There’s no love lost between me and hipsterism. Frankly, anybody trying that hard to be cool is, in my book, automatically uncool. Also, we have the technology for gears; why do they insist on riding fixies? However, I’m going to attempt to bracket that annoyance in general in order to examine some particular cultural objects.
A few weeks ago, I got an email advertisement from a company from which I have purchased t-shirts in the past announcing new designs. Among them was the one to the right.
And I paused on it for a while, and came back to it in my inbox a couple of times. I thought about sending it to my colleague who is a Spaniard, to tease him. Or my colleague who has written about the Myth of Discovery and colonizing the Latina body, to see what she’d make of it. But ultimately I just deleted the email.
And at that point, I knew I had to blog about it. This is not to call out Cotton Factory, who makes all three shirts, as the problem; I like (and own) some of their stuff. They’re a symptom, and I’m sure that there are many other shirts out there that operate in this same orbit. These just happen to be the shirts of which I am aware.
So, hipsters are known for their attachment to doing things ironically. They do things that are uncool on purpose in order to be cool. We can, therefore, reasonably assume that the people making these shirts and those who might purchase them know that if worn seriously these shirts would be awful, and that this is what makes them awesome in the hipster mindset.
There’s an additional layer here, which I realized after being getting this retweet: “As irritating as hipsters may be, prevalence of ‘smart in a hot way’ types in those circles is good for all” (which I’ll keep anonymous to protect the innocent).
Part of what makes these shirts work for hipster purposes, that is, is that they require a certain level of education to understand. You have to have a smattering of Spanish or know a little about the role of smallpox in the colonization of the Americas or have a smidgen of comfort with looking at the bad things white folks have done. Some of the smug satisfaction a hipster would get from these shirts, then, is how much one has to know to understand them.
But therein lies the problem. The shirts are so troubling because they both congratulate their reader for knowing so much and rely on a fundamental lack of understanding of the severity of the events in question.
Raping and pillaging native peoples is not funny, not matter how “ironic” you think you’re being.
Taking native peoples’ land away is not funny, not matter how “ironic” you think you’re being.
Virtually eradicating the people of a continent with disease, which then facilitates the pillaging and land-taking, is not funny, not matter how “ironic” you think you’re being.
There’s something deeply wrong with reducing these incredible historical injustices and death and mayhem to t-shirt sayings. Indeed, in some sense the hipsters who make and buy these shirts are themselves engaging in a colonialist project through appropriating history as a punchline—now with bonus smug satisfaction at their own intelligence!
Or, perhaps, they’re supporting colonialism by making it a joke, because if it’s just funny we don’t have to deal with it and look hard at how we in the US (and elsewhere, but the buyers and sellers of these shirts are likely primarily United-Statesian) continue to benefit from colonialism, neocolonialism, economic imperialism, etc. down to the present. Making jokes about things imagined to be 500 years in the past seems ok, because it’s bygones and we know better now—but that misses a lot about the basis of the contemporary world.
Perhaps most damningly, the shirts can’t guarantee how they’ll be read. The makers and intended purchasers are doing it with irony, but other people may well take them seriously when they buy them or see them on the street, thus promoting the thing the shirts mean to ever-so-mildly condemn.
Ultimately, then, no matter how you slice it, it’s hipster colonialism, FTL.