Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On "Hipster Racism"

(I apologize that this post is a little late to the game... I wrote this a few days back but, for personal reasons, had to delay finishing it until today).

Many will have seen this Jezebel piece which seems to be getting a lot of play on the internet. There are other iterations of the debate about "hipster racism" out there (the term seems to have been coined by a Racialicious blogger a few years back), but I haven't had time to examine them yet. So, in this post I'll just focus on the Jezebel piece, but hopefully what I say has relevance to the discussion writ large. I think the piece makes some good points (I'll say what I think those are in a moment), which no doubt explains why it has been getting so much attention. But it also evinces some of the contradictions afflicting certain ways of thinking about race, racism and racial oppression.

First, let me say what I think the piece gets right. The thing that is most important, I think, is that the piece attacks the long-standing assumption of many liberals--dating back to the 50s and 60s and before--that racism is merely something that afflicts poor, working-class Southern whites. That assumption was incessantly criticized by radicals in the 60s--Malcolm X excoriated it on a number of occasions--but it continues to live on today as a way of shifting the blame away from powerful groups.

I also think the piece rightly attacks reactionary forms of "irony" that put forward stale status-quo truisms clothed in an apparently self-mocking "critical" exterior. This is a pervasive phenomenon in contemporary capitalist societies. The political antinomies of ironic cultural interventions--which are clearly on display in this debate--certainly casts doubt on the political viability of esoteric po-mo strategies such as "parodic redeployment".

The author of the Jezebel piece has some great examples of this "ironic racism" phenomenon. Basically, a person--who fancies herself an "educated" and enlightened liberal--employs some typical racist argument/trope/attitude/judgment/etc. in a way that is meant to reveal some sort of critical self-awareness that supposedly inoculates it from criticism. Under the guises of social criticism, some racist trope is employed in a way that is meant to garner laughs. But rather than the latter (the joking) doing the bidding of the former (the criticizing), the roles are reversed. The "critical" preface serves as little more than window dressing meant to shield the "jokes" from any pushback.

There are more and less sophisticated--and ostensibly "critical" and self-aware--versions of this phenomenon. The most insidious forms are precisely those that make the strongest claims to critical self-awareness. I've seen it too many times: someone begins with something like "you know, we white people are all so damned racist to the core, blah blah blah" followed by some racist joke or remark which is supposedly "ironic" or cute because it is conjoined with a preface about how racist attitudes are so pervasive. But this "ironic" posture only serves as bludgeon to ward off criticism. This joking attitude implicitly rejects relations of equality, solidarity and respect with oppressed peoples and then paints them as uptight when they get upset about not liking a "joke" whose punchline is at their expense.

Similarly, I've always been bothered by the number of white comedians who have a bit about how it's so "unfair" that white people can't "use" the N-word (hahaha isn't that so funny?). Netflix recently recommended I watch some comic who opened with this line, after prefacing his remarks by saying that he'd hoped the election of Obama would encourage people to "chill out" about race instead of getting so "worked up." I hate this (ostensibly apolitical, but inherently conservative) claim that race is "complicated" or "polarizing", that "we" all just need to sit down and relax and be more tolerant, etc. It is usually accompanied by the absurd (and racist!) argument that there are "extremists" on both sides and the truth represents some moderate, golden mean between the KKK and Malcolm X.

Needless to say, I canned that "comedian" about 2 minutes into his set, but I can't say that he's the only one I've seen doing this schtick. White dude comedy all too often acts as a repository for all sorts of racist tripe that can't be explicitly avowed without the (ultimately dubious) cover provided by the role of the funnyman. There's nothing more reactionary here than complaining that radical criticism should leave culture and comedy untouched--that is nothing but a silencing maneuver meant to enable oppressive ruling ideologies to continue to flourish without pushback. Whatever we say about the Jezebel piece, it certainly does a decent job of breaking this conservative shielding maneuver and opening up critical discussion.

Then there's the awful "stuff white people like phenomenon" which takes an overdrawn class-specific cultural stereotype (the "latte-liberal" "bobos" that conservative hacks like David Brooks love to lampoon) and equates whiteness as such with all of its features (while, at the same time, essentializing non-white people as the inverse image of this absurd cultural stereotype and tacitly excluding working class whites). I think the article does a nice job of smacking down this sort of bullshit as well, although this image of the "hipster" in popular discourse is little different in many respects from the "latte liberal" and performs a similar function. The author says nothing about this or the fact that the label "hipster" itself has a racialized history that's worthy of critical reflection (although, to be fair, this history seems to me only to butress many of the points made in the piece).

But that isn't my primary beef with the Jezebel piece. My main frustration is this: Despite mentioning things like entrenched inequalities and oppression in passing, the article basically leaves us with the impression that racism is nothing more than a matter of individual character traits, gestures, and cultural forms. It comes dangerously close to suggesting that individual people simply need to speak, joke, consume, tweet, and facebook differently than they do and then racism could be overcome. It says nothing about what the structural roots of racism are and how they have been challenged and fought. It leaves us with a basically inward-looking perspective that fails to bring the system into view, despite its passing references to entrenched inequalities and oppression. I dont' say that the author thinks these things don't matter, but I do say that the article fails to make the case for the central importance of these structural factors against the reigning dogma that all racism is mere individual prejudice or a matter of "discourse".

Take, for example, the "wily little bacterium" metaphor that is meant to explain contemporary racism. This makes it seem as though racism today is nothing but an affliction within particular individuals that is difficult to get rid of. But this individualist, inward-looking metaphor obscures the social, structural and systemic ways that racism operates. If it were simply a matter of individuals with bad beliefs, habits, attitudes and all the rest, it would have been destroyed long ago. Racism, unfortunately, is a far worse problem than that--it is a structural feature of basic social institutions, especially policing and incarceration which have recently come under a lot of fire after mass protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin.

This is all to say: Racism isn't just some product that people buy at Urban Outfitters. Racism isn't simply a set of subtle consumer habits, ways of talking, gestures, jokes and so on. Racism murders people on a mass scale and gets away with it. It kills black youth with impunity. It marginalizes, humiliates and devalues millions of lives. It degrades and plunders the cultural and intellectual achievements of people of color. It denies them basic human rights, saddles them with burdens others don't have to bear. It locks millions inside a cage, profits from their labor, and then has the audacity to use this state of affairs to further degrade and attack them. It designates some people as "aliens" who deserve to be subject to raids and vigilante violence. It justifies imperialist wars and occupations that brand Arabs and Muslims as "barbarians" who want nothing more than to destroy "the American way of life."

These aren't side issues. This is the face of racism today. The cultural and discursive (what Marxists would call ideological) functioning of racism is important and must be criticized. But let's not allow Ideologiekritik to come untethered from the material conditions that give it its political force. Let's not forget the system that breeds and reproduces these ideological formations in the first place.

Put this way, it becomes clear that anti-racists have to do a whole lot more than ask ordinary people to try to talk, dress and joke in different ways. They have to demand that all working people throw themselves into the collective struggle to fight for a society free of oppression in all of its manifestations.


dsharber said...

first off, great piece and i totally agree with all points. i have a couple of comments though. isn't it a progressive step to get 'hipsters' (as a catchall) to stop making casual racist comments? not as an end in itself but as a means to a greater end? and further is the decision to stop making casually racists remarks predicated on understanding the systemic nature of racism? as much as i disagree with 'privilege' as a framework to any sort of illumination of racism i do think it is a phenomenon - of the specifically stratified nature of our society as manifested in white upper middle class assumptions that we are 'post racial'. or put another way, some people truly believe the trope (even mentioned in the higher ed article) that 'hey we have a black president now!' like i said i agree entirely with your article and the poor formulations made in the jezebel piece (and elsewhere) but i feel a lot of times casual racism comes from a liberal world view that honestly believes racism is a past thing a should not be an issue. in my mind those people need to understand the real, lived realities of black and brown people and only perhaps secondarily understand the structures that create that reality. while racism is not a function of bad thoughts in individual people's heads, racism and the ideology around which it was created and is manifested does exist in individual people's heads. and challenging that is, i think, incredibly important even if it is nothing more than a 'shut the fuck up' type challenge. to me the value in the discussion of hipster racism is that it is saying racist jokes are not ok. and in that i think it has done very well. as an explanation of why racist jokes are not ok, it has done very little. but i am not going to (nor do i think you would advocate) rejecting this conversation entirely because it deals very little with the systemic roots of the phenomenon. i am very pleased with your contribution and this conversation more generally because this is something i deal with (along with a casual sexism - which is much more pervasive) and something that i find very depressing. love your blog by the way. :)

Anonymous said...

To dsharber: Is the point to get hipsters to stop making casual racist comments or to get them to stop being racists? Do you want to bully into silence or remake?

About the essay: I stopped reading at the point you wrote, "The political antinomies of ironic cultural interventions--which are clearly on display in a number of different contexts--certainly casts doubt on the continued political viability of pomo strategies such as 'parodic redeployment.'"

I figured this was bullshit and that confirmed it.

t said...

@dsharber: Thanks for your comments. Your general point is well taken, and I don't want to make it sound like there' no value in criticizing the things people say, the jokes they make, and so on. And, as I say in the post, I totally agree with you about the need for a radical critique of specifically liberal varieties of racism. I don't think we should leave culture or jokes uncriticized--on the contrary, I think the attempt to shield them from critique is a silencing maneuver that preserves the status quo. But, my point is that this criticism must always be tied to an understanding of the systemic origins of these kinds of discourse, cultural formations, ideologies, etc. Moreover, we have to be clear that liberation isn't merely a matter of discursive maneuvers: it requires collective action to radically transform social relations.

@Anonymoous: I don't know what you thought was bullshit, or why you thought it was bullshit. Perhaps you're so incredibly dogmatic that you simply can't handle an informed criticism about a political maneuver (parodic redeployment) which, in principle, is either effective or isn't. Given that the whole post is about the precisely uncritical and conservative character of these "ironic" forms of racism, I would have thought that the potential pitfalls of the politics of parodic redeployment was worth thinking about.

But evidently your dogmatism is so thoroughgoing you can't even be bothered to read anything that has the audacity to question the viability of a political tactic you mistake for an immutable truth about the universe.

t said...

@dsharber: If there is a danger that devoting critical energies to discursive or causal forms of racism leads us to miss the systemic/structural character of racial oppression, there is also a danger that system-level analysis leaves the casual, interpersonal life of racism uncrticized. I agree with you here that we absolutely need both. In a recent blog post dealing with social movements and the concept of privilege, I discussed some ways that these casual forms of racism can surface even within (even quite radical) movements devoted to challenging the system. I think taking the experience of oppressed people seriously, shutting up, and listening once and while (to say the least) is a key part of struggling against racism within movements. So, that's a huge part of the struggle too--on that I agree. But I'm not prepared relegate systemic criticism to a secondary status. I think having the right systemic picture gives us a way of seeing how various forms of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another. The phenomenology of oppression--what it's like to be an oppressed person from the inside--is important for radical politics. But situating that experience in the context of system-level processes--colonialism, capitalism, imperialism, slavery, etc.--is key.

Anonymous said...

Bullshit (in your case) = pedantic + Kafilian.

You are too full of yourself to stomach. That should be clear.

Anonymous said...

Booooo! You use big words and stuff and I'm too lazy to read your post... its bullshit!

-sf said...

The fruits of the labor you appear to advocate:

Anonymous said...

troll alert