Most mornings I spend an hour and a half reading nonfiction texts and reflecting. Recently, I’ve been thinking about racist views shared on social media. Coincidentally, in preparation for shaping the imaginary world in my next novel, I’m reading “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” by Erving Goffman. It’s an older publication, but I’m gleaning inspiration here none the less.
The author writes about region and region behaviour. He defines a region as “any place that is bounded to some degree by barriers to perception”. It can be as small as a room or span an entire geographic area. He refers to us as “performers”, and to region members as the “audience”. All the world is a stage, as they say.
In a nutshell, the performer strives to give an impression that their activity in the region upholds standards of the region. Performers are measured by how they treat the audience while engaging with them through talking and gestural communication; and how they behave while, although not interacting with the audience, can still be seen or heard.
Issues of racism and privilege are at the global forefront, and the movement toward long-overdue ethical correction is becoming a region standard to uphold. On social media, we share Black Lives Matter posters and broadcast our indignance. Goffman would say this posting activity is meant as evidence that we, the performers, align with the region standard.
True and lasting change requires genuine intent, a shift in thinking and implementation of new practises—and this requires, or leads to, an ongoing re-evaluation of our core values and belief systems.
Goffman refers to a different region removed from the audience’s eyes. He calls it the “back stage”. This is the place where the performer steps away from public scrutiny to explore their true feelings. Here they polish and adjust their beliefs to make ready for the time when, once again, they must engage with the audience members of a region in a manner that meets the region standard.
Some people don’t polish backstage. Their inflexible thoughts and antagonistic words leak into social media and expose their true inner feelings toward issues of race. Maybe these people are a work-in-progress and they need to be educated by their audience of peers. People can change. New perspectives can heal.
But if the audience’s peaceful and impassioned attempts at persuasive intellectual discourse are deflected, and the performer chooses to remains unwavering in their antiquated racist outlooks, then we, the audience, will also make a choice—one that supports anti-racism. We can let that person go until they return to us with an authentic change of heart and a willingness to speak the language of anti-racism and equity for all.