On Hipster Racism

Ijeoma Oluo
Feb 14, 2015 · 6 min read

I’m expanding further on the piece I wrote for the Guardian, because it definitely seems necessary. Some of you who follow my work, and fight for equality by my side have been hurt by what was said or implied in that piece. And if you want clarification, I definitely owe that to you. So here goes:

I was asked to write about Hipster Racism. I didn’t want to write about what Hipster Racism is, because I think that’s been covered and covered very well by other writers. I wanted to write about what it represents to me, which is a need for a change in how we talk about racism. And let me start by saying that when I say “we” I’m not talking about people of color, I’m talking about all of society, that wasn’t clear in my piece and I apologize (thank you Saadia for kindly pointing that out to me). It is definitely something that I should have been more careful of.

Here is what I think Hipster Racism represents: I think it represents an outdated notion of what racism is. I often hear people say, “it’s not racism, it’s not like people are being lynched.” or “I didn’t call you a ‘nigger’, I’m not a racist.” And also, just as dangerous, in my opinion, I often only see allies standing by our side to fight injustice when we are facing the end result of systematic oppression — like police brutality. I’ve written about this in the past here.

I believe that our focus only on the end result, the most visible violent racism, distracts us from what is really killing us — the little things. I believe that if all people of color had to worry about was the trigger happy cop, or the bigot shouting epithets, we’d be faring much better than we are. Those people (yes even the cops) aren’t pulling as many strings as we give them credit for anymore. When I said that those people don’t matter anymore, I was being needlessly flippant. They do matter very much to the individual that hate is targeted at and I should not have been so dismissive. I just no longer view them as the primary drivers of the racism that surrounds us.

This is what I believe is killing us, which is what I stated at the end of the Guardian piece: a system that perpetuates low employment, high imprisonment, low cultural representation, poor education and poor health for our black and brown communities. I do not believe that this system is held up by people saying “hmmm…how can we oppress brown people today” although, please don’t get me wrong, the system was definitely built on that — this whole country was. I believe that while we are pointing at a violent racist and saying “him — he’s the problem” and allies march with us and then go home feeling like they’ve helped fix something, they are still voting for “anti-crime” initiatives that target brown people. They are still subtly “othering” people of color — which affects things like whether or not you get a job recommendation; especially since studies have shown that referrals from people who think they’d “like to work with you” is one of the most important factors in promotions. The “harmless” jokes about “black” names feed directly into the perception that people with those names are a joke. Those “jokes” directly contribute to the fact that someone with a “black” name is far less likely to be even interviewed for a job than someone with a “white” name.

The gap between the perceived “oh hey it’s just a headdress” to the reality — the erasure of Native American culture and history and the empathy-blocking effects of making people into caricature, is vast. It’s so vast that many simply refuse to see it. And this is a HUGE problem. This is something I’m very passionate about.

When I say that many of the people holding up the system of oppression have good intentions, I mean exactly that: they have good intentions AND they are holding up a system of oppression. When I say that we need to separate intention from action, it’s not because I think that “good intentions” make the action less harmful, it’s because I think that the action itself is just as harmful as those with evil intention. I say that we need to separate the two, not because people with good intentions get a pass, but because people with good intentions need to examine the effects of their actions regardless. Both need to be acknowledged and addressed, but we need to recognize that they don’t always come together, so we don’t miss the opportunity to correct harmful racist actions.

When I discuss the need for changing our definition of racism, it’s not to narrow it, it’s not to cut well-meaning people slack — it’s for the opposite. To make sure that all harmful actions are included — even when someone does not believe they are racist.

I think that our definition of racism needs to change because it’s so closely tied to an outdated vision of racists (and not your shitty uncle who says awful things at Thanksgiving, I mean the white hoods, cross burning racist) that society dismisses racist action if they don’t think the person acting is purposefully racist. I believe that you can have racism without racists — and it’s just as harmful, if not more, that the actions of hateful racists. And when I say that the definition needs to change, I don’t mean that it’s a kinder, gentler racism.

I want people, regardless of intent, to know that when they cross the street when they see a black man on the sidewalk, they are more responsible for police brutality than the cops are. I want people to know, that regardless of intent, when people joke about “lazy Mexicans” or “illegals” they are more responsible the racist rhetoric of politicians than the politicians are. I want people to know that, regardless of intent, when they talk about “ghettos” or “good/bad neighborhoods” they are more responsible for the food deserts, the lack of jobs, and lack of quality teachers in predominantly brown neighborhoods than the businesses that decide to leave and the teachers that decide to work in another district.

I don’t want people to have to challenge their entire self-identity as “non-racists” before they are able to accept that their actions are hurting people. I want them to acknowlege it, regardless of intention. “I meant to” or “I didn’t mean to” doesn’t lesson the hurt, so it’s not a discussion I want to get caught up in.

I want marches for equal funding for education. I want marches for better access to quality healthcare and more culturally aware training for doctors and nurses. I want marches for truly equal lending. I want marches for better diversity training for teachers. I want marches for police officers that actually live in the communities they police. I want marches for better representation of people of color in movies and television. I want marches for more inclusive education on brown history and culture in schools. I want marches for better access to public transportation. I want marches for more head start programs. I want marches for more affordable daycare. And I want white people marching with me.

I get why it seemed to many people of color that I was saying the opposite of that. The lengths of explanation I have had to give even to people who know me well has made that clear. And the fault for that is entirely my own. I should have written it completely, or not at all. These conversations are too important to fuck up.

If you have any comments or questions on this, please feel free to reach out to me via twitter or my ask.com box — or any other way you have of contacting me. I appreciate the generosity of your time and conversation.

Thanks to Saadia Muzaffar

Ijeoma Oluo

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