As an admitted theory head, people who know me know that I love the work of the late Erving Goffman, the sociologist of interactions. Our interest in interactions as an area of study is captured by the proposition that interactions are the micro-units of social organization; in them, we enact our social hierarchy of value. I would add that interactions are also the space where we, as individuals moving through the world, have the most leverage, since our action is a key part of the dynamic.
In my work, I rely much on the concepts in Goffman’s classic Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. In it, Goffman writes, “Instead of dividing face-to-face interaction into the eventful and the routine, I propose a different division—into unfocused interaction and focused interaction.” (Preface) He distinguishes between these two this way:
Unfocused interaction consists of those interpersonal communications that result solely by virtue of persons being in another’s presence, as when two strangers across the room from each other check up on each other’s clothing, posture, and general manner, while each modifies his [sic] own demeanor because he himself [sic] is under observation. Focused interaction occurs when people effectively agree to sustain for a period of time a single focus of cognitive and visual attention, as in a conversation, a board game, or a joint task…
One of the most fascinating of Goffman’s concepts is that in focused interactions, “persons ostensibly engaged in one encounter can simultaneously sustain an additional ‘subordinated’ one…sustained through covert expressions or by deferential restriction of the second encounter so that it does not get in the way of the officially dominating one.” (18–19). Goffman notes that while in any encounter there may be tension, encounters where relevant narratives are suppressed in order to maintain a primary, legitimate interaction induce tension. He refers to encounters where the subordinated narrative rears its head as incidents.
One of the most common types of incidents is “what we ordinarily call slips, boners, gaffes, or malapropisms, which unintentionally introduce information that places a sudden burden on the suppressive work being done in the encounter.” (45–46) He suggests that it takes great work—psychic or mental/soul energy—to suppress meaningful narratives, which speaks to the immense, often invisible work done by people of color and women. But subordinated narratives are also suppressed by white people, when they are required to do so. We are currently experiencing a shift in what white people need or don’t need to suppress.
For example, in the US, racist imagery—which can be seen as symbolic interaction—has reemerged to great consternation, though many of us know it has been there all along. In recent weeks, Gucci apologized for its blackface sweater, Burberry apologized for its noose-like knot on a fashion hoodie, and Katy Perry removed two designs from her collection after she “faced criticism” for her shoes “resembling blackface.” These symbolic interactions serve to make racism fashionable again. (In the United Kingdom, Member of Parliament Angela Smith apologized for describing people of color as having a “funny tinge.”)
These are not random associations; they are carefully constructed power narratives, the management of which is highly political. These symbolic interactions impact physical bodies—from the anxiety of being black in a society with these potent images about you, to the physical violence that is increasingly directed at black people as a result of these images.
Professor Michael Millner teaches a class on the history of blackface, and he writes for the Conversation, “White men blacked up by smearing burnt cork on their faces. They exaggerated their red lips and wore outlandish costumes, portraying character types like the raggedly slave, dubbed Jim Crow, or the ostentatious but simpleminded dandy, Zip Coon.” Blackface minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of entertainment for white people in the 19th century. Millner notes,
And, it’s worth emphasizing, they made a good living at it. Blackface turned prejudice into profit.
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Perhaps blackface’s profitable prejudice answers the question about why America so often returned to it in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Blackface offered the perfect entertainment for a slave nation and then, after the Civil War, a society built on racial segregation.
Millner points to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a mid-20th-century novel about the black American experience, as a brilliant account of blackface. “Ellison presented blackface not as outside of America’s core values, but as telling ‘us something of the operations of American values,’ as he put it.” Millner also refers to Eric Lott’s Love & Theft, which explores blackface as “the donning of the mask as a fetishistic fascination with blackness.” Millner explains, “The masked men distance themselves from blackness—it’s all a joke in good fun—almost as quickly as they inhabit it because blackness, while deeply desired, is also dangerous to their white privilege.” This fascination with the black body continues in other, more acceptable, ways today, as in what some are calling “digital blackface,” GIFs of reactions by black people, white people using black emojis, and even social media accounts of users impersonating black women.
A perfect, live interaction example of both the resurgence of explicit racism in the US and Goffman’s concept is the recent “heated exchange” between Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat from Michigan, and Representative Mark Meadows, Republican from North Carolina, at the House Oversight Committee hearing featuring Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer. Among Cohen’s many charges against Trump was his accusation of racism. Meadows, who is one of Trump’s staunchest supporters, anticipated this charge and prepared by bringing in a black woman who is employed by Trump as proof against the charge.
Rep. Tlaib pointed out that this act by Meadows was itself racist, to use a black woman as a prop in the hearings, to have one person stand in for an entire race. Then, as Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes for the New York Times, “Mr. Meadows, red-faced and near tears, demanded that Ms. Tlaib’s words be ‘taken down’—struck from the record as a violation of House rules—and Mr. Cummings [(who is black and was chairing the hearing)] asked Ms. Tlaib to explain herself. She apologized.”
Many questions and comments followed this unexpected but revealing exchange. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York asked, “Whose emotions do we put first?” The Root’s Terrell Jermaine Starr noted that the exchange reflects a larger problem with the Democratic Party not being able to handle the truth-telling of the newly elected women of color. On social media, people resurfaced campaign videos from 2012 “showing Mr. Meadows saying he intended to send President Barack Obama ‘home to Kenya, or wherever it is,’” as an example of his past behavior around race.
This exchange illustrates Meadows’ privilege, defined as an imbalance of claims and counterclaims; he was able to set the frame for the exchange, label it a “violation,” demand an apology, and get one. Tellingly, when approached about it later, Meadows said, “I think we were able to resolve it. I think we ended up with civility.” Civility here is a reinscription of the official, dominant narrative. Stolberg notes that while Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that women of color are often subject to disparate treatment, “she felt Mr. Cummings was ‘correct in the procedure’ and was ‘trying to do everything in his power to protect’ Ms. Tlaib from being reprimanded.”
In other words, in this setting of democracy, there is no condition in which a woman of color should express what she really thinks and feels, even if it is relevant to a discussion on racism, if it goes against the dominant and legitimate white narrative. Tlaib’s narrative was deemed illegitimate and remade subordinate. In a time of resurgence of explicit racism and challenges to it, this message was blasted throughout the nation—coming full circle, with the shutdown of the challenge to the legitimate, dominant narrative itself becoming a dominant symbolic act.