Fashionable Bigotry 101 – A Crash Course on Hipster Racism

(Andrew Lindsay)– “Wong Brothers Laundry Service—Two Wongs Can Make It White” and “Wok-N-Bowl—Let the Good Times Roll—Chinese Food & Bowling.” were a couple of T-shirts that were released and dramatically recalled by Abercrombie & Fitch a decade ago. Years later, Urban Outfitters had a similar scandal when they carried an “ironic” form of monopoly called Ghettopoly “which rewards players for building crack houses and pimpin’ hoes” on the premise that because of the numerous ethnic groups depicted in the game, it isn’t racist. “Ironically” mispronouncing l’s as r’s to your Asian friends or introducing your black friends as “your black friends” for jokes, as blogger Lindy West notes, to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your “colored” friend’s “coloredness”, is becoming part and parcel of the lifestyle of the young, privileged and progressive. Hipster racism, ironic “racism” or as I like to call it, plain old racism, is quickly emerging as the newest manifestation of palatable racism among educated elites in the US.

As an Afro-Jamaican male, the first thing that my parents warned me about before coming to Amherst College wasn’t illegal drugs, the rigorous academic environment or even the often immobilizing winters that plague the North-East, but the perils of simply being a black man in the United States. Although both of my parents currently live in Jamaica, their colorful experiences in the US with overt racism rightfully scared the living shit out of them. My mother recounts the story of me as toddler somehow getting lost in a South Florida grocery store and her subsequently overhearing the store employee who ultimately found me, describe me as a “little monkey”. Or my father, who like myself was also fortunate enough to study in the United States, but at Yale, was subject to frequent disrespect by students and professors alike despite the progressive reputation of the school in the 1970’s. My eldest sister (Class of ’92) paints a similar portrait during her time at Amherst College during the late 80’s and early 90’s as a woman of color. However, despite their cautionary tales about this country and its people, in my nearly two years here, I have not experienced an instance of overt racism. On the other hand, my experience with racism at Amherst is masked by “irony”, “sarcasm” and “comedy”. When I think back on the times I’ve been most offended on this campus I reflect on the saddening frequency of off-color jokes that have come my way. From fried chicken to watermelon, I’ve gotten them all—of course, only in the context of “irony”. My national identity is also subject to similar fashionable bigotry. Dance and track stereotypes, and the movie Cool Runnings, generally comprise the subject matter for these non-jokes.

In my opinion, racism at Amherst College is manifested in two main ways: institutionalized racism and ironic racism. Institutionalized Racism is the process of purposeful or in many cases, inadvertent discrimination against certain minority groups through biased attitudes, rules or practices. In my experience this type of discrimination is so subtle that both its existence and impact often go unnoticed. A prominent example of this at Amherst is the student body and administrative ambivalence that left the Multicultural Resource Center in the basement for years. Ironic racism on the other hand is manifested in more overt ways, in many cases so overtly, that its effects are hidden in plain sight. Ironic racism at Amherst is frequently displayed by making a joke using a racist archetype that is supposed to be witty and modern, but actually supports racism by dehumanizing a particular race for a laugh.

Remember the “satirical” Autoclave Poster sponsored by the Biology department until last academic year. The poster, entitled “A gift from Lord Jeffrey Amherst,” depicts Lord Jeffery offering a pile of blankets to an American Indian man donned in leather and fringe, with feathers attached to a headpiece. An American Indian woman and child are in the background and a baby is strapped to a cradleboard. The caption reads, “Thank you. Have these been autoclaved?” Jeffery Amherst is known by numerous historical accounts as a pioneer in biological warfare. He is accredited with requesting that smallpox-infected blankets be sent to the American Indians, starting the epidemic among them. Apparently the Biology department was unaware of how insulting their lighthearted reference to genocide was until Danielle Trevino ‘14, Choctaw, sent a biting letter to the biology department, calling the poster “truly hurtful and alienating.”

In March that year, Amherst student publication, “The Indicator,” published another such “satirical” cartoon depicting the campus housing shortage. The cartoon showed three tipis in a clearing, along with the caption, “Housing Crisis Solution: Lord Jeff Approved.” This is an excerpt from a letter written by two students at the University of Massachusetts expressing outrage at the image.

Recently, your school news journal, The Indicator (Volume XXXIII, Issue 2, page 19), ran a cartoon depicting the “Lord Jeff approved” housing solution in the form of tipis. We find this incredibly insensitive, and ultimately, racist. Let us be clear, the person who drew the cartoon (Tricia Lipton), the editors who approved it (Nadirah Porter-Kasbati and Laurence Pevsner), and the student body, faculty, and staff of Amherst College who subsequently read it and perhaps even laughed are not necessarily racists. They have, however, participated in racist behavior, unintentionally or not.

The letter went on to state that the image was racist because it promotes stereotypes by inaccurately depicting American Indian housing as substandard to European housing; appropriates a cultural object of many Native American tribes and makes it the butt of a joke, referencing Lord Jeffery’s smallpox genocide.

This type of “comedy” is becoming increasingly socially acceptable because of the prominence of the “hipster” culture. Rachel Fudge suggests that “hipster misidentified irony” is the cause, where many liberals have a “nothing should be taken seriously” attitude while demanding protection from condemnation because “they’re being, you know, ironic”; the same justification that allows a joke comparing defecation to “taking Obama to the White House”. OMG you get it right? It’s “funny” because the president has brown skin, and brown is the color of shit. Yay. The Amherst College hipster attempts to mediate a lack of meaningful individuality by continuously searching for the anti-mainstream. Whether it be appropriating Aztec and Native American patterns and clothing or posting the newest “racist” memes on Reddit or 4chan ironically on Facebook, the Amherst College hipster is a “walking citation” that uses irony as the main way to cope with daily life. Wampole notes that almost every manifestation of contemporary existence (advertising, politics, fashion, television, social media) reveals this “will to irony”.

These individuals are self-professed post-racial, with supposedly enough education to simply be above racism. They are so post-racial in fact, that they have complete license to say extraordinarily offensive things in a normalized way. Commenting on the fact that Hispanic heritage month starts on September 15th, a sombrero clad Stephen Colbert “joked” that “Yes, even their heritage month jumps a border”. There was no controversy over that statement because he was making fun of the “real” racists at FOX News. But whether the racist or the “racist” is using them, these “jokes” only become funny because of the normalization of racial stereotypes. Joking about racism in this way does nothing to improve the condition of the marginalized subject of the joke. Often, it further alienates and dehumanizes.

Ironic living is seemingly unassailable. It makes fun of itself, recognizing its inability to produce anything useful, while enticing others to laugh at it. No attack can be successfully launched against it because surmounts itself. It allows the perpetrator to avoid personal responsibility while hiding in public. “I have plenty of black friends who are cool with me saying the N-Word—so when I use the N-Word to say a joke, you know I don’t mean it in a bad way” or as HBO’s Girls writer Lesley Arfin unapologetically puts it, “’Nigger’ is a great word. It just packs so much punch. The two g’s next to each other are like literal two G’s, broin’ out, tough as nails, them against the world”. Through fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic bigotry reflects a culture of ambivalence and submission that often surrounds the overt bigotry on our campus (see the racial and homophobic epithets of this year).

For every protest against hipster bigotry comes a defensive yet beleaguered response of, “It’s just a joke, stop being so sensitive”. These comments come from white and minority bigots alike. Another generic response is, “Why do they take everything so seriously?” A thin line separates comedy and tragedy in these contexts. “Ironic” bigots need to ask themselves the following questions moving forward. What exactly is being laughed at through these jokes? Why are they being said in the first place? Is it an attempt to claim a contemporary political discourse? If that’s the case, then why has it emerged in this form? In the context of race, just because overt racism has decreased in comparison to our parents’ generation doesn’t mean that racism has ended. It survives in more benign forms, like ironic racism and institutional racism. Whether or not the hipster racist wholeheartedly believes in his comedy is beside the point. What makes the hipster “racist” a racist is the awareness that they know better but choose not to care.

Undoubtedly satire pre-Generation Y often provided meaningful political outlets for unsaid societal tensions. But what makes fashionable bigotry different is the fact that the “satire” of our generation has left the political domain and spread into life itself. For most of us who indulge in that mode of existence, life has become “an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition)” (Wampole, 2012). Millennial satirical racism and bigotry often dehumanizes its subjects just as much as the commentary from the intentional racist or bigot.

Another question that should be raised as we appraise ourselves for such unintentional bigotry is “What’s the aim?” How much usefulness is derived from unintentional racism and bigotry? In my opinion that’s the factor that separates “Chappelle Show” and “The Boondocks” from the racist jokes about people of color that pervades our campus and larger society. For the unintentional racist, what does pointing out a racist trope accomplish? Pointing out stereotypes like Black men committing crime, Asians getting good grades or Jewish people being stingy provides no other commentary besides “LOOK HERE, RACISM” and does nothing for the racial group besides further propagating misinformation. To the ironic racist, I leave a quote from Lindy West, “You cannot unlock some secret double-not-racist achievement just by being a regular racist. Otherwise Bill O’Reilly would be president of the NAACP.”