There were two pieces published on the internet last week on the subject of race that I think are worth revisiting. One of them pointed out some very important problems about the way we talk about race and sparked a number of productive conversations for me over the weekend; the other was so pernicious and facile as to prove fundamentally destructive to our ability to have a meaningful discussion about race.
The twist is that they were both the same piece: Lindy West’s “hipster racism” scold on Jezebel.
Now as background for those who haven’t obsessively followed the internet over the past few weeks: There once was a TV show called ‘Girls.’ That TV show was both blessed and cursed by just about the highest hopes and expectations any TV show has ever known, primarily due to it being a smart show written by a smart woman featuring a predominantly female cast. [And as further background for those who don’t obsessively follow The Rest Of The World As We Know It: There is a devastatingly dire shortage of television that hasn’t been written, programmed and cast by a predominantly all-white, all-male, highly exclusive subset of this much bigger thing we like to call “society,” a subset that has remained as entrenched as it is largely due to rampant nepotism in the field but also largely due to serious structural issues in American society centered around things like race, gender and sexual orientation. This phenomenon has rightly been called, by many, a problem.]
So in short: ‘Girls’ was doomed from the start to never live up to the sky-high expectations that a months-long media campaign heaped upon it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great! Because it is, it certainly is. It’s smart, it’s funny, and I think most importantly, as Molly Lambert put it, it “makes us squirm, and that’s good. We all need to squirm.”
And for sure, people squirmed. Jenna Wortham wrote a stunning piece for The Hairpin about how it felt to be a non-white viewer of the exceedingly white ‘Girls’; then in very short order the internet did what it does so well and people started to squirm about the squirming, which Willa Paskin of Salon addressed in a single tweet that has stuck in my head ever since: “You can love something and criticize it. This is the basis of our profession, no?” (Yes, Willa, a thousand yesses.); and then everything pretty much went off the rails when ‘Girls’ writer Lesley Arfin responded to what I should probably remind the reader for a second time in the span of a very short paragraph was a very thoughtful and careful analysis of a shared cultural object by tweeting something that was just about the most thoughtless and careless response imaginable.
Curiously, the moment at which someone who actually represents ‘Girls’ in a professional capacity weighed in on the subject was precisely the moment when we more or less stopped talking about ‘Girls,’ because now we were talking about race. Which is a good thing! Because in the last week or so we’ve seen some tremendous writing come out of all this (see Friday night’s post from Cord Jefferson for a great example).
But then there was West’s piece.
When it first dropped I read it the same way I read anything else on the internet—quickly and probably a little too carelessly—scanned it for its major themes and points and nodded and mmhmm’d and oh-well-that-part’s-dumb-but-the-rest-of-it’s-ok’d and that was that.
It was only later, come Friday night, that I started to feel really uneasy about it, because Friday night is the time when I like to Get As Far Away From The Computer As Humanly Possible and let the violent floodwaters of a week’s worth of the internet noise machine finally subside, and I do this thing where I go and take a reconnaissance lap through my brain (wine helps here) (oh and I should point out that in this scenario my brain looks a lot like the L.A. aqueduct in those scenes from ‘Terminator 2’) and anyway I walk around and do a quick mental inventory of whatever detritus hasn’t already been swept away by the current, and sure as shit there was West’s piece, sitting there like a rusted out Pontiac covered in tumbleweeds, except that in the time between when it had been deposited there and when I found it again someone had come along and spray-painted across its hood the words “Hi! I am that thing you read the other day, and now you will spend the rest of your weekend dwelling over why I am an enormous fucking problem. Enjoy!”
And in any event it actually turned out to be not one but two enormous fucking problems.
First: it made a lot of really really good points! But then it also made a number of just abjectly bad ones. But worse than the bad points was the medium, the canned outrage, the “racist!” accusation as blunt weapon. Like here:
This category [of “ironic racism”] 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!
See, there’s a big problem with on the one hand raising thoughtful and relevant points and then on the other turning the matter of racial sensitivity into some kind of competitive sport, as if one must claim a requisite number of scalps in order to support an argument. [Sidenote: people who self-identify as white, educated, coastal elites—as West and I both do—would do well to content ourselves with simply having a conversation about this stuff, not engaging in any of this you’re-a-racist-and-you’re-a-racist one-upmanship.]
Because when you do that you end up condemning people for being racists and then turning around and proving how good you are at spotting racists by calling-but-not-really-calling Zooey Deschanel a racist for retweeting someone else’s tweet that used the word ‘thuglife’ and attributing that word to Zooey Deschanel. (Also, the assertion that hip-hop culture is one-and-the-same with black culture is another matter for another 2,000-word blog post.)
Or else you end up raising the very valid point that jokes about “stuff white people like” are as offensive as they are annoying—since they necessarily imply that non-whites are cordoned off in their own part of the world that isn’t allowed to partake of books and culture and Apple products and whatever else it is that only white people like—and then turning around and saying words like “not our best, white people.” (Haha, WHITE PEOPLE!! Am I right?!)
And then you really find your rhythm and you’re getting so good at calling people racists that now it just comes totally naturally to you and you can just indict every last one of those bastards without even thinking about it anymore that’s how good you’ve gotten at it—and I mean that Lindy, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and just assume your brain had momentarily switched off when you said this:
Wherein privileged people descend for a visit inside the strange, foreign spaces of othered groups. Like, I don’t know, IHOP.
Because then you end up muddying the really complicated issues of race and class and finishing it with a pinch of unabashed cultural elitism—before you end up suggesting that IHOP is for black people.
And there’s the rub: A piece that started out faulting white people for being so eager to prove they’re not racist by actually being totally racist ended with a white person being so eager to call so many different things racist that by the time the dust had settled it was impossible to tell the racists from the racists.
And it’s a tactic that is both stifling and hostile to honest conversation, since how many people are going to publicly disagree with someone who has just demonstrated her willingness to be so cavalier with accusations of racism?
Which brings us to Enormous Fucking Problem Number Two: what we talk about when we talk about race.
As West pointed out, white people aren’t historically all that good at talking about race. As West then went on to demonstrate, we still aren’t all that good at talking about it, either.
And on this charge I’m just as guilty! Case in point: when I first read that piece it pushed all the buttons and assuaged all the fears and reinforced all the self-assurances that I’m totally vulnerable to having pushed and assuaged and reinforced every once in a while, because even though I’m a person who tries very hard to do the right thing I’m also a weak human being who’s unfortunately all too receptive to being told “Hey! You’re not as horrible as all these other jerks!!” (That West’s piece also came on the heels of so much other thoughtful criticism and seemed to sound all the right notes probably went a great way towards blinding me to its fundamental insidiousness.)
But West’s scold is entirely the wrong way to go about this matter, since it affords the reader an opportunity to congratulate him- or herself for having never been a sorority girl who flashed a gang sign in a party picture—which isn’t to congratulate that person for not being a racist, it’s rather just to congratulate that person for not being obnoxious.
Now, those of us who live and breathe the internet are forced to hone our ability to brush aside whatever pageview-ginning outrage economy bullshit accompanies any given post in order to isolate whatever argumentative scaffolding is propping it up—our brains must be trained to skip over all the fist-shaking just as our eyes have learned not to see all the ads over there in the B-column. But in this instance my bullshit radar got totally jammed. And what of everyone else? How many of that post’s half-million hits and hundred thousand Facebook likes got just as swindled by West’s congratulatory back-patting? Isn’t this issue too important to package up in the internet’s outrage-of-the-moment house style?
When we write like this and talk like this we risk turning the matter of racism into a mere matter of taste, of who’s cool and who’s uncool—and the internet is all too good at doing that. And so we end up conflating racism with Zooey Deschanel—who we so love to pick on—and we end up conflating racism with indie bands—who we also so love to pick on—and we end up conflating racism with “artisanal suspenders”—which, I don’t know what the hell that even means but I’m guessing we love to pick on them, too?
The really problematic, um, irony here, of course, is that bandying about charges of racism so carelessly—a charge that is so uniquely valuable precisely because it’s such a potent weapon against the speech and attitudes that reinforce and propogate our society’s most hateful undercurrents—runs the risk of depriving it of any meaning whatsoever, of defanging it, of rendering it an empty insult that can be casually hurled at whomsoever Lindy West pleases. Much like that other word… hipster.
Two years ago I wrote the following about that utterly meaningless term: “‘Hipster’ has become the de-facto Big Other for culturally conscious urbanites who are too hip for xenophobia but too weak to resist the latent psychological impulse to villainize people based on nothing more than personal whimsy.”
Lindy West’s post on “hipster racism”—which she’s quick to remind us is also known as “ironic racism” or as she likes to call it just plain racism—deploys the word racist in exactly the same way.
Now of course none of this is to say that we should stop saying that word—of course we must keep saying it, we just have to do so with far more care than West does. In a society whose written law protects all manner of thoroughly vile speech our only avenue towards curbing its use is the erection of a moral code with which to shame those who transgress it into being better. Into “not hurting people,” as West says. And the only way we get there is by talking about race, out in the open, candidly and seriously.
But if we let the debate be framed by people like Lindy West who seem to wish to define racism as “things Lindy West finds undesirable” then we’ll just end up arguing about who can and who can’t wear whatever seasonal style Urban Outfitters is peddling at that given moment—in short, who’s got the better taste—and we’ll risk turning a blind eye to what actually matters in all of this: the underlying social structures that prop up and support the institutional racism that continues to destroy lives all across this country and the rest of the world. We end up being able to say with a straight face, as West does, that “race isn’t complicated” or else that “racism went underground,” which as I’ve tried to argue in the past just couldn’t be farther from the truth—because racism is back, and back in a big way.
Which means we’ve all got work to do, since the inconvenient truth of being a part of a social compact is that wherever institutional racism and discrimination exist in our nation we are every last one of us who stand to benefit from it necessarily complicit. And if we’re going to get better as a nation on the subject of race then we’ve got to get better at talking about it. Much, much better than this. Now sometimes that means tackling the issue head-on in thoughtful, well-written pieces like Max Read’s—pieces that will succeed on their own merits—and sometimes that means telling each other when we’re being irresponsible, that maybe we should just stick to getting our pageview bait from celebrity mugshots and cute animals and reserve the subject of race for more sober discussions.
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