The discussion over hipster racism, which is trending right to the top of the Internet, is pretty darn hip. But what is it really about?
Ah, riffing on hipster racism. Seems like it’s all the rage these days, huh? Trending right to the top of teh internets. Several interesting pieces have appeared recently, most notably the Lindy West article that the GMP’s own Joanna Schroeder examined a few days ago. I think Joanna’s takeaway message, which at its essence is that we all need to be mindful of everything we’re thinking and saying while also remaining willing to apologize when we screw up, is a good one, and I’ve neither the desire nor the need to rehash it here. Furthermore, West, who appears to agree with me regarding the tame critique of “white people problems” offered on sites like “Stuff White People Like,” deserves to be commended for offering a careful critique of the sort of casual, “oops I did it again” tongue-in-cheek racism that’s replaced the “sincere racism” of decades past. However, it’s that “sincere racism” referenced in her final paragraph that I’d like to discuss here:
And at least sincere racism isn’t running around Brooklyn wearing artisanal suspenders and masquerading as enlightenment. Give me sincere racism or give me no racism at all, but enough with this weaselly shit.
Isn’t the very quest for sincerity what has led hipsters from one down-on-its-luck area to another? So it’s intriguing that West, in the course of wrapping things up, brings it all back around to sincerity. Although she obviously didn’t intend it this way, the statement calls to mind a nostalgic longing for the return of genuine villains like Governors James Vardaman and George Wallace and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price. Oh, for those halcyon days, when the battle lines were clearly drawn and the forces of sincere goodness were aligned against the forces of sincere evil.
Writing about the flap over Girls writer Lesley Arfin’s ham-handed attempt at a little good clean race-baiting, Max Read closes with the following observation:
I’ve been to plenty of dinner parties where everyone was white, including myself. In fact, I’d argue that the show, taken as a whole, is even more accurate for these shortcomings. It really is the voice of a generation: a generation of white people who suck at talking about race.
He’s right. We really, really suck at talking about race. My efforts to discuss the subject have been as sloppy and uneven as anyone else’s, in part because I’m out of my depth (though who, with only a handful of exceptions, isn’t?) and in part because there’s no more fraught subject to tackle. Joanna’s solution, as simple as it sounds, is as helpful as anything else out there. But is it enough? Heck, I don’t know. What does “enough” even mean in this context? After all, we “see race” everywhere (and if you fail to note that, an interested third party will comment on whatever you’ve written to say that you’re “denying the obvious” or some such thing).
The conversation over hipster racism has been a necessary one, however small the trendsetters’ niche where it is taking place. Things were allowed to slide, and insidious racist attitudes took root among a small but influential cohort of the population. Or rather re-emerged, given how unlikely it is that said attitudes ever disappeared. But in an age when our tastemakers thirst for sincerity yet seem incapable of locating it (every scene that emerges is immediately over, to the point where only a hypothetical scene could be truly “authentic”) or producing it (each “rediscovery” of some genre of music or writing amounts to mere pastiche, and then pastiche of pastiche when that rediscovery is rediscovered, &c), what else can we expect of their racism? Here the answer, as the actions of Zooey Deschanel and others indicate, is to engage in racism in such a way that it can’t be racist because the actor is aware that it’s racist and thus above racism. This is stupid and foolish and dangerous, as West properly notes.
Where do we go from here? The good people at Gawker and Jezebel have flogged these foolish hipsters for their thoughtless racism, which was the sensible thing to do–for the moment, anyway. We’re hopefully more aware of how we too have made some of the same mistakes, and we’re now going to be cognizant of further careless behavior. We’re not going to keep acting like a bunch of dumbasses, in other words. But at some point, the search to locate and then deracinate (no pun intend) ever finer and finer examples of insidious racism will get us nowhere; it’ll be turtles all the way down.
The sincere racism West jokingly praises, alas, remains widespread. This niche debate, though impassioned and worthwhile, amounts to little more than stamping on a small brush fire while the entire surrounding forest is ablaze. You’ve got President Sarkozy ramping up the racism to win fascist votes. Pervasive racism directed at Uyghurs and Tibetans in China. And so on and so forth, until even in pretense-obsessed America (where most of the middle-of-the-road politicians preach “tolerance” while nonetheless acting in ways that suggest they’re disgusted with most of the groups they’re tolerating) you reach the Deep South, where voters in Alabama are again going to the polls to formally desegregate their schools.
In focusing further energy on challenging hipster racism, we run the danger of losing sight of a goal that people like philosopher Richard Rorty rightly believe to be of far greater importance:
We should like to figure out a way to produce a stronger American left, a left which might become a voting majority of citizens. We all want to facilitate alliances between the victims of the Republicans’ soak-the-poor legislation and the people who are stigmatized, or deprived, for reasons other than poverty. These two groups overlap, but are not identical, and the Republicans are getting good at playing them off against each other. We should, [then], think of diversity as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures. Our utopian dreams should be a world in which cultures are seen as transitory comings-together of individuals–expedients for increasing human happiness rather than as the principal source of a person’s self-worth.
The last part of that is impossible for so many reasons–such a world would be a utopia, a “no place,” as Rorty correctly notes–but isn’t it pretty to think? There’s no way to bring it about, and yet it’s something we should nevertheless labor to achieve, because we must.