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Trayvon Martin, Kony 2012, L.A. riots -- and now 'hipster racism'

May 01, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • The impetus for the latest discussion regarding "hipster racism" came from remarks tweeted by a writer for the new HBO show "Girls."
The impetus for the latest discussion regarding "hipster racism"… (HBO )

The Trayvon Martin case, the"Kony 2012" phenomenon, the L.A. riots anniversary.... The conversation about race in America never went away. Now a new discussion about so-called hipster racism has brought the talk to the millennials, and it's gotten a little awkward.

Among the questions: Is hipster racism real? Is it any different from more traditional racism? Or is all this talk just the byproduct of a generation that barely remembers Rodney King and O.J. Simpson and has no idea how to talk about race?

"When did acknowledging that other cultures are different than yours become racism?" Kellen Powell wrote at Street Carnage on Monday, home to some of the most contentious criticism happening over the last couple weeks on edgier millennial-aimed outlets. Powell added, "I’m from Vancouver BC, where we don’t have black people."

Conversations about race typically have starker beginnings than this one.

The 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots prompted soul-searching about whether the black community is better off economically than it was two decades ago. The phenomenal popularity of Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" video stirred a backlash against what some dubbed the "White Savior Industrial Complex." And the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida touched off nationwide protests against bias.

But for America's mostly liberal, cosmopolitan-minded and frequently jobless millennials, the impetus for the latest wave of discussion came from a few hiccups over the new HBO show "Girls," the brainchild of 25-year-old Lena Dunham, who is white.

Critics pounded on the show for featuring only one African American in its opening episode: a homeless man shouting at Dunham's self-absorbed main character. Dunham acknowledged the criticism, but controversy accelerated when a "Girls" writer, Lesley Arfin, tweeted (and quickly deleted), "What really bothered me most about [the movie] Precious was that there was no representation of ME."

"There's been a lot of pressure on 'Girls' to be the voice of a generation — or 'a voice of a generation,' as Dunham's character Hannah puts it in the first episode," wrote Max Read in an unusually nuanced post on the usually sputtery Gawker. "Its writers certainly seem to have captured my generation's awkwardness about race."

Read's post was widely read. Even more readers devoured Liddy West's "Complete Guide to 'Hipster Racism'" (on sister Gawker Media site Jezebel), a phenomenon she called "the domain of educated, middle-class white people (like me -- to be clear, I am one of those) who believe that not wanting to be racist makes it okay for them to be totally racist." Posted Thursday, the link continues to circulate with nods of agreement among many Twitter users who are black.

So what is "hipster racism"? West identifies it with catchphrases like "#whitepeopleproblems," ironic use of the N-word, Urban Outfitters' "Navajo Hipster Panties" and "Stuff White People Like."  

Pointing to millennial phenomena like "Blackface Jesus" and "Kill Whitey" parties, Gawker's Read says "'hipster racism' acts like a behavioral flannel jacket or a trucker cap, a rejection of perceived upper-middle-class values, still wrapped in enough layers of irony to create a distance from the mythical rednecks or hillbillies it's thought to be emulating." (Others have accused Gawker Media of its own hipster racism.

If all this sounds insular and obscure, that's because it is -- think Brooklyn or Logan Square in Chicago -- except to the black or Asian or Native American millennials who find themselves on the other side of a race gap that never really disappeared after their parents grew up.

"When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common," wrote Cord Jefferson, a senior editor for L.A.-based Good magazine, who frequently writes about race. "When they look at us, they see strangers."

"At the core of every statement defending the whiteness of ‘Girls,’ and the ‘ironically’ racist jokes that accompany it, is the argument that 'only bad people are susceptible to racism, so therefore it’s okay for us good people to pretend to be racist, for comedy’s sake,' " Channing Kennedy wrote at ColorLines, adding, "There’s a bunch wrong with this argument, both in terms of logic and basic decency."

The conversation is fresh, but the topic is already old. Racialicious called hipster racism a "trend" as far back as 2005, and others see an ancestor to hipster racism in the rebellious and supposedly enlightened punk-rock scene of the '70s and '80s, which featured ironic swastikas and jackboots meant to roil the establishment but which also made nonwhite scenesters uncomfortable.

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