I tend to skip any news story that has the word ‘hipster’ in the title, thinking that it will deal with some trivial and ephemeral social trend that I am not part of nor wish to be part of and that will have disappeared by the time I learn what it is by the process of news osmosis. What I basically knew about the word ‘hipster’ was that it was used pejoratively against people who tried to differentiate themselves from their peers by adopting some lifestyle that was supposedly ironic and avant garde but could just as easily be described as pretentious.
But the term ‘hipster racism’ suggested something more significant and so I clicked on to this article by Arwa Madhawi titled Is Lena Dunham’s ‘hipster racism’ just old-fashioned prejudice? to see what it was about. It led with a story about Dunham’s defense of a writer on her show who had been accused of raping a 17-year old. The accuser is a person of color and Dunham was seen as following the trend of believing the charges brought by wealthy white women while doubting the stories of others.
Dunham’s defence of Miller (for which she has now apologized) caused an immediate backlash and sparked calls for women of colour to “divest” from Dunham. In a statement which went viral, the writer Zinzi Clemmons talked about how, as a student at Brown University, she’d known a lot of people who’d moved in the same circles as friends of Dunham. Wealthy, well-educated liberals, with parents who were influential in the art world.
“Back in college, I avoided these people like the plague because of their well-known racism,” Clemmons wrote. “I’d call their strain ‘hipster racism’.”
So what is hipster racism?
Rachel Dubrofsky, a communications expert at the University of South Florida, told the Guardian that hipster racism is the “domain of white, often progressive people who think they are hip to racism, which they mistakenly believe gives them permission to say and do racist things without actually being racist”.
Another key tenet of hipster racism, Dubrofsky notes, is that it is veiled in irony. “I think hipster racism emerged as we saw an increase in ironic, self-reflexive humor in popular forms of media.”
Examples of hipster racism are everywhere: as Dubrofsky notes, “the sheer ubiquity of [it] is remarkable.” And because hipster racism is often characterized by “humour” it tends to be pervasive in comedy.
“Some of the most popular white women comedians are terrible hipster racists,” Dubrofsky says. In August, for example, Tina Fey appeared on Saturday Night Live to talk about white nationalists marching on Charlottesville – which she did while making a joke about Thomas Jefferson raping his 14-year-old slave, Sally Hemings, calling her “that hot, light-skinned girl over by the butter churn”. Amy Schumer is known for making jokes like: “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.” Sarah Silverman has worn blackface on a number of occasions; she has since said publicly she deeply regrets it.
If you are someone who belongs to the dominant group socially, economically, ethnically, and otherwise, you are treading on treacherous ground if you think that you are so enlightened about an important issue that you can talk as if you are a member of a community that does not have your advantages.
Hipster racism is thinking that you can use someone else’s culture as a prop.
Another pervasive example of hipster racism is the staggering number of white people who don’t seem to understand that there is no ironic way to say the N-word if you are not black. Earlier this month, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked at a panel about whether it was OK for white hip-hop fans to rap along when they hear black rappers use the N-word in songs. As he eloquently explained: no, it’s not.
“When you’re white in this country you’re taught that everything belongs to you,” he said. “You think you have a right to everything.”
Hipster racism is thinking that you have a right to the N-word, that if you – a liberal with black friends! – use it, somehow it isn’t offensive.
Madhawi writes that while the term may be new, what underlies it goes far back.
Hipster racists are, of course, not to be placed anywhere near neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and your run-of-the-mill hard core racists on the racism spectrum. They do abhor racism and would like to see it eliminated and are on the right side of the barricades, so to speak. But what the adjective ‘hipster’ denotes is that they are unwittingly trivializing the experience of groups to which they do not belong and cannot truly understand. And the danger is that if and when they are called out on it, they may react defensively and in the process retreat to a more conventionally racist position.