioning Race .............. ...............47....
Avoid People of Color ............. ...... .__ ...............50..
Defensive Strategies ................ ..... ... .............5
Defending from Perceived Wrongdoing .............. ...............52....
Defending Whiteness............... ...............5
Offensive Strategies............... ...............5
Racial Joking .............. ...............59....
Confrontati on ................. ...............64...............
Summary ........._...... ...............67..._.._. ......
4 BACKSTAGE .............. ...............68....
Preparation Stage ................. ...............68..__..........
Educational .............. ...............69....
Warnings and Cautions............... ...............72
Safe Space from the Frontstage .............. ...............74....
Normalized Backstage ........._...... ...............74.....__........
Group Dynamics............... ...............86
Summary ........._...... ...............101...__..........
5 BACKSTAGE, NEAR THE FRONT ................. .........___........103.........
Nonverbal Mechanisms .............. ...............103....
Body Language................ ...............10
Avoidance ................. ...............109................
Verbal Mechanisms ................. ...............113......... ......
Vague Language ................. ...............118................
Code Language ................. ............ ...............120......
No Change in Backstage Conversation .............. ...............127....
Summary ................. ...............129................
6 FLUID BOUNDARIES, SLIPPERY REGIONS ......... ................ ...............131
Context Shifts: Back to Front ................. ......... ...............132 ...
Intruder Alert: Abrupt Shift................. ... .............13
Transitioning Performances: Back and Front ....._____ ........___ ...............135
Accidental Shifts: Forgetting Not In the Backstage .............. .....................4
Excuses: Repairing the Slippage .............. ...............141....
Getting Caught............... ...............144
Unreliable Safe Backstage ................. ........... ...............151 .....
White Skin as a Backstage Passport ................. ...............152..............
Not All White: Problematizing Whiteness ....._____ .........__ .................159
Summary ................. ...............163................
7 CONCLUSIONS .............. ...............165....
Front stage, Backstage and Slippage ................. ....___.....__ ...........16
Underlying Themes .............. ...............167....
White-to-Black Oppression ............ ........... ....___ .............6
Gender and Race ............ ..... .._ ...............169..
Joking and Stereotypes ............ .....___ ...............171..
Language .............. ...............174....
Theoretical Implications ............_...... ._ ...............176...
Extended Case M ethod ........._ ............. .. .. ........ .. ..............17
Beyond Individual Attributes: Collaborative Social Networks .......................177
Beyond Colorblind Racism ................ ...............180...
Future Research in the Post Civil Rights Era ................. .............................181
Hope for the Future .............. ...............18 1...
Future Research ................. ...............182................
A JOURNAL INSTRUCTIONS .............. ...............185....
B EXIT INTERVIEW QUESTIONNAIRE............... .............19
LI ST OF REFERENCE S ................. ...............194__ ......
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............201....
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
BACKSTAGE, FRONTSTAGE INTERACTIONS:
EVERYDAY RACIAL EVENTS AND WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS
Leslie A. Houts
Chair: Joe R. Feagin
Maj or Department: Department of Sociology
Social scientists have often documented in surveys the apparently liberal shift in
whites' racial attitudes since the civil rights era of the 1960s. However, a few recent
studies strongly suggest that the abundance of survey data indicating that whites are more
liberal in their racial attitudes today than in the past are insufficient, as whites today may
be concealing true racial attitudes in some settings against persons of color. Data for this
proj ect were derived from the j journal writing and diaries collected nationally from 626
white college students across the United States. Using the extended case method, I offer
insights from these extensive data into institutional racism. This proj ect explores the
inconsistency in the presentation of white racial attitudes, and examines how whites
rationalize the contradictions. Specifically, this proj ect answers the questions how do
whites interact among other whites ("backstage") and how do whites interact among
people of color ("frontstage"). The interactions within these two regions are strikingly
different. This is illustrated in the mechanisms that whites use to protect the backstage
boundary, such as verbal warnings and nonverbal avoidance. This proj ect examines the
"slippage" between the two regions, and how whites account for racetalk in the backstage
when physically near the frontstage.
As racialized interactions are social in nature, this proj ect provides insight into how
whites learn and reproduce racial attitudes and actions with their critical social networks.
Many whites in the sample described racial relations in individualistic conceptualizations,
or rationalized that the positive individual attributes negated the consequences of racist
interactions in the backstage. I examine critically here both the colorblind ideology and
individualist perspective of racial relations, as whites' everyday racist practices and
backstage interactions sustain a racial hierarchy in the larger societal structure. This
proj ect seeks to help better comprehend what is happening in the everyday world,
descriptively and analytically, as a means to understand systemic racism today.
I went over to the Smith farm this afternoon around dinnertime. I went to a small
farm school, graduated with 42 kids, all white and mostly farmers. The farmers
that I graduated with are all racist, everyone knows this--it's not a secret. Todd
asked how school was going and then asked when I was going to let them come
down and visit. I said, "I don't know guys, one of my suitemates is black, you
would have to be nice to her." All the guys said, "Black!?!" Like they were
shocked that I could actually live with someone of another color. Then David said,
"Now why would you go and do that for?" Then they agreed that nothing would be
said if they came to visit and then started to talk about some Eight they had gotten
into with some black kids in town. The conversation was short lived and I wasn't
surprised by their comments or their reactions to Lisa (my suitemate). They are all
really nice guys and I think if they came to visit that they would be respectful of
Lisa. I know, however, that they would talk and make fun later about me living
with a black girl. I know this summer I'm going to get shit from them about it.
(Becky, WF, 19, Midwest)
The above quote was written by Becky, a white female college student, who
describes an everyday racial event. Becky's white male friends admit they would be
polite to the Black woman to her face, but would behave very differently in a private
location just among white friends. This account illustrates one maj or focus of this
dissertation project: whites' interactions among other whites (defined as "backstage") are
often very different than their interactions among people of color (defined as
"frontstage"). This dissertation examines the varying ways that whites interact in the
everyday world as described in everyday journal writing. This data-gathering technique
is unique compared to the more traditional methodology of surveys and interviews for
studying racial views, attitudes, and actions.
In this chapter, I discuss the relevant literature on whites as a racial category that
pertains to this project. I first explore the research on whites' racial attitudes as gathered
via survey research, and compare that to interviews and participant observation. Second,
I explore the research on colorblindness and racial classification schemes. Third, after
providing this brief literature review, I then set up the theoretical framework for this
proj ect, specifically institutional racism as it develops and plays out in frontstage and
backstage settings. Fourth, I define the key concepts used throughout the dissertation and
present my specific aims for this proj ect. Lastly, I set up the rest of the dissertation
Literature on Whites
Traditionally, racial and ethnic research focuses on persons of color, and their
experiences with discrimination. The maj ority of research on whites examines whites'
attitudes and behaviors toward persons of color. Although Gunnar Myrdal (1998) in
1944 spoke of the need to study "what goes on in the minds of white Americans," only
recently in the 1980s and 1990s have scholars examined whiteness, or whites as a racial
group. Scholars such as Toni Morrison (1992) and Ruth Frankenberg (1993) are often
attributed as the pioneering whiteness scholars.
Social scientists have often documented by means of surveys the apparently liberal
shift in whites' racial attitudes since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s (Hyman and
Sheatsley 1964; Lipset 1996). There is much significant survey research on whites'
racial attitudes. Survey data indicate that the rate of whites who publicly profess blatant
racial stereotypes has declined, but it is still substantial. For example, a 2001 National
survey indicated 58% of whites applied at least one negative stereotype to Black
Americans (such as lazy, violent, prefer welfare, or complaining) (Bobo 2001).
However, a few recent studies strongly suggest that one factor in this liberal shift
involves whites saying one thing in public, and saying (and doing) something contrary to
that in private. Specifically, two recent studies (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000; Myers
and Williamson 2001) suggest that the abundance of survey data indicating that whites
are more liberal in their racial attitudes today than in the past are insufficient, as whites
today may be concealing true racial attitudes in some settings against persons of color.
Whites operating under a colorblind ideology may be more likely to ignore race in certain
contexts (such as the oft-quoted phrase, "I don't see color, I just see people"), yet still
interact only in white social networks (Feagin 2000; Feagin and Vera 1995).
Colorblindness among whites is often conceptualized as an extension of white
racial transparency. As whites are the dominant group (economically, politically,
culturally, and statistically), whiteness is rarely defined or examined (Entman and
Rojecki 2000; Haney Lopez 1996). Whites enjoy the privilege of racial transparency, or
not having a color (McIntosh 1998). In this way, whiteness remains invisible as it
perpetuates privilege, normalcy, and power.
Within this framework, it is easy for whites to ignore "race" within themselves, and
to extend this avoidance of race among others, yet still navigate in a white world. Even
when interacting with persons of color, for many whites 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 (Carr 1997).
Scholars like Leslie Carr (1997) argue that the colorblind ideology has replaced
evolutionary racist ideology. Unlike what many whites will argue, ignoring race is not a
solution to institutional and systemic racism, but it is a new form of racism. From a
white standpoint, maj or social institutions are not white, but just "normal and customary"
(Feagin 2000: 100). Many whites have adopted a colorblind position, whereby they
claim that there is no longer a problem of racism if people do not acknowledge race.
Among the most cited research on white racial attitudes is conducted by Ruth
Frankenberg (1993), who examines among other issues, colorblindness. From her 30 in-
depth interviews with white women in California, Frankenberg outlines three paradigms
of racial construction: essential racism, colorblindness, and race cognizance. As well as
contributing to racial theory with these three shifts in race conceptions, Frankenberg's
book is a landmark because it attempts to analyze the emotionality, or the "deeper
feelings" of race relations and racism. Through personal interviews, Frankenberg offers a
better understanding of whites' emotions regarding racial relations that range from
innocence to guilt, and fear/anger to pride/superiority.
In addition to Frankenberg's research, currently only two other in-depth interview
proj ects explore white racial attitudes; all three suggest that whites harbor very racist
attitudes (Feagin and O'Brien 2003; Feagin and Vera 1995). Feagin and Vera (1995)
limit their analysis of whites to one chapter of a larger proj ect, but many key features
used by these scholars are beneficial to this project. These authors rely on analyzing
racial events, which they suggest reveal "the ways in which actions create and reflect
structures both in and through time" (Feagin and Vera 1995: 17). Similar to Frankenberg
(1993), Feagin and Vera (1995) hint at the range of often negative emotions (particularly
fear and hatred) whites express toward people of color, especially African Americans.
Emotions, thoughts, and actions are often tailored according to the social location of the
Feagin and Vera (1995: 143) suggest that regarding racial events, we can use
Goffman's (1959) dramaturgical analysis to explain how whites act differently in the
public frontstage versus the more private backstage area. This similar conception is
found in the social psychological literature referred to as modern racism, where the
surface level (or public frontstage) covers deeper racist attitudes (in private backstage
areas) (Dovidio and Gaerthner 1991). Compared to the recent past when overtly racist
comments were tolerated and expected, now social pressures exist to avoid such overtly
racist statements. However, subtle measures and tests in psychology suggest a racist core
is still intact (Pettigrew 1989).
Bonilla-Silva and Forman (2000) argue that a new racial ideology of colorblind
racism accounts for whites putting on an antiracist mask over an often prejudiced and
racist core. They argue that this antiracist facade is captured in survey responses that
may not accurately reflect whites' true feelings. Whites report more prejudice in in-depth
interviews than in surveys, and they also rely on semantic tactics in interviews to appear
less racist (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000). For example, white college students may
use hesitation, disclaimers, and ambivalent statements to save face and appear less racist
while still conveying a (colorblind) racist ideology. Given the findings ofBonilla-Silva
and Forman, the methodological approach used to gather information is critical to
examine for how it impacts what data are, or are not, captured and how it is framed.
Bonilla-Silva and Forman confirm the social psychological literature, and also
contexualize it in a social and historical context of racism.
There are also numerous racial experiments in psychology and social psychology
(Devine 1989; Helms 1992). The research of Patricia Devine provides useful ways to
think about stereotypes, particularly when they are activated or repressed. Devine and
Elliot (1995) suggest that on the whole, everyone is aware of racist stereotypes, such as
"Blacks are lazy" and "Jews are materialistic" no matter what level of prejudice a person
holds. In other words, even if a person does not believe the stereotype, people possess
knowledge that the racial stereotype exists.
Devine and her colleagues suggest a two-step model of the cognitive process: the
automatic processing brought up by a stimulus (such as a member of the outgroup); and
the controlled (conscious) processing that can ignore, refute, or confirm it. She suggests
that less prejudiced persons use their conscious processing to edit out negative
stereotypes. Although Devine's work is respected in her Hield, some scholars take issue
with the implication that negative stereotypes are automatically activated in everyone.
Fazio and colleagues (1995) suggest that considerable variability exists in people's
automatic processing of negative stereotypes.
Racial Classification Scheme
Some researchers have used Goffman's theoretical orientation to describe whites'
"schizophrenia" of racial relations, where whites say one thing in public, yet say and do
something contrary to that in private (Feagin and Vera 1995; Myers and Williamson
2001). In the frontstage, whites learn that it is not appropriate to express racist
sentiments; yet in the backstage, whites can relax this expectation.
In addition to conceptualizing racial events into Goffman's dramaturgical analysis
(1959) of performing in the frontstage and backstage, other researchers have categorized
narrative events in other classification schemes. Feagin and Feagin (1989, 2003) describe
the sites and range of discrimination along three distinct forms: overt discrimination
(obvious to the victim and perpetrator), subtle discrimination (obvious to the victim, but
not overt), and covert discrimination (hidden and difficult to document). Benokraitis and
Feagin (1986) use a similar typology to describe various forms of sexism.
Additionally, Yamato (1987) utilizes similar categorization of four different
manifestations of racism: aware/blatant, aware/covert, unaware/unintentional, and
unaware/self-righteous. According to Yamato, the level of awareness is from the
perspective of the white perpetrator. Like Feagin and colleagues, she differentiates
between blatant (or overt) events and covert events that tend to be more difficult to
document. We can find criticisms in Yamato's categorization, such as the categories may
not necessarily be discrete and fixed, but may be more fluid and overlapping. However,
she does offer key elements of racial events to consider, such as examining the level of
awareness and intention of the (white) perpetrator.
In this dissertation, I provide my own classification scheme based in part on
Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor. I discuss frontstage, backstage, and the slippage
between the two regions. I conceptualize the borders around the backstage region, and
how whites protect a safe backstage, even when in the presence of people of color in the
frontstage. To better understand the framework for this proj ect, I will further detail
In sociology, Goffman suggests that people use impression management (they
present themselves using certain techniques) to sustain a performance that fits the
requirements of a particular situation. As though we are actors on a stage, he suggests
that there are two structural features of dramaturgy: the frontstage and backstage.
In the front region ("frontstage" in this dissertation), individuals and groups
(referred to as "performance teams") perform the roles that leads the audience to form an
impression. According to Goffman, the front is "that part of the individual's [or team's]
performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the
situation for those who observe the performance" (1959: 22). Goffman also notes that in
the front, performers typically conceal behaviors, attitudes, and emotions that can be
expressed in the backstage.
According to Goffman, the backstage is a place "where the impression fostered by
the performance is knowingly contradicted" and "where the performer can reliably expect
that no member of the audience will intrude" (1959: 1 12-1 13). Errors and mistakes are
often corrected in the backstage before the frontstage performance. The backstage is
characterized by a less formal atmosphere, where the actors can openly violate expected
There is a critical barrier between the frontstage and the backstage, for if the two
intersect (such as when an outsider intrudes into the backstage) it leads to a "spoiled
performance." In the event of a mismanaged performance, remedies must be made, such
as performing a new role fit for the intruder, or offering an aligning action or verbal
Goffman's dramaturgy framework is typically discussed as a "micro" perspective,
stemming from the symbolic interactionist theoretical paradigm. Goffman examines
symbolism and the meaning of everyday interactions within the social context. In this
proj ect, I argue that the everyday interactions in the frontstage and backstage are not
tangential to the social structure, but they make up the racialized social structure, within
the context of structural and institutional racism.
Structural and Institutional Racism
The literature on white racial attitudes often does not situate the research within a
theoretical framework, such as a framework of institutional or systemic racism. This
theoretical framework asserts that systemic, or institutional racism is composed of
individual and collective attitudes, ideologies, and behaviors (both subtle and overt) that
systematically support a racial hierarchy that privileges whites and limits the social
reality of persons of color (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967; Feagin 2000).
My dissertation seeks to overcome these critical shortcomings in the literature by
examining everyday racial events as described by white college students in theoretical
perspective. The term "everyday" is used deliberately: it does not mean only an
occurrence that occurs repeatedly on a daily basis. In sociology, "everyday" has a more
specific meaning. Dorothy Smith (1987: 98) is credited with implementing the idea of
the "everyday world" which "begins in the actual daily social relations between
individuals." She argues that the everyday world must be seen as being organized by
multiple social relations that are not observable from within it. According to Smith, the
focus of the everyday world is on how lives are organized by social relations and how
individuals are located institutionally; this approach provides the foundation for
"everyday racism" (Essed 1991).
Essed specifies that everyday racism is racism but not all racism is everyday
racism; everyday racism constitutes the systematic, repetitive, familiar, and cumulative
practices involving the (socialized) complex relations of attitudes and behaviors. Such
discriminatory patterns and practices involve more than the actions of a few individual
bigots, and also include the systemic practice of racism built into maj or societal
institutions. By racism, I mean systemic racism: discriminatory patterns and practices
which involve more than the actions of a few individual attitudes, but rather the systemic
practices of racism built into society' s major institutions (Feagin and Houts 2004).
Everyday racism means experiencing multiple layers of incidents, feelings,
reactions, pains, and responses at any one time, and the accumulation of these over an
individual's, family's, and community's lifetime (Feagin and Sikes 1994). Although
Feagin and Sikes (1994) were referring to experiencing racism as the target, this proj ect
will examine everyday racism from the perspective of white participants. As described
by Essed, it is these types of repetitive, familiar practices and these effects that I examine
in this proj ect.
In this proj ect, I examine the meaning and symbolism of everyday racial events and
interactions within the social context, specifically within the framework of institutional
racism. Whites' interactions in the frontstage and backstage are not tangential to the
social structure, but they make up the racialized social structure. Throughout this project I
rely on terms like "racial events," "frontstage," and "backstage." Although other scholars
have used these terms, I will clarify how these terms are defined in this proj ect.
In this research, I examine "racial events." In defining "event," Atkinson and
Coffey (2002: 811) said:
In order to be observable and reportable, events in themselves must have some
degree of coherence and internal structure. An "event" in the social world is not
something that just happens: It is made to happen. It has a beginning, a middle,
and an end.
The structure of events is narrative in form. Gubrium and Holstein (1997) suggest that
events are a collective, shared cultural resource; rather than finding meaning within the
phenomena itself within a social vacuum, the meaning lies within what it is linked to and
how the narrative is organized. Narrative accounts, experiences, and memories are
enacted as a type of social action, such as the performativity of social life described by
Racial events can be examined among their various dimensions, including the
content as well as the relational, spatial, temporal, and emotional dimensions (Houts,
Feagin and Johns, forthcoming). Although "events" are typically conceived as an
"action" or "behavior," events also encompass sentiments and attitudes. In defining
racial events, Feagin and Vera (1995) highlight the dimensions of (1) the social actors;
(2) located in social structure, spatial setting, and temporal frame; and (3) motivated by
attitudes and emotions.
Within racial events, Feagin and Vera describe that white social actors often fall
into different categories of participation. Using the metaphor of a religious "racial rite,"
these scholars define whites as playing one of three roles: the officiants of active racist
behavior who initiate and instigate a racial event; the acolytes who support the actions;
and the passive participants who act as inactive bystanders understanding the meaning
and consequences, yet allowing the racial event to continue (Feagin and Vera 1995: 9).
They also recognize the role of the (often less common) white active resisters of racist
This proj ect seeks to examine these cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of
racial events, as described by white college students. In addition to focusing on the
meaning and significance that white actors place on the interpretations of data, I also
analyze the language used, the actions that take place, and the organization of the
network of people involved in the racial events. In other words, I examine the social
networks of who is allowed entry into the interactions, as well as who is denied access to
the racial events.
Frontstage, Backstage, and Slippage
In this proj ect, I focus on the frontstage and backstage of racial events. I define
frontstage as racial events occurring among persons of all racial groups. As this project
focuses on whites, the frontstage involves interactions with whites and persons of color.
In the frontstage, most whites have learned it is not appropriate to express blatantly racist
or racial sentiments. Many whites suggest employing a colorblind ideology in the
frontstage, where the goal is to ignore any indications of "race." Throughout the proj ect,
the frontstage is identified as a "performance" where whites understand that certain racial
activities, behaviors, and emotions, are concealed in the frontstage, yet are more safely
expressed in the backstage.
I define the backstage as racial events occurring within the same racial group (real
or perceived). This means that the backstage includes racial events that take place with
only other "whites." (Chapter 6 problematizes whiteness and actors who are assumed to
be white, but come out as "not all white.") As the frontstage is characterized by expected
nonracist appearance, in the backstage the frontstage expectations can be relaxed and
openly contradicted. Although the backstage often deals with white friends and family
members, as evident throughout the chapters, white strangers are often assumed access to
a safe backstage. I use the metaphor of white skin as being a "passport" into a safe
backstage, where racial (and racist) performances are not only tolerated, but often
sustained and encouraged.
Goffman comments about "spoiled performances" such as when an outsider
intrudes into the backstage. I refer to this as the "slippage" between the backstage and
the frontstage. The slippage is typically unidirectional, meaning that the frontstage
crashes into the backstage, or the backstage turns (abruptly by accident, or carefully
crafted on purpose) into the frontstage. This may occur when whites do not completely
secure the backstage borders (Chapter 5), or when whites forget that they are not in a safe
backstage (Chapter 6).
As this proj ect seeks to understand events that occur in the whites' everyday racial
events (that is, a covert arena that necessarily excludes the presence of an "active"
researcher), data were collected by means of journal writing of college students across the
U. S., modeled after the pioneering research of McKinney (2000), Myers and Williamson
(2001), and Miller and Tewksbury (2001). For example, Myers and Williamson (2001)
look "behind closed doors" to see how racist discourse is manifested in everyday
conversations by using trained undergraduate informants to record conversation they
heard or participated in. Their findings suggest that contemporary racial relations can be
labeled as schizophrenic where the public face is antiracist and colorblind, yet the private
talk shows rampant racism at the microlevel.
This dissertation seeks to expand on earlier research methods and
conceptualizations in several ways. The only previous study in this area, Myers and
Williamson (2001), limited their sample to college students at one University. My
proj ect includes a much larger sample size (626 white students compared to under 50
students), and is more geographically diverse than this earlier study. Additionally, other
studies focus on racetalk (like boundary marking, policing, and maintenance). This
project examines conversational discourse, as well as racial events, interactions, and its
Conceptually, my proj ect seeks to better comprehend how whites think and feel in
racial terms by analyzing racial events. I examine the content ("what") of the racial
events and observations, but I focus on the underlying mechanisms that operate ("how")
in both the frontstage and the backstage. For example, in the racial events, I examine the
role of gender and race, joking and stereotypes, and the language used by whites in the
frontstage and the backstage. I also analyze how white students contend with any tension
between striving for a colorblindness ideal in the frontstage, yet maintaining very
protected white-only social networks in the backstage.
Rationale for the Study
This proj ect is important because it seeks to further delve into the white mind,
specifically by examining the everyday racial discourse, behavior, and emotions. These
attitudes are not individually but socially determined and constructed. Dyads and groups
are critical to examine as racial attitudes and behaviors are constructed socially: through
groups, individuals learn, perform, and alter their racial conceptualizations (Halbwachs
Although social scientists have examined the "more public" behaviors and attitudes
captured in survey data and interviews, there is relatively little information on what is
happening in whites' everyday "more private" lives. This project seeks to help us better
comprehend what is happening in the everyday world, descriptively and analytically, to
help us understand systemic racial relations and the racialized social structure. The
backstage area should not be conceptualized as tangential to the social structure, because
critical and definitive racialized practices often occur in the backstage area (Bonilla-Silva
and Forman 2000; Feagin and Vera 1995).
To better understand the importance of this study, I outline three specific reasons
why this project is sociologically significant to the racial literature. First, this project
provides insights into the white mind and the propensity to act. In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal
spoke of the need to study "what goes on in the minds of white Americans." However,
exactly 60 years later, whiteness studies are still a relatively new area in race literature.
Scholars like Toni Morrison and Ruth Frankenberg in the 1980s and 1990s are often
credited with being the pioneering whiteness scholars.
Second, I particularly want to research the racial thinking of "ordinary" white
Americans, which few studies examine. Much commentary today on whites focuses on
the racial thinking of those at the extreme end of the racial continuum, such as white
extremists like Ku Klux Klan members or Neo-Nazi Skinheads, or more recently the
work of white antiracists (O'Brien 2001). However, in my proj ect I want to focus on
how even "well-meaning ordinary" whites may sustain a racial hierarchy (Collins 1998).
Further understanding the racial structure of U. S. society from the perspective of
those who shape the racial hierarchy will advance the knowledge of contemporary racial
relations in sociology. When sociologists and other social scientists better understand
white racial attitudes and ideologies, scholars can better understand contemporary racial
relations with the goal of changing public policy in the direction of a more racially just
society. This is a significant and timely proj ect to better understand racial relations from
the white actors' perspective, especially as some census data proj sections indicate that
whites will become the numerical racial minority within the next 50 years.
Third, choosing to study college students is deliberate. Although college students
are an often-researched and convenient sample, they represent the next generation of
leaders. As education is often thought to be the great equalizer of racial relations, I
wanted to specifically study those popularly believed to be more "racially aware" than,
say, the stereotypical white racist "Archie Bunker" types.
Summary and Dissertation Outline
In this chapter I have provided the context for the rest of the dissertation. I have
provided the literature on whites and the theoretical perspective that the dissertation will
embed in: institutional racism and symbolic interactionism (esp. performativity and
Goffman). I have defined the key terms that provide the foundation (racial events,
frontstage, backstage, and slippage). I have described the specific aims of this project,
and provided rationalizations for why this is an important study.
In the rest of this proj ect, I examine the multiple ways whites participate in the
social networks in the front and backstage. In Chapter 2, I describe the methodology
used to gather the data. As very few sociological proj ects use j journal writing as a data
gathering method, it is important to specify the unique advantages and challenges
provided by this methodology. I also describe the sample of students who volunteered to
participate in this nationwide project. Chapter 3 describes the frontstage, specifically
looking at how whites interact among persons of color. Specifically, I focus on the
measures whites actively take to control the interactions (such as performance,
avoidance, defensive, and offensive measures). Chapter 4 examines the backstage
region, focusing on the group dynamics and confrontation styles whites' use in the safe
backstage. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the slippery regions between the frontstage and
backstage. In Chapter 5, I analyze how whites interact in the backstage when it is
physically near the frontstage. Chapter 6 examines the context shift between the front
and backstage, focusing on the unreliable safe backstage, and problematizing whiteness.
In Chapter 7, I provide analysis for the regions, focusing on the mechanisms that drive
the border protection.
In the physical sciences, the Heisenberg principle refers to the process whereby
measuring an object changes its very nature. I faced a similar conundrum in my research.
My research obj ective is to study how race plays a role in the everyday lives of whites.
However, as a researcher, I am challenged: How do I access data that are purposively
hidden from public discourse? Myers and Williamson (2001: 8) relied on trained
students, or "informants to secretly record private conservation" acting as "participants
as observers." Rather than training selected students from a single university in
orientation sessions, I wanted to extend my research beyond a limited sample and
geographic location. There remains a stereotype that racial relations are only problematic
in the South. Given this southern-stereotype, I felt it necessary to extend my data
collection to other geographic areas.
Instead of privileging one form of data gathering over another, scholars often agree
that "the problem under investigation properly dictates the methods of investigation"
(Trow 1957: 33). Because of the covert nature of the backstage, I used student journal
writing to gather data. Although student j ournals (also known as diaries) are often used
as a teaching tool in the classroom (Miller and Miller 1976; Wagenaar 1984), it is not a
common method of data gathering in sociology, particularly for a large sample.
I selected U.S. college students as the population to study for two main reasons.
Most obviously, as a student, researcher, and teacher in a college environment, I am
constantly surrounded by college students, who make a convenient sample. College
students can be easily encouraged to participate in research: Who else could I convince
to keep a daily or weekly journal for 3 or 4 months for free or for "points" (a commodity
meaningless outside of academia)? I tried to convince some of my friends, family
members, and colleagues to keep a journal, and even a few professors promised to keep a
journal, but ultimately it was the college students who I could depend on to participate.
A second, more important reason why college students are studied in this proj ect is
because they represent a critical population demographically in racial studies. Whites
who are often stereotyped to be racist include the "Archie Bunker" country bumpkins
who typically represent older, rural males in the working class, without higher education.
If we could map a stereotypical white racist, with the "greater than sign" facing the more
racist individual, it would probably look like this: older > younger; rural > urban; no
higher education > college educated; working/lower classes > upper/middle classes; male
> female. Although there is little validity to these stereotypes, it seems appropriate to
study a group of people who appear to be more on the nonracistt" end of a racist
I began collecting data in Spring 2002 at a large southeast university, in an
Independent Study of Racial Relations course, sponsored by Dr. Joe Feagin. The j ournal
writings of these ten students helped to launch a national data collection process that
began Summer 2002. Although I continue to collect data, the dissertation findings
examine the j ournals collected from Spring 2002 to Summer 2003.
Starting in Summer 2002, I recruited undergraduate students to keep a regular
journal of "everyday" interactions that they participate in (or observe via participant
observation) that reveal racial issues. Students were recruited through my and my
committee chairperson's contacts of instructors across the country who are teaching
lower- or upper-division undergraduate or graduate-level courses in disciplines where
student j journal writing might be expected (such as social science or humanities
disciplines). The instructors I contacted were encouraged to invite their colleagues to
participate in the study of student j journal writing, hence beginning a snowball technique
of gathering a larger sample size (Warren 2002). An aggressive effort was made to get
j ournals from the four major areas of the U. S. (Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, and West).
Upon approval from the instructors to solicit students to keep a daily/weekly
j journal, each faculty member decided how the student j ournal writing would be used in
the class (such as a course assignment or extra credit). Such decisions impacted for how
long the students were asked to keep a j journal, and the length required of each j journal
entry to merit credit, if any was offered. Most students wrote an average of one to two
paragraphs per j journal entry, although the length ranged from a short phrase to Hyve pages
Of the 23 instructors who had their students participate in the proj ect, some faculty
members asked their students to write for a specified amount of time (anywhere from 2
weeks to an entire 20-week semester) consecutively, no matter what the content of the
journals entailed. In the journal instructions, I discussed the notion that "no data are
data" so the students would recognize the benefits of writing even on "no race" days.
More often, the students were asked to write a certain number of journals (usually 10 to
20) that included a racial event in each account. Allowing each faculty member to decide
how they wanted to frame the journal writing process provided me with a nice mixture to
compare accounts. For example, one of the more common themes students wrote about
regarding racial events was sports, specifically whites as spectators to football or
basketball games. It might be tempting to conclude that every sports interaction would
invoke a racial comment, yet with the inclusion of students who wrote daily, I could
readily see multiple examples of students watching sports (sometimes the same game)
with no racial comment made.
The j journal assignment for most students was an extra credit opportunity.
Approximately 3 professors required the assignment of their students, and one professor
extended the proj ect allowing her students to choose which structure of
privilege/oppression (such as gender, sexuality, age, social class, or disability) they
wanted to write about. Obviously this study includes only her students who wrote about
I provided each faculty member with the appropriate number of joumal instructions
for each student. Although the journal instructions were a lengthy 5 pages long, I tried to
make it detailed, yet clear for the students, such as including sections like, "When should
I write [in my journal]?" and "How will I be graded?" I also included 6 examples of
journals written by students in the Spring 2002 Independent Study, so the students could
see the preferred format of describing their accounts.
In the journal instructions, students were advised to document and analyze racial
interactions, accounts, events, and racial comments. Instructors gave their students my
detailed instructions regarding what and how to write in their j ournals, including j journal
examples. [See Appendix A for the journal instructions.] Students were also instructed
to be unobtrusive in their research techniques. The Informed Consent, signed by each
student who participated in the proj ect, summarizes the student expectations:
You will be asked to keep a j journal of your reactions to everyday conversations
about racial issues, images, and understandings. You will be instructed about
unobtrusive research techniques so that the person you write about in your j journal
will not be aware that they are being studied. You will be instructed to be detailed
in your accounts, yet to ensure anonymity, you will be instructed to conceal all
identities (even your own) and to disguise all names and identifiers of persons you
write about. Even though there will be no identifying markers in the journal, please
keep your j journal in a safe, private space so that it is not read by others. In your
journal, you will be asked to emphasize your reactions and perceptions to these
everyday events. You will have the opportunity to meet regularly with your
professor to ensure all your questions and concerns are answered...
Unlike other research proj ects that rely on j ournals or participant observation (see Myers
and Williamson, 2001), I did not define for the students what constituted a "racial issue."
The instructions of what is a "racial issue, image, and understandings" are purposively
vague, so that the students may determine for themselves what embodied a racial event.
On the last page of the j journal instructions was a cover sheet that the students were
to attach to their j ournals. On the cover sheet, students were asked to write their name,
gender, race, age, sexual orientation (optional), and any comments to me. My email and
telephone number were listed on the cover sheet and in the journal instructions, in the
event that students wished to contact me. Students were also invited to include their
contact information in the event that they wished to be contacted about their journals.
All students who participated in the journal writing activity and who agreed to
share their j ournals with me for the dissertation proj ect were instructed to sign an IRB
Informed Consent form. Students had the option of participating in the j journal writing
assignment for their class, but not signing an IRB Informed Consent form, in which case
their j ournals were not used or analyzed for the proj ect, ensuring voluntary participation.
In other words, even if each individual instructor made the j journal writing assignment
mandatory for their course grade, students were still given the choice whether or not to
participate in the study, with no penalty for their decision. Each instructor was
encouraged to collect their students' journals themselves, and then send them to me.
Only 1 instructor had their students submit their j ournals directly to me, and student
participation was not high for that course. Upon receiving the student j oumals from the
instructor, I encouraged each instructor to complete an "exit interview" questionnaire
[provided in Appendix B].
After securing the appropriate consent forms from each journal collected, I
followed general qualitative research procedures (Gubrium and Holstein 1997; Silverman
2000) as well as those specifically developed by pioneering analysts (Feagin, Vera and
Imani 1996; Myers and Williamson 2001) to systematically and rigorously analyze the
data collected. Most of the students submitted a typed paper copy, and j ournals were
painstakingly scanned or typed into an electronic format. The electronic versions
allowed me to more readily systematically code and recode the journal entries for
Extended Case Method
The study utilizes an alternative to grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967), the
extended or iterative case method (Burawoy et al. 1991). An iterative, recursive case
method constantly uses the cases (data) collected to reexamine the prior conceptual view.
This process repeats itself, developing a deeper and more nuance view of the conceptual
or theoretical starting point with each added step. The initial view is tested, refined, and
sometimes rej ected, as additional cases and accounts are examined, until a point that
reasonably exhausts the issue at hand.
In grounded theory, data are examined inductively, whereby the analysis is not set
up to confirm or disconfirm specific hypotheses. In the extended case method, categories
that emerge from the data were compared to pre-existing theoretical frameworks (such as
Goffman' s dramaturgical analysis of the frontstage and backstage) as a means to verify,
extend, or reconstruct existing theories of racial issues and development. My project
attempts to extend, confirm, reorganize, or rej ect key ideas of the existing orientation.
According to Burawoy (1991: 279), "The extended case method looks for specific
macro determination in the micro world...It seeks generalization through reconstructing
existing generalization, that is, the reconstruction of existing theory." As an example, the
current conceptual approach emphasizes a dichotomy between the "frontstage" and
"backstage." Based on my research presented in Chapters 5 and 6, I theorize that
conceptualizing racial events along these discrete categories may be too simplistic as
there are many underlying dimensions at work in the backstage. The backstage may be
better understood as a fluid category allowing for slippage between the front and
backstage. There are moments when the backstage becomes frontstage, or vice versa,
such as when the relational dimensions change (for whites with the presence or absence
of a person of color). The backstage therefore may not be a homogenous arena, as there
are varying levels of privateness and publicness to the backstage. With the extended case
method, analysis begins with themes in which data are constantly and rigorously coded
and re-coded as a means to extend, confirm or reject existing conceptual ideas. This
reciprocal, or cybernetic, process offers the potential to develop new ideas using the
concepts of previous studies.
Coding was ongoing throughout analyzing the journals to ensure that insights, data
connections, and new categories of data are constantly being improved. I read through
each j journal account multiple times as the proj ect evolved, careful to note prevalent
themes and categories. The j ournals were categorized on at least 4 separate occasions.
First, as an initial read-through to get a sense of the prevalent themes the students were
writing about. Second, as I "cleaned" (typing or scanning the j ournals into an electronic
format) the data, I created categorical headings for each j journal account. Up to this point
in the research process, the data were organized regionally by each instructor. The third
coding process took place when I sorted the data into common topics. Next I bundled
common groups into prevalent themes, such as "how' s" versus "what's." Finally, the
data were double-checked to ensure the logic of each categorization.
The accounts of all white students in my sample were read, coded, and analyzed for
prevalent themes. With a very large sample size, I had to make decisions about which
accounts to include for analysis and exemplify in the chapters. When deciding which
accounts to examine, I paid particular attention to more substantial accounts that provided
detailed analysis, narrative linkages, informative stories, and a situated context. I also
included accounts that occurred frequently, or on a regular basis across the students.
Within my data, there are plenty of striking accounts. My dissertation examines some of
the "extraordinary" narratives, but I also seek to pay attention to mundane accounts that
reveal whites' racial thinking in everyday activities.
Fragmentary comments, such as simplistic journal entries like, "I heard a racist
comment today" were not included in the analysis. For example, the following account
written by a white male (WM) in the Southeast would not be used in the analysis:
Today one of my friends made a racist comment, "All niggers are like apples; they
look good hanging from the trees." I was very offended by the remark. I was
extremely upset because I have great relationships with so many members of my
team that happen to be black. So I was furious and told him to keep that kind of
stuff to himself. (Ted, WM, Southeast)
Although this account is startling in revealing a racial joke, the student did not include the
context in which the offensive comment is made. For example, we are left not knowing
the race of his friend, when he said it, where the conversation took place (on the field? at
a party? in a dorm room?), who else was involved in the conversation, how it was said,
and what the friend' s reaction was to his comment to "keep that kind of stuff to himself."
In selecting which accounts to analyze, I was looking for some level of detailed analysis
to be able to contextualize the comment.
Even though I have a large sample size, I strived to maintain a holistic component
to each j journal entry. Rather than simply see each individual j 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 j oumal, this same student writes about her mother' s reaction to
hearing her son make a racial comment:
March 24, 2003
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 j ournals for future proj ects, 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 j oumals. 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 j ournals. The inclusion of people of color to share in the j ournal 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 j journal
writing might be expected (such as Sociology or English).
Despite aggressive efforts to maintain geographic diversity, the maj ority 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 j ournals varied considerably, as did their
social class and geographic location (ranging from a small rural town in Wyoming, to a
maj or 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 proj ect, as I was concerned that I would only get j ournals 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 proj ect. In my own classes, it seemed that the
students most likely to submit their j ournals 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
maj ority 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 proj ect 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 subj ect 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 proj ect," one student did take issue with my research proj ect. A 20
year old white man in the Midwest commented on his cover sheet, "This [proj ect] 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 j journal accounts were no different from the rest of the sample.
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 proj ect
offers the advantage of allowing students multiple points of reflexivity. As the j ournals
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 j journal writing to gather data for a large scale proj ect 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 j ournals directly to me, or had the students seal their j ournals 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 j ournals 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 abstract 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 j ournals to gather data and to stimulate teaching
conversation, it best advances the "teacher-scholar" model praised by many academics.
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:
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 j 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
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 j ournals 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 j 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 tumn 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,
This student notes reflexivity, a benefit of utilizing j oumals 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 joumal data gathering is not knowing which students are
opting not to participate in the j journal writing process. In order to account for the types
of students who are opting not to participate in this proj ect, 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
proj ect, 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 proj ect, informed me
that he felt uncomfortable participating in the proj ect 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 proj ect.
A potential limitation of this proj ect is not knowing if more race-cognizant students
are more likely to participate in this proj ect or to take classes where this assignment
would be offered than students who may not be aware of racial relations. The maj ority of
students who wrote comments to me on their cover sheet tended to indicate that this
proj ect made them more aware of conversations and behaviors that related to racial
relations than they would have been otherwise.
A fourth concern for this proj ect 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 j ournals 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
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).
Active Qualitative Research
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 subj ect 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
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 j 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 j 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
respondent as reporting reality rather than creating reality.
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."
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
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 wa~s 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. She then commented to me when we got to my room, "People sure
are friendly here." When I began to think about it, I realized that this happened
every time she came to visit me. The situation leads me to believe that they greeted
her the way they did based on her race, because they don't treat each other or other
white strangers the way they have treated and continue to treat my friend. It's
definitely an interesting twist on interactions and behavior based on race. I also
think this situation illustrates that our hall would greatly benefit from having
minority residents. If not for any other reason, that people might treat one another
more courteously. (Elizabeth, WF, 20, Midwest)
In her j journal, Elizabeth reflects about how her white residents act in frontstage, that they
are overly nice to her Black female friend. The performance is not missed by the Black
woman who comments about the extreme friendliness. Elizabeth comments that her
mostly white school in the Midwest needs more "minority residents" so people would
treat each other more courteously. Contextualizing this comment in the frontstage and
backstage regions, it appears that Elizabeth is suggesting using racial minorities to draw
some of the frontstage pleasantries into the backstage realities.
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 maj ority 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 maj ority 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
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 maj ority 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.
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 j oking 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.
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 j oke 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 j oking" 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 (Bonilla-
Silva 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 quick-
fix 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.
(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
This account is different from many racial events described by white women. In
this situation, Kim's white friend j okes 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,
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
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 j ournal 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.
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 Eine, 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 Einancially independent of my mom because
she can't support herself, my brother, and me all at the same time. I work two j obs
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
Eind 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,
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 j 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,
Racial joking, either telling racial jokes or making racial comments in a joking
manner was extremely prevalent in the white students' journals. Joking serves many
functions, for example, it relieves stress and tension. Joking may also serve to unite a
group, such as by showing how tight-knit a group is to allow taboo joking. Joking may
operate to "test the waters" of a topic and to decrease accountability: it allows the
opportunity to say things that might be inappropriate or unkind. Under the guise of "just
kidding around" comments can be tossed around without consequence: it is just a joke,
and not meant to be taken seriously. Even with the "light hearted" joking context, most
scholars suggest that the underlying context of fun reveals often hostile, hurtful, and
The white students reported that they used or heard their white friends use racial
joking against persons of color. For example, Amy writes about her white male friend
who jokingly make a racial comment to a Middle Eastern friend:
Thursday night, around 1:30 am, I headed over to the dorm next to mine to see
some guy friends of mine (5 white males and 1 Middle Eastern male). All 5 white
males are from the same area and had friends visiting from another college (2 white
males). We were all hanging around in the dorm rooms, being social. I started
talking to one of the visiting friends, Chad, about his college and fraternity. The
Middle Eastern, Brad, was walking around like everyone else, when all of a sudden
Chad said, "Hey hijacker!!i How are you?" As soon as Chad said this, the whole
room went silent. Brad calmly went up to Chad and said that was very offensive
and to never call him that again. Soon after, Brad acted as if nothing had happened
and we went on hanging out and having fun. I was so upset with Chad after that
remark, but he did make a simple mistake and he understands that now. (Amy, WF,
Chad, a white male, offensively uses racial joking by calling a man of Middle Eastern
descent a "hij acker." The white students commented that negative remarks to Arab
Americans and persons of Middle Eastern decent increased after the events on September
1 1, 2001, such as this comment linking Brad to the planes' hij ackers.
The fun in the frontstage came to a halt as Brad had to educate the white man about
the meaning of his statement and told him never to repeat it. Like many other analysts
(Feagin and McKinney 2003), feminist Maria Lugones (1990) stresses the burden of the
oppressed: it is up to the oppressed (who have suffered the embarrassment in this
example) to educate their oppressors about the consequences and harm of their actions.
Brad could have responded by erupting in anger, leaving, laughing it off, ignoring him, or
educating him. Although Brad did not choose to put himself in this situation, he is faced
with the difficult decision of how to best rectify it, with optimal results so Chad
recognizes his blunder. Again, it is the burden of the oppressed to police the boundaries
on racial stereotyping. Although Amy states she is upset with Chad, she also appears to
downplay the significance of his offensive comment by claiming it was a "simple
In many racial events described by whites, there is a social component to the racial
joking. The joking did not disrupt the fun, as it did for Amy, but the joking often
buttressed the fun. For example, Kendra describes an event in the dormitory where an
Asian male is asked what derogatory term he would prefer to be called:
The hall across from me is the guy's floor. Most of the guys on the floor are white
and 18 or 19-years-old. One guy on the floor is Asian, and his name is Tyson. I
was hanging out over there with one of my friends. The conversation was between
a white male, Kyle, and Tyson. Of course the two guys were joking, but I couldn't
help but feel like there was some sort of animosity or resentment between them.
Kyle was asking Tyson about Asians and how they are usually treated, and then he
asked him what Asian derogatory term he preferred. Everyone laughed, including
myself, but afterwards, I was surprised that I laughed at that. No one prefers any
derogatory term when it' s aimed and directed towards you. But Tyson apparently
had a carefree attitude and acted like he didn't care. Tyson's response was "Bitch
is a good term, just call us that. That works." Everyone laughed again and two
guys patted Tyson on the back, as if he had proved something by brushing off that
comment and j oking about it. I guess in situations like this, it' s better to laugh it
off when you know the people that are j oking about it, rather than getting offended.
I've noticed that guys do this more than girls. Girls tend to take more offense to
comments aimed at their race or ethnicity or religion more than guys. (Kendra, WF,
Again, as mentioned in the performativity section, most whites have the privilege of not
knowing about the experiences of other racial groups, while the opposite is not true for
persons of color. The white men ask Tyson about Asians, and Kendra notes that although
they were j oking, there is an undercurrent of hostility. This feeling of animosity is not
uncommon among racial joking, particularly as there is typically a layer of truth
underlying the "fun."
Tyson had "passed the test" with the white males by allowing racial joking to
continue without getting offended and without disrupting the fun. Like many persons of
color, Tyson may be "picking his battles." He may be attempting to make dorm life
tolerable by acting carefree instead of acting offended at being asked to select a
derogatory term, as there is a social component to the joking. Kendra notes that at the
time of the event, she went along with the fun, but reflecting on the event in her j oumal,
she realizes it may be problematic not to question what the fun was based upon.
Kendra notes that gender plays a role in this racial event, as she suggests men laugh
off any confrontation, whereas women might be offended. Comparing the racial events
in the frontstage, Kendra has a point about the significance of gender. In the
performativity section, there are more examples of white women acting extra polite and
proving they are not a racist, compared to white men. Similarly, in the offensive strategy
section, there are more examples of white men using j oking or confrontation compared to
white women. I return to the role of gender at the end of the chapter.
As well as hiding animosity, racial joking may operate to illustrate the close bonds
Over this weekend I was visiting some friends at [a nearby university]. Three of
my guy friends live together: one is Italian, one is black, and one is Hispanic.
They've all been good friends since high school, and it is funny to watch them
interact with each other on a racial level. On this particular morning, they wanted
breakfast, but didn't want to make it. After trying to make me cook, using a sexist
standpoint, they turned to using racial stereotypes on one another as a means of
convincing. I forget the exact terms they used, but I know that if they weren't such
good friends they could not have gotten away with the words they were using. It
was interesting to see though, how sharing a close bond with people can erase
racial differences to the point that racial slurs just become comical and vacant of
any meaning. It was easy to tell that words were just words between them, and
though I expected some sort of tension to arise, it eventually became apparent that
their friendship is blind to race. (Olivia, WF, 19, Southeast)
Olivia suggests that racial slurs used among these friends serve to cement the closeness
between friends of different races. She comments that the terms are "comical and vacant
of any meaning" but if the terms were not used by such close friends, it would not have
been tolerated. It bears mentioning that all racist interactions are collective enterprises,
that is, it flows in and out of white social networks (Feagin 2000).
The context in which racial joking is exchanged is critical. For example, the term
"queer" originally a derogatory term referring to non-heterosexuals, has been reclaimed
by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community as an empowering term. The term
does not sting when used by members of the community, for the context and meaning is
understood. Similarly, when friends use racist terms as joking, it signifies a social benefit
by showing how tight-knit the group is to allow such taboo j oking, and to reclaim the
Joking becomes problematic when outsiders attempt to utilize the same racist
joking accepted by the in-group (such as friends of different racial groups). For example,
a white first year student on an athletic team learns that he does not have the same
connection to a Black man as a white senior:
Our [athletic] team here at the [university] is a real close, tight-knit group.
Everybody on the team is white, except for two people, a black guy and a Mexican
guy. Everybody on the team makes fun of each other but today it got carried away
a little bit too far. At around 2:00 p.m. this Thursday everybody on the team was
sitting around in the locker room watching television waiting for practice to start.
A lot of the older guys on the team call the black guy "lil monkey," just as the
black guy has nicknames for all of us. We call him this because he is short and
sometimes black people are referred to as monkeys. One of the freshmen on our
team called the black guy "lil monkey" instead of his real name. It is okay for one
of the older guys to call him this because we have all been together for a while and
he is comfortable with us calling him that. When the black guy heard that he
snapped and got into the freshman's face. Some of the guys had to step in between
them so they would not Eight. We had to explain to the freshman that only certain
people can call him that and he isn't comfortable with you calling him that. In
other words, the black guy knows that it is not a prejudice comment coming out of
one of the older guys mouth, but since he really doesn't know any of the freshmen
that well that he doesn't know how that comment was supposed to be directed. The
freshman apologized and he learned his lesson the hard way. (Neal, WM,
The white first year student had to learn that not all whites are equal when it comes to
racist j oking. Although Neal recognizes that it is inappropriate to refer to Blacks as
monkeys, the friendship apparently overrides any prejudice. Note that we are only
getting the story from Neal, a white man. We do not know what the Black man feels, and
research suggests that people of color often have no choice but to accept this type of
joking (Feagin and McKinney 2003). The context of racial joking is critical: it depends
on how it is used and who uses it. When the older white teammates use racial joking, it is
part of the fun, and there is no disruption in the social activity. However in this situation,
the offensive strategy of using racial joking is not tolerated by a subordinate.
In addition to racial joking, a second type of offensive strategy used by whites in
the frontstage is confronting persons of color. This typically involves anger, hostility,
and sometimes violence. Among friends, the confrontation may appear like joking, but it
often includes a not-so-subtle underlying message. In the next account, Derek writes
about a white man who becomes a racist when he's drunk because he is not used to being
Last Friday night, around 1 AM, my friend Sam (who is black) was walking
towards the doors to go outside and get something to eat. He stops to talk to
someone who he knows at the entrance to the doors. He saw Al (who is white) and
starts to approach him to see what' s up. Al is with his girlfriend, and looks like he
had one too many beers that night. The first words that came out of his mouth were
"What up nigger" with a big smirk on his face. Well, Sam flipped out and started
to go after Al.
Derek continued his journal entry:
After a day or two, I asked Al why he said those racist comments, and his response
was, "where I come from, there aren't too many black people, but now here at
college, there is a lot more than I feel comfortable around, and when I get drunk, I
can't help myself I was bought up this way." (Derek, WM, 18, Northeast)
A white man openly confronts a Black man with a racist epithet, arguably the most
violent and harshest term used against African Americans. Although Al had a smirk on
his face, he was not j oking in using the term, and Sam picked up on that. Al excuses his
inappropriate frontstage behavior on numerous accounts: he was drunk, he grew up that
way, and he's not comfortable around Blacks. He offers no accountability for his actions,
nor any apologies. Numerous white students in the sample point to the role of alcohol as
a factor for racial confrontations. Although alcohol can be attributed to loosening one's
inhibitions, it cannot create a sentiment that is not already there.
Some whites offer no apologies or excuses for confrontation in the frontstage. For
example, lan' s friend yells "speak English" to strangers in the mall:
Today I went to the mall with two of my friends. Both are white males age 19.
While we were walking around one of my friends started to say to people who
looked foreign "Speak English." When we would walk past a person or a group of
people he would pretend to be talking to my other friend or me and he would say at
a moderate tone "Speak English." What started him saying this was when we first
arrived at the mall we all heard a group of middle-eastern males speaking their
foreign tongue. The entire time we were at the mall I felt embarrassed because my
friend started to attract attention. (lan, WM, 19, West)
In this account, a group of Middle Eastern males not speaking English serves as a trigger
to harass non-native speakers. Since the events on September 11Ith there has been an
increase in hate crimes reported against Middle-Eastern and Arab persons (or persons
perceived to be of these groups). Many white students commented about either making
or hearing harassing comments to these "foreigners" particularly around the September
In plan's account, there is a layer of safety and protection for the white student. He
is with his friends who did nothing to stop him, even though lan writes that he is
embarrassed. Also, the interaction takes place at a shopping mall where there is a level of
surveillance. The surveillance is not enough to stop him from harassing strangers, but it
is enough to protect him in case anyone fought back. Physical violence is not typically
tolerated in a shopping mall, so the white student could feel confident in verbally
harassing strangers, knowing that at worst he could be expelled from the mall, but there is
no immediate threat of physical violence from the confrontation he is creating.
White confrontation often involves more than a verbal assault in a relatively safe
space like the shopping mall. In the following entry, Mandy describes how her friend, a
Black male, was harassed and beaten by five white males after driving home a white
On Friday night my friend Jesse (a black male) was picking up a friend (white
female) to give her a ride home. When a car pulled up behind him on the street and
started honking and screaming "Move your car, nigger." Jesse laughed thinking it
was some of his friends yelling at him. He got out of the car smiling and laughing
and the white male driver of the car continued yelling things at him. After his
friend got in the car, Jesse pulled away to take her home and pulled into the parking
lot behind [a Hall on campus]. The other car followed and pulled in next to Jesse.
My friend then realized that the car had five white males inside and they all jumped
out and circled around him. Then the driver came up and continued to yell racial
comments and punched Jesse in the face. He continued to punch Jesse until he had
blacked his eye and knocked one of his teeth out of place. When Jesse told me
about this incident I was completely shocked. I did not think that outright hatred
like that really happened anymore, especially not at a place as safe as [our
university]. I did not know what to say to him to make him feel better. I honestly
felt ashamed that someone of my race is capable of such cruelty. Have times really
changed all that much or will there always be people who are willing to hurt others
just for fun? I feel so upset that I had to see one of my friends get hurt in order to
realize how much racism still exists on a daily basis. (Mandy, WF, 19, Midwest)
Jesse thought the yelling and racist epithets were said by friends j okingly (part of the
offensive strategy), but later realized it was meant violently. In this interaction, white
men violently confront a Black man in the frontstage interaction. Similar to the defensive
accounts where white men protect white women from the perceived (sexual) violence of
Black men, here white men lash out physically and verbally at a Black man seen driving
with a white woman.
In this confrontation, the white men had all the advantages: the element of surprise,
the safety in their numbers, and the physical location. Five white men beat one
defenseless, unassuming (and no doubt surprised) Black man behind a building on
campus. Mandy writes that she is shocked, ashamed and bewildered that her safe white
campus could be dangerous for her Black friend. The white woman does not know what
to say to her friend, for her experiences on the university campus are strikingly different.
This chapter describes how whites interact with people of color in the frontstage. I
categorize the interactions into four components: whites performance (such as whites
acting extra polite, proving they are not a racist, or appropriating race); avoidance
(avoiding any mention of race, or avoiding people of color); defensive strategies
(defending from perceived wrongdoing, or defending whiteness); and offensive strategies
(joking, or confrontation). Most of the descriptions suggest the racial events in the
frontstage are uncomfortable, hostile, and hurtful. However, this may not tell the
complete story of the frontstage. It is possible that many white students had pleasant
conversations and interactions with Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, but that they were so
commonplace and ordinary that the students felt there was no need to provide the details.
Having said this, it does not negate what the students did write about, such as acting
uneasily, avoiding race, and j oking about race. The implications of these interactions will
be discussed further in Chapter 7.
In Chapters 3 (Frontstage), 5 (Backstage, Near the Front), and 6 (Fluid Boundaries,
Slippery Regions), I describe the mechanisms that whites use to protect the backstage
while in the frontstage, or when the backstage is in jeopardy. In this chapter, I describe
the characteristics of the backstage, or how whites interact among other whites during
racial events. The backstage is a complex network of interactions. Many components
play a critical role, such as who is allowed (and not allowed) in the backstage, what
language is tolerated or expected in the backstage, and what actions take place.
In this chapter, I describe the two main themes of how the white students interacted
with other whites in the backstage. By themes, I am going beyond simply the content of
"what" is said. Although this is critically important to provide a description of the
content, my goal is to access "how" interactions transpire, or the underlying mechanism
that operates in the backstage. The first theme in the backstage is that the backstage
operates as a preparation stage for racial relations in the frontstage. A second and much
more common theme is that the backstage is a safe space to relax the frontstage
expectations. As this was much more common, most of the attention is directed there.
In the data, one theme that emerges is the backstage as a preparation stage for
frontstage racial relations. Here whites teach each other how to act, or not act in the
frontstage. The interactions tended to be either: (1) educational in nature, or (2)
cautionary, such as offering a warning. Backstage interactions that were educational
tended to focus on whites correcting each other's vocabulary terms or myths and
misconceptions about people of color. This specific socialization that is educational in
nature is different than whites teaching each other racist jokes and beliefs (I discuss this
in the safe backstage), as these jokes are not meant to be shared in the frontstage.
Racial education in the backstage, as part of the preparation for the frontstage, was
most common between the white college students and young children or older whites. In
this account, a white woman educates her grandmother about correct racial terminology:
On this particular afternoon my friend Yvonne's mother and grandmother were
visiting my friend from California [everyone is white]. ... After a little bit of casual
conversation, ... Yvonne began to list the restaurant options. Upon her mention of
the Chinese restaurant uptown, Yvonne's grandmother interrupted and began to tell
a story. She said, "Oh! I have something funny to tell you! The other day I was at
a restaurant and I had a lovely Oriental waitress--" She didn't get any further
because Yvonne interrupted her. "Grandma!" my friend exclaimed, "People are
not 'oriental. Food is oriental and clothing is oriental, and there is even a part of
the world often referred to as "The Orient. But you can't say that people are
'oriental'!" Yvonne's grandmother looked at her, completely shocked that she had
been rebuked, but she was also pretty confused. "Well, then, Yvonne," her
grandmother said, "What are they called??" Yvonne told her grandmother that
people from China or Japan, etc. are often referred to as Asian, or even directly by
their heritage, if it is known, such as Chinese or Japanese. But she laughed again
as she said. "Not oriental!" Her grandmother was pretty oblivious, you could tell,
but accepted the mistake she had made and went back to her story, making sure to
emphasize that she had an Asian waitress this time. I couldn't help but laugh at the
way Yvonne had called out her grandmother, but was grateful she had. (Caroline,
WF, 21, Northeast)
The backstage can be an educational setting where whites learn the correct terminology
for racial groups. Even though there are no Asians present in this interaction, Yvonne
felt it was important to teach her grandmother that describing someone as "Oriental" is
not acceptable in the frontstage, or in future backstage interactions. Yvonne is preparing
her grandmother for future interactions in the frontstage. Even though it is a backstage
conversation, there is still a level of accountability where whites sometime act to keep
each other in check.
This account also highlights the social component to the backstage: whites are
actively teaching, learning, and reconceptualizing racial language and ideas. Yvonne
corrects and teaches her grandmother the preferable term, and allows her grandmother to
continue her story only when she repeats the new term. Yvonne's mother and Caroline
who wrote the journal account were also involved in this event, and allowed the
education to persist without interruption. Caroline even admits that she is grateful that
Yvonne corrected the mistake even when there were no immediate consequences of the
Many white students indicated that their grandparents often used "incorrect" terms
such as referring to people of color as "colored," "Negro" or "Oriental." The vast
maj ority of these students did not inform their elders that these terms are no longer
socially acceptable, often for fear of seeming disrespectful or because the students did not
like the tensions from family confrontations or saw changing their opinions as
"hopeless." Caroline is one of the few students to confront and educate someone a
generation or two older than she is.
Whites also taught each other in the backstage about who was or was not allowed
in a safe backstage conversation. In this account, a mother teaches her family not to say
racist j okes in front of children:
I was eating Thanksgiving dinner with my friend and his family (southern-Baptist
Caucasian family). There were several generations at the house. Everyone had a
comic attitude, always looking for opportunities to crack jokes. At one point, my
friend's cousin said the word "nigger" but I didn't hear what she was talking about.
However, I heard my friend's sister-in-law say, "Don't say that stuff around the
kids, last week they almost got kicked out of day-care for calling a boy that." The
moment the kids left, my friend's brother said, "What do you call a nigger with a
wooden leg? Shit on a stick." I felt really uncomfortable, especially since my
parents would have smacked me in the face just for saying that word, let alone the
context in which it was used. Everyone but me laughed, and I tried to pretend to,
but I could feel myself being really fake. (Will, WM, 22, Southeast)
The backstage interaction takes place in a private home among only invited white family
and friends. A white mother uses the backstage as an opportunity to teach the other
whites not to say certain things in front of the children. The children have not yet learned
to censor their racist talk in the frontstage, so the adults have to censor the backstage until
the children leave.
The adults are preparing the children for the frontstage, so the usual racial language
must be censored until the children learn that there are different expectations in frontstage
and backstage. Already the children have said the racial term in daycare, indicating that
they have heard the racial language before, and understand the content and the meaning.
Other scholars have examined children's racial attitudes and behaviors, and note that
children are very quick to pick up adult' s racial ideologies and experiment with them in
interaction with other children (Van Ausdale and Feagin 2001).
As soon as the children leave the setting, the racist language continues. The
friend' s brother uses the harshest racist epithet in the context of a racist j oke, which
parallels (disabled) human beings with feces. Will notes that there are several
generations involved in the conversation, and he feels social pressure to laugh at the j oke,
even though he is uncomfortable. The white family apparently felt no discomfort at
telling this harsh joke in front of an invited stranger. Though Will could confront the
family or sit silently, he notes the strong pressure not to resist or go against the racial talk.
Many white students commented that even though they may not have agreed with racist
humor, they did not want to disrupt the performance that was oftentimes "just part of the
Warnings and Cautions
In this preparation for the frontstage, whites also caution each other about future
interactions that may take place. For example, whites often warned each other in advance
when an unsafe backstage may transpire. This was often the case with persons who
might be mistaken for a safe "white" backstage member, such as a Jewish person or light
skinned Latino. It was also typical in situations where a person of color is not expected,
such as a Black roommate (as evident in the account in Chapter 1, when Becky warns her
friends back home that her suitemate is Black).
As described in Chapter 6, whites would often try to avoid an unreliable safe
backstage, where persons who are assumed to be safe backstage members come out as
not being completely "white." In this account Gail's cousin warns her family that her
new boyfriend is Jewish:
I went home to visit my family for birthday celebrations and because my cousin
brought her boyfriend and they were both home visiting from San Francisco. None
of my family members made any racial comments, but before we met my cousin's
new boyfriend, she just asked everyone to watch what they say. My family can
sometimes say some racial things that might offend people who don't know our
family that well, and how everyone interacts. Also, my cousin wanted to make sure
nobody made any cheap Jewish comments because her new boyfriend was Jewish.
(Gail, WF, 19, Northeast)
Knowing the family's history about making "racial comments," Gail's cousin warns her
family in advance not to make anti-Semitic or otherwise offensive comments when her
new boyfriend visits. Gail comments that her family not making racial comments is
atypical; her family had to be warned in a previous backstage conversation. By
indicating their collective consent to the warning and not telling racial jokes, the family
recognizes that such comments are not appropriate in certain contexts (such as in the
frontstage with a Jewish visitor). Stated another way, for many whites, telling racial
comments is appropriate in certain backstage contexts.
Like Gail's cousin, Jared warns his roommate that a Jewish woman is visiting,
assuming that his roommate would not want to say anything to offend the guest:
A friend of mine and her two roommates came over to play cards with my
roommate and me. John, my roommate, had never met them, so he asked if they
were good looking, which is a pretty normal question. Well in asking me that, I
remember that one of them, who has red hair, is Jewish. I felt I had to warn my
roommate of this so he didn't make a fool of himself by making a Jewish joke. He
then informed me that I should have instead warned her that he may make Jewish
jokes and it's nothing personal. (Jared, WM, 21, Southeast)
Jared may have felt the need to warn his roommate about the red headed woman as John
may have assumed the woman was "all white" (meaning Gentile) and it was a safe
backstage. In a safe backstage conversation, Jared was taking measures to ensure that his
roommate does not create an uncomfortable situation in the frontstage. This interaction
could simply be a fun time playing cards. However, John is so committed to his anti-
Semitic jokes that he will not even reserve his comments in front of a guest. This creates
the potential for alienating racist relations. The socially imbedded racist relations distort
what could be an engaging relationship; instead, as evident in the language of "warning"
and "make a fool of himself," any relationship is spoiled.
John notes that any anti-Semitic comments are not against her personally, but
against a "generic" Jew. Throughout the j ournals, many whites commented that a
stereotype against an entire group never seemed to apply directly to person in front of
them. For John, the Jewish j okes made in front of a Jewish woman should be "nothing
Safe Space from the Frontstage
Much more common than b ackstage-as-preparati on- stage-for-frontstage
interactions was a backstage as a safe space from frontstage expectations. In the
frontstage, most whites know that it is more or less inappropriate to express racist
sentiments openly. In a safe backstage among only whites, racist comments and jokes are
not out of the ordinary, but are often tolerated, encouraged, and even expected. There is
an assumption that such comments will be protected in the backstage, and that all of the
white social actors support the racial performances. (Chapter 6 deals with an "unreliable"
safe backstage, such as where persons who are assumed to be white and are not, or whites
who do not support the racial performance.) Recall that in Chapter 3 on the frontstage, I
discuss whites performing for people of color. Oftentimes in the backstage, whites also
perform for each other to shape and encourage the racial events.
So very common. Many students commented that racial events in the safe
backstage between whites were expected, normal, and common. In their journals, some
white students even quantified how frequently they heard racial comments just among
whites. Don (WM, 21, Southeast) indicates that, "Today I heard the word Nigger about
27 times in my house. I have never really paid much attention to how it gets tossed
around and how offensive it can really be." In his journals, Don, like most white
students, recognizes that there are different expectations in the backstage, where it is
okay to say the word "nigger," compared to a frontstage where it is not permissible. Don
notes that it is so common to hear the racist epithet that he forgets the negative
In his account, Don continues, "The reason that made me think of the amount of
times this word was said is because my roommate's dad calls a few times weekly and
tells us his newest j okes about blacks, Jews, and other ethnic groups." For Don, there is a
social network to support this type of racial joking. The backstage is a safe zone to
perpetuate racial humor and to support the racist performances. The j oking was not just
among those white roommates physically present, but other whites are involved as well.
There are multiple generations within the social network, routinely supported by the
expectations of "a few times weekly" phone call.
Other whites comment about the routine nature of racial j okes. Racist j okes are not
a hidden, secret pleasure, but part of the fun in an open comfortable backstage
atmosphere. In a safe backstage, Eileen discusses that her white male friends relieve their
boredom by creating racial slurs:
As I sit in a room with a bunch of frat guys, Phil walks in chanting "rotchie,
rotchie, rotchie!!i" I ask quietly what that term means and I am answered with a
giggle ~ ~ I adaqik"ts slang for nigger, like niggerotchie." What makes me
wonder most about these guys is why they think it is funny to make racial jokes.
The guys I hang around (white college males) constantly spend their "bored time"
making up new ways to criticize each other, and the easiest way to do that is to call
each other racial slurs when everyone is clearly white. I don't know what the
pleasure is in calling people names that don't even make fun of them. If there
happened to be people of a different color there in the room, they would never say
anything like that. So why is it so easy to make slurs when they aren't there? I see
that making racial slurs is only really "racial" when it is said to the person of the
race. Otherwise, it is more of a term people use to define someone, where
sometimes it has negative connotations. I just don't understand why people choose
race as a means to make fun of other people. (Eileen, WF, 18, Midwest)
Phil teaches Eileen the white code language, that "rotchie" is slang for "nigger." Any
one who intrudes on this backstage might question white men who chant the word
"nigger." However, the group of white men can relax in their secure backstage by
replacing the harshest of epithets with a code term "rotchie" that has no apparent racial
connotations unless educated about the meaning, as Eileen was. There is a very clear
white social network, as only whites are invited into the backstage and certain whites are
taught the racial meaning of their code language. The white men are clearly performing,
literally chanting, their racist beliefs.
In this backstage interaction, Eileen notes that the conversation is only among
whites. She suggests that "if there happened to be" people of color in the room, the men
would not use their racist terms in the frontstage. Her language suggests that there does
not "happen to be" people of color in the room often. As many whites indicate in their
journals, these men do not have to interact in the frontstage often, as their social networks
are almost always all-white.
For these white men, the racial slurs are said to relieve their boredom. The slurs are
unidirectional, as the white men are attacking persons of color. In this way, there are
never any negative consequences for their actions. Eileen also notes her confusion that
the white men would make fun of people of color who have never made fun of them. It
would seem rational to mock persons who attack the group, or if the mocking were
reciprocated in some way.
Eileen rationalizes and accepts that her friends are chanting an equivalent term to
"nigger." For many whites, it is not viewed as a real racial slur if it is not said directly to
people of color. As they see it, their created language is simply a term to describe an
entire race of people who are not like them, and the term happens to be negative. Yet, by
using explicitly racist terminology backstage in their critical social networks they are
reinforcing negative images of people of color in the minds of all in hearing distance.
Such performances are the way in which much white-racist thought and proclivity is
passed along in this society. People of color are never invited into the safe white
backstage, as they are not equal to the white fraternity men or their white associates like
Many other students indicate that their white friends and family do not mean their
frequent racist joking. Amy (WF, 19, Midwest) rationalizes her family commonly telling
"black j okes": "I know that they don't mean what they say. They were just j oking
around. I' d never really thought about it as anything more than simple j okes and fun
because they are always laughing and having a good time with it." For the whites who
are involved in the joking, it is just comfortable, commonly accepted, and a frequent
occurrence. There never has to be any deeper acknowledgement or questioning of why
making fun of Black people is normalized: it is tolerated, accepted, and often
The common and normalized racial comments in the backstage are not only racial
jokes or statements made in a joking manner. Other safe backstage comments include
random racial comments. Abby describes watching television at a white girlfriend's
apartment with a group of friends:
We were watching television; it was 10:00pm... Five of us (all white) were at the
apartment when one of the guys came over and j oined us. On, the television was
Arissa, one of the cast members of Real World. This guy says, "That was a good
shit I just took." I then said, "Thanks for sharing that with us!" He then pointed
out Arissa on the TV and said, "Well looking at her reminded me because she is
black. She's black, my shit is black, she's a piece of shit." This guy is pretty weird
and always said outrageous things. Everyone in the room is used to how he acts so
no one gave him a response. The guy who said these things is white and has a
fetish for girls of all other races. He always talks about wanting to have sex with
them. (Abby, WF, 21, Southeast)
In this narrative, a white man felt comfortable announcing to a room full of people that a
Black woman on television reminds him of a "piece of [literal] shit" for no other reason
than her racial characteristics. The trigger to this offensive statement was simply seeing a
Black woman on the television which for this man activates his association with feces
and Black people. This man is not the first to make this connection between Blacks and
dirt or feces, but he is referencing an old stereotype that justifies the "subhuman" quality
of Blacks that deserve to be subjugated (Bogle 2001; Kovel 1970).
This white man may be making the connection between Blacks as human waste
without even considering the meaning behind his comment. Curse words are commonly
used without self-reflection, and his comment may be made with a lack of reflection to
the meaning. Everyday racist actions performed by whites are often done without
meaning or reflection to the association.
Within this safe backstage conversation, the other whites are "used to" this man
making outrageous comments. This may account for why, in a room filled with people,
no one challenged his offensive comments: equating Blacks with feces, or discussing
bathroom habits that are typically not announced to friends. It may be that as his friends
know he is making the comment for shock-value, and they will not give him the benefit
of responding to his comment. A key feature of everyday racist behavior of whites is this
tolerance of the active white officiants by passive white bystanders. The latter' s
acquiesce is essential to the perpetuation of racist performances, and realities. None of
the whites challenged his offensive comments, which indicates quiet support.
The backstage has a clear spatial dimension, and in this account it takes place in a
private apartment setting. This ensures that only those invited into the setting will be
allowed to participate. It is highly unlikely that such a comment would be said in the
company of a Black person.
The last part of the account is revealing and potentially confusing: Abby notes this
man's "fetish" for women of other races. Even the language of "fetish" (defined in the
dictionary as "an object or body part of irrational reverence"), suggests that the Black
woman is obj ectified; she is not a human subj ect, or viewed to be a rational sexual
partner choice. According to Abby, although the man equates Blacks with human waste,
he has a desire to be with them sexually. The apparent contradiction of desiring an obj ect
on television (again, she is not a subj ect of desire, but she is obj ectified) that is devalued
is common among the controlling image of the j ezebel or "hoochie" (Collins 2000; Kovel
1970). Historically, Black women have even themselves been blamed for white men's
sexual attraction to them, even when white men view the Black women as non-persons
Telling racial jokes or making outrageous racist comments is very typical in many
white backstage interactions. In this next account, Debbie describes watching a movie
with her four roommates (two white women, two white men) that lead to one of the men
to tell a racist j oke:
When we heard the j oke, my one roommate Lillian said she thought that j oke was
"terrible." My other roommate Mike said, "It's true though." We all yelled at him
and said he was the worst, etc, etc. However, none of us was really mad or really
offended by what he said and we probably should have been. Instances like this
make me realize that people have gotten too used of people making j okes about
minorities. We are too willing to accept people making inappropriate comments
about minorities. I feel like I'm so used to people saying j okes like that, that I
don't even take them seriously anymore. The strange thing is that I don't think any
of my friends are actually racist, they just sometimes say inconsiderate things that
they don't really mean. (Debbie, WF, 20, Midwest)
As other whites have commented, here Debbie notes how easy it is for whites to get
accustomed to making and hearing disparaging comments against people of color to the
point where it is taken for granted. For many whites, making inappropriate comments
about racial minorities is no longer offensive; it is just the norm.
Who is a racist? For Debbie and many whites, a person who makes negative
comments against persons of color is not necessarily a "racist" individual; they may just
be exculpated as whites who say inconsiderate things. Making negative racial comments
can be viewed as an appendage to an otherwise healthy and good white person. This
claim also resonates with claims some whites make about a person's "level of racism"
based on individual character attributes. For example, as argued in Chapter 3, many
whites claimed that a white person who is polite to an individual person of color cannot
be a racist. This makes sense given the social network these whites are participating in:
racism tends to be defined as an individual attribute of racist individuals. These racist
individuals are often conceived as only white men in robes burning crosses. It is very
clear in the journal accounts that beyond the ivory towers of academia, there is little
public discourse among whites regarding the social nature of systemic and institutional
racist networks and organizations.
A white man in the Midwest, Sam, makes a similar claim about what is considered
to be "real racism":
On Sunday night I had a discussion with Frank, a white college male, about racism
in our building. I asked him if he felt like there was any in the hall and he told me
that he hadn't observed any "real" racism in the building. I asked him what he
meant by "real" racism and he replied that while he had heard racist j okes, he didn't
see any "clans men or burning crosses" so he didn't take it to be a serious problem.
I asked him why he didn't consider racist j okes to be as serious a problem as racial
violence. He said that as long as nobody was directly being hurt, either by words
or by more physical means, then it shouldn't be considered real racism.
Sam tried to convince his friend Frank that telling racist j okes contributes to an
environment that supports the racial hierarchy and other racist actions. Sam continues his
account indicating that Frank was "skeptical" about Sam's claim:
He told me that he wasn't quite sure if what I said was completely true or not, but
regardless he promised to make an effort to cut back on the racist j okes and
comments that he was prone to, if not because what I claimed was true, then only
because I was asking him to do so as a friend. (Sam, WM, 20, Midwest)
In this safe backstage conversation, Sam confronts his friend by telling him that racism is
more than the KKK and other racial terrorist groups. According to Frank, racist j okes are
not considered "real racism" because no one was being hurt. For many whites in the
sample, telling racist j okes in the company of whites is not harmful; the only harm may
come if the "wrong" person (such as a person of color, or an unsafe white person)
stumbles into the backstage. Evident in Frank' s skepticism, many whites cannot
understand how telling racist j okes in the privacy of one's social group can perpetuate the
Frank cannot promise that he would stop the racist j okes, only that he would "make
an effort to cut back" on the j oking. He also indicates that he is "prone to" telling or
listening to racist j okes. Using language like "prone to" reveals how deep this issue goes:
telling or listening to racist jokes is automatic, like it was encoded on his genes. This
suggests how imbedded the racial socialization is: like a biological drive, he is "prone
to" racial joking. There is an apparent social component as Frank does not tell or listen to
jokes alone. This is not an individual problem, but often what the group interactions are
based upon. Many whites indicate the group dynamics (explored in the next section)
support and expect racial joking. Such group interactions are, indeed, at the very core of
white racism, and are essential to its production and reproduction in this society.
The j oking operates to ensure that people of color are kept out of the safe
backstage, and it serves to perpetuate a racial hierarchy where whites are at the top. As
whites are in the maj ority (politically, economically, etc.), whites have the privilege to
ignore the existence of the racial hierarchy, and to claim that the j oking is separate from
the racial hierarchy: there is no harm as it is dismissed as just jokes. For the white social
actors, there are no negative consequences to their backstage interactions (unless they are
caught, accounting for the measures to secure backstage borders noted in Chapter 5).
There are only social benefits, such as group bonding and perpetuating a hierarchy that
actively places them at the top.
There were occasions when students were surprised not by what comments were
said, but by who made the comments. For example, some white women in particular
were assumed not to make racist comments, or white strangers who gained access to the
safe backstage. The role of white strangers in the backstage is critical for indicating that
the backstage is not categorized by intimacy or levels of closeness, as white skin alone is
often a passport to allow entry into the backstage. Even when the social actor (or who
says it) may be surprising, often the comment of what is said is normalized.
In this next account, a white man reacts to hearing his "cute little innocent"
girlfriend yell repeated racial slurs "to make her feel better":
My girlfriend and I were in her room. She is white and a freshman. She was
working on a computer proj ect that was due Friday. Today is Wednesday and she
was really stumped in her work ... and she then got really frustrated and repeated a
racial slur more then once. My girl friend is very country oriented and likes to do
outdoors activities, but she went to school with a whole bunch of black people. I
was pretty surprised to hear this out of such a cute little innocent girl. I told her
that I couldn't believe that she said that. It really doesn't offend me when I hear a
racial slur, but I think that' s just because of how I was brought up. So I then
proceeded ask her why she said those slurs. She told me the reason she said those
things was because it made her feel better. I didn't quiz her any more about why
she made a racial slur but in a way it kind of made sense to me. I mean we are all
supposed to follow certain norms and when you rebel against these norms and
knowing that you're not going to get in trouble just kind of makes a person feel
better. I think it is a weird out look on anger management but she said it was a way
to relieve stress and to feel better. (Jack, WM, Southeast)
The spatial location, in a private room, contributes to a backstage interaction between a
white boyfriend and girlfriend. Jack insinuates the difference between the frontstage and
backstage area. He refers to "following certain norms" in the frontstage where the norm
is not to yell racial slurs. In the safe backstage it is possible to "rebel" against these
norms without consequence or getting "in trouble." Behaviors in the backstage may
violate expectations in the frontstage without repercussion.
The image of a "cute little innocent [white] girl" is different than the stereotypical
"Archie Bunker" image of a white who repeatedly yells racial slurs. Many times white
racists are depicted in the mass media as rural, working class people in the South. Jack
describes his girlfriend as "country-oriented" and outdoorsy, similar to a person who is
depicted as being stereotypical against people of color. He then qualifies his statement
by describing her "but she went to school with black people" hinting that someone who
associates with Blacks would know better than to use racial slurs.
People often shout obscenities out of anger and frustration, breaking the social
norm. Few probably give thought to the meaning and symbolism behind their chosen
terms. Jack notes that he is not offended by racial slurs. As part of the racial majority, it
is not expected for a white male to be hurt by racial slurs. Part of white privilege is not
recognizing the damage done by racial slurs; white privilege ensures that racism is not
viewed as a problem for the dominant race. The cost of racism for whites is minimal
compared to the physical, emotional, social, psychological costs of racism for people of
color (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Feagin and McKinney 2003).
There is a social component to the interaction, as his girlfriend did not censor the
slurs from Jack, but she repeated it more than once. Her inappropriate comments made
sense to him as a way of rebelling against frontstage expectations. She is still a good
person who happens to use racial slurs when frustrated. Like many whites have
indicated, a person who makes racial slurs does not transform into a total racist person;
they may have a racial appendage to an otherwise good core.
Unexpected person, expected comment. For Jack, it was not the comment that
was unexpected, but who said it. This was often the case with white strangers who were
allowed into the backstage with their white skin passport. For example, Sheila notes her
surprise in meeting a white man who immediately includes her in a backstage
My friend Gary needed a ride to his friend Tony's apartment, so I went with him.
When we walked in, one of his roommates, named Fred, started talking to Gary.
Fred was holding some sort of crowd control device, like a metal baton because he
works in a club as a bouncer and just felt like carrying it around. The sight of it
prompted Gary to ask him about working in the club. He asked if he ever had to
stay after and clean up, to which Fred replied "I don't do the nig j obs." As a person
who was meeting him for the first time, I felt a little awkward that he would just
say something like that. But I guess since I was another white person, he figured I
wouldn't care. The strangest part of it to me was that he said it very casually, like
he talks like that all the time. First impressions are important to me, and its not that
I expect people to always be politically correct, but hearing such a blatant
derogatory remark made me a little uncomfortable. (Sheila, WF, 19, Southeast)
Sheila notes that she was surprised the white man would make a racially derogatory
remark in front of her. Fred could have simply said "no" when asked if he ever has to
clean up at the club, but instead he invokes a racist statement comparing cleaning up to a
"nig j ob s" pre sumably referencing "nigger j ob s." Sheila notes that being white was
interpreted by Fred as she "wouldn't care" that he made the comment. Her white skin
allowed her passport into the backstage conversation, where it was assumed she would
agree with his statement or at the very least that she would not challenge his assertion.
There are at least three people present in this conversation, Gary, Sheila, and Fred (and
perhaps even Tony). Within this whites-only social network, no one questioned Fred's
language, presumably as the white participants knew what "nig jobs" meant, and no one
challenged Fred's racial claim.
For many whites in the backstage, even among acquaintances and strangers, using
racial slurs and terminology is customary. Sheila comments at the end of the account that
she does not expect "politically correct" language, perhaps acknowledging that the
comment itself is not problematic, but the context which it was said, in their first meeting,
was the real issue.
Other whites commented in their j ournals about whites who assume making racial
comments would be accepted in the backstage. In this account, a white waiter
approaches a group of white women with beer and racial j okes:
I was sitting at [the bar] with 3 other Caucasian females in their early twenties on a
Saturday night. We were drinking beer and having normal conversation, and since
the night was slow, the waiter sat down to join us for a cigarette. He was a white
male in his late twenties. He wore a work uniform and had an eyebrow ring. After
normal introductory conversation he leaned in after noticing one of the black girls
walking across the street. He began in a lower voice than he was using previously,
"I'm not racist or nothing..." Me and my friend glared at each other uncomfortable
while my other more drunken friend leans in to hear what he has to say, "but I
know some damn good j okes about black people." My drunken friend laughs and
eggs him on to share the j okes. He continues to tell the j oke, which has a punch
line involving black people and watermelons. It was not particularly funny, and
made a stereotype of all black people liking watermelon. I honestly didn't get the
joke and asked him light heartedly to stop before he told another one. The mood of
the group became uncomfortable. I believe that I didn't allow myself to take a
harder tone because he was giving us free beer. He shied away from the
conversation and refilled our beers, returning to talk to us about other topics.
(Jillian, WF, 20, Southeast)
The white bartender recognizes that it is inappropriate to tell jokes as he provides a
disclaimer of "I'm not racist, but..." With the disclaimer, it gives the man permission to
tell racist j okes with a clear conscious, as he has clarified that he is not a racist. The j oke,
about Black people and watermelons, was not invented by the bartender, but he learned it
most likely from other whites. Even in this account, two women report being
uncomfortable, but it only takes one (drunk) woman to encourage the man' s racist j oking.
Alcohol is commonly used to excuse a person from any accountability, but alcohol
cannot create a racist sentiment or an atmosphere that condones racist interactions if it is
not already preexisting.
Here, there are advantages to going along with the racial fun: racist jokes provide
an environment of bonding, unity, and in this example, free beer. This interaction also
illustrates the difficulty in going against other whites and calling out a person for being
racist. In the white backstage, the expectation is that racial humor and comments will not
be confronted or challenged. Whites often report how difficult it is to confront white
friends, family members or strangers; this illustrates the concrete expectation not to
disrupt the backstage as a safe space from frontstage expectations. Jillian had the support
of her friend, who also "glared" uncomfortably, but even they could not confront the
racist j okes that are typically dismissed as "just part of the fun."
In the backstage, there are real social networks operating, including variations of
who is involved, and who is actively excluded. Often, white skin alone will grant a
person passport in the safe backstage. I explore when this is problematic in Chapter 6.
Many students commented that racist comments were more prevalent in group situations,
than if only two whites are in the backstage. In his journal, Trevor describes a recent
meeting with five white male friends, all current college students or recent graduates:
When any two of us are together, no racial comments or j okes are ever made.
However, with the full group membership present, anti-Semitic j okes abound, as do
racial slurs and vastly derogatory statements. Jewish people are simply known as
"Hebes", short for Hebrews. Comments were made concerning the construction of
a "Hebeagogue," a term for a Jewish place of worship. Various j okes concerning
stereotypes that Jewish people hold were also swapped around the gaming table,
everything from "How many Hebes fit in a VW beetle?" to "Why did the Jews
wander the desert for forty years?" In each case, the punchlines were offensive,
even though I'm not Jewish. The answers were "One million (in the ashtray) and
four (in the seats)" and "because someone dropped a quarter," respectively. These
j okes degraded into a rendition of the song "Yellow," which was re-done [in our
group] to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It contained lines about
the shadows of the people being flash burned into the walls ("and it was all yellow"
as the chorus goes in the song). We also spoke of a mutual acquaintance who
happens to be Jewish. The group feeling was that he insulted Jewish people far
more than any of us did. ... This led to an entire diatribe on a discussion of the
rather revolting personal habits of the Jewish person previously mentioned. It
should also be pointed out that the most often uttered phrase in the group is "That' s
Trevor continues his journal entry with another example of racialized joking:
A member of the group also decided that he has the perfect idea for a Hallmark
card. On the cover it would have a few kittens in a basket with ribbons and lace.
On the inside it would simply say "You're a nigger." I found that incredibly
offensive. Supposedly, when questioned about it, the idea of the card was to make
it as offensive as humanly possible in order to make the maximal juxtaposition
between warm- and ice- hearted. After a brief conversation about the cards which
dealt with just how wrong they were, a small kitten was drawn on a piece of paper
and handed to me with a simple, three-word message on the back.
If this were not enough, the group now turns to j okes about Italians and Mexicans, groups
that many whites still stereotype viciously:
After that little incident, the group dynamic switched over to a more personal so
less offensive topic: Italians and people of Italian descent. ...Then the jokes about
the sex drive, smell, and intellect levels of stereotypical Italians began. This I
found shocking, as two of our members are very proudly of Italian descent. Some
jokes were repeated from a stand-up comedy special dealing specifically with the
quirks of stereotypical Italians living in New York. Of course, no group is
particularly safe from the group's scathing wit, and the people of Mexico were next
to bear the brunt of the j okes. A comment was made about Mexicans driving low-
riding cars so they can drive and pick lettuce at the same time. Comments were
made about the influx of illegal aliens from Mexico and how fast they produce
offspring. (Trevor, WM, 22, Midwest)
Trevor notes the social character to the racist joking. There is a clear group dynamic as
he acknowledges that comments are more likely to surface when all 5 of the white men
are together, as opposed to when only 2 are present. Trevor indicates that the most
uttered phrase is "that's just wrong," which may possibly be said sarcastically or
j okingly. At least some among the 5 men sometimes realize that the extent of their racial
humor is inappropriate. While some in the group acknowledge their transgressions, they
continue the racial comments, transitioning (apparently seamlessly) from Jews, to Blacks,
to Italians and Latinos. Utilizing a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of this typical racial
joking must outweigh any potential costs, otherwise the group joking would rationally
cease (assuming these interactions can be analyzed "rationally"). The benefits such as
group bonding, laughing, and having a good time, must supercede any costs such as
knowing what they are saying is "wrong." When a group member interrupted the fun to
question the offensive "Hallmark card" idea, the group did not stop the racial comments,
but continued the racial fun, and moved to the next target.
Trevor notes that no group is safe from their "scathing wit" as they even poke fun
at Italians, with whom two group members identify. Scholars like Brodkin (1998)
suggest that ethnic whites often poke fun at themselves as a means to assimilate fully into
"white America" and to access the rewards and benefits of whiteness. Although Trevor
comments that no one group is safe from their j oking, there were apparently no
comments made against mainstream Anglo-Saxon-Protestant whites.
Each individual is not inventing the stereotypes that they rely upon for their humor.
Trevor notes where the j okes are learned from, such as: from other friends outside of this
group, from television and stand up comedy routines, and from each other. Trevor's
journal account is striking, not only as it highlights the social dynamic to racial
comments, but it is a multi-dimensional account. These men are intelligent, college
educated and some college graduates, who among other things are using their knowledge
about World War II to create offensive song lyrics from a contemporary song. They are
not simply telling j okes to pass the time, but they are using their talents to describe rich
details, and to flesh out their racial performances. In their version of a Hallmark card,
they describe the details of the ribbons and lace on a basket filled with kittens. The men
are collectively using a lot of creativity, time, energy and effort to define and illustrate
their racial comments.
Other students commented in their j ournals about moments when racial comments
in the backstage were more likely to surface. Molly describes a conversation she had
with her white boyfriend:
We were talking about the usual stuff when he started telling me about the guys he
works with. Andy works for a construction company, where most of the men are in
there thirties or forties. They all are southern boys, or what other people would call
"rednecks" or "hicks." He told me about some of the j okes they like to tell, which
insult women and black people. I asked him if he laughed and he said "of course I
did, they were funny jokes." I thought this was bizarre because my boyfriend isn't
racist in the least, although he is also of southern upbringing; yet he can laugh at
jokes with racial or sexist content. When I asked him if he thought it was ok to
make fun of black people or belittle women, he smartly answered no in fear of me
ripping into him. What was most interesting to me is that I know he would never
listen to or tell j okes like that unless he was in front of this particular group of
friends. This proved to me how people can change their feelings and attitudes
depending on what group they are hanging out with. (Molly, WF, 18, Southeast)
Like Trevor, Molly notes the social character to racial joking. Although she suggests her
boyfriend is not racist, within certain group dynamics, Andy would listen or tell jokes.
She describes the construction company where he works as having "southern boys" or
"rednecks" (actually, the latter is a derogatory and stereotypical term for working class
whites) insinuating that they are the type of white men to tell misogynist and racist j okes.