For something that is supposed to have died decades ago for the educated and enlightened, racism is having a successful posthumous career.
When Zinzi Clemmons, a writer working for Lena Dunham, resigned last week, it was to protest the alleged “hipster racism” of her boss. On November 28, the Daily Devil’s Dictionary provided the definition of hipster. Racism is a far more problematic, indeed controversial unit of vocabulary, but the Daily Devil’s Dictionary never refuses a challenge.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1. The automatic reflex of groups of people who see an economic advantage in celebrating themselves as a model by which others can be judged
2. The engine that has driven Western economies for the past 500 years thanks to the ability of white Europeans to imagine that all their ideas and policies are based on science and materialistic rationality
The anti-racist activist and diversity specialist Carmen Van Kerckhove coined the term “hipster racism” in 2007. She applied it to a class of white people who, through their cultivation of hipness, believe that they are immune to racism, a claim that is sometimes belied by their actions.
Lena Dunham represents in many ways the top of the postmodern hipster class. She’s famous, successful, assertive, financially secure, liberal and liberated — a white female whose celebrity came through dramatized mockery of establishment values tempered by an ironic, self-deprecating portrayal of the breed of not so much anti- as non-establishment personalities she associates with. In other words, the perfect politically correct profile, incapable of the establishment sin of racism.
As a nation, the US has always had a problem of racism, since racially defined slavery was institutionalized and enshrined in the Constitution itself. The American Civil War led to amending the Constitution to write slavery out of it, but not racism, which to a certain extent was accepted as a given, in both the North and the South. The combat against racism took place a century later, with the civil rights movement, which ended up legislating against and shaming various forms of racism, without challenging the culture that bred it — a culture in which every individual has the theoretical opportunity to overcome any barriers and, more significantly, the responsibility to do so. Which of course means barriers — such as ambient racism — are the pretext for trying harder and asserting oneself. Failing to do so is a sin. Victims of racism, like so many victims of rape, “probably” — in the eyes of the enlightened — have themselves to blame.
It is hard for Americans to acknowledge that, thanks to numerous traditions and special “ways of thinking,” the US still maintains a racist culture, one that is equally evident in its foreign policy (death of darker skinned people — including “collateral damage” — doesn’t have the same impact as death of whites). But US culture may even have an even deeper problem, that of categorizing racism. What does it look like? Where does it lurk? And how can we eradicate it when it emerges from the woodwork?
This is the source of the confusion of both the hipsters and their critics, but also of political and community leaders, including former President Barack Obama, who made his way to the White House on the basis of the inspiring sentiments he expressed in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. The illusion of a post-racial and, therefore, non-racist American culture in which everyone — outside of committed white supremacists — believes or at least wants to believe.
The uncomfortable truth is that racism is still a vibrant part of the culture. It is built into the structure of the economy and, as mentioned above, appears as a key ingredient of foreign policy. Acknowledging it is impossible, since the debate will always turn to who is and who isn’t a racist, further complicated by the application of an abstract code, PC, which is used to identify and shame individuals. It’s a clear case of missing the forest for the trees. And, in many respects, it can resemble a witch hunt. In US culture, blame must always be sought at the level of the individual, not the institutions or the culture, which of course — as we are constantly reminded — are “the greatest in history.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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