Jezebel recently published a story on “Hipster Racism,” a vehement outcry against the new trend of “pretending to say racist things” in the name of irony. I’ll start by saying that this kind of racism (which I don’t deny exists) is not only a very uncreative way to be incendiary, but it is blatantly detrimental to human equality. It should not happen. Period.
That being said, the tone of this article reminded me that our relationship to race in this country is not only complicated, it is also emotional. Based on our identifications and histories, we are liable to see racial issues through veils of anger, guilt, sadness, hopelessness, confusion, and any number of messy emotions that complicate our ability to talk about it clearly. My issue with the Jezebel piece is not one of message, but of rhetoric. This piece, so laden with anger, sarcasm, and – perhaps – embarrassment on the part of white society, is not serving the message it champions as effectively as it could.
In an attempt to be humorous, the piece may be treading the same water as the “hipster racists” themselves. When we speak about racism and racists so polemically, without the intention of understanding why these things happens, we are perpetuating the divisive world views that create the conditions of our ignorance. When we denigrate those who knowingly, or unknowingly, perpetuate racism we scare them into silence, the breeding ground of ignorance and prejudice. People are not born racist, but rather it is the systems that perpetuate those divisions. Let’s fight our systems, rather than each other.
Because it is, I believe, important to self-identify when speaking personally about issues of identification, I will remind you that I am white, a beneficiary of privilege including a liberal arts education. I work in an urban school system in which I am each day reminded of the institutional neglect that my black and Latino student must struggle against — a fight which I will never fully understand.
However, my students have taught me a thing or two about racial dialogues. Middle School children have not quite learned to censor themselves yet (one of their many charms) and they really don’t shy away from discussing their particular racial conceptions about one another. They may, from time to time, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuate stereotypes in confronting their ideas about one another, often in the name of humor — but without the freedom to make these mistakes, they would not learn differently.
The failure of our country’s racial progress is a failure of integration, a failure of dialogue, and real dialogue occurs with respect. Let’s hope that our preconceptions about each other are a little more nuanced than those of my Middle Schoolers, but maybe they aren’t. In teaching each other not to hurt one another, let’s not hurt each other more. Society has not only taught us to be racist, it has taught us to be afraid of talking about race. Fight back, speak up. (And I commend the “Hipster Racism” author for doing at least that much!) What do you think?