A Guide to Hipster Anti-Racism

by Janani Balasubramanian, ’12

There have been quite a few articles floating around the net recently about hipster racism – that is, racist attitudes that are passed of as ironic and therefore excusable.  This can include anything from Urban Outfitters making “Native print” underwear to blackface to the colonialist attitudes presented in period dramas.  Racialicious presented a particularly great history of hipster racism and anti-racist responses to it. Here I want to delve into what I’m calling hipster anti-racism. It’s a term I’m using to describe those moments when (usually) white folks perform anti-racist/liberatory attitudes about a racialized issue in an attempt to appear subversive and often “hip.”  Unlike hipster racism, it is not a performance of ironic racism but actually a performance of anti-racist attitude as a signifier of hipness.  It is important to understand that hipster anti-racism can be performed by anyone, not just those we characteristically label as hipsters.  Hipster anti-racism is defined by by being 1) insincere, 2) momentary, 3) subversive for the sake of being hip, and not for a deeper dismantling of systems of power and oppression, and 4) present in rhetoric almost exclusively, with little indication of substantive shifts towards anti-racist behavior or action.

In other words, hipster anti-racism, like much of hipsterdom, is defined by its appropriation and lack of historicity.  In this case, it is an anti-racism that is not making an effort to link itself into broader histories and communities of anti-racist struggle.  Note that I don’t think every instance of momentary engagement with race and racialization is an instance of hipster anti-racism.  Those moments, could, after all, signify the beginnings of an awakening to ideas of privilege/power and anti-racism.  It is only when someone’s anti-racism is only and continually displayed through those momentary engagements (rather than a deeper and more actionable shift in consciousness) that I think it wanders into the category of hipster anti-racism. I’m not saying we all have to (or can) become full-time anti-racist activists, but I am saying that if you’re going to talk about racism all the time, your actions had better align a little better with your rhetoric.

I am also not closed to the possibility that hipster anti-racism can be somewhat generative, if for no other reason than that the individual performing anti-racist attitudes might start to believe them.  I think only that it is a more hurtful model for anti-racism than most others. Hipster anti-racism has the potential to dilute the work of more sincere anti-racists, whose statements and sentiments may sound quite similar.  It also has the potential to become overbearing.  White hipster anti-racists in particular, if they are especially keen on being as loud as possible in conversations around race, are acting out just another symptom of their privilege.

So what does this look like in practice?  For just a few examples, I offer the following list:

You might be participating in hipster anti-racism if….

  1. You offer “snaps” or props to the criticisms your POC friends present of other white folks, but find yourself participating in many of the behaviors being criticized.
  2. You enter conversations about race armed with a lot of vocabulary that may make the dialog inaccessible to newcomers.  You also often find yourself speaking first in these spaces.
  3. In all white spaces and events you participate in, you ask the question “why are there no people of color here right now?” instead of “what am I and others doing that might be consistently alienating to people of color?”.
  4. You find yourself often advocating the most “radical” position in the room, and are indignant when others propose that this position might be impractical or inaccessible on the basis of race, class, or other factors.

On a personal level, I participate in a lot of majority-white spaces where multiculturalism and liberalism are used as major signifiers of self-worth.  Accordingly, when I do verbalize how frustrating it is for any given space to be so overhwelmingly white, I am usually met with “snaps” or affirmations from white folks, not defensiveness or overt animosity. Indeed, many of these ideas are often considered hip in their display of radical politics and therefore understood as a sign of my own hipness and belonging in these space, rather than as threatening of the space’s whiteness.  I understand the value of shifting consciousnesses and raising awareness as a first step, but (and this is particularly true of social movements) if we only pay lipservice and snaps to race, rather than thinking about concrete anti-racist liberatory strategies, we will continue to alienate many people of color.  Basically, we can’t be all theory and no practice.

I am waiting for the day that when I address a poem to white poets criticizing their narrative strategies, that I will see them shift those strategies in addition to congratulating me on my performance.  I am hoping that the next food-related organization I am a part of understands that “race and food” is not an issue that can be unpacked in a one-hour workshop, and thinks of racial liberation as a core, rather than auxiliary, goal.  I am eager for a multiracial dialog on race and queerness in which my white queer peers (and everyone, really), honor silence and slowness in the conversation.

In the meantime, hipster anti-racism makes it difficult for me to discern from whom I can expect real (vs. only performed) allyship.  Which, in the context of movement-building and even just making more anti-racist friends, is frustrating.  It means that I have to look a bit harder.   Still, it’s not all negative; I’ve found the sincerest allies I have built relationships with to be all that more valuable.  They’re allies who have helped me understand that dismantling racism is a process not a state, that we all have more learning to do, and that listening and humility are probably more important than the supposed radicalism of our politics.

Janani sometimes calls herself a queer South Asian scholar-activist, a poet, and an advocate for a peaceful food system. She’s a senior and co-term, majoring in Atmosphere/Energy and Feminist Studies.

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24 thoughts on “A Guide to Hipster Anti-Racism

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  2. […] remember I head to read a guide to hipster anti-racism twice: the first time my insecurities and defensiveness got in the way, and I worried that it meant […]

  3. […] today (5/30)!] Update (10/18): the post is no longer available on Racialicious, but can be accessed here where it was originially published. Share this:ShareFacebookTwitterPinterestTumblrLike this:Like6 […]

  4. […] A Guide to Hipster Anti-Racism by Janani Balasubramanian, ‘12 […]

  5. Kazzy says:

    Hi Janani-
    Brought here from Racialicious. I’m curious how you differentiate between true hipster anti-racism and folks genuinely interested and engaged in anti-racism but who might be struggling through the early stages of being an ally and an advocate? I am sure I have committed some of these faux pas, though the motivation was never to appear “hip” but rather simply a failed or semi-flawed attempt.

    • janani says:

      Hey Kazzy,
      I think this is what I was trying to get at with the idea of time, and the continued engagement with anti-racism as an “accessory” or superficial trapping that diferentiates hipster anti-racism from early-stage (or genuine missteps at any other time!) allyship. I think really that the essential elements that steer us away from anti-racism as a signifier of hipness into something more authentic are humility, intention, consistent and continuous striving for more thoughtful engagement. I hope that was clear, would love ot hear more thoughts about this if you’ve got them–am sincerely hoping that this piece is more of a call to “pause and think then restart dialog” than a “stop talking about racism altogether”.

  6. Katharine says:

    Is there any connection in this article to the meme above? Was really hoping that would be mentioned. I am an Irish citizen and while British vs. Irish colonization was not racism it was discriminatory – Irish people were forced to speak English rather than Irish Gaelic, kicked off their farmland, and Catholics continue to live in poorer housing conditions than Protestants in Northern Ireland. So yes, that attitude of “I understand racism” is overused in Irish Americans who have been here for many generations but I would also appreciate it if people would stop dismissing the history of Irish oppression completely. Thank you.

  7. lrsmackenzie says:

    Awesome piece, thanks for writing. “Hipster Anti-Racism” is a really accurate, neat, and poignant term to describe my frustrations with people who do just what you explained.

  8. Alex Buck says:

    I agree with you that these people are annoying and agree with Mayukh that you are unfairly judging white people and that you are essentially perpetuating racism with your “anti-racist” opinions. A lot of the time the only thing a white person has to do to alienate a person of color is be white. A good part of the problem between races is people viewing themselves as essentially one race or the other or on one team or the other. (You are on team “Asian” no? And you blame team “white” for alienating people of color, no?) To stop racism you need to stop people of all races from thinking that they belong to one group or another and conform to the culture of any group that they might want to be a part of rather than conforming to a sub-culture based on race. Blaming team “white” essentially needs to disappear to end racism, because A) That’s fucking racist. B.) It perpetuates the idea of racial/cultural differences. I mean popular black culture is essentially one of non-conformity because ‘fuck the white man, we do things our own way, we are a different group of people.’ That’s cool, but just so you know, employers usually hire people from their own group of people. People of color need to allow THEMSELVES to conform to mainstream culture, without being called oreos or something idiotic like that. There can’t be cultures based on race without racism, because then qualities of that culture are then associated with that race. (by the way can we please stop celebrating Malcolm X, who perpetuated all this segregation bullshit, and essentially made it “charming?”) C) It creates a fear in white people of “offending” people of color, which creates these idiotic hipster douchebags that you’ve mentioned who are “proving” how racially sensitive they are and which really perpetuates the concept of racial division. To have a real heart to heart conversation between two people one of the people can’t be afraid to offend the other person. I live Portland, OR and black people have told me that they can feel white people going into “politically correct” mode when they talk to them and they find it really off-putting/alienating, as any one would. Portland is a very liberal place and a very “white” place, coincidence?

    Again, MLK taught love, forgiveness and integration and created a lot of positive change.
    Malcolm X taught blame and anger for the majority of his ministry, and then when he stopped, he was killed by the Nation of Islam, the same church that he had been the spokesman for and had taught him those ideals.

    The term “White Privilege,” needs to be erased from the vocabulary of any person who wishes to stop racism, because it in fact is racism. It creates and enforces racial categories, rather than dismantle them altogether which the goal of any who is truly anti-racist should be. Also, it creates blame and anger in people who aren’t white, more separation. You may think that those emotions are understandable and to a certain extent they are, but they help nothing and actually serve to fuel tension between the races. It’s what one might call the “dark side” of the force. It’s not that white privilege doesn’t exist, it has for quite a long time, but now this term has become essentially a put-down and an expression of un-productive anger used by POC’s and self-righteous white assholes.

    • esqg says:

      Please, I ask you in all sincerity, read at least some of this post on why ignoring people’s races does not help fight racism. (If you like there, is a follow-up addressing the unfortunate phrase “color-blindness” but also developing the points further.) Many other people have pointed out why this is completely ineffective.

      There is a reasonable point I can extract from your writing here, which is that it can be very hard to build trust between white people and people of color, or indeed non-white people of different races, and that mistrust can make it harder to be an ally. But saying “you’re spreading racism by writing this article” is out of line. That is a classic silencing tactic used specifically by white people against people of color, and in using it you will perpetuate that same mistrust.

      • Alex Buck says:

        Read, but I didn’t think I was saying anything that conflicted with that article. I thought I was saying those “I don’t see color” guys were annoying assholes but at the same time nothing said in this article was really productive in any way but the language used was expressing negativity towards whites. What about my comment did you disagree with?

      • esqg says:

        Well, one big issue with what you’ve said is probably summed up in
        “There can’t be cultures based on race without racism, because then qualities of that culture are then associated with that race.”

        I don’t even get it: what’s so hard about being respectful of, and interacting with, people of cultures other than your own? And if everyone has to adopt the same culture in order to avoid racism, why should it be the white one? (By which I mean the dominant American culture(s) you see on most of TV and movies etc.)

        It’s only under that premise that “color blindness” even might work. But it’s a false premise. The idea you seem to be advocating is called assimilationism, and you would be well advised to get at least a basic understanding of how awful assimilationism has always been for its victims. (Don’t straw-man me either, of course people can go between different cultures if they want to.)

        And while you’re at it, how about learning the first thing about black American cultural roots, and influences on white culture? Because I don’t even know where to start with your statement about black culture being reactionary–I can’t imagine any good reason someone could think that, or think it was okay to be so disrespectful.

      • Alex Buck says:

        Let’s use a different example. Asian culture is one known to be fairly assimilative (<–made up that word.) and hard working. They have the largest median income in this country, higher than whites. The statistics also show that they have to work harder than whites to achieve that median. Now, that culture is associated with education and hard work. It's a racist stereotype associated with Asian Culture. Black culture had it rough because "they didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth rock landed on them." Their culture basically had to start from scratch in this country not only from the economic and social bottom of the barrel, but in a world where people had genuine hatred and contempt for them. So understandably there was a little resentment. Seriously, you don't think that's true? Also, thank you anonymous.

      • Alex Buck says:

        *Obviously, there are many different Asian cultures.

  9. Janani,

    I don’t understand why you feel the need such to blanket these ideas under such deceptively banal terminology as “hipster anti-racism”, a phrase that, in my eyes, offensively makes use of “whiteness” to justify an incredibly simplistic binary. You fail to define what role(s) people of color play in this dialogue – you set them up as the eternal do-gooders, saintly and noble as they fight against those dastardly “white folks” (a term I’m upset to see you’ve used seriously in this context). Do you understand how alienating these combative attitudes can be? If you’re saying that we should strive for a basic authenticity in our feelings and how we express them, there’s a tactful and accessible way to communicate that – one that doesn’t grossly dehumanize whites.

    For example, I wonder what more tangible, concrete forms of support you wish to see instead of these snaps of solidarity. Why do such gestures of acknowledgment actively upset you? How do you determine that this is merely showy lipservice rather than a gesture rooted in deep sensitivity, and who are you to make such a judgment on another human being’s nature, intentions, and motivations? Do you feel it’s okay to make such a judgment purely because you are a member of an historically-oppressed, disenfranchised minority? I say this as queer South Asian (and so on, and so forth) – this binary between those darned white people who always get it wrong and gloriously oppressed people of color is maddeningly, offensively simplistic.

    – Mayukh

    • esqg says:

      “How do you determine that this is merely showy lipservice rather than a gesture rooted in deep sensitivity”

      Hang on a second, she already said in the article that this phenomenon makes it “difficult for me to discern from whom I can expect real (vs. only performed) allyship”.

      Also, while her critiques were aimed primarily at white people, I don’t see any place in the article where Janani claimed that non-white people are perfect anti-racists, or even where she set herself up as more than an aspiring anti-racist activist.

      • esqg,

        No, you’re right – so in admitting that it’s difficult, Janani has completely negated any relevance her first point even has to this argument, confirming that the initial impulse to doubt is one that’s completely unfounded. For basic argumentative purposes, I don’t see how it’s productive to say something as speculative as, “I doubt that they’re sincere” and then immediately contradict her point. Thanks for calling my attention to that.

        Now, I understand what Janani’s saying, and I agree with it to a measured extent –we’re skirting more substantive dialogue through our timidity, that many want to /appear/ genuine rather than /be/ genuine when it comes to expression of racial sensitivity. To say that this lack of sincerity is purely a symptom of whiteness, though, which has been fashioned into something nefarious and malignant this particular article, shows such a glaring lack of self-awareness regarding the inherent racism of such a conception. Alex Buck is correct when s/he says that “white privilege” is a term that has taken on a meaning far more dangerous than what it was originally intended to communicate, now used as a convenient insult rather than a manner of expressing an implicit state of living/thinking/being that must continually be deconstructed. If you’re white, the article says, the work is never done – even if you snap, a gesture of awareness, it’s never enough. You can try in earnest, but you’ll never be good enough, never know what it’s like to have lived as an [insert signifier after signifier here], and you can’t change that. Tough luck for those white people, right?

        Divorced from this hyper-academic context in which we live, Janani’s basic premise is founded upon an inherently racist conception of whiteness. You can argue that it’s justified (and somehow not racist) because of our country’s complex racial history, but that’s insulting for the very basic reasons Alex Buck has stated above – it agrees with the fundamental premise of racism. Anon, below, has a point when s/he says that this is an incredible product of the ivory tower mentality. On this campus, we have the luxury of academically realizing the pockets of privilege that now suddenly, almost magically, have the power to explain everything that has happened and will happen in our lives – which is patently absurd, and I’m speaking as someone who’s a queer PoC and has owned many lived experiences (though that shouldn’t matter, because anyone’s point of view in an ideal dialogue should be considered and accepted as valid).

        And sure, let’s examine what Janani /has/ said about people of color (which, as I’ve said earlier, is not as appropriately nuanced as it needs to be). She communicates her experiences as a queer activist of color, and without more explicit mention of what other people of color should do in this dialogue beyond herself, she invites us to identify with her clear struggle. She is frustrated, and she wants us to understand that this anger has justifications because of her lived experiences. What she doesn’t do, however, is tell us how people of color may be communicating these sentiments in such a way that is antithetical to understanding. There’s an emphasis on patience and humility primarily for white people; people of color can afford to be angry because they’ve been oppressed. So should we, as people of color like Janani, wallow in our miserable, agonizing frustration until “they” get it right – that the very least we could do beyond being angry is (reluctantly – rather than encouragingly and openly, which is where I think she’s less inviting than she should be) support these efforts?

        There needs to be a thoughtful way in which anger with sociohistorical paradigms is repurposed into encouragement and optimism rather than frustration with stagnation, and a manner in which this is eloquently expressed in service of change. This article has alienated me because I can’t subscribe to this simplistic notion of whiteness. Privilege is more complex than that.


      • esqg says:

        OK fine, nobody else has weighed in for a while.

        First of all, when you say “it’s never enough”, what exactly do you mean? That is, enough for what? When a white person gives “snaps and props”, what should their goal be in doing so? I thought it was about seconding the statement and thus helping convince other people to listen, and/or promising to think about the message.

        But affirming things people of color say to our faces, then watching them struggle to educate the next white person, is not even close to “enough” to make one a good ally (and I say this while being white), and whether affected directly or not, no one can do “enough” anti-racist actions. Of course, allies (white or not) may feel powerless to help most of the time. But for example, white people have the ability to challenge misconceptions of people of color that are brought up behind their backs. I had just such an opportunity today; suffice to say that as another non-black queer person you can read this excellent article and study of misinformation about black people voting for prop 8. And you can, when you choose and are able, use that information to counter NOM’s so-called blacks vs. gays plan.

        I happen to agree with a lot of your points here about anti-racist work and discussion in general. However, I am quite sure that in this case you are projecting animosity against white people where it is not indicated. The talk of “wallowing” is accusatory and as such is not constructive. It’s useful to have articles in the vague “stuff white people do” category, and it’s not too hard to understand that the writers don’t mean it’s about all white people (or even only white people). I admit that since I’m white I sometimes have to read such things twice if my fears get in the way of my comprehension the first time, and I did that for this article. You might consider doing the same before making accusations.

      • When we’re ideally working towards a post-racial society (that’s at least what I’d envision), though, it’s important to treat the concept of “whiteness” with a certain sensitivity and nuance I don’t see here. I understand that Janani refers to a certain breed of privilege when she talks about whiteness here, but I’m tired that this gross generalization, which has a blatantly reverse-racist subtext, is allowed to pass as a justifiable concept in constructive discourses. Generalizing about whiteness this way – it’s too easy a way of assigning logic to our nation’s much more complex history of socioeconomic and racial oppression. The use of “white”, the word itself, to stand in for this specific kind of privilege – that is racist at its core, and I won’t budge from feeling that way. We need to reevaluate the way in which we use this phrase (white privilege) or just find another phrase with the same meaning altogether, because so freely appropriating the word “white” to fit our tidy way of suddenly understanding this country’s history is, to me, wrong.

        (On another note, I think that anyone telling readers that Janani refers to a very specific kind of whiteness when she refers to “white people” is symptomatic of privilege itself – that we need to be in this very specific academic environment, equipped with prior and exclusive knowledge of this specific definition, to so freely use the term “white”. Yes, limitations of language, etc, but take a step outside this campus, outside your non-profit, and I’d be surprised if any audiences reading this didn’t find this at least a bit unacceptable.)

        Thanks for the links, though – you’re right, we do agree on some fundamental points, and I don’t think it’s productive to continue acknowledging that we’re clearly, ideologically at odds with each other on this central one.

    • Anonymous says:

      Absolutely true. And it’s about time someone spoke up and started checking all of the unsubstantiated, offensive, ivory tower nonsense that gets posted on this blog. It is constantly just a bunch of self-righteous so-called activists musing about their thoughts on oppression and making empty, ridiculous claims with absolutely no substance to back them up, then patting each other on the back for it, and sharing it on each others’ Facebooks as though it is all so impressive. It’s ridiculous. And it needs to be challenged. But you love to silence challengers or personally attack them. You guys aren’t the only minorities (or minorities within minorities), you aren’t the only people that are allowed to speak about this. In fact, you have a ton of privilege just by being Stanford students, and you are not doing a damn thing to help the actually oppressed individuals out there in the real world by sitting here in this bubble whining and complaining about all of the evil, privileged white people holding you down as though you yourselves are so gosh darn perfect. In fact, it’s literally shameful how much you guys capitalize on this stuff. You aren’t genuinely helping people. You’re standing around white plaza with megaphones and writing poems and articles and patting each other on the back and just glorifying your own careers. No one speaks up against you, and when someone does, then in response, rather then addressing what they’ve actually said, you tell them that they’re privileged bigots who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about (which is false; Mayukh is a minority, so are many who agree with him, not that you should have to be a minority to talk about these issues). Hope you’re having fun with your intellectual masturbation circles, good luck actually persuading people and enacting tangible change in the real world once you’re out of Stanford, when all you can do is whine without articulating even a shard of substance behind any of it.

      • student says:

        ^^ thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I’m a queer person and I’m so tired of these people supposedly speaking on my behalf and all they really do is make it more difficult for me and other queer people to befriend non-queers and have genuine conversations that don’t have advanced sociology as a prerequisite. Your critique is 100% accurate.

      • esqg says:

        To “student”: Have you heard of “Safe and Open Spaces at Stanford” (SOSAS)? It’s a program that’s all about outreach to non-queer people so that they have an easier time befriending queer students. We could use volunteers like you, if you want to help start genuine conversations with no prerequisites. It’s easy to get involved and there are no specific commitments, just sign up for a panel when you can. In fact, a lot of “these people” (the ones I think you’re referring to) volunteer at those panels. Look it up, or email lgbtsosas@stanford.edu .

        Of course, if you prefer to put queer activists down because you imagine we’re the ones causing you to be silenced, that’s your choice. We’ll try to stick around for you to point at us and say “I’m better than those loud queers”, because that’s the only way to win, right? (The same pattern occurs around anti-racist activism, so I hope this is not that far off topic.)

        In all seriousness I don’t know about you or who you are, but that behavior often comes from people who are afraid, and perhaps engaging with SOSAS would help with that.

  10. Bianca Leigh says:

    “They’re allies who have helped me understand that dismantling racism is a process not a state, that we all have more learning to do, and that listening and humility are probably more important than the supposed radicalism of our politics.”

    Yes. Racism is in the air we breathe, we all need to detox/check ourselves regularly.

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