This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

September 14, 2009

Some of the People Some of the Time: Prologue to a Discussion of “Black Hipster Expression”

Filed under: "Black Hipster Expressionism" — Tags: , , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:46 am

"None of the People, None of the Time." PPR_Scribe

I’ve been saying for some time that I was going to revisit  issues from the post, “Til your tongue turns doo-doo brown”: 2 Live Crew and Hipster Expression, and the conversation that followed. I want to deliver on that promise starting with this post.


In the original post, I was responding to one of the lesser-discussed aspects of the Henry Louis Gates arrest case. Acts of Faith and Love and What About Our Daughters did a wonderful job of reminding us of Dr. Gates’ defense of the rap group 2 Live Crew during their obscenity trial. I came clean in my post about my own brief affair with the music of 2 Live Crew.

I coined a term—hipster expression—to characterize consumption of racially/sexually problematic creative output:

We could consume problematic Black cultural artifacts in an ironic, intellectual, distant manner. We could even reclaim it from Whites as legitimately “ours.” Perhaps people were portrayed in hurtful ways. But those people were not us.

…Any Black person who writes professionally about hip hop…anyone who teaches a college level course about it…anyone who dons their PhD credentials and testifies in court about it…anyone who blogs about it on a shiny silver Mac… Any one of these Black people is potentially demonstrating a hipster expressionism.

Like its mirror image, hipster racism, Black hipster expressionism is usually exploitative, is an exercise in privilege (though class, not race, privilege), and mostly serves to reinforce instead of tearing down harmful stereotypes. (I would also venture to say it is “inauthentic” but I am always hesitant to label anyone’s experience as real or not.)

Call…and Response

I usually do not get a lot of comments here at This So-Called PPR Life, so when I do get more than 0 or 1 0r 2, I know I’ve hit upon something that folks want to talk about. I deeply enjoyed the conversation in the comment thread following this post. Some excerpts:

I think black academics, perhaps all academics, spend too much time projecting their intellect onto others to the point where they refuse to call a spade a spade. I’ve slid into that mode analyzing literature. You see it happen in art, people pushing all this scholarship into evaluating and abstract painting only to discover someone dipped a cat’s boot clad paws in paint and got the animal to run around on a canvas. If you think hard you assume other people think hard too.

~Nordette Adams, Whose shoes are these anyway?

I, too, have my own experience with this kind of moral dilemma – for my HBCU classmates and me it was Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and we played it all day long (still have a special place in my heart for that album). I couldn’t agree more with the idea that we create a kind of intellectual distance from these hurtful, potentially damaging words in order to laugh or enjoy the music (and not listen to the insulting lyrics).

~Claudia, The Bottom of Heaven

The mistake is for people to get sidetracked into thinking groups like 2 Live Crew were using artistic expression. It was hate speech. Specifically targeting black women and there was one final attempt by some common sense having whites via the courts and C. Delores Tucker standing by her lonesome trying to stave off the tidal wave of depravity that followed.

~Acts of Faith in Love and Life

“Perform your obligatory duty, because action is indeed better than inaction.” Bhagavad Gita

This is pretty much my entire take on life. And I think if we started adopting these principles as black people, we would see some change in our communities. We see what inaction has done. I don’t even mean going out and volunteering in the traditional sense, but simply being indifferent to the reality of what is going on is, to me, almost as damaging as partaking.

~Seattle Slim, Happy Nappy Head

That Reminds Me...

I was reminded that I still had not followed up on this issue when I read a post over at Racialicious about a new ad campaign for a gym featuring a Blaxploitation-era-looking scantily clad Black woman. As broken down by Andrea (AJ) Plaid:

David Barton Gym is definitely selling Black women’s bodies–or, rather, using the “hip 70s supermama” image (the perfectly spherical ‘fro, the make-up, the hooker shorts) with the copy and pose riffing on the centuries-old Black-women’s-sexuality-is-for-the-lowest-bidder stereotypes–to get more bodies into their gyms.

In response I said:

I am conflicted. I hear everyone about the problematic nature of the context, the text, etc. But these ads bring to mind my uncle’s basement “club room” in the 70s–with the Ohio Players album covers and the velvet, blacklight-lit posters of nude and strategically-nude Black women much like these.

I used to look at these women and marvel at their beauty and power and confidence. They were absolutely stunning. As is the woman in this ad.

…This is one of those things that I, as a womanist, know I should feel outraged about. But instead I feel a kind of warm, positive nostalgia.

One thing I do know is that reactions to this ad may show how novel it still is to see women of color depicted in any ads, thus the few that are depicted carry that much more rhetorical weight. I think the default is to assume that these kinds of ads must be racist/misogynistic/both/otherwise problematic and to spend our critical thinking on deconstructing how that might be so. We are less likely to deconstruct the positive reactions we–or, at least some of us–may have.

There are a number of ways to take my response, among them:

  1. I am just wrong. I am not aware, as a Black woman, of my own oppression and am revealing, through my “opinion,” a “false consciousness”;
  2. I am just being contrary, looking to start some on-line mess;
  3. I have a legitimate difference of opinion, based on differences in my own experiences vs. the poster/commenters;
  4. I have an unusually high tolerance for ambiguity and gray areas—a condition possibly brought on by an inordinate time spent in graduate school;
  5. I am engaging in Black hipster expressionism.

As I write this there are no responses to my response yet at Racialicious. Perhaps there will be none. If there are responses I do not expect that many will echo my viewpoints.

But I know there will be readers who feel similarly.

Just as I know that there are progressive, highly intelligent, worldly, middle class Black folks who re not church-goers, but who are also closet fans of Tyler Perry’s movies. And that there are Black PhDs at elite universities who teach audre lourde and whose car stereos only blare Joan Armatrading, but whose CD collections at home also feature Snoop Dogg and Kanye West. I know I am not the only Black person who recognizes a tendency to sometimes engage in this kind of hipsterism.

This time, the prompt to my thinking about this issue of hipster expression was an ad campaign. But there have been (and will be) other topics and events that are applicable. There will be times when my reaction will cause some to exclaim “Why are you not more outraged at this ad/song/movie/cartoon?” while at the same time others—sometimes about the same prompt and my same reaction—will say, “It’s just an ad/a song/a movie/a cartoon; Why are you getting so outraged?” Guess it is true what they say: You cannot please all of the people all of the time, or even most of the people most of the time…er, or something like that.

Anyway. Over the next several weeks I will be posting from time to time exploring this subject. If you have any insights, or would like to offer your own guest post as part of this series, please drop me a line in the comments or via email.



  1. I completely get this – and feel similarly. I not-quite-so-eloquently said something to the same effect today at Racialicious concerning Tyler Perry.

    I think your comment’s reference to nostalgia is telling. Most of us are drawn to reminisce about the old days, and the things that remind us of being young – so thinking about those things as being problematic is more difficult. Whenever we encounter another piece of expression that reminds us of those times – sometimes by reiteratiing the problematic themes, we may not be so driven to focus on the negative aspects of the piece.

    Would you consider BHE to be driven by class privilege because we are aware of the problems in the expression, and can more consciously choose not to internalize them? Or because the themes do not/no longer apply to us because of our class elevation?

    Comment by jen* — September 15, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  2. “Why are you not more outraged at this ad/song/movie/cartoon?”

    LOL, you are reading my mind. I love the way you break down your response into the five possibilities! I’m going to think a little more about the questions you’ve raised, because this is definitely a topic that calls for self-examination (and for some like myself, self-incrimination)! More soon…

    Comment by Claudia — September 15, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  3. @ jen*–yes the TP discussion over on Racialicious is one I jumped into as well. I, too, think *nostalgia* plays a big part in all this, but I have not yet totally sussed out how or why. That will definitely be something I hope to explore w/future posts on the topic.

    And class privilege? That, I think (no—I *know*) plays a HUGE part in all this. I think many Black folks and POC have an even harder time with reconciling/admitting/dealing with class privilege than White Americans.

    Claudia, I SOOOOOO hope you will add your voice to this discussion as part of a longer guest post! Please keep it in mind! And yeah—self-examination and self-incrimination will definitely be a part of my own future posting on this topic.

    Comment by pprscribe — September 16, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

  4. I think I covered everything I need to say in the post at my blog Acts of Faith in Love & Life and my cross-post at What About Our Daughters.

    I understand the urge to engage in what you coin “hipster expression”. I said I wasn’t going to watch Real Housewives of Atlanta but I did last night. I still won’t be listening to the majority of rap music though. I have to draw the line somewhere in letting such negativity invade my consciousness.

    On the other hand I’d like to be able to keep it moving and not look back at any of the foolishness lest I end up like Lot’s wife. I don’t want my life wasted because I focused on the wrong things. Things that did not elevate my consciousness and status in life. So discipline is very important these days and far too many blacks don’t have any at all.

    We see it playing itself out publicly even by those who’ve “made it”.

    Anyway I thought this was going to be a slightly different conversation but the lack of racial discipline is costing all of us.

    Comment by Faith — September 18, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  5. Hi Faith: What direction did you think the conversation would/should be going in? I do not have too many preconceived notions of what this conversation should look like so I would probably be open to and excited about whatever direction it took!

    What you say here I think is key, and a big part of what I am grappling with:

    “I have to draw the line somewhere in letting such negativity invade my consciousness.”

    Yes, exactly. How do we become aware of where we have drawn the line and, perhaps, our comfort level with that decision? How do we reconcile the fac that our lines may not be “logical” in the strictest sense of the word, and how do we deal with the ambivalence this realization may produce? How ddo we deal with the fact that others’ have drawn their lines different places than we have?

    Comment by pprscribe — September 18, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

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