Brick Lane: On Race and Hipster Culture

by Alok Vaid-Menon, ’13


The street signs of Brick Lane, a historically South Asian immigrant neighborhood, are in both Bengali and English. The street is alive with art markets, flea sales, and food vendors. Indian restaurants decorate the street with their tantalizing sweets and succulent, spicy fare. There are saree shops, mosques, ethnic grocery stores. Older brown men play karamon on the sidewalk, eating their samosas and stamping the ground in their Bata chappals with joyful exclamations of “Shabash!” 

I am standing in line for the American Apparel Flea Market. There are almost 100 people waiting outside of the door and all of them are White. They are the types of kids you’d call ‘individualistic.’ Yes, hipsters – those ironic, well-dressed, artsy types magnetized to American Apparel (even though it has become mainstream) — have colonized the streets of Brick Lane. In the alleys by the saree shops there are vintage and thrift stores. On the walls of the abandoned warehouses I see advertisements for underground parties and alternative bands.

The brown bodies walking on the streets stare at me suspiciously. The white bodies standing in front of me in line peer at me curiously. Both are surprised to see me. As a record store begins to blast new indie music from its speakers and the White, angst-ridden voices join the sounds of tabla and sitar I ask myself: What am I doing here? 

From Brooklyn to Brick Lane, ethnic neighborhoods across the world in the past decade have seen an influx of young, White, alternative college graduates. Instead of joining their peers at investment banks, this group has chosen to enter the ‘green’ movement, to make art installations, to spend their weekends perusing flea markets for vintage treats.

In this essay I am interested in exploring how can we conceptualize the increasing prevalence of hipsters, especially considering contemporary discourse and emphasis around racial justice? Why do hipsters continue to be white?

Brick Lane is a starting place. The streets, warehouses, and bars of Brick Lane speak to histories of immigration, racism, and globalization that are crucial to understanding hipster identity formation across the world. Through an exploration of Brick Lane I will theorize about the origin and prevalence of hipster identity. Specifically, I will argue that the rise of “the hipster” is best understood as an attempt to re-imagine Whiteness, and that White hipster identities and communities are based on racist and colonial paradigms that marginalize people of color.

History of the Hipster

Our current understanding of the ‘hipster’ has ancestors rooted in the racial tensions of the mid-twentieth century. In 1957, the writer Norman Mailer published a groundbreaking essay, “The White Negro,” in which he argues that hipsters (rebellious, middle-class White suburban youth) were appropriating angst from Black America in order to obtain a more legitimate sense of authenticity.

First Mailer identifies a profound crisis in Whiteness. Disenchanted by war and economic crisis, the collective “psyche was subjected…to the intolerable anxiety that…life was causeless” (Mailer 1957). Due to this experience of trauma, White people could hardly “maintain the courage to be individual.” The promise of Hip lay in its ability to liberate the White body, to allow the body to escape from the “prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom…and self-destroying rage.”

Mailer presents the Black man as the source of hip, due to his always having lived on the margins of conformity: “The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger” (Mailer 1957). Mailer was responding to the increased popularity of jazz among White urban youth. As Monson (1995) reminds us, “Black jazz musicians…[came] to symbolize political liberation, emotional depth, and sensual intensity” (405) and jazz musicians were linked with “rebellion, modernism, and primitivism” (413).

Mailer’s essay was novel in its suggestion to White readers that, if they sought to create the highly innovative and emotional work of their African American counterparts – like those who built the then-thriving jazz movement – they would have to find a way to separate themselves from mainstream society. Mailer noted that, to become like the Negro, the hipster aspired to be in touch with the cool, the underground culture of jazz. Through coming into contact with this culture, the White man had to dissociate himself from his cultural ‘Whiteness.’

History of Brick Lane

Mailer’s essay forecasts racial politics which may be involved in the contemporary emergence of a new breed of ‘hipsters.’ In order to better understand what makes Brick Lane desirable for contemporary White hipsters we must understand Brick Lane’s racialized history.

The prevalence of Bangladeshi people in Brick Lane results from a long history of South Asian immigration to the United Kingdom. South Asian immigration began while Bengal was still part of the British Empire. In London many Bengali people settled in the East End – the first port of call for many immigrants working in the docks and shipping from Chittagong port in Bengal. Their regular stopover created the conditions for Bengalis to establish food and curry outlets. Humble restaurants and shops such as these led to the current Brick Lane, now widely regarded as the curry capital of the United Kingdom.

With the start of Britain’s post-war economic boom the United Kingdom began to see a larger scale of immigration of migrant workers of South Asian descent (Singh & Vertovec 2002: 1). Many Bangladeshi people, in particular, decided to move. With numbers currently approaching a quarter of a million, they are overwhelmingly drawn from District Sylhet in the far north-east (5).  As Bengali immigrant neighborhoods like Brick Lane began to develop they faced significant challenges in obtaining sustainable income. In relation to the 1991 deprivation index, Tower Hamlets (an area including Brick Lane) was ranked as the fifth most deprived borough in London and as the seventh within Britain (180). Since the beginning of post-industrial restructuring, East London has been a net loser in terms of economic activities and jobs. As Mavromattis (2006) argues, “manufacturing and other forms of production relocated to other parts of the globe where cheaper labour costs could guarantee higher level of profits [thus] the East End faced serious problems competing with other parts of England in attracting businesses, investments and skills” (496). East London became perceived as an area of high-unemployment, low expectations and all other social ills commonly attributed to poor, post-industrial inner-city areas.

The demonization of East London and neighborhoods like Brick Lane also resulted from a period of pervasive racial prejudice in Britain. From the late 1970s, Stuart Hall (1978) suggested that some inner-city areas with high levels of ethnic concentration were breeding a specific discursive correlation between crime, race and inner-city space. As he argued, “Black crime becomes the signifier of the crisis in the urban colonies” (239). As Mavrommatis (2010) argues, Brick Lane became associated with race and difference, “a direct consequence of [its] multiethnic composition that set [it] apart from other more ethnically homogenous London neighborhoods (563).

In British mainstream political discourse areas like Brick Lane became chiefly marked for their ethnic and multicultural character. Indeed from the 1970s onwards, political debate in Britain linked race to the declining status of inner cities. Inner-city areas with high levels of ethnic concentration became ‘problems in space’ to be avoided at all cost. Politicians suggested that high levels of racial concentration led to problematic socio-spatial conditions. As Mavrommatis (2010) argues, these processes of criminalization of race led to a specific construction and articulation of a language of difference that equated race with crime. Thus, Brick Lane has historically been constructed as a site of radical alterity – a racialized site of Otherness – that was seen as a ‘failed’ and ‘corrupt’ part of the pristine (read: White) London.

White Hipsters in Brick Lane

Over the past decade, artists have become increasingly drawn to Brick lane in terms of its “artistic creativity” and “cultural diversity” (Mavrommatis 2010: 503). The influx of White artist hipsters into Brick Lane comes immediately after a fundamental re-conceptualization of Brick Lane in the British cultural psyche. I have already noted that in the late 1970s and early 1980s Brick Lane was demonized as a location of racialized crime. However, by the late 1980s this emphasis shifted “from a previous space race problematic to a progressive multicultural agenda” (Mavrommatis 2006). This shift coincided with a change of vocabulary: the ‘old’ category of race was substituted by that of ethnicity (566). While race referred to skin color and implied a differentiated human biology, ethnicity was strictly related to culture or cultural differences. British social and political discourse began to see more of an affirmative reading of cultural difference. It became assumed that the more ethnic cultures that were added to the British national culture, the richer the culture would become. From this perspective, British national culture became perceived as the cumulative sum of a native culture and a diversity of other cultures (Mavrommatis 2006).

One ‘creative type’ Mavrommatis interviews remarks that living in Brick Lane he feels “like a visitor to a foreign land, not in a xenophobic or racist kind of way, but just literally…” (504). Another declares that it is “nice that you have [ethnic] balance…here it’s the Asian and the arty people” (508). One respondent goes as far as to suggest that Brick Lane “is like a frontier…a space where you have another culture around challenges you…there is a sense that you are in a space where anything can happen” (513).

These responses reveal much about White hipster identity formations. First, the way that these hipsters speak of Brick Lane as a new ‘frontier’ suggests that they see it existing (geographically and psychologically) outside of the parameters of not only mainstream London, but also mainstream Whiteness. The desire for ‘cultural diversity’ conveys a desire to ‘escape’ from the homogeneity of the rest of British society. As the first respondent suggests, the desire for Brick Lane is certainly not ‘racist.’ This (limited) understanding of racism conveys the shifting discourse around racial issues to a politics of multiculturalism. As Mavrommatis (2006) notes, racism is no longer conceptualized as about the racialization of bodies. Race has been re-conceptualized as ‘ethnicity.’ Bangladeshi people have a different culture, not a different race. This definition – while promising – ignores the material inequalities afforded to Bangladeshi and other racial minority people on the basis of their skin color. White hipsters – who are exerting a real and material violence on working class immigrant communities through participating in gentrification – are able to see this process as ‘not racist’ because it is part of a greater desire for multiculturalism. Accordingly – as Mavrommati suggests – “the ‘creatives’ become self-represented as an army of cosmopolites feeling comfortable with differences” (510). Living with minorities becomes akin to eating Bengali curry – it’s about exploring (not exploiting) a new culture.

Furthermore, this exoticization functions with a logic of binaries. The creative types (hipsters) define themselves against the local ‘Asians’ – there is a strict separation between the ‘artists’ and the ‘Asians. White hipsters are not only creating an ethnic distinction, but are engaging in the process of creating an ethnicity itself. As Frankenberg (1997) reminds us, “Whiteness emerges as a process” (1). The move to Brick Lane marks a desire to create a new modality of Whiteness – one that is multicultural, sophisticated, and more ‘worldly.’ Now that ‘race’ is thought of less as a physical attribute and more of a cultural posturing, White people can have access to ‘ethnicity.’ Indeed, as Mavrommatis argues, the intense preoccupation with issues of identity and space acknowledges the influence of consumption in processes of constructing a self. In the postmodern city urban visual consumption dominates the production of socio-spatial identities (Harvey 1989: 289). In this sense, “the self becomes another in relation to external visual stimuli” (511). In this case, the self is constructed or even reaffirmed against neighboring Bangladeshi otherness. Relating this to the desire of the hipster – the hipster is drawn to Brick Lane for its cultural capital. It is ‘different’ enough to be rendered as cool.

The hipster’s desire for Brick Lane allows us to better conceptualize the way that hipsters perceive racial difference. I have shown how the neighborhood of Brick Lane has historically been criminalized and racialized. The hipster is drawn to the neighborhood for this very reason. Brick Lane can be understood as an ‘appropriate’ difference – it feels culturally distant yet is still part of the Western world. (Indeed if hipsters truly wanted to embrace difference they would move to the Global South!) Because Brick Lane has been so forcibly racialized, we cannot divorce the desire for a White hipster to move to Brick Lane from racial politics. We can read the move to Brick Lane – and its subsequent gentrification – as a type of internal colonialism. The new hipster White ethnicity is defined against the brown racialized body. The White hipster is able to use the land, the work, and the ‘primitivism’ (as Mailer would say) in order to assert a new Whiteness.

This process of White (hipster) identity formation parallels the history of White people appropriating jazz in order to experience a more ‘authentic’ experience. From this, we can interpret hipster as a multicultural aesthetic, one that inspires to transcend the boundaries of White respectability and liberate White bodies. However, the emergence of the hipster at this particular cultural moment is perhaps even more ominous than the hipsters of the past. Whereas when the “White Negro” was published, the persecution and discrimination of ‘Blacks’ on the basis of race was an acknowledged fact, increasingly, racial discrimination is becoming ignored within Europe and across the Western world. Barker (1992) writes of the emergence of a New Racism in Europe. This type of racism links ‘race’ and nation – it is a racism that combines a disavowal of biological superiority or inferiority and focuses on ‘cultural difference’ as the ‘natural’ basis for feelings of antagonism towards outsiders. What is particular about this present moment is that “many of the groups who were previously racialized outside Europe are now in Europe” (Brah 1993: 21). When the ‘creative types’ create a distinction between the ‘Asians’ and the ‘artists,’ they propagate this new type of racism and contribute to the challenge of South Asian minorities to integrate into English society. By virtue of their culture, brown bodies are frequently excluded from ‘hipster’ (White) culture. As Brah (1993) argues, “a characteristic feature of this racism has been its focus on cultural difference as the primary signifier of a supposed immutable boundary: a view of the Asian as the ‘alien’ par excellence: the ultimate ‘Other’ (19). If the Asian is, as Brah suggests, the ultimate ‘Other’ then we can better understand the drive for Brick Lane: it is irresistibly ‘hip.’

Thus, while the project of the hipster intends to be multicultural, it may result in new pernicious forms of exclusion that continue to marginalize people of color. Just as their ancestors of the post-War era in their search for a liberated Whiteness, White hipsters continue to appropriate the authenticity of racialized experience for their own ends. The question now becomes – with shifting discourse of race and ethnicity and the genuine desire for a more ethical Whiteness, how can we begin to conceptualize and fashion models of multicultural White identity that do not rely on exclusion?

 

Alok is a junior studying queer studies & comparative studies in race and ethnicity. This essay is a selection from a longer piece. Please email hir if you’d like the full version: alokv3@stanford.edu.

Works Cited:
Barker, M. (1982). The New Racism. London: Junction Books.
Brah, Avtar. (1993). “Re-framing Europe: En-gedered Racisms, Ethnicities and Nationalisms in Contemporary Western Europe” Feminist Review, No. 45, 9-29.
Frankenberg, R. (1997). ‘Introduction: Local Whiteness, Localizing Whiteness’, in R. Frakenberg (ed.) Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, pp 1–24. Durham, NC: Dune University Press.
Hall, S. (1978). ‘The politics of mugging’, in Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J. and Robert, B. (eds) Policing the Crisis. London: Macmillan, 231􏰀74.
Harvey, D. (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Home Affairs Committee (198081) Racial Disadvantage. London: HMSO.
Home Affairs Committee (1986-87) Bangladeshis in Britain. London: HMSO.
Mailer (1957). “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” Dissent 4.
Mavrommatis, George. (2006). “The new ‘creative’ Brick Lane: A narrative study of local multicultural encounters.” Ethnicities 6(4), 498-517.
Mavrommatis, George. (2010). “A Racial Archaelogy of Space: A Journey through the Political Imaginings of Brixton and Brick Lane, London.” in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 36: 4, 561-579.
Monson, Ingrind (1995). “The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse.” in Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 48, No. 3, 396-422.
Singh, H. and Vertovec, S. (eds) (2002). “The South Asian Presence in Britain and its Transnational Connections.” Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora, London: Routledge.
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4 thoughts on “Brick Lane: On Race and Hipster Culture

  1. Anonymous says:

    There are several flaws with this, not least the fact that Brick Lane and other non-white areas are not the exclusive recipients of hipster gentrification. Under this duress, the thesis seems to encounter major inadequacies in conceptualising the hipster identity.

  2. […] from Alok Vaid-Menon’s “Brick Lane: On Race and Hipster Culture”: ‘From Brooklyn to Brick Lane, ethnic neighborhoods across the world in the past decade have […]

  3. AndrewSFleming@gmail.com says:

    Great essay! Really fantastic example of analysing urban space from a (post)colonial perspective. For more on the gentrification of Brick Lane/Spitalfields area and its historical processes, check out Jane M. Jacobs’ “Edge of Empire” where there’s a great chapter there on how the Bengali identity was used to promote “diversity,” yet on terms governed only by whites through spatial/residential occupation.

  4. jtroane says:

    This is a great analysis. Check out this Saldanha’s Psychedelic White. It’s an ethnography of people seeking lines of flight from whiteness in the trance culture of Goa who reconvene whiteness in that space contra the “locals.” Saldanha develops this concept of racial viscosity that I find useful for thinking about gentrfication, hipsters, etc. http://books.google.com/books?id=q5FgUMJP87IC&pg=PA184&lpg=PA184&dq=racial+viscosity&source=bl&ots=5pcSeFtse3&sig=4g_QRsB93xLDSMZy_DpNrH2bMAo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wJEIT_XhMIPx0gGcvbnWAg&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=racial%20viscosity&f=false

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