Friday, December 5, 2008

never admit to being a hipster

I’ve been wondering lately about the whiteness of hipsters. I’d like to interview some white, self-declared hipsters about just what their racial status means to them. However, while I do know some people who clearly fit the profile, none of them are willing to admit to being hipsters. I have trouble deciding whether someone really is a hipster, because one defining characteristic seems to be the adamant refusal of the hipster label. That paradox of identity further intrigues me, because it so closely parallels a similar denial of a seemingly self-evident label, “white,” that white people in general commonly perform.

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.


  1. I like this post. No, I hate this post, because, I am sick of seeing those bloody awful hipsters: They are like goddamned roaches here in San Francisco! And, geez!, what the fnck happened to Williamsburg?! It was pretty much always a white neighbourhood, but never that kind of white! Yuck!

    I can tell you a probable reason why that Puerto Rican bodega owner does not "like" your friend: Typical behaviour of too many white twenty-something, new urban dwellers, out on their own for the first time, have mommy and daddy's home to run back to if and when things don't work out, who see neighbourhoods like Williamsburg as trendy to live in but never a place where they are going to plant roots, is that they think that a "hello" (in their case, "hi" or "hey") constitutes friendship, that it should bestow upon them a "he's a good guy, he's all right, he's a part of the neighbourhood" status from the "true" neighbourhood people. (Hey, but not to worry the true neighbourhood folks, with the downward spiral of this economy heading towards a depression, which is hitting the NYC job market pretty hard, those hipster-rats are going to be scurrying off of this sinking ship, right back to where they came from.) As a native New Yorker, from one of those "neighbourhoods", where everybody does know your name, I can tell you this: We don't warm up to nobody right off of the bat. You've got to prove yourself. If you want in to the club (that is the neighbourhood), then you got to show up to it every day; not have the attitude of passing through, which is probably the vibe that your friend puts off, which says that "I'm moving out of this neighbourhood, probably to some better neighbourhood in either Manhattan or elsewhere in Brooklyn, just as soon as my career jumps off," or "If things don't work out for me in this dog-eat-dog, take no prisoners, god forsaken city, then I'm going back home to my parents in East Bubblefuck, Iowa." (An all too frequent experience that I have, have had, with whites, such as hipsters, but other whites, too, and regardless of age, is that they expect friendship and/or respect from you without they having done any work to earn it.)

    One more thing, how to tell if you are a hipster: If you sound like too many of the announcers, male or female, on the public radio show "This American Life." On that show, the majority of the white men, grown-ass men!, have the speech patterns and vocal quality of little boys, ungrown men. (The video which you included with this post is a perfect example of the speaking/vocal quality of a hipster.) The women, too, on that show, such as Sarah Vowell, sound like little girls. They do not sound like adults. Grow the hell up!

  2. Sorry, you wrote that your friend says that the bodega owner does not "recognize" him; I wrote in my comment [above] that your friend says that the store owner does not "like" your friend. Nonetheless, I shall let my previous comment remain as it is written, because I think my assement of the situation stands regardless if it his wanting to be recognized or liked. Bottom line is that the store owner has sniffed out your friend to be, like so many of the other young whites such as him, to be somebody who ain't gonna stick around, so the owner isn't going to waste his precious time (which is his life, by the way) on giving it away to someone who is, pretty much a sure bet, a transient.

  3. As a hipster, I loathe posts titled "never admit to being a hipster." I will now go back to listening to Esau Mwamwaya while reading the latest issue of The Believer.

  4. definitely something to that whole "I said Hi to you a few times in public so now we are BFFs" thing

  5. This post made me laugh and feel thankful. I laugh because I like Williamsburg for "just passing through" purposes. It's as if they're trying to replicate The Village. Then they've got that weirdo clown on Bedford Ave. and it makes me never wanna live there. I love NYC for allowing any weirdo to have their niche but Bedford Ave. clown is a bit much for me.

    I'm thankful because I live a stone's throw from the (Jewish) Lower East Side and don't have to be bothered with those trust fund hipsters or bobos in the East & West Village. Wherever they are it is expensive and noisy.

  6. Is it possible to be aware of your whiteness and be a hipster?

    I ask this question because I'm in grad school studying social work. My program has a small group of students who have chosen to focus on social justice as opposed to traditional clinical work. The white students in the program are expected to examine our skin privilege in everything we do. A lot of white students appear to be hipsters--they dress like them, listen to hipster music, claim they are not hipsters and complain of hipsters gentrifying "their neighborhood". It especially irks me when I hear hipster complain about gentrification when they are part of the problem.

    Maybe these hipsters feel a lot of guilt and shame about their whiteness and attempt to not be white by becoming part of an alternative culture?

  7. Anonymous, I think it is possible to be aware of your whiteness and be a hipster. I also think it's possible to be aware of your whiteness while being unaware, or in denial, that you're a hipster. My friend Dave is actually pretty aware of his whiteness--I may not have portrayed him fairly in that regard in the post. He's probably aware as well that he's basically a hipster, and that could be why he denies that status so adamantly.

    I think that many hipsters do feel a lot of guilt and shame about their whiteness, and attempt to not be white by becoming part of an alternative culture. That's part of what I was getting at in the post, and you boiled down that part of it well. It sounds like the folks you're talking about are on the road to white self-awareness, but also that they've still got a ways to go. Here's hoping that eventually, most of them will realize that a white person can understand whiteness much better by also studying, admitting, and understanding one's own situatedness in, and complicity with, white supremacy.

    redcatbiker, thanks for those vivid observations, especially about privileged young white speech patterns. You've really got me thinking on that particular manifestation of white privilege and power. TAL is a great example--nearly all of the announcers and reporters and storytellers on that show really do speak alike! I wonder if they screen potential speakers for that, and keep some off the air because they don't have that certain TAL sound. Seems to me like it could be another instance of ironic conformity.

    Ortho, that's mighty unwhite of you to admit that you're a hipster. I've long thought of your avatar as a dead giveaway. Thanks for stopping by to register your loathing. I'm not sure I believe, though, that you're really a reader of The Believer. I sometimes find your personalized aura of hipster irony impenetrable.

    Yes, thelady, hipster greetings, and white ones more generally, are definitely a subject worthy of further anthropological examination. I agree that once again, rcb is on to something.

    Anonymiss, I assume you mean these clowns? Looks pretty self-indulgent to me, but I can't be sure because I've never been in the thick of it. Best of luck to you in your pursuit of affordable quietude.

  8. I loved this post, I laughed my way through most of it; even the parts I wasn't sure I should be laughing at.

    I can't stand hipsters. Most of them, anyway. I just find the whole thing to be incredibly superficial. That being said, I don't see how this movement serves as an "escape" from Whiteness at all; if anything, it seems as though it makes it even more stereotypical and tends to highlight racial differences even more.

  9. This may be a cliche point, but I think a lot of the hipster denial has roots in this specific, white American notion of absolute individuality. Thus, attempting to disassociate from: one's class background and deny definition by one's family (which mostly end up as a sort of class-based cultural appropriation); the hipster 'movement,' via complaints about THOSE people (not me!) gentrification, THOSE hipsters, THOSE conformists; moving to places in the process of gentrification to be around "diversity" (because being an anti-racist/dissociation from whiteness means living around people who aren't white, right?); claiming that one's style is 'individual,' when it really is identifiable as a common hipster style. I think this feeds directly back to youth marketing, when so many young people are convinced that they are in fact SO individual, that they are not affected whatsoever by advertising, market trends, etc, that they are even more vulnerable in the end. And this creates a whole class of young white people ready and willing to colonize neighborhoods, appropriate styles, and market a lifestyle image to the benefit of clothing, alcohol, and cigarette industries, just to name a few.

    That all (slightly incoherently) said, I know a lot of people who could easily be tagged a hipsters because of their clothing, who are hipsters, who are also committed anti-gentrification and anti-racist activists. I don't consider myself an activist, though I do believe strongly in these causes, but I wear the clothing and definitely go to hipster parties and qualify for the category. I wonder if the label "hipster" is rejected so much because, in essence, it is defined by denial.

  10. And here's a perfect example of hipster denial:

    See how the site owner defends her gentrification (Backstory 1) and how she only highlights businesses on the street that are hipster magnets (scroll down to Visit Our Pals on Troost):

  11. a couple of years ago, my then b/f would call me (teasingly) a hipster all the time. I had no idea what it meant really. I just liked what I liked.

    I'm still not quite sure what means to be a hipster, but according to this joke book I saw about it, I fit a lot of the same interests in music, radio, tv, and movies. But I've always been this way...It just seems like it's gotten popular, when I thought I was being off-beat and nerdy.

    And yes I want to live IN Atlanta, but I've been living around here my entire life. I've always wanted to live in the city.

    I guess I'm a hipster? I'm still not sure what that's really supposed to mean. I do really like TAL, but I'd never heard anything like it before!

    I'd much more readily identify myself as a geek/nerd/--head/--nut or whatever it is.

    I'm kind of unaware on this point, haha!

  12. OMG, please make white people stop wearing keffiyehs. i swear we have more keffiyehs per capita here in the Bay than in all the occupied territories combined.

  13. I think the most tragic thing is the keffiyeh; there was an AdBusters article on hipsters (here, if you want to read it) and I was thinking about what they said about the keffiyeh being a symbol of solidarity with Pakistan. It does fall into the "appropriation" category, but there was a meaning behind it, and now there's not.

    I wonder about this, though: what about the white people who do move to a traditionally minority neighborhood because the rent really is cheaper and it really is what they can afford? What do you make of them?

  14. I'm a hipster. What is interesting to me with that statement is that I can make it, but I find it hard to make it without qualifiers, in a sort of "but not one of *those* hipsters" sort of way. I'm not sure what to make of that, really, whether this is a muted reflection of the "don't admit to being a hipster" dynamic or whether I actually do have grounds to demur. Probably some combination of both, I think.

    The voice thing is interesting, but the way redcatbiker framed it has some weird body/expression policing undercurrent that I can't quite pin down but makes me fairly uncomfortable. Is it really inherently immature to have a certain vocal quality?

  15. @ Leslie Ann: "I wonder about this, though: what about the white people who do move to a traditionally minority neighborhood because the rent really is cheaper and it really is what they can afford? What do you make of them?"

    I think that middle class white people have the privilege to move wherever they want to. There are other neighborhoods that are affordable, but many middle class white people choose to go to the neighborhoods traditionally occupied by people of color because, as Anonymous said, they move to "places in the process of gentrification to be around "diversity". Also, they like these neighborhoods because they can colonize them with their trendy stores and restaurants.

    I know some working class white people who stay away from these neighborhoods--even though they are affordable--because they aren't motivated by being perceived as "cool" for living in an "up and coming" neighborhood.

  16. As a hipster, I do not care what anyone thinks of me. Excuse me while I now finish smoking my Djarum Black while listening to the best band you've never heard of -- Future Clouds & Radar -- and reading the best magazine you cannot purchase at your favorite corporate bookstores -- n+1.

    Peace out.

  17. Ortho, you do care, for you have posted two snarky (a hipster trait, by the way) comments here. (Now, don't punk out and delete those comments.) And in both of your comments you had to make sure to list a few of the things that define you as such: your reading choices and the music that you are listening to.

  18. I was thinking about what they said about the keffiyeh being a symbol of solidarity with Pakistan.

    Hey, Leslie Ann, I think you mean Palestine. :)

  19. I'm so sad that I missed this post but because the discussion was great! I have a couple of hipster friends and I remind them of this fact all the time.

    They too do not identify as hipster and take it as an insult, right after they mention I should check out this great new band that no one's ever heard of and they personally discovered :0)

  20. While hipsters may be trying to flee their whiteness (I don't necessarily agree), the result is quite the opposite. They seem to relish in the celebration of their whiteness. They are enjoying the process of making you "the other" just like their parents did, and their parents before them.

    What is white american culture except the absence of culture itself? Other cultures are the fuel for this machine that white people run and maintain. They've appropriated your scarf. They've appropriated your music. They've appropriated your struggle, your food, your clothes, your philosophy, your religion, your literary forms, your artistic style and forms of expression, your rhythms, your soul, and your neighborhood. They studied you from across the room, watching as you moved effortlessly while they kept time in their heads and nodded, pretending that the music flowed through them the same way it did you. They listened as you bared your soul and they wondered how they too could bare your soul, only through their apathetic voices and from their friendly faces. They ate at your table, threw pennies at you, and returned home with you as part of their collection of experiences, something to draw upon when they had an inevitable moment of cultural void. They became you (briefly), and then they turned you into the other. Here you are, looking in, wondering how they learned to imitate your dance (however stiff), to imitate your food (however bland), to create art like yours (however uninspired), to pray to your deity (however unfaithfully), and managed to alienate you from all of those things because it sickens you to think that when they are done, these things will have none of the meaning they once had. Your culture will be spent and will exist only as an ironic reference, to be produced every so often when something else fails to bring inspiration.

    The process is the same as it has been except for one critical difference: technology. White people do not need to travel to study other cultures anymore. They do not need to work hard to import the most salient facets of the cultures that facinate them. They are able to assimilate other cultures at the speed of light now.

    Don't let me get started on their racism. Google "hipster racism" to do your own research.

  21. Bacchus's comment made me remember a poem by Langston Hughes. Here's part of it:

    You've done taken my blues and gone--
    Sure have! You sing 'em on Broadway,
    And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl.
    You mixed 'em up with symphonies,
    And you fixed 'em so they don't sound like me.
    Yep, you done taken my blues and gone!
    You also took my spirituals and gone.
    Now you've rocked-and-rolled 'em to death!
    You put me in Macbeth,
    In Carmen Jones, and Anna Lucasta,
    And all kinds of Swing Mikados
    And in everything but what's about me...

  22. redcatbiker, that poem is prophecy and testimony. I feel the frustration that Langston Hughes felt, but I have nowhere near the ability to express it the way he did.

    I think I started to realize the truth about hipsters when I watched a white hipster girl do a stunning rendition of "I like big butts". It was perfect. It was amazing. I wondered about who she studied and what it took for her to get the choreography down and make it look like she felt it. It was disturbing, but I couldn't put my finger on it. After reading this post and others, I understand now that it was a classic hipster move, playing on the irony of a skinny white chick with no ass is doing that song and dance.

  23. Why do I resent hipsters? For the very reason you state in 3rd to last paragraph. I was born and bred in NYC and I still live at home with my parents. I would love to move out and stay in the neighborhood I grew up in, but due to the growing population of young, white, just out of liberal arts college types, I have to either find a better paying job (yeah right in this economy) or move to a neighborhood that is less safe and convenient than the one I have lived in my entire life. Does that sound fair to anyone? Don't I and others in similar positions deserve to live near where we grew up?
    Now I'm pissed and I want to go egg the new apartment buildings that have sprouted up nearby. >:-(

  24. The [male] hipster to-do list?

    You can find it here:

    And here:


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