There’s been a lot of talk these last couple of weeks about “hipster racism” or “ironic racism”—or, as I like to call it, racism. It’s, you know, introducing your black friend as “my black friend”—as a joke!!!—to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your black friend’s blackness. It’s the gentler, more clueless, and more insidious cousin of a hick in a hood; 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. “But I went to college — I can’t be racist!” Turns out, you can.
People benefit from racism—hell, I benefit from it every day—and things that benefit powerful people don’t just suddenly get “fixed” and disappear because Halle Berry won an Oscar or whatever. Modern racism lives in entrenched de facto inequalities, in coded language about “work ethic” and “states’ rights,” in silent negative spaces like absence and invisibility, and in Newt Gingrich’s hair. And in irony.
When people are trying to be sensitive about race but they don’t know what to say, they usually go with, “Well, race is a complicated issue.” Except, no, it’s not. Race is one of the least complicated issues that there is, because it’s made up. It’s arbitrary. It’s as complicated as goddamn Santa Claus. Oh, that guy’s mom was half-black, which makes his skin slightly more pigmented than mine, which therefore means that he’s inherently 12.5% lazier than me? Science! Um, no. What’s actually complicated is our country’s relationship with race, and our utter ineptitude at talking about it. We suck. I mean, I work on it every day, and I’m still a total fuck-up. But this new scheme someone came up with—where we prove we’re not racist by acting as casually racist as possible? Not our best, white people. Not our best.
Racism is like a wily little bacterium. It doesn’t just roll over and die once we swallow our antibiotics—it mutates and evolves and hides itself in plain sight, and then all of a sudden, fuck, my arm fell off. Dickhead bacteria. (Sidenote: arm for sale!)
A long time ago (not really!), it was socially acceptable to own people. Then it wasn’t, but it was socially acceptable to murder people if they looked at your wife. Then it wasn’t! Yay! But it was still okay to say that people whose skin color you didn’t like weren’t allowed to be around you. And so on. Eventually we arrived at the point (now) where it’s socially unacceptable in mainstream culture for white people to say denigrating things about people of other races. But just because the behavior has been suppressed, that doesn’t mean people’s prejudices have simply disappeared. And white people haaaaaate being told what to do in our own country (fun fact: not actually “ours”)!
So racism went underground. Sure, you can’t say racist things anymore, but you can pretend to say them! Which, it turns out, is pretty much the exact same thing. There are a couple of strains of “ironic racism” making the rounds right now, and a couple of typical defenses.
1. “Tee-Hee, Aren’t I Adorable?”
This category includes things like wide-eyed acoustic covers of hip-hop songs, suburban white girls flashing gang signs, and this Tweet from Zooey Deschanel: “Haha. 🙂 RT @Sarabareilles: Home from tour and first things first: New Girl episodes I missed. #thuglife.” See, it’s hilarious, because we aren’t thugs—we are darling girls, and real thugs are black people who do crime! Oh, hey, can I call you back? I need to sew more ric-rac on my apron. I hope a black person didn’t get into my ric-rac Kaboodle and steal all of it! JK, LOL. RIP, Whitney.
(Now, I’m obv not saying that Zooey Deschanel is some terrible racist. I don’t know her, although I did sit next to her at a restaurant once, and she ordered “olives.” She seemed lovely, and she didn’t call anyone the n-word for the entire meal. But I’m saying that we are all kind of bizarrely cavalier and careless these days, throwing our most deeply-considered morals under the bus for the sake of a few cheap jokes. It’s weird, and we owe the world a little more critical thinking.)
2. “Recreational Slumming.”
Wherein privileged people descend for a visit inside the strange, foreign spaces of othered groups. Like, I don’t know, IHOP. Or that “scary” bar in the south end. Then they go home again. Catchphrase: “It’s soooooo ghetto, but I actually totally like it!”
3. “Ummm, I’m a Writer and I’m Trying to Write in Here!”
This is Lesley Arfin crowing about the majestic power of the n-word, and white kids whining that it’s “unfair” that black people “get” to use “it”. You know, because words are powerful and words are Arfin’s craft and would you take the color red away from the best painter on Twitter??? And besides, don’t you just find Arfin to be so RAW and DELICIOUSLY NAUGHTY? It’s all tied up with the deliberately obtuse people who conflate “freedom of speech” with “immunity from criticism.” You “can” say the n-word. Go ahead and say it if you want, Skrillex. And I will go ahead and give you the world’s most sidewaysiest eyeball forever. Because it hurts people. Why do you want to hurt people?
4. “God, Don’t White People Suck?”
Okay, I get what you’re trying to do here—having some fun at the expense of the oppressors while setting yourself up as one of the “cool” white people—but mainly what you end up doing is implying that black people don’t like informative radio or TED talks. Stuff White People Like: having the best brains! Isn’t it great that we can make fun of ourselves while still reminding you that we’re better than you?
And the thing is, when these things get called out, there really is no defense. But they try:
“No, don’t you see? I’m just showing how I’m so down with [minority group] that it’s totally cool for me to make jokes at their expense. Because we are just that kind of tight bros now.”
No. You cannot unlock some secret double-not-racist achievement by just being regular racist. Otherwise Bill O’Reilly would be president of the NAACP.
“But it’s a JOOOOOKE.”
Here’s the thing about jokes. They only work when they’re aiming up. I wrote this in another piece recently, but I’m just going to plagiarize myself: People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That’s why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor (“Isn’t it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I’m talking about!” [points to other janitor]). Because that would be GROSS, and both janitors would have to work late to clean up everyone’s barf. Open-mic comedians, I know you think you’re part of some fresh vanguard in alternative comedy who just discovered that a lot of black ladies don’t like it when you touch their hair, but pleeeeeeease just stick to stuff about how your stupid girlfriend is a bitch. (Just kidding. Please never speak again.)
“So I’m not allowed to have a genuine interest in another culture?!!?!??!”
First of all, privileged dickweeds wearing Urban Outfitters “Navajo” panties, I didn’t realize that you excavated those in your anthropological field work. My bad. Carry on. And second of all, again, you “can” do whatever the fuck you want. You “can” wear whatever you want, say whatever you want, and think whatever you want about whatever you want. All the time! Yaaay! But if a group of people comes to you and says, “This thing that you are doing is hurting us,” and you keep doing it for fun, then you are a dickweed! Like, you know we had an actual genocide here, right? A deliberate extermination of human beings? Right where your house is? So maybe just err on the side of sensitivity.
“Yeah, but we have a black president! Isn’t racism over?”
Okay. That’s probably the most racist thing you’ve said all day, imaginary amalgam of all the careless hipsters in the world. You know how you can tell that black people are still oppressed? Because black people are still oppressed. If you claim that you are not a racist person (or, at least, that you’re committed to working your ass off not to be one—which is really the best that any of us can promise), then you must believe that people are fundamentally born equal. So if that’s true, then in a vacuum, factors like skin color should have no effect on anyone’s success. Right? And therefore, if you really believe that all people are created equal, then when you see that drastic racial inequalities exist in the real world, the only thing that you could possibly conclude is that some external force is holding certain people back. Like…racism. Right? So congratulations! You believe in racism! Unless you don’t actually think that people are born equal. And if you don’t believe that people are born equal, then you’re a fucking racist.
But you know what? At least that’s sincere. And at least sincere racism isn’t running around Brooklyn wearing artisanal suspenders and masquerading as enlightenment. Give me sincere racism or give me no racism at all, but enough with this weaselly shit.