Lindy West’s piece at Jezebel this week, “A Complete Guide To Hipster Racism,” has been blowing up my Facebook wall (and probably yours too) for good reason. As justice-minded folks have critiqued HBO’s ‘Girls’ for its lily-white representation of New York City, the pushback to the pushback has gotten ugly fast — whether it’s show story editor Lesley Arfin making jokes about Precious, or Vice founder (and old-school hipster racist) Gavin McInnes knowingly throwing the word ‘lynching’ around. At the core of every statement defending the whiteness of ‘Girls,’ and the ‘ironically’ racist jokes that accompany it, is the argument that only bad people are susceptible to racism, so therefore it’s okay for us good people to pretend to be racist, for comedy’s sake. Anyone who doesn’t like it is the real racist. There’s a bunch wrong with this argument, both in terms of logic and basic decency, and West does an excellent job of debunking it piece by piece.
But why is hipster racism, bigotry as an edgy joke for white people (and other people), so persistent? For answers, ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg points us toward an 1979 Village Voice article by influential music critic Lester Bangs, titled “The White Noise Supremacists” [PDF] — and it’s sickeningly familiar. Bangs was an integral part of the late ’70s / early ’80s CBGB’s scene in New York City, a scene which has been posthumously hailed as a high point for racial harmony in which punk, rap, reggae, and new wave all came together. Bangs describes it less charitably as a place where white punks rebelled against everything, and quickly forgot why they’d gotten started. The result? What he refers to as “racist chic,” the employing of swastikas and epithets to get a rise out of some authority or other, and the resulting deeply homogeneous scene that offers no trouble to the actual-racist CEOs of the record industry.
Bangs calls out a lot of people and names a lot of complicated factors, but is hardest on himself. It’s an essential inside look at the mechanics of white-dominated counterculture, a decades-old movement that wants authenticity from people of color and not much else.
In general, counterculture is predicated on the idea of disenfranchisement, of powerlessness, of being outside the system. This often requires a certain amount of willful self-invention, i.e. disingenuous affectations of poverty and the denial of privilege. Once you’re dug into that situation, being informed that your words and actions DO affect people can feel like a punch in the nose, because it contradicts the foundation of your being. (I’m speaking from experience here as someone who’s gotten called out on ‘edgy’ jokes in younger days; the gut instinct to ‘stick to your principles’ is real and difficult to examine objectively.) Add that to our society’s never-healthy approach to race, in which we demonize Racists while saying that racial inequity is someone else’s problem, and the results are predictable. Oh yeah, and in 2012, add a dash of internet anonymity.
Bangs, like so many of the musicians he wrote about, isn’t with us today; he died at the age of 33, a few short years after this piece was published. As he makes clear here, he didn’t live as a role model for social justice — which is a big part of what makes his honesty here so valuable. As he says, “since rock ‘n’ roll is bound to stay in your life, you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world.”
Below are some excerpts, but really, read the whole thing.
Right away in his conversations for this piece, Bangs encounters the argument that racism is a bigger, realer problem someplace else:
“What makes you think the racism in punk has anything special about it that separates it from the rest of the society?” asked [Bangs’ bandmate].
“Because the rest of society doesn’t go around acting like racism is real hip and cool,” I answered heatedly.
“Oh yeah,” he sneered. “Just walk into a factory sometime. Or jail.”
Compare his description of punk’s defining non-power dynamic to ‘Girls” persistent self-effacement — and to the familiar lament from white people that they don’t really benefit from white privilege:
Power is what we’re talking about, or the feeling that you don’t have any, or how much ostensible power you can rip outta some other poor sucker’s hide. It works the same everywhere, of course, but one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power: Look at me! I’m a cretinous little wretch! And proud of it!
… and how, by building your identity on your lack of power, you open yourself up to anger toward anyone who acknowledges privilege:
Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they Coked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mindlessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool.
He talks about how this manifested in his professional and personal life. Do these jokes sound familiar?
I was actually rather proud of myself for writing things like (in an article on David Bowie’s “soul” phase): “Now, as we all know, white hippies and beatniks before them would never have existed had there not been a whole generational subculture with a gnawing yearning to be nothing less than the downest baddest niggers … Everybody has been walking around for the last year or so acting like faggots ruled the world, when in actuality it’s the niggers who control and direct everything just as it always has been and properly should be.”
I figured all this was in the Lenny Bruce spirit of let’s-defuse-them-epithets-by-slinging-‘em-out; in Detroit I thought absolutely nothing of going to parties with people like David Ruffin and Bobby Womack where I’d get drunk, maul the women, and improvise blues songs along the lines of “Sho’ wish ah wuz a nigger / Then mah dick’d be bigger,” and of course they all laughed. It took years before I realized what an asshole I’d been, not to mention how lucky I was to get out of there with my white hide intact.
Looking back on it, he realizes the privilege at the heart of offend-everyone humor:
Because Lenny Bruce was wrong — maybe in a better world than this, such parlor games would amount to cleansing jet offtakes, and between friends, where a certain bond of mutual trust has been firmly established, good natured racial tradeoffs can be part of the vocabulary of understood affections. But beyond that trouble begins — when you fail to realize that no matter how harmless your intentions are, there is no reason to think that any shit that comes out of your mouth is going to be understood or happily received. Took me a long time to find it out, but those words are lethal, man, and you shouldn’t just go slinging them around for effect. … If you’re black or Jewish or Latin or gay those little vernacular epithets are bullets that riddle your guts and then fester and burn there, like torture-flak hailing on you wherever you go.
He listens to his friend Ivan Julian, then of the Voidoids and previously of the Foundations (of “Build Me Up, Buttercup” fame):
Ivan Julian told me that whenever he hears the word “nigger,” no matter who says it, black or white, he wants to kill. Once when I was drunk I told [Richard] Hell that the only reason hippies ever existed in the first place was because of niggers, and when I mentioned it to Ivan while doing this article I said, “You probably don’t even remember- ” “Oh yeah, I remember,” he cut me off. And that was two years ago, one ostensibly harmless little slip. You take a lifetime of that, and you’ve got grounds for trying in any way possible, even if it’s only by convincing one individual at a time, to remove those words from the face of the earth.
Julian again, pointing to why the scene looks like it does:
“I’ll tell you one thing: the entrepreneurs, record company people and shit are a hell of a lot worse. People like Richard Gottehrer, who produced our album, and Seymour Stein and a lot of the other people up at Sire Records. They were totally condescending, they’d talk to you differently, like you were a child or something. I heard a lot of clichés on the level of being invited over to somebody’s house for fried chicken.”
And back at the bottom, the wages of ironic racism:
I began to hear this: “What’re you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?”
“That’s not nigger disco shit,” I snarled, “that’s Otis Redding, you assholes!” But they didn’t want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn’t dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us.
… James Chance of the Contortions used to come up to Bob Quine pleading for Bob to play him his Charlie Parker records. Now, in a New York Rocker interview, James dismisses the magical qualities of black music as “just a bunch of nigger bullshit.” Why? Because James wants to be famous, and ripping off Albert Ayler isn’t enough. My, isn’t he outrageous?
Richard Hell, leader of the Voidoids, one of the only multiracial bands on the scene, offers his take on a particular practitioner of racism chic:
“He thinks he’s being part of something by doing that joining a club that’ll welcome him with open arms, trying to get accepted. It’s not real. Maybe I’m naive, but I think that’s what all racism is: not really directed at the target but designed to impress some other moron.”
And finally, as in 2012, a lot of people just don’t want to acknowledge that race is a problem — and they get mad when other people do.
A lot of people around CBGB’s are already mad at me about this article, and the arguments seem mostly to run along the lines of Why don’t you can it because there’s not really that much racism down here and all you’re gonna do is create more problems for our scene just when this Sid Vicious thing had blown over. I mentioned [Richard] Pinkston’s experience and was told he was paranoid. … these kids are not gonna believe this stuff exists until it happens to them. Hell, a lot of them are Jewish and still don’t believe it even though they know about the neighborhoods their parents can’t get into.
…you don’t have to try at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual. But there’s a difference between hate and a little of the old epater gob at authority: swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of their parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation. To the extent that most of these spikedomes ever had a clue on what that stuff originally meant, it only went so far as their intent to shock. “It’s like a stance,” as Ivan says. “A real immature way of being dangerous.”