Archive for March, 2014

Case #2: Lindy West vs. “Hipster Racism”

Let’s get three things out of the way, just to set the baseline.

  1. Racism is horrible in all forms, subtle and overt, from soft bigotry to institutionalized slavery, and it continues to exist in many such forms today.
  2. There is such a thing as being so cavalier and casual with racial references and observations that you hurt people’s feelings.
  3. The impact of a racially-charged statement can only be measured by people of that race (i.e. those impacted), not by the defensive rationalizations of they who made the racially-charged statements.

You might think that someone with these sensitivities would have enjoyed the viral article A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ by Lindy West. In the article, West basically posits that just because you were kidding when you made a racist joke, that doesn’t mean you weren’t being racist. At times, I am sure that there is plenty of Freudian slippage to be explored in ironic racism – and it could indeed be very interesting to dig into.

But, such exploration was nowhere to be found in West’s absolutely shit article.  A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ appeals only to those ready to view race relations in black and white, which requires a George W. Bush-like mixture of naiveté and confidence that is grotesquely and disturbingly anti-intellectual.

In truth, breezily denigrating people with racist jokes is neither new, nor limited to “hipsters,” but something that has happened for as long as there has been such a thing as America. But thankfully, the trend towards inclusion and tolerance has been steady, and the newest generation of young adults is more progressive than any before it; they certainly have cared more than Generation X about advancing causes like fighting the 1%, legalizing gay marriage, and vocally supporting feminism.

Coining the phrase “hipster racism” and putting it in the title of an article was probably West’s attempt to attract hipsters who guiltily wanted to check themselves, which itself is cynically and vampirically feeding off of real people’s honest desire to be good, and their concern that they might be failing at it, for internet traffic. But even worse is that by narrowing her aim at the ill-defined “hipster,” the net effect is that she has unhelpfully and unfairly associated fashionable young people with racism, and they do not deserve that.

But, reader, here’s what really ticks me off the most about the article. Most of it is refuting the defenses of “ironically racist” humor by attempting to prop up straw-man responses to the notion that “ironic racism *is* racism,” so that she can knock them down. And maddeningly, even given these contrivances, and even though there is a point to make about tasteless racial jokes, she manages not a single unqualified victory against her imaginary “defenders.”

Let’s start with my favorite “defense,” which describes exactly what West is doing herself by writing this article:

"God, Don’t White People Suck?"
Okay, I get what you’re trying to do here—having some fun at the expense of the oppressors while setting yourself up as one of the "cool" white people—but mainly what you end up doing is implying that black people don’t like informative radio or TED talks.

And… That all she has so say about it. But, why do you do that, exactly? I don’t think what people are complaining about re: white people is their love of information and self-education, but entitlement and the sort of lack of self-awareness that West is displaying when she assumes that white people all possess an urge to “dumb themselves down” because that’s how they think they’ll fit in with other races. Besides wooziness from the Inception-like experience of watching a white hipster write an article shaming white hipsters for shaming white hipsters, I also feel grossed out that she doesn’t notice that saying "God, Don’t <all members of a particular race> Suck?” is racist, and that’s why you shouldn’t do it.

West then shames manic pixie dream girls everywhere in this example of “hipster racism”:

"Tee-Hee, Aren’t I Adorable?"
This category includes things like wide-eyed acoustic covers of hip-hop songs, suburban white girls flashing gang signs, and this Tweet from Zooey Deschanel: "Haha. 🙂 RT @Sarabareilles: Home from tour and first things first: New Girl episodes I missed. #thuglife." See, it’s hilarious, because we aren’t thugs—we are darling girls, and real thugs are black people who do crime!

#thuglife – oh how dare you, Zooey! How dare you re-tweet someone referencing Tupac Shakur’s abdominal tattoo in order to call themselves un-tough because they like your girly, twee comedy show… Because if you call yourself un-badass by comparing yourself to a badass who happens to be a black rapper and actor whose work often talked about gang life, you are DEFINITELY racist. If you want to be un-tough, don’t compare yourself to Tupac, compare yourself to a tough person of your own race. New rule! White people: Quote Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies only, because admiring the masculinity of someone outside of your race is racist. Seriously, Lindy: I’m not as tough as Tupac, neither is Zooey, and making a joke of that is an exercise in self-deprecation and not much else.

As for West saying that covering hip-hop songs on the acoustic guitar is racist: fuck that. Seriously. Musicians can do whatever they want to any song at any time, including parodying them if they want to, and that’s just the way it is. Are the covers even parodies? They generally seem more like a mixture of homage and self-deprecation. But even if they were, famous musicians are not immune to parody simply because they are black. That’s how art works. Deal with it.

"Recreational Slumming."
Catchphrase: "It’s soooooo ghetto, but I actually totally like it!"

Dipping your toe in places where you don’t belong, where it might be dangerous, where everything is unfamiliar — and having a genuinely appreciative reaction to it is many things, but it is not racist, ironically or otherwise. On the continuum of reactions you might have in your travels as they take you to places where there are economically disadvantaged people (a continuum that ranges from actually-racist fear to “I totally like it”), only West finds racism in having the latter, positive reaction. What are you   supposed to do there, run and hide? Greet people not with cheerfulness and respect but with caution, discomfort, or condescending pity? The utility of explaining that a place is not well-endowed with riches is obvious: you could be telling the person, “if you ever go there, be prepared; it’s gritty as hell! But it’s great.” That is a valid message for people of any race to exchange.

I get the concern; West feels like what would be more condescending is the “poverty tourism” of sampling such an experience and returning to your perch of comfort. But reacting with delight and appreciation is a lot more tolerant and inclusive than reacting like you’re a fucking Nat Geo photographer. There is pain in poor neighborhoods. I’ve spent years living in them. But people there are also trying to get on with their lives, and make the best of it. Even though it’s hard, and even though it can be dangerous. The reaction that you have no business being there is what would really make a resident feel alienated and othered, and I am really bothered to see that as someone’s idea of showing empathy.

3. "Ummm, I’m a Writer and I’m Trying to Write in Here!"
[…] You "can" say the n-word… And I will go ahead and give you the world’s most sidewaysiest eyeball forever. Because it hurts people. Why do you want to hurt people?

So, now writers have no right to use it, huh? I’ll just tell all these people. The truth is, the reason you would use that word in a piece of writing might in fact be to hurt people. But it is valid to write something painful, especially if: the character saying it is supposed to be unlikeable, if you are interested in accurately depicting a certain time/place, or many, many other reasons. When a bad thing happens to a good person in a story – that hurts people. But the point of writing is not to protect people from being hurt. As Ernest Hemmingway once put it, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Now I will say, the example West cites of Girls writer Lesley Arfin misusing the n-word is shitty and as a writer you should feel more than mere intoxication with the power of a word; and it’s clear that in the minds of less-subtle humorists who just want a blunt weapon to bludgeon people with that they aren’t making it past this intoxication and are just wielding the n-word around like idiots.

But writers can and do take that exact same power and use it to tell emotionally-charged stories that are worth reading, like when a character is trying to incite a fight in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or when showing the hatred boiling inside the wild youth in Lord of the Flies, or when depicting the horrible attitudes of some of the townsfolk in To Kill A Mockingbird, just to cite a few examples. It is absolutely valid to claim artistic intent in all these cases whether West likes it or not.

"No, don’t you see? I’m just showing how I’m so down with [minority group] that it’s totally cool for me to make jokes at their expense. Because we are just that kind of tight bros now."
No. You cannot unlock some secret double-not-racist achievement by just being regular racist.

You totally can. To earn this right is simple: Spend your entire life being tolerant and kind to everybody, build up a lifetime of goodwill, and prove that you do not actually have racism in your heart. To the people who have seen this proof, you will have some leeway. That’s because there is such a thing as being racist ironically – and if this article is supposed to be West’s proof that being racist ironically is being “regular racist,” as she slyly jumps to at the end of this quote, then I’d say that the thin membrane of irony that separates good and evil is squarely intact, because these arguments are weak as hell. Being ironic counts. Being a good person counts. Context counts. There are lots of ways to take away the sting of referencing race; one of the marvels of Louis C.K.’s humor is how you start to feel the offense and anger building up in the back of your neck and crawling up into your brain, only to feel it slip away as you realize, “nah, that just wasn’t authentic, because only a psychopath would believe that. Louie is no psycho. In fact – hey, he is making fun of that shitty attitude!”

This is a dangerous game best played by professionals. I am with Jerry Seinfeld in the clip I link to — “I can’t find the humor in [the n-word], nor do I seek it.” But those who can concoct the right context and land an ironic statement that hits hard at first but ultimately melts away like that, have my respect. The yardstick is: does it make people of that race look bad, or people who have the racist attitude look bad? Once you look closely at Louie’s jokes, you realize they all meet the latter criteria, and if you are brave enough to risk offending people and you are meeting that same criteria, that is your grave to dig, not Lindy West’s. It’s just really, really important to check that you’re making fun of the right person.

It does seem like in this instance West is making the right qualification – which is that the joke is “at their (a minority group’s) expense,” and such jokes would fail this test. But West doesn’t actually care about this difference. The opening line of this article says it all:

There’s been a lot of talk these last couple of weeks about "hipster racism" or "ironic racism"—or, as I like to call it, racism.

There’s been a lot of talk about this concept called “sarcasm,” or as I like to call it: “being sincere.”

"But it’s a JOOOOOKE."
Here’s the thing about jokes. They only work when they’re aiming up. I wrote this in another piece recently, but I’m just going to plagiarize myself: People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless.

“Yo mama so poor she has to hang her toilet paper out to dry.” There, I just made a joke at the expense of the powerless. The joke works on the level of being funny, so we can toss out West’s rule. But I think she meant to qualify this more. It isn’t that you can not make such a joke, it’s that you will insult people, especially in the case of race. Yes, I agree that you will. But West thinks her “aiming up” rule is actually good to go without these qualifications. It isn’t. She should stop promoting it. You can be funny aiming down. That’s the whole point of teasing people – you go after their inadequacies. Race is actually the only context in which the rule works, but the article goes on to specifically cite economic disparity as another good example. Nope – hanging toilet paper out to dry: funny. Ridiculous. Obviously not literally true. Deserving more of a good comeback than permanent ostracization from society.

"So I’m not allowed to have a genuine interest in another culture?!!?!??!"
First of all, privileged dickweeds wearing Urban Outfitters "Navajo" panties, I didn’t realize that you excavated those in your anthropological field work.

It is probably very easy to invent such ridiculous straw-men and argue with them, but I hardly see what the point would be or why anyone should take you seriously as you do it. Is everybody who asks, “am I not allowed to have a genuine interest in another culture?!” wearing racist garbs? I kinda doubt it. In many, many other contexts, it’s a valid question that deserves a valid answer. The person “slumming it” might have a valid interest. The person writing a book about the deep south might have a valid interest. Or anyone else up and down this list we’ve covered. West knows that the people who went to the Halloween party in blackface did not incredulously claim anthropological interest, so she should probably cut the straw-man shit. It gets tiresome watching people trivialize issues by trying to set up easy wins for themselves, and it is rarely possible to extract truths that can apply to life in general from flimsily constructed, absurd hypotheticals.

"Yeah, but we have a black president! Isn’t racism over?"
Okay. That’s probably the most racist thing you’ve said all day, imaginary amalgam of all the careless hipsters in the world.

Oh, well, at least she admits that’s what she’s doing. But seriously – nobody thinks this, anywhere, particularly among young people.  I don’t even see a point in taking this one seriously when she admits that it is entirely imaginary. She can’t even link to one example. I couldn’t find one when I searched on Google, either. All I could find were people bitterly rebuking that idea as if it’s something we all have to constantly refute. It isn’t. It’s plain to see that racism is alive and well in this country, and if anyone in this country cares about it, it’s probably the youngest generation of Americans, who are being singled out in this article because they are the target audience and figures their guilt can be converted into traffic.

In Conclusion

Lindy West is trying to do a good thing. Bad race jokes are easily discoverable with a simple Google search and these are real issues. I think West is a clever, funny writer and even here she lands some pretty enjoyable punches.

But I have a major problem with this article because:

  • It contains no general truths that apply to life. All its conclusions need major qualifications to work, at all.
  • It attacks imaginary straw men the vast majority of the time.
  • It attempts to monetize the guilt of a beautifully progressive young generation that I am proud to have in this country.
  • At times, such as when this article tells white people not to cover black songs and to stay out of the “ghetto,” it is alarmingly separatist; as if racial purity were the ideal instead of assimilation and inclusion.

Young people who felt bad when they read this: I’m sorry that you feel judged. In general, you’re doing great. You don’t need Jezebel’s approval, any LifeHacks, or Lindy West to know you’re doing great. The sad truth is there are people in the world who capitalize on rage. Rage is good business – just ask Fox News. But you don’t have to listen to them.

Here are some LifeHacks for you:

Be authentic. Make people feel loved. Make less of a big deal about race, not more.

Do those three weird tricks, and you’ll be fine. Oh, and fuck the concept of “hipsters.” You might as well be saying, “clothes-wearing young people” at this point.

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