Friday, February 13, 2009

act like a racist in order to demonstrate that you're not a racist

What is "hipster racism"?

I'm not sure of the origin of the phrase, but it sure is useful these days. In a discussion of the notorious New Yorker cover that featured the Obamas dressed up as terrorists as an example of hipster racism, AJ Plaid attributes the term to Carmen Van Kerckhove, and defines the phenomenon as "ideas, speech, and action meant to denigrate [another person's] race or ethnicity under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning 'ironic' nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy."

Plaid's definition fits a lot of hip, sardonic, or otherwise supposedly witty approaches to race, but I think it can be refined. For one thing, while most white practitioners of hipster racism do mean on the surface to denigrate another's race or ethnicity, their ultimate, ironic intent is to show that they don't really mean it, and thus, that they themselves are anything but racist. This seems to be how the upcoming Pauly Shore movie that I wrote about recently works, and as the clip below illustrates, it's sometimes how "The Daily Show" works.

The following skit, with John Oliver "traveling" to Kenya, is a good example. The segment begins as a trip meant to inform ignorant American viewers about the country that helped produce Barack Obama. When Oliver sits down with Zachary Muburi-Muita, the Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations, the skit devolves instead into a sad instance of hipster racism, with Oliver playing a British moron who has no sense of what was wrong with England's racist colonial rule of Kenya.

As you watch, notice how at one point, when Muburi-Muita tells him that what's he's saying is "not funny," Oliver keeps going. In effect, a non-white voice of protest goes ignored and disrespected. Viewers hear Muburi-Muita's protest, but in the context of the skit, they're invited to laugh at it, and thus disrespect the person delivering it--"He can't even see that Oliver's joking! Look how far Oliver is willing to push this joke!"

As with other forms of satire, this type of humor goes wrong when it goes too far. In terms of race, one way that hipster humorists can go too far is by using people of color, who may or may not be in on the joke, as mere props in their own performance. By pretending to ignore the Kenyan ambassador's indignant response to a mock colonialist attitude, John Oliver demonstrates this failure. Whether the ambassador is in on the joke or not, the skit invites viewers to disregard and laugh at his perspective. That perspective is also trivialized because it's being used in a skit that's all about the performance of the white person at the center.

Self-reflecting irony of this sort is a crucial element of the hipster attitude, and as I understand it, hipster racism often arises in attempts at ironic humor. As Oliver demonstrates, this type of humor consists of acting like some sort of clueless, offensive bigot--be it a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe--for an audience that's supposed to know that you yourself are not really a bigot. You tell racist jokes or say and do racist things, but you're really making fun of bigots, so the humor is a supposedly legitimate form of satire.

White hipster humor about race is often meant to point out racism, but not in order to fight against it; the goal instead is ultimately narcissistic. The performance is an effort to get laughs, but it's also the comedians' self-centered effort to show that underneath it all, they themselves are not racists. This form of humor thus does little to dislodge the obstinate centrality of whiteness, because again, it's really all about the supposedly non-racist white performer, and not about the abuses endured by the targets of racism.

White people have a long history of defining themselves in opposition to the supposed inherent qualities of other races. When white people defined non-white people as savages, or as hypersexual, unintelligent or enslaved, they also defined themselves as the superior opposite--as civilized, restrained, intelligent, and free. In the same way, many white interactions with non-white people continue to be narcissistic, because they use non-white people to reflect back in a self-defining way on themselves.

When white hipster humorists perform a racial identity that involves interaction with non-white people, it's often all about the white person at the center. Using people of color so that you can pretend to be a racist in order to get laughs because you're mocking racists is not a genuinely respectful and anti-racist form of racial interaction. Instead, it's a way of acting in an ultimately racist manner, by using overt racism to suggest covertly, but falsely, that you yourself would never do anything racist. And since it's all really about you, and you're just using people of color for your own self-defining purposes, it amounts to little more than white self-centeredness all over again.


  1. Great post Macon. It posted it on my blog.

  2. Classic article. I linked to it on my blog in conjunction with a beef I have about an example of hipster racism related to a feature of the "alternative weekly" newspaper in my hometown.

  3. You know, one of the biggest problems with this sarcastic humor is that it's mostly from a white performer to a mostly white audience. Then, when people of color complain, as in the New Yorker Obama jihadi cover, the white performers claim it isn't offensive.

    The level of offense/racism is determined by the victim, not the perpatrator; this "act" disregards the victim's feelings and perspective altogether. When you think about it, it's as racist as the people the performer supposedly mocks.

    What's worse is when someone sees it and performs it for their personal crowd, a person of color takes offense, then the someone accuses poc of oversensitivety. Or something of the sort.

  4. De-lurking to say thank you! I've been thinking about this sort of dynamic in my interactions with white colleagues and I haven't been able to articulate to them exactly why this sort of ironic racist joking makes me uncomfortable. Your analysis of the narcissism inherent in it is right on! And the trouble, as one of your commentators already pointed out, is that whenever I try to argue against it or ask them to stop, I am painted as the oversensitive/humourless woman of colour. It was very affirming to read your fine analysis of the dynamic at work.

  5. You're welcome, Geeti, I'm so glad I could help with that. Yes, white narcissism is a lot more common than white folks tend to realize, and it's bitterly ironic, to say the least, when it happens in white interactions with non-whiteness. As you and no1kstate pointed out, a further symptom of that narcissism is the inability to perceive how such self-centered humor comes across to people hearing it from other racial perspectives.

    I see the connection you're making there, Gabriel. That Pitch blog you wrote about really does seem to be an enactment of this same kind of white pathology.

  6. @Geeti and macon

    Like I've written before, nothing's more racist than a person of privilege telling a person of color how to deal with racism. It's just ig'nant.

  7. In the same way, many white interactions with non-white people continue to be narcissistic, because they use non-white people to reflect back in a self-defining way on themselves.


  8. You hit the nail on the head, and so have the comments.
    I have spoken up against this "hipster" humor/racism and have received the usual BS: "You're being too PC," "Lighten up and take a joke," etc. etc. And that came from white people. How many times do we really have to hear that?

  9. excellent post, as usual. i like how you illustrate how this is a narcissistic show that white people perform, and I also like how you point out that the person of color, in effect, becomes the white person's prop, an object used by the white person. I have always tried to put into words how this sort of thing works, and you did it perfectly.

  10. Hmm...I have in countered this sort of racism very often even when asking a question about trying to move to Japan, here is a respond from the white person:

    "lol, for fucks sake, I gotta make a video about this soon -.-


    1. All my friends that are foreigners where I live(chiba) are African(from teh real africa yo). They all have families and speak FLUENT Japanese and are treated the same as anybody else.

    2. If (most)Japanese people come off like they don't like you it's because of the communication barrier NOT the color of your skin. So yes, if you aren't able to understand 100% of what people are saying, then there is plenty of room for assumption that it's racism.

    My suggestion, come here with a open mind, don't take anything too seriously and unless YOU (not your Japanese friend translating into shitty English for you) understand in fluent Japanese, just brush it off if it comes off as offensive."


    Where is CNN?

  12. i saw this when it aired and it made me very uncomfortable when Oliver pushed like he did. I'd never felt so uncomfortable at that show before.

    However, later in the video, the ambassador's mood seems to have lifted (and made some jabs at Oliver himself!). It made me wonder if they stopped at certain point and talked about where Oliver was going with it. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify something.

  13. Whether it was appropriate or not, there was another joke going on as well -- Oliver was pushing the issue because the ambassador was being exceedingly diplomatic, claiming "the past is the past, that's all behind us now." This is of course something that plenty of people from Kenya would disagree with, among others. So there was a subtext there, and whether Oliver was appropriate in calling the ambassador out on it, or how he did so, it should nonetheless be taken into account.

  14. no1kstate said...
    @Anon - You make a good point. I was so stunned about the whole "the past is the past" thing, that I did miss the next few words. But, I also think the ambassador's point is that Kenya's do have the capacity to forgive. A lot of what aggravates racial relations is the expectation of the part of whites for people of color to seek revenge. To a great extent, no one seeks revenge as much as they just want to get on with their lives peacefully. I mean, talking reparations is only right. But how would that go over internationally?

  15. the thing is, though, that once racism is as over as, say, anti-catholicism (in other words, no, it will never totally die out, but it will devolve to the point where it doesn't really have much influence on our society, to the point where our kids can't quite understand why anyone would have cared about black/white, etc.), whites and blacks will make fun of each other's race, and they'll do it to each other's face. they won't be touchy about it because it won;t matter to them much. in the same way you might make fun of a friend for being irish or something. that wouldn't have been funny at around 1910, but today it's different.

    because when you can look someone in the eye and mock them, you've acknowledged them as your equal. so i think this kind of thing, this "hipster racism" or whatever you want to call it, is actually complicated. doubtless it fails to do exactly what it's maybe trying to do, but thinking it's just some kind of subterfuge is too simplistic.

  16. Thank you for this post (and also thanks for the thoughtful comments)! This is right on the dot and these words are so helpful for me to read.

  17. doesn't Family Guy do this as well? or maybe that show is just being racist because it is popular enough to get away with it...?

  18. "You know, one of the biggest problems with this sarcastic humor is that it's mostly from a white performer to a mostly white audience."

    So true. I feel like popular media/entertainment is full of examples like this, it's not just something people do in private with people who know them personally/know how "not racist" they are. Examples that come to mind are Borat (that whole movie was like one 2-hour example of this phenomenon) and the TV show Arrested Development. I think the show is otherwise brilliant, but take issue with the writers use of people of color solely as foils for white characters' racism. Though we are supposed to be laughing at the racists with maybe some removed scorn, ultimately if we are supposed to laugh it's because their racism is supposed to be funny.

  19. I absolutely agree with everything you wrote. The thing that really gets me about this though is that when people do laugh or feel uncomfortable, they never question why and when they do and others can't see their point, we end up like disasters such as Dave Chappelle leaving his show. It's about damn time we sat down and exercised some sense when it comes to our entertainment and I'm glad this post did just that.

  20. Great piece. When the gentleman said "it's not funny" I cringed. Why do white people have to be so ignorant? And I'm white. The best thing I can do is call stuff like this out and listen to poc on racism. I added this to my favorites...;)

  21. Spot on. Fantastic post, will be sharing this.

  22. Wow, exactly, great article. This really puts a finger on this really common form of humor. It really is narcissistic, isn't it?

    My takeaway:

    "it's a way of acting in an ultimately racist manner, by using overt racism to suggest covertly, but falsely, that you yourself would never do anything racist. And since it's all really about you, and you're just using people of color for your own self-defining purposes, it amounts to little more than white self-centeredness all over again."

    Your blog is eye-opening, thank you for the time you put into it.

  23. I don't think the issue with the clip is race but rather history. Yes it was horrible and regrettable but the Daily Show formula is at work here and that is to have the interviewer be a jackass. It doesn't really shame the ambassador at all but rather John Oliver. He equates colonialism as if it were a romantic relationship and the end of that era like a break up. The ambassador is rightly miffed with the thought that Kenya might want to go back to British rule. Oliver even states some of the unsavory moves of the British Empire so there is not mistake who is at fault. I don't think race is the issue but rather the history. As for the Asian Single Girls video, well it does bring up race by playing to stereotype but I can't help but believe that it is intentional. Playing on those stereotypes, it could be argued is a way to trivialize it and own it in the same way that many black youths throw out the word, nigger. If you get the chance to check out the 2nd season of the Sundance Channel's Iconoclast with Dave Chappelle talking with Maya Angelou, he makes an argument for the use of nigger while Maya Angelou feels differently. But they understand each other. See what side you fall on.

  24. Racist poetry in motion. Read the whole thread, and it works out exactly how you described:

  25. Ugh. Yes, thanks Anonymous, perfect illustration, that.

    (For those who'd like a look with just a click instead of a cut-and-paste, here's the link.)

    Interesting comment: Are there any black people that post here? I'm guessing no.I'm guessing no too.

  26. This is absolutely brilliant and spot-on. As a White Person, I've never warmed to this meta-irony, overtly reflected in the media today.

  27. Im not sure I agree...No matter what your skin color or your subculture you identify with, racism will exist...especially in an age of exploitation in your face 24 hours a day with click of a button. it is simply fuel for the fire. there are points in history where racism did not exist really and points it did alll over the world whether it be ethnically charged or regarding ones nationality. racism is not that serious and should be accepted as a base emotion that has not reach maturity in our human evolution. with the expansion of consciousness we will see racism in its true colors patience and perserverence i feel are most important....and dont let your heart drop when you feel an air of racism... stay focused and remember that the only one you need love from is yourself...

  28. All humor can, in some way, be perceived as offensive and denigrating to someone. Inoffensive humor flat out isn't funny. For all we know, chickens could hate the shit out of humans for "why did the chicken cross the road?" jokes people tell. You determine your own limits and if you find a type of humor offensive, don't use it. That said, it is incredibly tactless to use that type of humor around a minority whose perspective on that type of humor is unknown to you.

    As someone who has told these the occasional (Literally, occasional. for the most part rape/racist/sexist jokes are pretty tasteless and unfunny. It can be wittily done though.) jokes before, I can tell you that narcissism and some desire to prove I'm not racist has no part in my thought process. It's merely meant to be witty.

    Also, you're blind if you've never seen a 'person of color' make an ironic racist joke. They're staples of Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle and many other black comedians' acts.

  29. It is extremely interesting for me to read this post. Thank you for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

  30. ThisIsTheBestNameIGotAugust 3, 2010 at 9:31 AM

    YES!!!! YES!!!! LOVE THIS!!!!

    To the fake macho persona (nice name):
    I agree on some counts. Humor is relative and some jokes made by asses like this may be okay when contextualized in certain private spheres. I have even gone so far as to let certain white people I trust throw around the n-word with me.

    However, I do not think there is a "tit-for-tat" comparability about black race humor and say... Family Guy, as it seems you are implying. A Wise man, no really, his last name is Wise, once made a comparison on a similar issue. You can read the article here:

    I think this mindset can be extended to this issue. Just as nigger bears more weight than honky, I think white racial "satire" bears more weight than black racial satire. Well, at least it bears more airtime and viewership.

    Somebody else once said the difference between racism and discrimination is power. Obviously whites have more power. Does it matter more that a likely black hotel staffer has a lowered opinion of whites because of Pryor? Or does he stand more to lose with his white employer storing an episode of Family Guy in the back of his head?

    I also think, while wit can be nice, it's becoming more and more of a cipher for "intelligence" and socioeconomic culture. Along with parody, satire and irony, more and more of my white colleagues seem to use these overestimated forms of thought and humor as criterion for the worth of somebody. On three separate occasions off the top of my head I've seen the comprehension of these devices as a sympathetic rubric for date-ability. (The thought process being if they get that humor, they are therefore a more worthwhile person. It's not just about laughing at the same stuff. It's about being "good" enough to get this elitist humor.)

    Okay that said:

    FAMILY GUY IS SUCH A HUUUUUUUGE EXAMPLE OF THIS!!!! GAAAAAAH. I never liked the show besides the occasional chuckle. It was always so freaking smug with itself. Oh, and don't get me started on the spin-offs.

    As for the racism of this, everbody loses. Gays, women, races, religions, professions, classes, ages, disabilities. Everybody ultimately loses except the middle aged able-bodied white man. Sure, some fun is poked at him, but he is ultimately redeemed. Just take that episode of American Dad where Stan goes blind. It seems like the man will actually learn a lesson, until, oh wait no, the genius white man subverts the projected moral of the story. Granted, I love an Aesop subversion, but why does the white man almost ALWAYS get to subvert and have the final word? Same thing happens when Lois realizes the error of her feminist ways in educating Peter about misogyny.

    I leave you with this:


  31. The comments on this blog appear to be (almost) unanimous in the applause of this article. Allow me to be the dissenting voice...

    The concept of "hipster racism" is to make people aware of racism as a whole. It ridicules racists and satirizes them. While this can be done poorly, and at times is so poorly executed that it takes the form of straight racism (though without intent), it still stands that "hipster racism" is a force for good.

    If it does offend some outliers, and surely it will, that is unfortunate. However, the question is does it do more harm or more good? I argue that it does more good. It brings awareness to racism and racist issues, it ridicules and isolates those who are genuinely hateful.

    Those who are offended by these jokes aren't "being too serious", nor are they "being too PC". However, I do feel like they are misinterpreting the message and what it represents.

    This article is implying that hipster racism is a vehicle for people to be racist in a politically correct manner. It also focuses, heavily, on the individual at the center being white. However, what it fails to recognize is the source of the laughter. It isn't about laughing at racist jokes; it is about laughing at the individual who is making the racist jokes. The center of attention, the white individual, is the one being mocked. It is a form of self deprecating humor.

    It is obvious to see how this could be misconstrued fairly easily.

    The Jon Oliver skit is actually a harsh criticism of the history of British Colonialism. It also serves as a condemnation of those who downplay the significance of this event.

    The narcissism angle only works under shallow scrutiny. Upon closer inspection one sees that this is not about an individual and how they perceive themselves; it is about a large group of people and about exposing their potential self-deceptions.

    1. @guyverreviews "The concept of "hipster racism" is to make people aware of racism as a whole."

      Because you can't stop hanging out with white people long enough to go listen to some people of color talk about racism? White people are now the go to resource for racism awareness?

      Um. That's a problem.

  32. I dunno... I like how Dave Chappelle handled the issue in skits like "Clayton Bigsby the Black White Supremacist". By mocking racists humorously, one can simultaneously marginalize their absurd views and make people of all races laugh, which we all like to do.

  33. @Brandon:

    Dave Chappelle is Black, though.

    And he's deliberately not doing that show anymore.

  34. Wow. This is an enlightening post. I'm a (white) college student who attends a liberal arts school full of hipster-y people, and I have been perpetually cringing at all of the "ironic" racism at work. I have never, however, been able to articulate why it bothered me so much, and this post has helped immensely. I put "hipster racism" into Google today without knowing it was a term people used, only that it was something I noticed; it's good to see others working to combat it.

    The latest "ironic" thing going around at my school is a YouTube video of a working-class black man saying things in black dialect that many hipsters think are funny (likely because they consider them uneducated or stupid). People are walking around quoting him. To me, it's not "ironic" in the slightest—it's just flat-out racist. Hopefully I will be able to articulate my thoughts better next time I call someone out on it.

    Even worse, these "ironic" racists mostly consider themselves to be super liberal. Sigh.


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