Posted by
Kellen Powell
• 04.30.12 06:00 am

When did acknowledging that other cultures are different than yours become racism?

As my colleague pointed out, Jezebel recently published “A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’” by Lindy West. It names numerous offenses, among them: anyone white saying the word “thug”, covering a rap song, or pointing out someone’s blackness. Aren’t these just acknowledgements of otherness? Why is that bad? Isn’t it good for one culture to try on the customs and language of another when they’re trying to get along? Who cares if it feels a little silly at first?

According to the article, hipster racism is “the more insidious cousin of a hick in a hood.” To say nothing of why an author so sensitive to discrimination feels comfortable throwing out a pejorative term like “hick in a hood,” this is a despicable overstatement. Likening someone reciting his or her favorite rap lyrics to the KKK is absurd.

I’m from Vancouver BC, where we don’t have black people. When you see one it’s usually either someone visiting from the US or one of the rare black unicorns that actually reside here. I mention this because I feel not growing up around the kind of racial tension more common in other parts of North America left me as kind of blank slate. I didn’t start have an opinion about it until I was a grown up. That said, I was also raised properly, and as a child was told not to judge people based on the color of their skin by infinity authority figures.

A year and a half ago I moved to Nashville for 4 months with my girlfriend. We were living in a neighborhood that’s mostly broke white artsy-fartsy 20-somethings, but is bordered by black neighborhoods. I figured at first that because of my upbringing and my Canadian niceness racial tension wouldn’t be an issue for me and I’d be immune to its ill effects. I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t.

I started a membership at a gym in a community center where—at the time of day I would go—it was mostly younger black guys working out. The suspicious and in some cases exasperated looks I’d get at the gym or on the street made it clear that I was kind of intruding on their thing. At the very least I was making them more self-conscious by being there.

I kept my head down at the gym from then on and tried my best to act like I was an extremely good house guest using their private gym and I never had any problems. Would I have been more comfortable working out in a gym with other white guys? Absolutely. I was too shy and nervous to ask for a spot if I needed one, and I didn’t really feel like I could relate to the people I was working out around. I never made any gym buddies. I don’t think that makes me a racist. That was just a very common sense acknowledgement that I was in a different culture I visibly didn’t fit in with, and that it would for the most part rather I not be there.

If I was at a gas station and a black person needed help with a door, I’d open it. If they dropped something, I’d let them know and pick it up for them. I would never let anything get in the way of basic, polite, neighborly behavior. What I didn’t do, was think that any of them wanted to talk to me, or that it would be a good idea for me to go wandering around trying to participate in anything or trying to prove how “Okay with their blackness” I was. The cultural differences and animosity are routed too deeply for that to be polite or safe.

The only time I’ve ever plainly seen what I’d consider to be an outright act of racism was in New York. I was visiting NYC on my own because my travel companion couldn’t make it, and I had taken myself out for a nice dinner. After dinner I went outside for a smoke and this sort of Method Man-looking guy started talking to me. We chatted and I told him my situation with being in New York alone and he said he was waiting for a friend and could show me some cool places nearby while he waited.

We walked around and chatted about his ideas on New York for an hour or so and ended up at a nightclub he was recommending I check out. I offered to buy him a beer. He said ‘sure’ but was promptly stopped by the bouncers because his Timberlands didn’t meet the dress code. I suggested we take our business elsewhere and he said he had to get going anyway and that I should just have a good time. I stuck it out there alone because I was still finding it a little weird that this guy had wanted to hang out with a total stranger for the past hour. I didn’t want to press it.

The place ended up being maybe the worst bar/nightclub I have ever seen in my life. I lasted about 5 minutes before I went out to smoke a cigarette and reassess my situation. There was a group of young black teens celebrating the launch of their new clothing line trying to get in. They were dressed in better clothes than I was but the bouncer wouldn’t let them in because they were wearing sneakers. I had been wearing Nikes when he let me in and turned away my Timberland-clad companion….I immediately realized I was witnessing an actual act of racism and lost it on him. The guy was just using whatever shoes anyone who was black was wearing as an excuse to not let them in.

I totally made a scene and completely embarrassed these nice kids (who I should mention were only maybe a year younger than me) who were just trying to celebrate. I ended up going with them to another bar and I bought them all a shot to apologize for making the scene. They didn’t seem to care. I was supposed to contact them and buy a sweatshirt or something from one of them but never did.

What “A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism” is doing is dangerous. Not only does “hipster racism” downplay the seriousness of the actual grown-up world of racism and racial tension into hurt feelings over pastiche and jokes, it actually attacks the strategies our two cultures are developing for interacting with each other.

When Zooey Deschanel says “thug” or a wide-eyed white folk singer covers an N.W.A song on an acoustic guitar, it’s appreciation, not appropriation. It’s not a way of covertly judging things that are “black” as being inferior. It’s one culture engaging the other in a dialogue. It’s saying, “Hey, this is a neat thing that these other people do, and now I also want to do it and maybe put my own stamp on it.” Black culture has done more than its fair share of this type of cultural sampling and commentary, but it would be laughable to turn the accusation around.

As far as making jokes about a tenuous subject, or using laughter to elucidate an uncomfortable situation in an attempt to diffuse it, that isn’t a new thing, and it has nothing to do with racism necessarily. Why do we suddenly have to throw out our getting-along-with-people and awkward-situation tool kits as soon as race comes into play?

The answer is that we don’t have to. “Hipster Racism” is about as insidious as “people who are sort of annoying.” Whites and blacks are operating in cultures that are different from each others’ and sure, that’s a little weird and it probably shouldn’t be that way. But right now we’re getting to a point where those two cultures are just starting to try each other on each others’ hats and that process is getting shot down. Sure, there might be some hesitancy or some silliness to the hat-trying-on process at first, but it’s a mistake to interpret that as hatred. That’s just how you act around a new friend you’re not totally comfortable with yet.





  1. bollockstothis says:

    thats the first intelligent, reasoned thing i’ve read on this whole subject

  2. peterpiper says:

    But do not negate the fact that there is (Hipster) racism, and the photos that you have included in this bit are quite racist, in fact, the epitome of racism.

    The struggles of an entire race, for a Canadian who is unaware of the actual fight and struggles of blacks, latinos, and asians in the United States, is kind of monotonous and childish. Because racism exists, and it is blatant.

    Maybe the only time you have ever seen or known racism is due to timbalands or the fact that you might, with an extremely white name never experienced prejudice yourself (which is common), I don’t know your circumstances and will not claim to, just like you shouldn’t either.

    Maybe it’s because you grew up in a nice town with no black people, but dude, racism is alive and kicking, let’s not be naive.

  3. Shit4Brains says:

    ^^^ Please, please, PLEASE tell us how “real” it gets on the campus of a small, private university in ultra-white New Hampshire.

    You’re exactly the type that will never get it. There may be a job at Gawker for you when you graduate.

    And are white people allowed to “struggle as a race,” since you appear to have implied it’s OK for blacks, Latinos, and Asians? If not, why not? Even when whites become a minority? You think it’s somehow noble, rather than stupid and suicidal, for them to just roll over and die and humbly keep being attacked and maligned as a group? Doesn’t sound fair. Either everyone should drop the “struggling as a race” bullshit, or everyone should be allowed to do it without insane witch hunts and thought-and-image policing.

    I don’t expect an answer. It’s obvious that the only thing you, and everyone that thinks like you, have in your arsenal is moral shaming. And when that fails to work—it’s already starting to fail, and complete failure’s coming sooner than you think—you’ll have nothing.

    Real talk.

  4. Ughhh.. says:

    Crackers gotta crack.

  5. Shit4Brains says:

    Hilarious that people who go to small private coastal colleges where the student population is almost entirely white and Asian have a more idyllic view of black culture than white Southerners and working-class whites everywhere, who actually interact with blacks on a daily basis, live in the same neighborhoods as them, and sometimes even have to compete with them for jobs and resources.

    Absolutely hilarious. And that’s why the jokes will never stop. The joke’s not on blacks—it’s on YOU, you sheltered, naive whites. You’re the enablers of all these pious myths. In case you didn’t get it the first million times around, we’re making fun of your naivete. Sorry it needed explaining. Thought it was obvious.

  6. RED says:

    Here’s the problem with people from Ivory Towers popping their head in and telling us whassup: You don’t know what the club scene is like in New York. Bouncers don’t randomly tell some isolated Turk or aboriginal he can’t come in. Bouncers are told to ensure this club stays this way. Gay bars don’t like heteros coming into their bars because the heteros tend to take over and make it theirs. A club is a big investment and when a bar becomes black it usually goes more NWA than Cosby show. Everyone admits this, even blacks. Hence Chris Rock’s bit “Grand opening? Grand closing!”

    This bouncer was told to keep this club Latino or White or Gay or whatever the original idea was because the investor didn’t want to risk changing the business plan. Send a bunch of white jocks to a successful club that is strictly Latino and see how well it goes. As you learned at the gym. Most people aren’t comfortable with the possibility of you taking over their spot.

  7. Justin Peebers says:

    Just went to some lame art show last night. One of the “installments” was a guy showing a clip from a movie called Medium Cool. The movie’s about racism in the 60’s or some shit and the guy was trying to tell everybody that the racism in the movie was just like racism today. I wasn’t buying it, but the funny thing about the whole situation was that the crowd was all white!

  8. Reverse, reverse says:

    Do not take it personally, but what is up with those photos, @KellenPoewell? I was expecting to read commentary about what those photos mean to you, @Kellen, but not seeing your explanation, or any kind of reference to the content of the photographs, makes it seem like you are using them for entertainment purposes, or shock value. Is this your intent? If so, then it may invalidate your argument that “…two cultures are just starting to try each other on each others’ [sic] hats and that process is getting shot down.” Maybe the process is not the problem. Maybe a failure to express oneself fully on this subject is the problem. What do you see when you look at these photographs? This question would be a good place to start an honest conversation on this topic. How do you begin to answer such a question as what do you see when looking at blackface minstrelsy?

  9. kla says:

    this is actually a pretty intelligent piece on racism.

  10. Shit4Brains says:

    So the idea of “institutional racism—which was invented by Stokely Carmichael, who enjoyed far better living conditions in America than he would have if he’d grown up in Africa—exists.

    That’s all you’ve proved. An idea exists. You haven’t proved it’s true. You probably haven’t even bothered to test whether it’s true. You probably just accepted it because it was taught to you.

    The idea in question talks about public policies that favor a certain race. The only public policies currently in US law that favor certain races are the ones that favor dumb and under-qualified nonwhites via Affirmative Action. So yes, there’s still institutional racism in American government. It favors nonwhites.

  11. Jeezus says:

    Shit4Brains, in fact, may actually have shit for brains.

    The minstrel pics make absolutely no sense in the context of this article. Or do they? Combined with sentences like “When Zooey Deschanel says “thug” or a wide-eyed white folk singer covers an N.W.A song on an acoustic guitar, IT’S APPRECIATION, NOT APPROPRIATION”, well, its less provocative, more provocation. Considering the origins of blackface this should be glaringly obvious. Conceptually, the wealthy, middle aged white guy singin songs about catfish and watermelon a hundred years ago isn’t that much different than a college aged princess ironically crooning about rioting & looting in LA, and burying dead friends young.

    What is the end game with this back-and-forth over the last week? I’m down with terrible jokes and borderline classlessness if the results are laughs, but it sounds like you’re defending white folks’ rights to say the 1st thing that pops into their head without consequence, as opposed to defending freedom of speech. I don’t think explaining “thinking before you speak” as a concept to the most privileged people in the world is such a bad idea.

    Also, poor Kellen, he was made to feel uncomfortable for a short portion of his day for a limited time. Hard to ask people to sack up when you’re traumatized by not being able to meet a new “gym buddy”.

  12. Michael says:

    Another ageist article from Kellen Powell.

  13. Anthony says:

    Being too scared to ask for a spot at a black gym isn’t racist, but writing an article about being too scared to ask a black dude for a spot probably is racism. Tell us about your experiences in the showers, Kellen, I’m sure they’re chalked full of insight.

  14. ultimate truth bringer 2000 says:

    hey… hey… wait a minute guys. what if, and this is just a theoretical idea, black people actually are less intelligent and more aggressive than whites? not sayin, just sayin.

  15. peterpaul says:

    Maybe, just maybe the pictures are to illustrate how far we have come…god, miss the forest for the trees and all…

  16. areyouseri says:

    “When Zooey Deschanel says “thug” or a wide-eyed white folk singer covers an N.W.A song on an acoustic guitar, it’s appreciation, not appropriation.”

    That you equate these things makes me question your analytical abilities. The former is appropriation, the latter is appreciation.

    “Black culture has done more than its fair share of this type of cultural sampling and commentary, but it would be laughable to turn the accusation around.”

    Why is it “laughable to turn the accusation around?” Because isn’t that what you are doing when you say ““Hey, this is a neat thing that these other people do, and now I also want to do it and maybe put my own stamp on it.” It seems you are implying that “white culture” is somehow original in ways that “black culture” is not, which in turn suggests a power dynamic at play.

  17. diaperdawg says:

    Vancouver, BC has the second largest Chinatown in North America and a LONG history of racism going back to the 1800’s. Anti-Chinese agitation became a powerful political force by blaming Chinese immigrants when the economy turned bad as a way of organizing migrants from Great Britain and Europe around the idea of “white supremacy,” captured best in the phrase “White Canada Forever.” The premise still exists today. Kellen must’ve ditched his Canadian history classes.

  18. diaperdawg says:

    @Shit4Brains You are correct. Affirmative action is institutional racism against “white” races after abusing the system for so long. Now, we have the proposed DREAM act (to make things more fair)… this bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain illegal alien minors.

  19. ogunsiron says:

    “When Zooey Deschanel says “thug” or a wide-eyed white folk singer covers an N.W.A song on an acoustic guitar, it’s appreciation, not appropriation. It’s not a way of covertly judging things that are “black” as being inferior. It’s one culture engaging the other in a dialogue….”
    You’re making too much sense, Kellen. I can tell that you have NOT taken enough classes in sociology, because you make too much sense. Don’t you know that those higher than you on the progressive stack get to define what’s appropriation? Anytime you say or enjoy or display something “black”, no matter what your intent is, you may be accused of appropriating by someone higher up on the progressive stack then you are. That’s just the way those whiteness studies/Tim Wise/antiracist types want it to be. I forgot to mention too that if you, on the other hand, avoid black culture, you’re a racist. You lose everytime and all the time, by design.

    “Why is it “laughable to turn the accusation around?” Because isn’t that what you are doing when you say ““Hey, this is a neat thing that these other people do, and now I also want to do it and maybe put my own stamp on it.” It seems you are implying that “white culture” is somehow original in ways that “black culture” is not, which in turn suggests a power dynamic at play.”

    They way I understood Kellen’s sentence was that black people who borrow from white culture don’t get accused of cultural appropriation. Kellen thinks it’d be ridiculous to accuse them of cultural appropriation. Not because he thinks white culture is superior but maybe, i don’t know, because he doesn’t believe in the “cultural appropriation” smear ? Seems simple to me but maybe I’m dumb, since I didn’t study sociology or cultural anthropology in college and neither have I read Howard Zinn’s books.

    you may have noticed that the subject at hand was racism involving blacks and whites.
    Being from Canada myself, I agree that Vancouver is not exactly known for its massive black population. Though I must mention a pretty cool black Vancouver native called Caller Of The Storms, lead guitarist of the legendary black metal horde Blasphemy! Hail the Ross Bay Kult!

  20. Tweak Markety-Mark says:

    I think I’ll go back to Russia and fuck some more 15-year-olds while pretending I have a fucking clue what it’s like to be working-class. You can bet your sweep bippy that when I am not threatening to kill girlfriends who refuse to abort, or when I’m not busy dragging women from clubs and hilariously raping them, I am a bold and noble People’s Warrior who is fighting corruption and sociopathy. When I am not lying through my teeth, I am exposing journalistic malfeasance. I am being persecuted by the Powers That Be just like Julian Assange—you know, guys who go to foreign countries and commit sex crimes. I do worry about the fact that everyone says I’ve been looking like death lately, though. And that my cowardice and fraud and journalistic ineptitude have been exposed. And I still hate and stalk those more famous than me.

    Despite all that, and I really mean this—well, as capable as I am of really meaning anything—I want you to stay mean, brah. That is, unless you’re in Orange County, the Meanest County. Even while staying mean, you couldn’t be nearly as mean as Orange County is without even trying. That’s one mean county! Me and my lawyer dad would drive right around it—no Disneyland, no tours of the orange groves, no nothin’!

  21. GTHOH says:

    I call complete bs on this story. So a group of black people at the gym that supposedly look like they don’t want you around because you’re white and they’re not is just their “culture” being suspicious of your “culture”. That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard. Your assumption that because they are black, they share the same culture is prejudicial in itself. But you wouldn’t know anything about racial tensions since you grew up in lily white Vancouver…

  22. asshole confit says:

    THUG is from THUGGEE. Its Hindi. Appropriation all the way

  23. Carol Mickle says:

    It sounds partly like you feel bad coz you didn’t talk to any of the black people around you where you lived/worked out…I wondered why none of THEM ever tried to do that with you? Does that mean *they* are racist too?

  24. R says:

    “What I didn’t do, was think that any of them wanted to talk to me” THEM? The problem isn’t “them.” I live in the deep South and I would never refuse to talk to a minority because I didn’t think they wanted to talk to me. Ridiculous. It’s called being a neighbor.

  25. Jeezus says:

    @carol mickle
    You realize that part of the story takes place in Nashville, Tennessee? Have you ever stopped to consider what it may be like growing up black in the south? Maybe not embracing every awkward white boy who sulks their way through the gym has something to do with history?

  26. Vincent says:

    The beatles were so racist for playing Chuck Berry songs. My grandpa is so racist for liking jazz. Germans are so racist for liking techno (again those Germans!).

    There is such a thing as hipster racism. It’s not cool to say ‘nigger’ when you are pretending to be joking, but really aren’t. That kind of shit exists and I’ve seen it.

    But it is definitely OK to like certain parts of “black” culture or even joke about cultural differences. Sheesh! Fucking Gawker people

  27. PurpleKushy says:

    Typical Vancouverite, your writing sucked almost as much as your worldy views.

  28. ncit says:

    Good article.

  29. Melody says:

    For you to only speak about black people dealing with racism, goes to show how racist and naive you truly are. You lived in Canada how did you not see any racism towards natives even Japanese. For goodness sakes the Japanese were put in concentration camps in Canada after pearl harbour, native children were stripped from there family and placed in religious school; where they were suppose to be taught how to not be savages, then neglected and died. How disgusting of a person you are defending blatant racism, or are you one of those hipsters? But all in all your one run in with racism is not enough for you to write an article about defending “hipster racism”. Until you’ve lived with it; then you can have an opinion on the topic, but I’m quite sure your opinion would change. That’s all you ignorant ******.

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