Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Your hipster beard has long been problematic

The images of the white supremacist protest coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 offer a study in contrast. On the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s university, white men in khakis and undercuts assemble, lit in the August humidity by the soft glow of their absurd prop: garden store tiki torches. Cut to the next day: a car rams through a street full of protesters, captured on shaky cell phone footage in the stark light of day. Rightwing provocateur Richard Spencer’s staged performance had staked its claim: the polo shirts and khakis, the haircut (the undercut, high and tight, the “fashy”— literary scholar Grégory Pierrot has all the names for it in his book Decolonize Hipsters) were a clear statement of political affinity with white ethnonationalism. The injury and death that followed, if not outrightly choreographed, were scripted in the annals of fascism.

The undercut and the long beard had reached something close to ubiquity in the mid-2010s. It was everywhere. In the wake of Charlottesville, it became clear: the cut was compromised. Hipsters had to reckon with the fascist association of their tufted top. But as Pierrot argues in Decolonize Hipsters, his searing analysis of the deep roots of white supremacy and Black exploitation in modern culture, it was already compromised.

Decolonize Hipsters is a handbook, a playbook really, and in it Pierrot breaks down what the hipster has been at since at least the eighteenth century: colonisation, extraction, appropriation, gentrification. It is a book that teaches the reader to look at modern culture anew — not through the quizzing glasses of the French Directory or the clear plastic frames of our present day — but through the practice of Black critique. Follow Pierrot and you will see that the “fashy” foretold Trump’s rise — the signs were there long before Charlottesville.

The beauty and the force of Decolonize Hipsters is the way Pierrot folds and unfolds the pleats of historical moments to tell a story of race in the Atlantic world. Hipsterdom has deep roots in colonisation, Black cultural appropriation, and white supremacy. It is fitting that Pierrot’s book kicks off the series Decolonize That! Handbooks for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Embedded Colonial Ideas, edited by Bhakti Shringarpure

Coloniality is embedded in hipsterdom: the fascination with, scorn for, and theft of Black culture is inextricably tied to the Atlantic slave trade. “Cultural appropriation wasn’t born in a day, or in twenty-first-century Brooklyn,” Pierrot reminds us. And so he takes the reader on a tour of the past: from the late 18th-century European fashions of Creole dress, the mid-19th-century Parisian bohemian, to US American cakewalks, minstrel shows, jazz, blues, bebop, and on through Picasso, Portland, The Gap, indie rock, beards, Williamsburg, and the Kardashians.

Pierrot’s journey through hipsterdom’s history of Black cultural appropriation does not merely chart its evolution, he exposes its methods, too. Hipsterdom remains predicated on “exploiting Blackness — including Black critiques of whiteness — like a bottomless mine”. For Pierrot, Black cool was born out of the threat of violence and the crafting of tools for survival: “the communal knowledge that this life in the heart of whiteness is a dangerous game with ever-changing rules”. This secret knowledge, these subversive tools were incredibly attractive to white outsiders who came to “discover” and explain them for a wider white audience. Their finder’s fee was the cool they could now claim as their own, as the hipster is wont to do: “the original cool peeled and reconstructed by immediate witnesses to the broader circles of the white public” (see also “Columbusing,”; “capitalism”).

Grégory Pierrot’s humour in Decolonize Hipsters Pierrot’s is the kind that refuses to soft-pedal for anyone’s comfort. (OR Books)

The genius of this book is not just in Pierrot’s analysis but in his delivery of it. His mode is decidedly unironic and snark-free. 

This point deserves emphasis because at first blush a reader might confuse Pierrot’s penchant for humorous nicknames and biting satire with snark (see: “pillowcase scouts”; “rapist-in-chief”— but which one? Read to find out!; “the orange love child of Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis”; “Nappo Number Three,” etc.). Make no mistake: there is no mocking irreverence here, and Pierrot is dead serious. He trades in facts and history — the book is an uncompromising ledger that shows the hipster, and white culture more broadly, deep in the red.

This doesn’t mean the book is not hilarious because it is. Pierrot’s humour is the kind that refuses to soft-pedal for anyone’s comfort. He reveals this kind of accommodation to be part of the problem in the first place: the hipster’s recourse to snark and irony is an insidious dodge. “Irony,” Pierrot reveals, “allows one to eat one’s cake and forever have some left (or, arguably, right). The rebellious stance characteristic of hip and avant-garde can either translate into political action or at least discourse, or remain something short of that, snark without critique. Stay there long enough and you’ll have snark for snark’s sake (say that real fast many times), an outlook that demands that anything serious always be taken down a notch.” 

To great effect, Pierrot punctuates the seriousness of his subject — white supremacy, extraction, colonisation, fascism — with the hipster refrain: “Don’t you have a sense of humour?”; “Jokes, ya know? It was ironic.” 

Hipster irony won’t fly in 2021 — it can’t fly — not after Trump, not after Charlottesville. The haircut is compromised. The beard, too.

Pierrot’s accounting of the consequences of hipsterdom on present day politics is damning. The cult of individuality and commitment to burnishing one’s quirkiness is exposed for what it is: depoliticisation, consumerism, complicity. Hipsterdom is “a lure, a diversion: it was a glaring instance in a mass movement of depoliticisation whose very avowed scorn for politics made the bed for our fascist present”.

In the end, though, Pierrot offers a path forward — the possibility of breaking the cycle of colonisation, appropriation, and theft. He brings a genuine spirit of hopefulness imbued with a generosity that cannot but feel a bit heartbreaking. No spoilers here (okay, one: it’s not not capitalism), but Pierrot posits a way to take all of that hipster energy spent cool hunting and channel it into something meaningful. It involves another, better white man associated with Virginia: the abolitionist John Brown, whose memory and legacy Pierrot suggests is the one US American culture should be mining and appropriating.

As it turns out, Brown also had a sick beard, so maybe there is hope after all.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published by Africa is a Country.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Chelsea Stieber
Chelsea Stieber is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

Hawkish Reserve Bank sees South Africa edge towards a rates...

Analysts say the Reserve Bank could start tightening monetary policy as early as next month

More top stories

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

Greenpeace investigation exposes countries trying to dilute climate report

Greenpeace team says it has obtained leaked records of countries asking scientists to water down upcoming scientific report on climate change

Zondo responds to Fraser’s objection to his nomination as chief...

The deputy chief justice said all the former spy boss had to do to respond to bombshell testimony implicating him in state capture was to apply for a turn to testify

Immunocompromised finally prioritised for Covid-19 booster shots

Organ recipients are at greater risk of death from Covid-19, while waiting lists for transplants grow

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…