The following video helps me think through this conundrum. It features Jessie Cantrell, of “Black20 News,” talking to people about what the word “hipster” means; almost all of them seem to fit the hipster profile, yet none will admit to being a hipster. So this video brings a question into sharper focus--why is the term “hipster” so thoroughly rejected by the people it seems to fit? I think part of the answer might lie in the largely unexamined racial status of most hipsters, who together form what can be usefully labeled a white youth “movement.”
I find this video annoying in several ways, including some flashes of lazy profanity, but you’ll get more out of this blog post if you watch it:
All of the people interviewed by Jessie seem like hipsters to me, in part because they reject that label. They’re almost all white too. Why are so many hipsters white? And what in particular is white about them, and about what they do?
I hereby offer tentative stabs at some answers.
Like earlier young white folks who ran away from their ordinary backgrounds in distinct, labeled waves, hipsters seem to feel a certain emptiness in the self they’re leaving behind, an emptiness they fill up with adornments from other romanticized, seemingly preferable identities. In the 1950s, for instance, the Beats appropriated the romanticized blackness of jazz, and the supposedly free-spirited wandering of hobos and Mexican migrant workers. The Hippies of the 1960s borrowed from both American and Asian “Indians,” and in the 1980s, many American Punks adopted what they saw as the authentically downtrodden existence of inner-city residents.
Hipsters don’t seem all that interested in direct cultural appropriation across racial lines (aside from the keffiyeh), but the taste many of them have for cheap beer, retro cigarettes, white t-shirts and so on does constitute a reach across a gap in terms of social class, especially for those who come from wealthier backgrounds.
One thing that hipsters also like to adorn themselves with is retro stuff--stuff that used to be cool that they revive and make cool again, like Ray Bans from the Fifties and plaid flannel shirts from the Nineties, all of which they adopt while trying to look like they’re not trying to be cool. In a way, as author Benjamin Nugent sort of points out in the above video, the term “hipster” itself could be considered retro, since it was used back in the Fifties to refer to the Beat Generation.
So it might make sense for today’s young white anti-conformists to embrace the “hipster” label because it’s retro, but again, they resist being categorized that way. And also, it seems, in any other way--they seem to reject the word “retro” too. In their haphazard mixing and sort-of matching from earlier styles, and in their refusal to commit to much of anything collective beyond irony, apathy, and a vaguely anti-consumerist, anti-conformist idealism, they’re staunch individualists. Kinda like those falsely individualized white conformists that many of them like to think they’ve left behind.
Hipsters are often the target of satiric derision, and it’s all too easy to point a condescending finger at the hypocrisy of a claim to individuality that involves looking and acting like other hipsters, living in the same types of urban areas, going to the same parties, and listening to the same kinds of music, mostly performed or DJ-ed by more hipster lookalikes. I think it’s worth spelling out, though, how much that hypocrisy, if that's what it is, resembles a more general white claim to individuality.
In terms of identity, whiteness can be paradoxical; one of the whitest things a white person can do is fail to grasp the significance of their racial group membership. White people don’t normally go as far as “hipsters” do, by flat-out denying that the term “white” applies to them. They do know they’re white, but they rarely think about it, much less understand it. To the extent that they don’t think about it, they remain oblivious about what it means to their own lives, and more to the point, they falsely think of themselves as merely autonomous, free-floating individuals instead. White hipsters probably do have the term “hipster” in mind much of the time, as can be seen by how readily they run away from it. But how often do they have their own whiteness in mind as well?
I wonder, then, if one reason that white folks who pretty much fit the hipster profile refuse to embrace that group membership is because they’ve already been inclined by a largely unconscious training into whiteness toward a falsely individualized sense of themselves. This is not to say that all hipsters are white. It seems likely, though, that those who aren’t white are more often aware of their racial status and all that it means than their fellow white hipsters are of theirs.
So as in previous, more cohesive white youth movements, including Beats, hippies, Punks, Goths, and maybe even flappers, many hipsters are fleeing from their more conventionally white backgrounds toward that which represents the opposite. And since that’s a common thing for white youth to do, they’re still dragging their whiteness along with them as they do so.
However, compared to members of previous youth movements, white hipsters might be even whiter, in that they steadily refuse a group-bound label that others see as clearly suitable for them. If there is such a thing as a hipster “movement,” it’s another, familiar attempt to move away from a more conventional mode of whiteness, and yet, a further movement away as well, from identification with the new group (or “movement”). This further movement further evinces a failure to leave behind a white identity, particularly its illusory inducements toward individualism.
I should also point out that the metaphor of movement, in terms of motion, helps to pinpoint the whiteness of hipsters in one other way as well. From what I’ve gathered, hipsters in urban areas are largely from elsewhere, especially suburban areas. My friend Dave, for instance, moved from a suburb in the Midwest to Brooklyn, where he’s trying to get a career going, on his own terms, with his creative talents.
Dave is white, single, and in his mid-twenties. He has scruffy hair and a tattoo, he wears big sunglasses, and his wardrobe is a studiously casual mix of thrift-store gleanings and American Apparel. He buys the latter reluctantly, because of their sexist advertising and classist labor policies.
It’s no surprise that Dave refuses the label of hipster for himself. He does admit that he’s white, and he says that he’s thought about it, because when he goes into Brooklyn “bodegas,” he usually gets a cold shoulder.
“I see this one Puerto Rican bodega-owner guy almost every day, and I always greet him and so on, but he still acts like he doesn’t recognize me.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know! Maybe he thinks I’m like, just one of the other white people in his neighborhood, invading the place, you know? But I’m not, I’m not a gentrifier! I’m just trying to get by, and I moved to Brooklyn because it was a more affordable place to live.”
“Right. Which is probably why those other young white people moved there. Which is probably increasing the rent in Brooklyn.”
“Right. But no, that’s not right, because I’m not like those other ‘young white people,’ if that’s what you want to call them. I’m not out there partying all the time, living off of mom and dad’s trust fund or whatever, taking a break in life before heading back to where I came from. I’m working hard in New York, trying to get a life going. I’m not like, taking a break from my life.”
We talked some more about his life, but I didn’t tell Dave that I think he’s been acting white in at least two ways. For one thing, he’s resisting a category that seems to fit him well--“hipster”--and for another, he doesn’t think he’s part of a reverse white-flight movement, but he is.
A lot of the people who were living in Brooklyn before he came probably do resent the increasing numbers of people like him. As in other instances of gentrification, the hipster ability and willingness to pay higher rent drives up rental rates, thereby driving out those who can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhoods. This geographical dynamic amounts to an invasive “movement,” with effects that are both racist and classist.
As one of Jessie Cantrell's interviewees says, perhaps with a level of self-aware irony, hipster is “a term that you use to offend people that are gentrifying your neighborhood.” And this kind of hipster gentrification isn’t only happening in New York. Hipster clusters can be found in most American cities, and thanks to the commodifying reach of corporatized American culture, in cities around the world as well.
Again, not all hipsters are white, but the numerical preponderance of whites among them makes it fair to identify hipsterdom as another in a long series of white youth movements. For many individuals, it’s also a movement away from more conventional, unremarkably “white” places and modes of being, a former existence that encourages individuality in white people by continually suggesting that their whiteness is insignificant. If that's true, then in terms of their racial identity, these white birds have flown right back to where they started.