A few months back Zooey Deschanel tweeted: “home from tour and first things first: New Girl episodes I missed #thuglife”. A piece by Lindy West attacking Deschanel for being a “hipster racist” then went viral.
Hipster racism, says West, is “…racism. It’s, you know, introducing your black friend as ‘my black friend’—as a joke!”
Apparently, ironic comments about race are racist. I disagree.
If society wants to break racism it needs to do so by ensuring that race is no longer a serious matter. If nobody associates race with anything substantial then race disappears as a “legitimate” source of discrimination. The same goes for gender.
The best way to destroy the seriousness of something is to take the piss out of it. Introducing your black friend as “my black friend” is brilliant. You are recognising that he or she is indeed black, but that this is of no significance.
Some people are black, some are white. Some people are gay, some are transgender. These things must be acknowledged – people often insist upon it. The key is for these qualities to be of absolutely no normative consequence.
I was educated at a school populated almost exclusively by migrant children. We were ceaselessly ‘racist’ to each other. For example, “Oi Fabian, how’s your salami?” or “Rouslan’s Russian, he was born drunk”.
Some people might recoil in horror, but I remember school as a profoundly inclusive institution. We acknowledged our various cultural identities but extinguished them as normative issues using satire. Through this process we created and assimilated a shared identity out of the things that really defined us.
Pretending that distinctions don’t exist simply drives the acknowledgement of difference underground and creates an elephant in the room. More importantly, it annihilates difference, when we should be celebrating it.
West’s piece essentially argues that ironic “hipster” racism is just racism repackaged. But this is a rabbit hole: go far enough back in the meta-levels and just about anything can be racist. An obvious example is that in culturally outlawing all acknowledgement of race you are, arguably, making race an issue and therefore being racist.
The important thing is intent. If you intend to be racist then that’s what you are, but if you intend to emphasise the ridiculousness of discrimination then you’re something else entirely.
This can get complicated in the case of, for example, men who “care” about women and therefore keep them out of the boardroom because it is a disgusting place. In such areas nuanced discussion of discrimination and intent is welcome, but Deschanel’s tweet should be left alone as a step in the right direction.
Taking the piss has limits. Many aspects of the fight against discrimination are not about negating seriousness. For example, taking the piss out of sexual harassment serves no purpose. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” might therefore be ironic, but it is also definitely sexist.
But where our aim is to annihilate the seriousness of something we are best off satirising it. As Maya Angelou said: ‘I am serious, so I laugh a lot’.
The author blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com