I’m sitting in one of New Haven’s more “alternative” cafés, Koffee? The exposed beam architecture is wrapped in silver tinsel, for the holidays, and burlap sack, for some unknown reason. The barista, who sports a grey, full body jumpsuit, like you might see on an airport runway worker, plays an album by the nineties hip-hop group, The Pharcyde. I’m eating a gluten free muffin and drinking from the repurposed peanut butter jar that I always keep in my backpack. Hipster “af,” you might say. Enter: Greif.
In “What was the Hipster,” Greif unveils hipster culture as extractive, consumerist, confused, and absurd, all the while bringing nuance and validity to the subject. Though I have only been alive to see and interact with modern mutations of the hipster, this social category has been around for decades. Greif cites specifically the use of the word hipster to describe a subset of black culture in the nineteen forties; the transgression from black subculture to white subculture took just a decade, he notes. This rapid adoption of black trends by white communities is, too, a center thread in the works of Carl Hancock Rux and Sylvia Obell. Rux and Obell discuss music and celebrity trends, respectively; these areas see rampant amounts of the cultural theft and appropriation that Greif describes. Though perhaps less obvious than in, say, music, the relationship between race and hipster culture runs deep.
Greif suggests that while some hipster identities may have been lifted from black culture, the name for instance, other facets of this cultural icon are intentionally white. He writes that the “White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash,” and quotes Vice founder Garvin McInnes, who stated, “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of.” Rux and Obell show us the ways in which white media icons in music and fashion (though not limited to these fields) have stolen forms from black artists. While I don’t think it’s the case that the original white hipsters were cognizant of these modes of theft and sought to generate something fair-sourced (though if you slapped that label on it, the modern hipster would pay top dollar to purchase it in cases), it may have been an attempt on the part of white-identified style gurus, such as McInnes, to generate a culture that was as authentically white as possible. The quintessential image of a first-wave hipster, sporting a trucker hat and white t-shirt as he sips a Pabst Blue Ribbon, certainly suggests this (however, one point that Greif did not touch on heavily enough was the appropriation of American Indian identities which is, tragically, prolific in the modern hipster portrayal. Think American Spirit cigarettes, folk music, flannel, even PBR) Aside from appealing to a subsect of mostly-white, mostly-male individuals, the hipster doesn’t really stand for much of anything; he is apolitical and apathetic when it comes to matters that don’t involve indie rock bands and cheap beer.
The hipster generation does not define itself in opposition to the government, as hippies did, or main stream popular culture, as punks did. Greif’s descriptions of the life and death of hipster culture suggest that it is the closest thing to “white American culture” to have emerged from the last half-century. In that way, we might think of hipsterdom as a kind of racial performance.
Obell and Rux use case studies to examine other kinds of racial performance, and more specifically the resulting violence from such performances. Rux outlines the problematic rise of Eminem, a white artist in a black genre, but makes clear that Eminem is no exception, citing rock and roll and jazz as originally black genres, which were quickly co-opted by white artists. But art is a tricky thing to claim ownership over, and Rux asks, “Whom does music or race belong to?” After analyzing the rise of the Kardashian dynasty, Obell might answer: wealthy white women with large Instagram followings. And she wouldn’t be wrong; the Kardashians are not all that different from Greif’s hipsters who were not “artists but tattoo artists.” They (or their agents) could be credited with discovering and alerting the public of hot trends, but not of creating those trends themselves. Obell captures this when she says, the “Kardashians’ style has left many feeling like they created an empire using things that didn’t belong to them.” Just like white America.
The barista calls out that Koffee? will be closed in ten minutes. He composts the leftover granola and locally sourced yogurt, humming along to Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Black music about black causes, struggles from the seventies that are just as relevant today. Scott-Heron’s lyrics fall on mostly white ears, or would, if not for earbuds. Us patrons stare like zombies into our screens, reading food blogs or scrolling through Twitter where #MyRapperNameIs is trending. Tomorrow it’ll come out that no officers were charged in the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. #KeithScott will be trending, but will the white folks who made puns out of famous rappers’ names, including Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, who made puns without acknowledging the deaths these men suffered at rates disproportionate to their white counterparts take notice?
As I walk home, I’ll think about my own position to these readings. How can I continue to challenge my own consumption of popular culture? Though I prefer The Pharcyde to Mumford & Sons, I know that the former exists in a contentious genre, which, as Rux describes, profits from exploitation of black experiences that I haven’t endured and won’t ever fully understand. What business do I have as a white, middle class woman listening to rap when hipster-indie rock was manufactured for me? It would be, and has been, easy to scoff off criticisms and tell myself that my listening to hip hop isn’t on the same level of racial performance as the Kardashians lip enhancements. But I’m not sure that’s true. We all engage in racial performance, Rux writes, and so we must continue to educate ourselves on the history of the media we consume. Who originated the styles we admire? Who has been credited for their existence? Who profits from their sale or popularity?