During my senior year at Temple University, I completed an honors scholar research project entitled, “The Colorblind Hipster; Deconstructing a Cultural Identity in Crisis,” with the support of my two excellent mentors, Dr. Brooke Duffy (advertising) and Dr. Matt Wray (sociology), as well as a CARAS grant from Temple University Vice Provost.
A startling (though flattering) number of people have expressed interest regarding my hipster research, including my college, The School of Media and Communications and then, Temple University at large. The full-length paper still isn’t ready for peering eyes, but I’m reasonably happy to present the presentation speech summarizing my findings that I presented in April 2014 as part of the Temple Undergraduate Research Forum and Creative Works Symposium aka TURF-CreWS. I plan to continue improving this post as time goes on, but wanted to get something up here promptly following graduation.
The purpose of my research was to unravel the many contradictions inscribed in the “hipster” personality. Through a review of relevant literature and field interviews with white and black college-aged students living in urban centers and peripheries, I identified three major underlying factors that contributed most significantly to the hipster identity. They are: advertising’s ethic of authenticity, the globally connected contemporary technological landscape, and the colorblind experience of whiteness.
The hipster has been a psuedo-subcultural figure for more than a decade. This longevity has been attributed in part to the lack of a binding ideology. Hipsterdom is based on individualistic expressive consumption and trendsetting. As one interview subject put it, “as soon as you call yourself a hipster, you aren’t one”.
It is my belief based on this research that the hipster exemplifies crises of identity construction that plague a wide range of people. When put in conversation, however, these three factors result in Hipster Joe-an essentialized figure- an amalgam of the caricature described in my literature review and interviews who may not exist in the wild but who will be a useful illustrative tool*.
*I do not mean to insinuate that any individuals featured in these photographs are guilty of exhibiting any hipster characteristics except for those physically observable in the visual representations included. These are examples intended to illustrate an aesthetic.
There are a few basic things you should understand about the Hipster.
o Pretentious and prides himself on being “cooler than thou”
o A millennial (typically aged between 20 and 35) (read as: digital native)
o Middle class
o College educated
o Will not admit to being a hipster.
o Expresses himself symbolically through consumption
o Aims to cultivate an aura of authenticity
o Looks dirty
o Lives in a city, probably within a gentrified neighborhood
o Takes pleasure in all things he believes to be obscure, including sounds, symbols, styles and objects taken from other cultures, eras, or populations.
I will here give only a brief overview of the two more universally applicable and frequently discussed aspects of the hipster mentality- the ethic of authenticity and techno-culture, in order to give time to the conviction that developed as a result of my field research, which is that understanding the implications of whiteness is essential to fully comprehending this figure. By offering a more complete diagnosis of the factors contributing the hipster’s identity crisis, I hope to encourage the self-awareness that may be necessary to obtain a cure.
The ethic of authenticity
The ethic of authenticity is rooted (though loosely at this point) in the Enlightenment-era concept of Expressivism, which claims that each person possesses a unique inner Self that can and should be known and expressed externally in order to gain a sense of self-satisfaction and wellbeing. Unfortunately, authenticity is invisible and can only truly be verified internally. In a social world, however, the invisible must be made visible. Thus, authenticity became a commodity.
The promise of authenticity was employed by advertisers throughout 20th century advertising to quell anxieties about loss of individualism in an increasingly fast-paced, mass-produced world, thus reinforcing it as a cultural value.
At present, this has developed into what I interpret as a collective fear of the perceived “mainstream.” To be a part of the mainstream is to be predictable, boring, and mechanical. It is to be controlled and defined by external forces rather than to assert one’s independence and freedom to create oneself. In contrast, to be authentic is to embody coolness, which always exists on the fringes.
The Internet provides a gateway for the discovery of widespread fringes- a sort of ultimate catalog for identity construction. With this access and connection, the cultural command to avoid the mainstream and find the most obscure props possible is simultaneously made easier and almost impossible.
It is impossible because social media creates a globally connected network- an insurmountably huge crowd- to stand out from. The opportunities for comparison are endless, which exacerbates the competitiveness of self-performance. Due to the symbol-driven nature of social media, in which personalities must be communicated by selecting exactly the right thing to repost, “like,” or say in 140 characters individuals are encouraged think of themselves as curators of personality- a personal brand.
So we have consumer culture telling us that the only person worth being is a “unique” individual.
Then we have the Internet constantly providing evidence that we aren’t as unique as we wish we were and requiring us to assert ourselves as convincingly authentic personal brands in the form of our symbolically represented online avatars.
This creates an enormous amount of pressure to find and express the convincingly original identity that will supposedly make us complete.
Everybody deals with these pressures, but not everyone becomes a hipster. This is where whiteness and colorblind privilege become relevant.
Whiteness and colorblind privilege
The problem with the mandate to perform authenticity is that it is entirely based on external perceptions rather than intimate self-knowledge. I have concluded that the rabid consumption that lies at the heart of hipsterdom indicates an attempt to fill a deeper void, the one left by white culture.
In post-racial America, to be white is to experience the privilege of being racially “unmarked,” a status achieved through joining the middle class and mainstream, “meritocratic” American society. As Tim Wise put it in his book White Like Me, for immigrants to become white was to sacrifice national and ethnic cultural ties on the altar of assimilation. The erasure of ethnic ties and entrance into the white mainstream renders an individual a blank slate on the one hand, and culturally bankrupt on the other. Theoretically, in a colorblind America this would impact people of all races equally. However, as my interview subjects pointed out, the politically correct rhetoric that insists race doesn’t matter has not been able to eradicate the marginalized experiences of minorities in this country who remain racially marked.
On the one hand, this works out well for whites as it perpetuates their privileged position in society by denying the salience of race in the daily lives of minorities (and subsequently allowing issues of race to be dismissed on the grounds of things like “reversed racism” and “playing the race card”). It also usefully absolves white people of the guilt associated with their privileged position and hideously tainted historical legacy.
On the other hand, it leaves the white hipster devoid of a cool, oppositional cultural backing, desperate to establish his individuality. His response is to consume like he is starving. Sounds, symbols, styles, slang, cultural artifacts- powered by the Internet and egged on by consumer culture, Hipster Joe grabs everything he can find that might make him stand out.
My focus groups explained that the thing about whiteness that enables the hipster lifestyle is the sense of entitlement that is required to consume culture so recklessly. Because he believes in the messages of colorblindness- first that race is only of superficial importance, and second that individuals are entitled to total control over the construction of their identities, he casually incorporates references to communities of marginalized others without sharing those experiences.
This desire to borrow culture without investing in it can be observed across hipsterdom. Sporting trucker hats, drinking PBR, wearing over-sized nerd glasses with no lenses, gentrifying neighborhoods to name a few. Hipster Joe distances himself from his status as a member of the white mainstream without actually divesting in himself of his privilege.
One interview subject described the phenomenon in the following way,
“When you tell a white heterosexual male that he can’t have something he reacts with anger. If you tell the same thing to say, a transgender, black female they understand that they can’t have everything”.
The knee-jerk reaction of but I want it, is a dual result of consumer culture encouraging us from a young age to have everything that we want and the colorblind lack of understanding that just because everything has been commoditized doesn’t mean it’s ok to consume anything you want.
The constant ripping of cultural symbols from their native contexts by the white mainstream (be they hipsters or others) was interpreted by my respondents as a clear message of obliviousness and disrespect- micro aggressions that thoughtlessly tear away at the hard-earned bonds of the marginalized communities that they came from. One subject even used the term “colonization” to describe the hipster’s occupation of foreign identities, spaces, and cultures.
What adds further insult to this practice is the winking insincerity with which hipsters express themselves. While it has been suggested that hipsters may be invoking this irony as a defense mechanism in order to further project the, “I’m-too-cool-to-care-what-you- think” persona, my subjects indicated that for those to whom these symbols belonged it boils down to mockery. Thus, the colorblind hipster is actually contributing to a deepening racial divide without being aware of it in part because he has been trained not to take race and ethnic culture seriously.
It was suggested to me that hipster Joe’s identity crisis might have been soothed if Joe had been raised with an understanding of what his whiteness meant (in contrast to her acute understanding of the significance of her blackness).
On the one hand, whiteness means mainstream, middle class, suburban homogeneity- something to run from.
On the other, it means a pretty uncomfortable history of privilege- something else to run from.
With this in mind, Hipster Joe’s attempts to externally construct his identity could be interpreted as evasive maneuvers intended to distract himself and others from the aspects of his identity that he is uncomfortable with or in denial about.
This characteristic self-denial is fundamentally inscribed in the hipster personality. After all, he can’t even admit to being a hipster. These layers of self-denial contribute to making him an unbearable figure, a vapid consumer who is patently inauthentic while still evoking an (unearned) air of superiority.
I read the hipster’s annoying and distasteful behavior as a cry for help in the outsourced search for identity, first through globally connected consumer culture, and then also through colorblindness.
I contend that the search for authenticity should begin within. Without first pursuing some harsh self-reflection on the meaning of white identity, I suspect that the hipster will continue to thrive.
And thank you, Tumblr, for the photo fodder.