A Historical Guide To Hipster Racism

By Thea Lim

Last week at Racialicious HQ, we were delighted to see the term “hipster racism”–coined by our very own Carmen Van Kerckhove in 2006*–suddenly enter mainstream parlance, thanks to Jezebel’s publication of Lindy West’s “A Guide to Hipster Racism.” In a flash, the words “hipster racism” papered themselves across Facebook and Twitter feeds across the continent (and maybe the world?).  Words are wonderful, and when more people have access to language that helps them name the racism of everyday life,  we’re happy.

There was only one glitch. While West linked to one Racialicious post (a short piece Carmen wrote in 2007 about white girls and gang signs) she never once name-checks Racialicious or Carmen…or any of our amazing pals and allies who have been writing about this stuff since the main target was Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls (i.e. a long time ago).

On the one hand, no one takes up social-justice work to see their name in lights and, at the end of the day, the point is just to get the message across, no matter who gives it the signal boost. On the other hand, we’re only human. It hurts when work that we, as a collective, have been jackhammering about for seven-plus years gets credited to someone else. (Seven years, y’all! Back to the dawn of skinny jeans! Before Facebook was open to the public, for cripes’ sake.)

And as our friends at Bitch pointed out, it is also  distressing, though not in the least surprising, that the words “hipster racism” are more palatable, resonant, and listenable when they come from the mouth of a white blogger.  It’s enough to make you get real low and start thinking terrible emo thoughts, like one white blogger is worth more than ten bloggers of colour.

And so! To keep the emo monster at bay and, as an ancient person who remembers all the way back to a long lost time when Racialicious was known as Mixed Media Watch, I decided to quietly slip out of retirement for a moment to revisit just a few of our landmark posts about hipster racism, so as to remind ourselves (and yes, to remind the internet) of all the brotherpucking hard work we have done, lo these many years.

We are proud to present, in chronological order, Racialicious’ Greatest Hits (Hipster Racism Edition):

1. “Dude, Where’s My White Privilege?“ & “Dude, Where’s My White Privilege? Take 2,” Carmen Van Kerckhove (2005)  

Had to use the Wayback Machine to unearth these two gems.  Part 1 examines the phenomenon of Williamsburg “Kill Whitie” parties, where white hipsters enact a parody of black hip-hop culture in order to “kill the whiteness inside,” and Part 2 deals with a white hipster who spent 2005 appearing at hipster parties dressed as, uh, Jesus in blackface. Here is an excerpt from Part 2:

People (even people of color, not just white people) really seem to believe that we’ve come to a point where racism is over, where it’s passe to get mad about social injustice. And it’s now become cool to be “politically incorrect.” But what the hell does “political incorrectness” actually mean? In my rant I quoted Debra Dickerson on her definition:

The rhetorical cul-de-sac where white hate went—in goes racism, out comes political incorrectness. Use of this phrase is a tactic designed to derail discourse by disguising racism as defiance of far-left, pseudo-Communist attempts at enforcing behavior and speech codes. However, vicious, brainless, knee-jerk, or crudely racist a sentiment may be, once it is repackaged as merely “un-PC” it become heroic, brave, free-thinking, and best of all, victimized.

…There is absolutely no difference between Blackface Jesus and the blackface minstrel performers so popular at the turn of the century. It’s just as offensive as Mickey Rooney’s yellowface getup as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

White people like “Blackface Jesus” think that they have somehow “transcended” racism. Maybe because they hang out with black people, have black friends, or even fuck [excuse my French] black men or women, that means that they couldn’t possibly subscribe to the same racist notions as did the less open-minded previous generations. Sorry to disappoint, fellas, but you guys grew up to be EXACTLY like them.

These two posts led to the internet’s first documented use of the term “hipster racism,” in Carmen’s 2007 piece “The 10 biggest race and pop culture trends of 2006: Part 1 of 3.” For an in-depth discussion of the term, see s.e. smith’s 2009 article: “Hipster Racism” at meloukhia.net, and for a variation on the theme, “Hipster Ableism” at FFWD, also from 2009.

 2. “Wes Anderson: The Original Heartbreaker,” Thea Lim (2007)

If I could go back in time, I would rename this post “Wes Anderson: The Original Hipster Racist.” This one has a special place in my heart because it’s how I got hooked up with Racialicious. An excerpt:

Characters of colour in Wes Anderson’s films are always caricatures, hilariously exotic. Anderson uses “race as a novelty”, says salon.com, “suggesting an assertively white-kid view of the world.” …[With Pagoda in Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tennenbaums, and with the Filipino pirates in The Life Aquatic] Anderson also uses Asian cultures to demonstrate just how educated and well-travelled he is. It’s like the movie equivalent of “Some of my best friends are Laotian” and “I went backpacking in Vietnam.” The master of in-joke filmmaking, Anderson’s brown characters are like an inside joke for urban hipsters who’ve visited Little India a few times.

…But here’s the thing about Wes Anderson: he positions himself as an outsider, and his protagonists are always outsiders, painfully awkward and deeply deficient in social skills but also desperately seeking love (and you will notice that his white characters are capable of longing for love in a much more profound way than his characters of colour will ever acheive). But at the end of the day, what is so outsider about Wes? He’s an extremely succesful, wealthy, white dude. That’s not to say that rich white dudes can’t ever feel alienated. But to position yourself as an outsider, while making art that ensures that people of colour are truly outside, is obscenely fake.

3. “The New Yorker and Hipster Racism,” Andrea Plaid (2008)

Another milestone in Racialicious history–this one is from when Andrea was still credited as a Guest Contributor. Here our favourite Associate Editor takes down the New Yorker for its now-famous cartoon of Barack and Michelle as fist-bumping, Osama-loving terrorists:

Humph, you gotta love hipster racism.

I define hipster racism (I’m borrowing the phrase from Carmen Van Kerckhove) as ideas, speech, and action meant to denigrate another’s person race or ethnicity under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning “ironic” nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy. This racist and sexist balderdash that’s the New Yorker cover fits squarely into that definition

…The cover actually corresponds to a story about how Senator Obama’s work in Chicago influenced his current presidential bid…And the magazine actually wrote another pro-Obama article about a year ago…[perhaps they] thought they’d get a pass on the cover because they did good by Obama with the articles and thought people would catch the wink and nudge of the visual joke because, hey, they’re all on the right side anyway.

No, the New Yorker is not. They’re not even on the right side of hiring practices: having the opportunity of working and Conde Nast and the New Yorker’s advertising and editorial floors (I temped as a receptionist about a year ago, so I got to observe the make-up of the staff), I noticed that there were no senior editors of color; the people of color in editorial capacity were already superstar writers before coming to the magazine (Malcolm Gladwell) or they were writing for the entertainment section (Hilton Als, who writes the theater column.) The former PR director, and African American woman, left the position. In other words, there’s no one of color to at least talk Remnick off the ledge of this kind of glib bigotry…

And that’s the ultimate rub about hipster racism: as much as the people like to think they’re above it because they got degrees and live in the big city and befriend/sex up/marry people of color, these folks really aren’t above it.

At all.

4. “The Delusion of Hatred Immunity,” Thea Lim (2008)

This one is from the same week as #3 (it was a banner week for hipster racism). Adding on to Andrea’s deft work on the New Yorker cover I had this to say:

Attention all insensitive and arrogant hipsters, liberals and bobos, I’ve already said it here, but one more time: sadly, highbrow arts reviews, knowing cartoons, Woody Allen and even a lifetime subscription to the New Yorker are not an amazing elixir that will protect you from being racist, or classist, or sexist, or homophobic or ableist or just an all-round jerk. It’s not as if as soon as you pick up that Jim Jarmusch box set, no hateful words will ever be able to pass from your lips again.

5. “Aqua Teen Joins Hipster Racism Force,” Arturo García (2009)

And now it is 2009, and Arturo García has joined us! Huzzah! Here, Arturo points out the lack of humour in an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, where Master Shake is bitten by an irradiated black man:

At which point his tone changes to brown, an afro grows atop his head, and his pink straw grows to a disproportionate length. In no time, Shake greets people with “all heezy in the sheezy.” And he can’t swim.

See, it’s funny because he was “turning black,” and that’s what black people say and do!Get it?! LULZ

…Defenders of the show will point out that the episode is “okay” because Frylock is voiced by a POC, voice-actor Carey Means, and that it was “obviously” satire. My problem is, like the other instances we’ve highlighted over the past month or so, it’s not good satire. It made “Family Guy” look nuanced and thoughtful by comparison. Was there humor in Master Shake being reduced to a stereotype? Possibly. The problem was, nobody reacted to him like he was one. The show took more half-assed shots at Frylock’s liberal guilt while accepting Shake’s “blackness.”

Which, from the impression I’ve gotten over the years, is perfectly fine for what I’ve imagined to be the show’s target demo: kids who ran around quoting the “porch monkey” bit from “Clerks 2″ to their black friends asking, “It’s funny, right? Isn’t it funny?” It’s not absurdist, it’s not smart, it’s not comedy. It is, as the kids say, EPIC FAIL.

6. “DISGRASIAN OF THE WEAK! Hipster Runoff,” Jen Wang (2009)

A guest post from our friends at Disgrasian about the website Hipster Runoff, and an article it ran called “Should I h8 AZNs?”:

Unfortunately, “Should I h8 AZNs?” is not satire.  It highlights a very real cultural anxiety and its attendant racist backlash without taking it to task in any substantive way.

…A number of commenters on the post do protest that “Should I h8 AZNs?” crosses the line, but that’s precisely the problem. It doesn’t cross the line–the line into satire–it toes the line of reality. That China is taking over everything, and people are really fucking bitter about it. And it’s okay to turn our cultural anxieties about not being the Number One Superpower into outright xenophobia, and it’s acceptable to hate when you feel like somebody else is downsizing your dick.

If “Should I h8 AZNs?” had been satire, the answer to its central question would have been an obvious, resounding “no.” As it stands, the feeling you’re left with is far more murky and unclear. The post does nothing to dissuade the reader from saying “yes” to the question or from thinking that h8ing Asians is okay. The only thing that is clear to us after reading “Should I h8 AZNs?” is that these AZNs h8 Hipster Runoff.

7. “What’s So Funny about Chicago-Lake Liquors Ads?” “What’s So Funny About Chicago-Lake Liquors Ads?” Tami Winfrey Harris (2009)

In a cross-post from her blog, Racialicious BFF Tami takes apart a series of unfortunate liquor store ads:

According to Macon D at Stuff White People Do and Craig Brimm at Kiss My Black Ads (Both wonderful blogs that you should be reading on the regular), a Minneapolis-based retailer, Chicago-Lake Liquors, has launched a new ad campaign that depicts middle class white folks acting “black” (or rather the minstrelized version of blackness popularized by BET).

…I don’t think the ads are making fun of the dominant culture, though it seems so at first. The ads are making fun of behaviors and language deemed “black” by showing white people indulging in them. They are highlighting “otherness” using the mainstream as a backdrop. If you think the joke is not about blackness, but about poking fun at urban, street lingo and style, consider why none of the ads feature a straight-laced, middle class, black guy. Why? Because all black men are expected by the dominant culture to talk jive. It’s not funny when a black person says “pimp tight” and sports gold fronts, cause you know, that’s just what we do.

I am stymied by what message these ads are trying to send. The prices at Chicago-Lake Liquors are so low that they make even good, white folks indulge in coonery? I suspect there is no message; this is one of those aggravating campaigns that seek to raise awareness of a brand through nonsensical, “edgy” ads that draw a lot of heat for a moment in time. The flash point? Race. I have no doubt some hipsters in a Twin Cities ad agency are sitting around right now, fist bumping and congratulating themselves on a job well done. “We rock, yo!”

 8. “Die Already, King Kong Racism: Lady Gaga Edition,” Thea Lim (2009)

Hipsterism and post-hipsterism are synonymous with irony.  Cool, urban youth wear the cultural artifacts of tacky bygone eras, poor people and people of colour, and it’s funny -  because some people actually wear these artifacts for real.  Get it?  Yet the problem with this side of hipsterism is that it is based on ridiculing others; inside it is an empty subculture, with nothing of its own other than leveraging one’s own privilege to mock others.  But more than this, from the outside, when you wear a fanny pack, acid wash jeans and a handlebar mustache, you look just like the person you’re mocking.  In the attempt to satirise others, hipsters become them.

There’s no problem with this when we are talking about something as benign as a fanny pack.  Besides, a lot of hipsters wear stuff like acid wash jeans out of actual affection for the fashion.  However, when you attempt to satirise antiquated images that contain racism, you just perpetuate the racism, if your satire takes the form of a straight copy.

…When you attempt to reference antiquated images that contain racism in order to suggest that it is ok to invoke said images because we are so beyond them…you better be damn well sure that we are beyond them.  I don’t think we are.

 9. “Feminist Intersection: On hipsters/hippies and Native culture,” Jessica Yee (2010)

Here Jessica gets livid about the way that hipsters use Native culture for self-aggrandizement:

So to the hipsters/hippies who appropriate Native culture but aren’t First Nations/Aboriginal/Indigenous, I’m asking you nicely now, to PLEASE stop annoying (the fuck out of) me with the following:

The clothing. Whether it’s headbands, feathers, bone necklaces, mukluks, or moccasins – at least put some damn thought into WHAT you are wearing and WHERE it’s from. I know our people sell these things en masse in gift shops and trading posts, and it seems like it’s an open invitation to buy it and flaunt it, but you could at least check the label to see A. If it’s made by actual Indigenous people/communities B. What does this really mean if YOU wear it?
Organic living and environmentalism as “new” concepts. One of my friends jokes that all Native people should get green energy for free because that’s how we’ve been living for centuries and also taught the colonizers how to live (which may or may not have screwed us in the end). I really do love the resurgence of the green movement and how things are becoming more environmentally friendly – but I don’t need certain members of the movement pretending like they started this or ignoring extreme realities we’re facing like environmental racism and justice. I also think we need actual Native people being in charge of and leading the responses to environmental degradation that are happening in our own territories. It’s not to say we don’t need allyship and support – but it’s also rather irritating when I read an event posting for a cause of some sort for a First Nation where there’s like two Native people in the whole place (who either barely say anything or are supposed to go along with the way the hippies organize without complaint because they’re “doing something for us”).

10. “Off with his head, hipster racism & scapegoating poor folks: True Blood S03E06,” The True Blood Roundtablers (2010)

In one of the R’s legendary True Blood roundtables, Andrea brought up hipster racism as a force that seems to define True Blood’s questionable aesthetics:

Thea: …Can we talk about the visual impact of seeing a white man tie up a black woman and physically dominate her for so many episodes? Just as with the “Tara runs from the slave mansion” imagery, I just can’t get over the trivial use of such loaded and hurtful images, for no clear reason…I mean, did anyone else hear Russell say “Take Bill to the slave quarters and kill him”? Why – why the offhand, unnecessary reference to something that brings up so much pain for American viewers?…It’s just such a cheap way to get a rise out of viewers or achieve the label of “controversial.”

Andrea: I had a Twitterpal describe True Blood as “almost hipster racism satire” in the sense of not making fun of hipster racism but as being a prime example of it. The imagery – and history-reference drops, as we’ve been saying all along, [are meant to] show off how liberal and educated the creative team is, considering the funky contexts in which these drops are made and, as Thea and I have discussed offline about this show, when the symbolism around vampirism constantly shifts on this show.

11. “Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualization of Native Women,” Adrienne K. (2010) 

In a cross-post from Native Appropriations, Adrienne discusses when hipster band Neon Indian’s 2010 Bonaroo show was crashed by a group of near-naked white women, dressed in headdresses and pasties, who jumped on stage and began dancing with the band:

Yes, the headdresses are wrong. But what gets me even more is the topless/feather pasties part. There’s a legacy and history there that many people don’t know or understand.

Native women have been highly sexualized throughout history and in pop culture. There are any number of examples I can pull from, the “Indian Princess” stereotype is everwhere–think the story of Pocahontas, or Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, or Cher in her “half breed” video, or the land ‘o’ lakes girl, seriously almost any image of a Native woman that you’ve seen in popular culture. We’re either sexy squaws (the most offensive term out there),wise grandmas, or overweight ogres. But the pervasive “sexy squaw” is the most dangerous, especially when you know the basic facts about sexual violence against Native women:

  • 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime
  • 70% of sexual violence against Native women is committed by non-Natives

12. Bonus! “The ‘Should I Use Blackface on my Blog’ Flowchart,” courtesy of ebogjohnson (2006)

In 2006 Carmen linked to ebogjohnson’s handy flowchart for potential hipster racists trying to figure out if they should employ blackface in pursuit of humour.  It’s in the image at the top of this post, and it is stupendously amazing.

I included it in this roundup as a representative for all the angry, creative, funny, fierce, brilliant, and tenacious bloggers of colour out there who have been fighting the good fight against hipster racism since we had to whittle pixels by hand and glue them together using the dust of Commodore 64s.

Thanks y’all. You are the best.

—-

If you’d like to see more of the work of anti-racist bloggers thus far, check out this mind-bogglingly comprehensive list of anti-racism resources (broken into categories!) compiled by Susana Loza: “LINK ROUND-UP: Anti-Racism, Colorblindness, White Privilege, Derailment, Cultural Appropriation, Blackface, and Hipster Racism by Susana Loza”

*Carmen modestly expresses doubt that she was the first ever to use the term. But I think we can safely say that she was one of the first people to write about hipster racism online.

Thanks to Andrea for helping me curate this list! 

Correction: this article originally credited the articles “Hipster Racism” and “Hipster Ableism” to two different writers, but they were both written by s.e. smith. This has since been corrected–and thanks s.e. smith! 

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  • http://twitter.com/MonsterQueers RooT

    What is ironic, cool, “hip” when worn by a thin white cis woman is ugly, tacky, sneer worthy, and housedress like on a fat genderqueer persyn… This was my moment  yesterday of “aggressive street commentary from random strangers” .

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  • Alphabet

    I like how the first one from 2005 says it has become cool to be politically incorrect.  I just read that in a blog somewhere a week or so ago, in 2012.  Seven years have passed, and people are still surprised that folks don’t want to talk respectfully about other people that are different from them.  I wonder if there was ever a time when it was truly cool to be politically correct.

  • jvansteppes

    I’m not too surprised that Jezebel would mangle this, they could use some blogging lessons from you guys. It’s not all bad and I know Latoya has done some work for them but there’s a lot of bullshit that slips through.

  • Eden

    About Wes Anderson, I always say I understand he’s a good filmmaker, but I don’t like his films… Couldn’t quite pinpoint why that was, but your essay made it clear to me that I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that he’s considered so creative and unique, but when boiled down, his movies are just about white guys. As a non-white person, it’s annoying and it hurts.

    Boyfriend adores Anderson’s films. He wonders if Anderson will get the chance to explain that he’s not racist. Sure. He’s going to keep making movies…we’ll see if he ever addresses his narrow views.

    Thanks for this round-up!

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  • http://twitter.com/callmepartario Osama Larara

    Ferreal.  Scholars:  bookmark this page!

  • Brandon

    And let the good work continue!  Maybe it seems like too obvious of a target, but Tosh 2.0 could certainly provide some material for understanding hipster racism.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo!!! Keep up the good work guys!!

  • lynn

    You guys coined the term hipster racism and credit should be given where it’s due. The concept is an old one though, as old as hipsters themselves. Beatniks and hippies, for instance, used their love of black music (jazz, and then blues) to give themselves credibility, all the while calling black people things like “spades.” 70s punks wore swastikas to be shocking and ironic. The list of examples goes on, ad nauseum.

  • User_2000

    Bravo!

    Though I am slightly shocked that Gavin McInnes’ “wacky trolling”/”ironic racism” (read: real racism) which plagued the pages of Vice Magazine seems to have escaped notice Here’s some recent examples:”10 Things The Chinese Believe”http://takimag.com/article/10_unbelievable_things_the_chinese_believe#axzz1tkW2XqS1″The Trouble With Islam: Inbreeding”http://takimag.com/article/trouble_with_islam#axzz1tkW2XqS1 and so on

    • Anonymous

      Ugh, that site is a racist cesspool. It’s the same one that published the infamous article on “The Talk” from John Derbyshire.

  • B1

    this was BRILLIANT. I am now hanging on to your every word. That was amazing. I can’t believe I have never read this site before!

  • http://twitter.com/lfresh lfresh

    Exactly. I also felt you guys were overlooked with regards to the Hunger Games/racist twitter/facebook comments.

  • Jennifer Gandin Le

    FANTASTIC. This greatest hits deserves a ton of airplay. Thanks for gathering these all together.