Recent stories circulating in our 24-hour news culture of racially charged trials, the shocking re-emergence of racial epithets, and racist symbolism on college campuses – along with events that we personally experience or witness – remind us of the continuing presence of racism and racial inequality in American life. In Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, Leslie Houts Picca and Joe Feagin adroitly mine data taken from the diaries and journals of white college students that show that while overt racism may have diminished in public and multiracial discourse in recent decades, it survives with disturbing tenacity in private exchanges among small groups of white friends and acquaintances.
Against the conventional wisdom that young people are more racially tolerant than ever, Picca and Feagin assert that whites have not generally shifted away from “traditional racist stereotypes of black Americans, notions of biological inferiority, a general dislike of blacks, and opposition to racial desegregation.”(ix) Rather, in an era of formal desegregation and civil rights laws that stress racial tolerance and inclusion, many whites have shifted their perceptions of race “underground,” where stereotypical assertions and prejudices can be shared unchecked. Picca and Feagin argue that, while most whites publicly espouse equal opportunity and nondiscrimination, these views operate “most often as a rhetorical ethic, one that is only inconsistently and erratically implemented in everyday practice.”(x)
Picca and Feagin apply Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social interaction to explore the divergent racial performances exhibited by whites in public (multiracial) and private (all-white) discourse: “Much of the overt expressions of blatantly racist thought, emotions, interpretations, and inclinations have gone backstage – that is, into private settings where whites find themselves among other whites, especially friends and relatives.”(x) Backstage areas offer refuge from frontstage expectations about interpersonal politeness. Backstage behaviors include attributing minorities’ behaviors to their race; deeming these ascribed behaviors and qualities as inferior, dangerous or unsophisticated; telling racist jokes; and mocking minorities for racially distinctive culture and dialect. In the racial frontstage, whites generally adhere to social mores against blatantly racist behavior, signaling their public tolerance by being gratuitously polite or temporarily embracing the perceived racial and cultural characteristics of the “racial other,” assiduously avoiding racial issues or even interacting with people of color, and making a show of color blindness while navigating racially in a white-dominated world.
To be sure, public expressions of racism have by no means vanished, but the most compelling lessons of the book come from the light it casts on the duality implicit in the frontstage/backstage dichotomy. Without significantly departing from Goffman’s arguments, the book applies the dramaturgical framework to powerful effect, in particular by cataloguing distinct types of racial performance that vary with proximity to frontstage settings and showing how whites protect backstage spaces and thus racial prejudices and inequalities. Even as many of these students claim not to see race, they frequently witness and even instigate racialized moments. But the book does more than simply provide a glimpse into white talk about and around race. It shows the critical role that small-group dynamics plays in perpetuating racist attitudes and behaviors: relieving stress and tension within or uniting a group, reinforcing group identity and boundaries, and diminishing individual accountability. Picca and Feagin demonstrate how whites bond through racial performances to protect physical and social spaces perceived to be theirs alone while publicly asserting their racial innocence. They interact under a tacit agreement not to police each other. Witnesses to backstage behaviors – even those with strong multiracial sympathies – will, at the very least, tolerate racist forms of expression. The book suggests that socially inherited framings of racial matters persist as important sources of whites’ understanding of non-whites.
The journal-based accounts of racial events that are featured in the book reveal better than opinion surveys the multi-layered subtleties of these encounters. Picca and Feagin meticulously mine and dissect diary and journal entries for insights into racial performance. How might such racial performances be countered? Although the book leaves little room for optimism, the authors contend that “whites have a choice of adopting the white-racist framing to a greater or lesser degree. Some… replace it with...