Hipsters And The Co-Option Of White Poverty Culture



The hipster movement is not only insincere, it’s inherently prejudicial.


When examining the universally despised hipster subculture, the one aspect of it no one ever seems to decry is its unabashed promotion of classism. The entire hipster aesthetic these days is an insincere mocking of white poverty—really no different than staging a white-faced minstrel show.

With the insincere co-option of black American culture tapped dry sometime around Barack Obama’s first term of office—I believe it may have been around the same time Dr. Dre started making Dr. Pepper commercials—upper-class, suburban-weaned young’uns whose religion is a syncretism of guiltless commercialism and thoughtless trend-chasing decided to turn toward the only real ethnic subgroup that, up until then, had gone unexploited by soulless fashion and media conglomerates: poor white trash.

The official Wikipedia entry for contemporary hipsterdom describes the trend as an urbanite, Millennial lifestyle “broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, progressive political views and artisanal foods,” among other things. The follow-up sentence tells you all you need to know about the authenticity of the movement as a whole: “Hipsters are typically described as affluent or middle class young Bohemians who reside in gentrifying neighborhoods.”

The hipster aesthetic, for better or worse, is the defining “cultural” movement of Generation Y. The frank reality, however, is that much of the “lifestyle” is but an imitation of the lifestyle that poor Caucasian people—specifically, those in exurbs and suburban communities—have been forced to live for decades.

The hipster “look” is nothing more than a broad caricature of the slovenly, “out of date” trailer park dweller, the kind of individual who sported gloriously unfashionable hairdos and facial hair when hair gel and clean-shaven appearances were considered the default look for US males. Seeing teens rocking “vintage” Iron Maiden T-shirts today is so commonplace as to not even warrant a mentioning; meanwhile, wearing an actual Journey concert tee, circa 1998, made you the butt of many an Abercrombie-and-Aeropostale-clad prep’s joke. The thrift-store bohemian look virtually every college-aged girl obsesses over today was more or less the only economical way poor white girls could’ve dressed themselves 20 years ago. Yesterday’s hand-me-downs (born out of economic necessity) have been co-opted by today’s suburbanites into an extravagantly expensive way to look cheap and, ironically countercultural.

Hipster “brands” such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and American Spirit are both examples of iconography that links up products of lower quality with lower socioeconomic standing. To see wealthy college grads chug PBR and smoke Bugler cigarettes is nothing more than bigoted mockery of the lower-class lifestyle itself. You could summarize the whole hipster movement as nothing more than half-hearted wallowing in poverty aesthetics without recognition of poverty’s real-life hardships.

As far as the hipster obsession with “independent” and “alternative” media goes, it’s yet again nothing more than an imitation of lower-class white behaviors, in particular, the behaviors of poor white people during the late 1990s economic boom. While rich suburbanite kids were rocking out to Cher and Bryan McKnight almost two decades ago, poor white kids with hardly any discretionary income were forced to get their music through Walmart retail bins and whatever was on sale at the local mom-and-pop record stores. Unable to purchase compact discs, the poor Caucasian youth of 20 years ago were forced to listen to music on audio cassettes or FM radio—having to become more adventurous than their peers, the poor white youth circa 1998 were already getting into independent music via exploring college radio stations, engaging in tape trades, and sometimes just picking up discounted albums because they looked cool.

In today’s instant-download, everything’s-available-on-YouTube world, however, “independent” media is accessible to all, and as such, the hipster finds him or herself constantly clinging to the most obscure acts (but ones with more than 1,000 Twitter followers) to feel “ahead of the curve.” Their fascination with indie music and indie art has nothing to do with the politics of independent media, but simply the allure of appearing cultured and fashionable among like-minded fans. Superficiality is the oxygenating agent for modern wannabe-whities. Recent MBA grads list Reagan Youth among their favorite bands on Facebook, while high-school seniors—who have lived in gated communities their entire lives—list Public Enemy as among their musical heroes. How shocking it must be, I’d imagine, for those same yuppie progeny to learn that, at one point in time, people earnestly enjoyed such acts and even found them philosophically and politically relevant.

Similarly, I’ve noticed that a lot of 20-something hipsters have a peculiar attraction to B-movies. Something tells me that their unsympathetic “enjoyment” of such movies doesn’t stem from being unable to attend actual movie theater chains as children, which is just such the plight of many a poor white kid in the 1990s. While other kids soaked up Space Jam and Power Rangers and Pokémon and whatever nonsense Disney was throwing at them, the poorer masses were stuck watching analog television, renting the cheapest VHS cassettes at the mom-and-pop video stores and, if they were lucky, catching a discounted dollar theater matinée. Today’s “hipster” adoration of horror, Kung Fu, and other forms of cheap exploitation cinema are just sardonic ridicule of the films that the lower class was weaned on via late night television airings and discounted video rentals.

Similarly, the hipster obsession with “do-it-yourself” and “retro” culture is just lip service. They cheerily ride around on expensive bicycles, oblivious that they’re simply imitating the poor white kids of 20 years earlier who had to ride bikes everywhere because they couldn’t afford an actual car. Kooky, contemporary admiration of outdated technology—VCRs and handheld gaming units and such—hark back to when poor kids, unable to afford laser disc players or 16-bit consoles, were forced to watch Betamax tapes and play Atari 2600 games as their only entertainment options.

Indeed, the existence of “hipster racism” and “hipster sexism” are actually meta examples of class prejudice; if these kids are going to “look” the part of stereotypical white trash, than why not express the same stereotypical bigotry that is so-often (and erroneously) equated with lower-class Caucasian life, too?

Even when soullessly imitating black culture, the so-called “wiggers” of the nineties and aughties were aware that, beyond the aesthetics and pop cultural theft, there was a REAL poor black culture out there, rife with violence and addiction and oppression. Hipsters of today, while completely immersing themselves in a superficial lifestyle imitating poor white culture, remain totally insensate to the realities of white trash hardships, however. To them, listening to AC/DC and owning vinyl and wearing tattered flannel is all there is to impoverished white America—things such as disease, meth dependency, and institutionalized classism aren’t even considered corollaries to the lifestyle’s aesthetics.

Suburban “hipsters”—many who have since graduated to living in ritzy “urban” apartments brought about by the mass eviction of poor blacks and Hispanics—are no different than whites dressing up in sombreros or gaudy gold chains, ostensibly; it’s the mockery of one class of people by a class that considers itself “higher” all the same.

The aesthetics and culture surrounding African-American poverty are different than those surrounding Caucasian poverty, the most notable being that the former is almost always seen as an “urban” condition, with correlating “urban” aesthetics, while the latter is almost always typified as a “rural” condition, correlated to “rural” aesthetics—i.e., Crips and Bloods and pothole strewn roads v. inbreeding and Oxycontin and cockfighting.

The major difference between perspectives of the two among almost all hipsters (and a majority of Americans) is that the urban form of poverty is almost always seen as tragic and exciting, whereas the rural form of poverty is usually considered self-imposed and maddeningly uneventful. Poor blacks, our cultural narrative tells us, are unwilling victims born into a death trap they can’t escape from, whereas poor whites are just dumb shit-kickers who deserve their poverty and are too stupid to realize how horrible their own lives are. The same way the much-maligned “wigger” movement was a fanciful reductionism that boiled the African-American plight down to rap video iconography, new-wave hipsterdom boils impoverished Caucasian culture down to the carefree, proud-to-be-ignorant bravado of Buckwild and the joyous antisocial behavior of many a Jerry Springer Show guest.

The hipster movement is offensive not so much because it’s an unconscious facsimile of poor white culture, but because its such an unsympathetic one, removed from even the glib admiration of “street culture” by 50 Cent-loving, mayonnaise-white middle-schoolers. The hipster culture is entirely anchored around a fictitious account of what being “poor white trash” actually is; today’s hipsters embrace the culture’s tacky aesthetics, but they sure as hell forget the part about poverty being painful and dehumanizing.

It’s cute how hipsters grow their scraggly chins and long hair and wear their REO Speedwagon shirts (for which they almost certainly paid an arm and a leg on eBay). Yet unlike the real white trash they’re pretending to be, they’re not saddled with the inability to afford a haircut, which is the actual reason why so many poor white guys run around with mullets and mountain-man beards. The hipster facsimile of white poverty is iron-pressed shirts and shampooed hair—real white poverty is head lice and T-shirts with permanently yellowed armpits.

You see all those manic pixie girls, running around in their tights and pastel lipsticks? It’s a nice visual ode to being a poor white girl, but they tend to eschew the part about being unable to afford sanitary pads or douches. Those homemade trinkets and Toms Shoes are likewise adorable, although I’m not sure how I would describe the look of actual poor white girls, many who can’t afford fitting bras and have to go to school wearing maternity wear hand-me-downs.

Oh, and the PBR and the crusty punk bands and the Polaroids and the bicycle riding? All nice artifacts of poor white culture, but it’s not really a genuine recreation of true poverty culture until you’ve had to go an entire winter without hot water, or you’ve had to live out of a car trunk for a couple of months, or you had a mother who was too afraid to take you to a dentist because she thought your crooked teeth would be enough to have Family Protective Services called on her. Hipsterdom is a scornful parody of white poverty culture, arrogantly oblivious to the adversities experienced by white people who actually live in poverty.

Of course, the suburban kids are just looking for something soulful, because god knows, the glorious lack of challenges they experienced as children never gave them any idea of how adversity creates a common identity and a true semblance of ethnic culture or anything. Like the stalest pieces of white bread you’ve ever seen, they joyfully hop around in whatever cultural jelly they encounter, soaking up the plastic pretense around them and celebrating their make-believe hedonism as something authentic and meaningful.

The problem is, they have no understanding of just how hurtful their synthetic depiction of lower class life actually is to those who grew up and are still mired in actual poverty And let us not discount the use of the term “racism” to denote what’s happening here, because that’s precisely what the “hipster” movement entails: middle-to-high-income whites of German and English descent ridiculing the ways of lower class whites who genetically tend to skew toward Celtic ancestries.

So what’s the harm in having an entire class of people represented by higher-class individuals in a mocking, insincere, ignorant celebration of blatantly prejudicial imagery, while completely disregarding the historical plight and cultural barriers that have kept the poor mired in poverty for centuries?

Try asking a black person how they feel about “Jump Jim Crow” sometime, and the answer becomes readily apparent.