Let’s begin by looking at some of your standard types of racists:
Actual Racists: Not often seen wearing a white hood at a rally anymore, but will still drop the N-word at a drop of a bucket, often in reference to the president, and not just while singing along to white rappers. Real-life example: Oklahoma University SAE chant.
Accidental Racists: They are scared of racial politics but legitimately don’t want to offend someone, and instead tend to lower their voices to a whisper whenever someone’s skin color is mentioned. Real-life example: Brad Paisley’s song.
Clueless Racists: These are the folks who don’t have any idea that what they’re saying might offend someone. This is largely driven by obliviousness and lack of interaction with people of color, but isn’t necessarily caused specifically by prejudice and racism, just a lack of knowing better. Real-life example: Your grandparents.
Ironic Racists: A special breed of folks, these are the people who have multicultural friend groups, talk about race and gender politics, and are the first to call out all three of the other types of racists, which they think makes it OK for them to use that same language. When they’re racists, it’s cool, because it’s ironic. Real-life example: Urban Outfitters.
We’ve all come across these people, and it’s likely we’ve fallen into one of these categories at some point in time without meaning to. If you’re a white person like myself, talking about racial politics can feel like a leviathan you’re standing before without armor or any way of tackling. We treat it like a Gorgon and do our best to not make eye contact in hopes we won’t be turned to stone in an effort to join in the conversation.
Automatically, by the nature of our skin color and the privilege that comes with it, we are primed to get it wrong when we delve into race. But if we just listen, are we then not doing enough to act to make things better? As allies, should we ever be the ones to speak up for people of color? Are there agreed-upon rules somewhere for how we do this, because I generally don’t have a clue and am scared of speaking up for fear of getting it wrong. And on the Internet, no matter what, you’re always going to upset someone, unless everything you say is riddled with enough caveats to rival a legal document or is as mushy as oatmeal in its perspective.
Why is that? And more importantly, why are the people who are often the first to attack others for getting it wrong often ones doing harm themselves? A while ago there was talk of the Hipster Racist, the person who is so intellectual and enamoured with themselves that they speak in nothing but ironies about everything, from cat sweaters to segregation. They’ll be the ones who refer to someone as “my brown boyfriend,” “The Mexican,” “The Jew.” Call-outs will be made loudly about people’s “ethnic” features or references to stereotypes at parties, they’ll jokingly talk about wanting to pet someone’s hair (and do it), and generally engage in all of the micro-aggressions they’d be the first to attack someone about who does it unknowingly.
But it’s fine, because it’s a joke! It’s ironic! They’re progressive, voted for Obama, drink free-trade coffee, hate the GOP, and protested the war. You can’t be racist and be liberal, can you?
Truth is, you can, and in many ways it’s just as harmful—or perhaps even more harmful—than any of the other types listed above, because these people know better. These micro-aggressive riddled ironies are being lobbed by people who are supposed to be allies to minorities. They are subverting their own message and setting horrid examples. While they’re jokingly talking about big butts and crossing the border with each other, they’re often the first to attack others who mistakenly get it wrong. They’re not educating or starting beneficial dialogues; they just hop on Twitter and comment trains on the Internet to shut down people who want to learn but don’t know how to engage. It’s a nasty circle of perpetuating a systemic problem from within.
Perhaps it’s a community issue. The hipster progressivism is often renowned for its insular nature; everyone is so eager to stand out as the most original avant-garde character. When you’re so desperately trying to be the most intellectual and enlightened while simultaneously the edgiest, it’s unsurprising that social justice becomes as much a fad as your Urban Outfitters graphic tank. And intrinsically, that’s the problem.
Social justice, civil rights, and not being an asshole to your fellow humans shouldn’t ever be a fad, trendy, or something done to fit in. When there are people out there who are actively marginalized for their skin color, sexuality, gender, and class, their voices should be heard, and it’s often quite difficult to hear them over the roar of angry, ultra-liberal hipsters. It’s impossible to start dialogue about the critical issues tearing apart our nation when so-called allies are so quick to shout about an injustice and subsequently rub elbows with their “diverse” friend group as if they understand or are feeling that pain just as keenly. It’s even worse when, by nature of feeling like comrades-in-arms for the cause, their blasé ironies to which they think they have the right to are being lobbed toward their alleged friends.
It’s a vicious and harmful cycle, and one that too often gets swept under the table because it’s being perpetuated by those most likely to yell the loudest. We don’t look closely at the language and actions of the left because they’ve become the bastion and protectors of the underdogs. We assume that perhaps it is OK to use derogatory terms and careless nomenclature because we see the people who check all the boxes of “Can’t Possibly Be Racist” practicing liberal racism and setting a terrible example for people who don’t quite know how to proceed. But it’s these dangerous presumptions that allow it to continue. Most people don’t intentionally set out to be prejudiced, but those who wear social justice like Hot Topic button on their bag are often too busy paying lip service to make a difference in the world.
I know I’ve heard ironic references from people and cringed. I’ve thought to myself, “If anyone else said that, they’d get their head chewed off.” But I never stood up and said, “I’m pretty sure the person you’re saying that to does not find it nearly as ironic as you think.” I didn’t act because I thought I’d get it wrong and then be ridiculed and censured for my naive understanding of how to talk about race. Instead, I watched their “token diverse friend” leave the party, pissed off and unintentionally ostracized by his friends. It was hilarious.
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