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Post-Racial Ironies and Counterfactual Histories: a commentary on hipsters

by Asha Best
29 Nov 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.2] | Commons

The prefix of the phrase post-racial is provocative. Even as it connotes temporality it resists serving a teleological function, instead, suturing a subjunctive futurity with a counterfactual past. If race can be understood as a socially constructed sphere of power that maps hierarchies onto bodies through trans-historical narratives, then ‘being post-race’ can mean that we have moved past racial designations and their material consequences, or it can mean that race is operating in a distinct way after, behind or even in reaction to a particular time, space or the ordering of a particular time and space.[1]  The “post” is an invitation to think about those schisms in cultural memory that in and of themselves narrate a particular past.

In New York magazine, Mark Greif refers to the contemporary hipster both as “the degeneration of our most visible recent subculture” and also as the “post-racial twentysomething.”[2]  Reading “post-racial” as telling rather than pejorative wrests this amorphous figure from the realm of superficial to look at the importance of his/her tenuously de-politicized/ de-racialized social location. Indeed, the ways in which racial appropriation and queer aesthetics converged to recreate the white male as the abundantly cool and innately progressive hipster of WWII seem germane here. What then are the analytical possibilities of viewing contemporary hipsters as interlocutors in the post-race discourse rather than as the unfortunate result of the current moment?

The resurgence of the subcultural label is certainly a nod to the figure of “The White Negro” (1957) and Robin D.G. Kelley’s “The Riddle of the Zoot” (1994).[3]  Mailer’s subject is embodied in whatever cultural memory exists about the beat generation, he is only a he, he is white, he is an anti-capitalist “American existentialist” who emerges around World War II and views conformity as death; he is a “philosophical psychopath” whose psychopathic tendencies stem from both his abject intelligence and his appropriation of Black cool culture.[4] And yet the cultural memory of the hipster has left generations with only an X while performing intellectual acts of fellatio on Jack Kerouac.[5] But, then again that is the function of race here: to obfuscate and hierarchically order cultural contribution before it becomes cultural memory.

The contemporary hipster makes his appearance in 1999 with the advent of American Apparel, but his penchant for horn-rimmed glasses, form fitting flannel shirts and skinny jeans seems to bridge the gap between the anti-war zoot suiter and his contemporary moment.[6] Enter post- race: the space in which the conjunctural post- is enacted through the marketing of images where Black, white and ambiguously “ethnic” bodies are draped in hipster garb, or not draped at all, grouped together against a backdrop of timelessness and re-coded as white. The aesthetic communicates a sort of axiomatic nostalgia, which is then washed in a sepia tint and labeled as ‘vintage,’ ‘classic,’ or simply ‘cool.’ Of course, all of these things coalesce to form a contentious visual vernacular, aural “only through the utterance ‘hipster’,” but made accessible to popular culture through another universalizing mechanism, the internet.

Figures 1a-1d. (read clockwise) Images from Vintage slideshow

It makes sense to journey into Vintage via American Apparel (see Figures 1a-1d). Four of the images from the visual narrative depict one or more boyish men at play in some part of industrial America. Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us that public play is different for racially marked groups.[7] The work space is also different for certain types of people. Then again, there is also the fact that Black men working on railroads in the 1960s might not have been at play with their white counterparts. So that whereas order and obfuscation was a part of the function of race, creating a past in which two different raced bodies have the same relationship to leisure and work is a function of the post-racial imaginary. This is the creation of a counterfactual history.

Let me conclude by saying that I find something unsettling about scholarship that arrives at an understanding of a post-race discourse through ontological studies of multiculturalism or mixed-race people. That body of scholarship suggests that in many ways “we” are in a post-race moment by using multiculturalism as way to map liberal narratives of interracial cohesion onto mixed-race bodies. But hipsterism turns multiculturalism into a trope of the counterfactual. Let us consider as an example an image posted to an aptly named blog on Tumblr entitled Microaggressions, a blog on “power, privilege and everyday life,” reblogged from Mycultureisnotatrend used by American Apparel to market one of the company’s scarves, which came to be known in the blogosphere as the “hipster headdress.”[8] The scarves were shaped in such a way that it modeled some sort of Native American head garb and the face of the racially ambiguous models was painted (see Figure 2). According to Microaggressions, “you can even take fifteen dollars off the entire costume if you enter the code ‘NativeAmerican15’ upon payment.” Counterfactual past meets subjunctive futurity indeed.

Figure 2. Hipster headdress - American Apparel advertisement.


1. Post-, n., Oxford English Dictionary, Accessed May 6, 2011. [↑]

2. Mark Greif, “What Was the Hipster?,” New York Magazine, October 24, 2010. Accessed February 1, 2011.[↑]

3.  Normal Mailer, “The White Negro (Fall 1957 Reprinted in Dissent,” can be accessed online; Robin D.G. Kelley, “The Riddle of the Zoot: Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics During World War II,” in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, by Robin D.G. Kelley (New York: The Free Press, 1994). [↑]

4. Mailer, “The White Negro”. [↑]

5. For a more thorough discussion of the problems in historical/ethnomusical scholarship and white hipness, see Ingrid Monson, “The Problem With White Hipness: Race, Gender and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse,” Journal of American Musicological Society 48 (1995). [↑]

6. For a more thorough discussion of the embodiment of the working class through the use of aesthetics see Mark Greif, “Epitaph for the White Hipster,” in What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation (Brooklyn: Sheridan, 2010). [↑]

7. Robin D.G. Kelley, “Looking to Get Paid: How Some Black Youth Put Culture to Work,” in Yo Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon, 1997). [↑]


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