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….
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?”.
- 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.