It Was Never Just About Race

From the 2012 Brave New Voices Competition.

Article by Sean Callaghan

Before I say why I love this spoken word performance, let me put this in context.  It seems like I’ve been reading and writing a great deal about race in the last little while.  My article on Quentin Tarantino’s new flic Django Unchained came to be thanks to charges of racial insensitivity made public by director Spike Lee.  I wrote a review for The Toronto Review of Books‘ blog Chirograph dealing with charges of racism against Wachowski Starship for the liberal and egregious use of facial prosthetics in their magnificent film Cloud Atlas.  In each case, I tried to push passed the identity politics rhetoric that had emerged around these events.  I did this, not because I think racial insensitivity or issues concerning identity aren’t important.  I did this, because debates on race, gender, or sexual orientation always seem to devolve into a kind of finger-pointing back and forth that ultimately effaces the more fundamental political and economic stakes underpinning the issues being debated.

I then found the above video posted to FB by a colleague, saw it titled as “hipster racism,” and thought to myself, “oh no, here we go again.”  The colleague who posted it, however, is usually fairly discerning about these kinds of things, so I thought I would give it a go.  What I discovered was something altogether different from what I expected.  Instead of the usual reverse racism that normally informs rants against categorically determined racist types, I discovered a much sharper critique that went to the heart of the problem.

What people forget, and what these two young women so brilliantly remind us of, is that issues around identity are never about some amorphous right to assert oneself as (insert identifier here).  This is just an ideological trick used to contain the argument so we don’t focus our attention on what is truly at stake.  To put it plainly, and I don’t think these two women could have made it any plainer, racism and prejudice are about power and class.

These young women target hipsters in their poetic rant, but a hipster of a very particular type.  Theirs is a hipster that wears race like it was a cool brand.  Yet, they don’t find this hipster’s ironic use of racial slurs and liberal consumption of racialized culture racist per se.  Neither do they seem to care about the color of the hipster, except when that hipster tries to use whiteness as an act of disavowal.  This is not a case of reverse racism – because the hipster is not a race.  The hipster is code for the behaviors and “mores” (or absence thereof) of a particular class of people.  This is obvious in the video from the get-go.  The two women begin:

“Your horn-rimmed glasses, sweater hoodies, vintage leather oxfords, authentic woven Guatemalan book bags, and your crafty hand-made wooden iphone cases tell me that you’re none other than a self-affirming, self-satisfied, self-righteous douche.”

We know the hipster not by his or her racial identifiers, but by a particular code of consumption.  They are the mean generation from Greenberg Mark points to in his Manifesto.  They’re from well-to-do families and so can afford the faux-nihilism with which they brand themselves – that nihilism bred off a kind of consumption that tries to hide itself by paradoxically making itself overly conspicuous.  Their economic power affords them the luxury of being green, buying fair trade, and wearing nothing but hand-crafted authenticity.  Meanwhile, they know all the right things to do and say in the age of cultural “tolerance.”  They have “black friends,” listen to “A Tribe called Quest,” and then get indignant if you even try to suggest that all of this is just simpering hypocrisy. As the two young women make clear, though, this is nothing but simpering hypocrisy.  Why?  Because while the hipster is performing cultural open-ness as an act of disinterested irony, his money buys the privilege to disavow the real misery suffered by those who have always been the first to be sacrificed in times of austerity (as well as in times of growth) – the racial others, the non-heteronormative, the underprivileged classes.

Racial politics has its roots in colonialism and the slave trade, and these were fueled by economic rationalisms that measured a person’s worth based on their proximity to the European center (a center, if we follow World Systems Theory, and Edward Said, that made itself the center precisely as effect of immiseration and racialization).  After the colonial project started to unwind, the civil rights movement tried to right its wrongs through empowerment, but the economic determinants that were now hard-wired into the very organization of bodies on the ground allowed the blame for economic disparity to bury itself in rhetoric about the freedom of the market.  Space was treated as flat and even – it didn’t matter where you lived, or who you were, everyone had an equal chance at getting ahead.   Of course, anyone who has ever lived in a lower or even middle income neighborhood knows what a big fat lie this is.   But it’s a convenient lie, because in order to explain why space is not even, and how the architecture of a city creates its own disparities, one would require more than what a sound bite on CNN will allow.  Hurricane Katrina and its tragedies gave us a window into that logic of space, but this window quickly and mysteriously closed once the news cycle moved on.

Things have not improved.  In the wake of 2008 and the rise of “austerity” rhetoric there are fewer and fewer protections for the underprivileged.  Meanwhile, the ideology of the free market keeps getting stronger and stronger.  In the neo-liberal/tea-party world the logic is clear – “if you’re poor, its your own fault.  It’s got nothing to do with race, or gender, or identity, because we’re all part of the globalized community, after all.  You could be rich too, if only you weren’t so lazy!”

What these two women remind us is that the economic disparities that were the starting point of racial politics are still very much with us today.  Almost blatantly so.  Meanwhile, the new figure of their disavowal is none other than the hipster.  His hypocrisy is the hypocrisy of the privileged few who can afford not to care, and then make us feel un-hip for caring too much.  His hypocrisy is a new brand of nihilism that hides its viciousness in feigned disinterest.  You want to see how disinterested a hipster really is?  I suggest you try and take away his vintage leather oxfords, authentic woven Guatemalan book bag, and crafty hand-made wooden i-phone case.  Just try it.

Watching these two young women voice their frustration with such clarity of vision, I can’t help but feel a certain degree of hope.  Young as they are, they saw their way clear of the traps that normally turn identity politics into little more than a distraction, and brought us back to an awareness that fueled much of the civil rights movement – that racism was never just about race.  It was about exploitation and oppression, and the need to resist the insistent attempts to mask exploitation through ideological rationales.  Consumer nihilism is just the newest version.  It was about tearing at the roots of  economic disparity and turning the world upside down to right itself if that’s what was needed.  It was about, in a word, change.

And that is why I love this video.

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