Hard on the heels of my discussion about liberal sexism, I think it’s time to talk about hipster racism. I’m borrowing the term “hipster racism” from Carmen Van Kerckhove over at Racialicious, because it really is a perfect word to describe the phenomenon, and I note that other people are using the term as well. Hipster racism is a pretty pernicious problem, and it seems to be growing.
What is hipster racism?
Hipster racism involves making derogatory comments with a racial basis in an attempt to seem witty and above it all. Specifically, the idea is to sound ironic, as in “I’m allowed to say this because of course I’m not racist, so it’s funny.” It’s an aspect of a larger part of the hipster culture, which wants to seem jaded and urbane and oh-so-witty. Using language which is viewed as inflammatory or not appropriate is supposed to push the boundaries and make someone look edgy, but it only really comes across that way to people who buy into that system. To everyone else, it’s just racist.
The thing about using racist content in an “ironic” context is that it still perpetuates racist ideas, and it is, in fact, racist. While people may ardently claim that they are not racist, the people who engage in hipster racism are overwhelmingly white and middle class, and they clearly have some unaddressed racial issues which are being subverted in their attempts to be edgy. Sometimes, they are actually explicitly racist, and they are using hipster racism as a way of presenting their racism in a way which will be acceptable within their social groups.
Hipster racism often hides under the unassailable guise of satire. People who suggest that something is racist, and not actually funny, are told that they obviously just don’t get it, and that the whole point of humour is to push boundaries. They are told that the racism is so obvious and overstated that it’s meant to be laughed at, and that people are laughing at the racism and the racists, not supporting the ideas which are supposedly being mocked. But, oddly enough, a lot of racist satire doesn’t read that way, and it ends up just being racist, full stop.
Much as people seem to think that having gay friends makes it ok to make homophobic comments, or that having female friends makes it ok to be sexist, hipster racists often draw upon their anti-racist credentials such as “having black friends,” “dated an Asian girl once,” or “really liking Mexican food” to fight accusations of racism. If they even bother fighting the accusations, that is, because most live in an insular world where they will not be challenged.
The other favourite hipster defense is, of course, to claim that people are being “too politically correct” or “too sensitive.” This is supposed to be a pithy insult which indicates that the person pointing out offensive behavior is too uptight, and not really part of the freewheeling hipster movement, but in fact, it’s just silencing. Saying that people deserve to be treated like human beings and that discourse should be respectful has nothing to do with being too sensitive, and everything to do with genuinely believing that people should be treated equally.
The very hipster lifestyle is, in some ways, racist, and definitely not very introspective when it comes to race. Hipsters are a driving force behind gentrification, driving out low income people and people of colour. They consistently co-opt and appropriate elements of other cultures, piecemeal, and often without any cultural sensitivity or respect. They regularly draw upon the work and legacy of people of colour, usually without crediting them, and most of their contact with people of colour comes in the form of the service personnel serving them their food, cleaning their wine bars, and picking their organic produce.
As hipster racism has become more widespread, it’s also crept into more general society. Racist content appears in films and television shows, disguised as “satire,” it’s on the cover of major magazines, it’s in the pages of respectable newspapers. While explicit racism is viewed as socially unacceptable, racism disguised as irony or satire is evidently perfectly acceptable, especially if it comes from middle class white people with trust funds. Indeed, I recently read a New York Times article in which the author suggested that people feel “relieved” when they are no longer “harassed by prevailing cultural sensitivities,” because apparently the idea of treating people with dignity or confronting your own racism is a burden.
I think that this concept is also pretty closely tied in with liberal sexism, because the core defense of practitioners of liberal sexism and hipster racism is “but I don’t really feel this way, therefore it’s funny/acceptable.”
But, guess what? It’s not.