Why Chipsters? Why Now?
A recent Telemundo segment posted on YouTube covering “Los Chipsters” was recently reblogged by Pocho.com along with eight satirical indicators that ostensibly help readers discover if they may be Chipsters themselves. The repost on the blog brought new—however limited— life to the term. In addition, the latest Urban Outfitters scandal involving the (mis)appropriation of the UFW logo kicked up discussions that again referenced and used the Chipster term. It got me wondering what are we saying when we call someone a Chipster? What (if any) political projects does the term Chipster imply? Or better yet, what or who is invested in this identity?
While some argue that Chipster and hipster are synonymous and occupy the same location within the Los Angeles urban political landscape, I argue that such comparison neutralizes and conceals the racial and economic history (and current reality) of both Chican@s and hipsters. In other words, more than just “a Chican@ hipster”, Chipster reveals the tensions between the racist-white norms of corporate marketing and increased purchasing power of LA Chican@s and Latinos nationwide.
According to the aforementioned television segment, the definition of Chipster is located between an existence that vacillates between US and Mexican culture. Upon such revelation, one immediately wonders what, then, is the definition of Chican@? Chican@ isn’t the only term to describe the hybridity of US and Mexican culture– one can point to pocho and, the obvious term, Mexican-American. Nevertheless, rather than a benevolent attempt to create a trendy (?) identity, my point is to argue that Chipster rests on an assimilationist paradigm that seeks to reconstruct what is known as Chican@ identity– political struggle, intellectual consciousness, activism, social change, and movement-building — into a consumer-centric identity aspiring towards whiteness and upward class mobility. The recent appropriation of the UFW logo by Urban Outfitters is a great example of Chican@s who, towards Chipster-hood, are depoliticized and rendered a culture to be mined for potential fashion trends for white and Chipster consumers alike.
Ultimately, what results is a kind of rebranding of the Chican@ identity.
THE (WHITENESS OF) HIPSTER
To understand the implications of Chipster its useful to begin at hipster. The currency that the term hipster contains largely derives from its function as a proxy to whiteness. Whiteness, in turn, points to a constellation of tastes, values, morals, and aspirations. Keeping with this logic, discourse about hipsters is directly or indirectly about white people. This shouldn’t be surprising since race has historically been a primary organizing principle for US society. Hipster for the most part refers to whiteness.
Historically, scholars of color have documented the role of whiteness in “mainstream” culture and the associated value, norms, privileges, and costs. A cursory reading of works by W.E.B. DuBois, Cheryl Harris, and George Lipsitz (Souls of White Folks (1920) , Whiteness as Property (1993), The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998), respectively) provides solid introduction that reveals the legacy of whiteness as its universality in US culture. It follows that this legacy of value of whiteness (economic or psychological) has been accrued throughout generations and remains relevant today. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s (1995) documents this through the persistent wealth gap between people of color and whites ( though recent research continues to have similar findings). Whiteness itself has value and society, in turn, places value on whiteness. Given the presupposed whiteness in hipster the logic follows that society places a social, economic, and political value on hipster.
In addition to being radicalized as white, “hipster” operates in two simultaneous class positions by simultaneously encompassing the pioneer and yuppie. This broad class situation permits “hipster” to be utilized in multiple, if contradictory, ways within a larger neoliberal context. I contend it is this reason why the term is simultaneously considered a compliment, a trend, and an insult simultaneously.
From one end, hipster is commonly used as a proxy for the pioneer. In an urban setting that faces, is experiencing, or has undergone gentrification. In gentrification literature, pioneers are largely considered low-income artists who move into low-income areas (disproportionately populated by people of color) for the promise of cheap rent that might facilitate an increase in art production. Pioneers are largely associated with the first wave of gentrification— those who venture into the “wilderness” so as to “tame” it and achieve some sense of economic productivity (as any good neoliberal subject must). Here the pioneer is represented by an artist who invests in a home or small business in a largely “undesirable” or “blighted” area. It’s not difficult to see how and why gentrification scholar Neil Smith was keen on highlighting the parallels between settler colonialism and gentrification.
On the other end, where some gentrification theorists would argue that artists begin gentrification by making a neighborhood attractive block-by-block others argue that the city plays a large role in gentrification by actively attracting businesses and residents who are more solidly middle to upper-class—here resides the yuppie. Unlike the avant-garde pioneers yuppies are more closely related to mainstream culture, their purchasing power, and a more advanced stage of gentrification.
While this may be considered a oversimplification of the relevant terms, for purposes here my point is to highlight the class dimension—the (starving artist) pioneer and (suburb-fleeing) yuppie— simultaneously conveyed under the “hipster.”
HIPSTERS & THE NEOLIBERAL CITY
Los Angeles’ political economy continues its restricting set to transform the inner city— and the urban suburbs for that matter— into sites of consumption, communities of color identified as ripe for development (particularly as tourist destinations). These developments direct hipsters to places such as Echo Park and Los Feliz until they overwhelmingly transform it to a “multi-cultural” (read: white) neighborhood. However, the wave of white folks into communities of color is not without contention. Recent discussion surrounding an impending gang injunction around echo park lake serves as a pertinent example here.
The term hipster and its location at both ends of the white gentrifier spectrum guarantees their presence in all aspects of urban “development.” The legacy of racial segregation and its persisting influence in mainstream urban planning renders places occupied by bodies of color as “blighted” and, as a result, in need of investment from entrepreneurs—whom, again, are disproportionately white. By directing all “development” projects towards consumption by the white, middle-class bodies of color are deemed threats to that exclusive relationship and subjected to hyper-surveillance, criminalization, and expulsion from those spaces.
Indeed, the monetary value of whiteness is revealed through wealth accumulated by whites through generations. Through perpetual aspirations for an higher tax base, cities invariably recruit whites as residents—as demonstrated by property values disaggregated by race.
CHICAN@ =/= HIPSTERS
Being aware of how whiteness and hipster are co-constitutive allows one to understand how Chipster is a misnomer. Attempting a value-neutral coupling of Chican@s and hipster isn’t possible. The history of whiteness and the exclusive benefits in the form of wage labor and generational wealth accumulation where and are not extended to people of color. While Chican@s have made notable progress in Los Angeles, they continue to make gains—however marginal—an increasingly precarious local and global economy. Indeed, Chican@s, along with African Americans, have been the hardest hit and slowest to recover from the latest global recession. Before the recession, social scientists have carefully documented the persistent wealth gap between white and people of color and, recently, noted its widening after the 2008 recession.
Due to the whiteness inherent in the notion of hipster, and the particularity of whiteness, that complicates the idea of Chican@s– or people of color in generally—being considered such. While a small number of Chican@s might have comparable incomes, a smaller number have comparable wealth. Chican@s–as assimilated as can be or unauthorized as can be—can’t be truly compared to hipsters.
While the national economy continues to acknowledge its Latino population—or Chican@ population in Los Angeles– this recognition is exclusively predicated on it’s purchasing power (Arlene Davila’s Latino Spin documents this thoroughly).
Nevertheless, I argue that attempts to collapse Chican@s and whiteness under Chipster fails to account for economic-oriented premise of this term. Chipster, then, assures and secures the neoliberal project by ensuring the foregrounding of a consumer identity and assuming a safe racial identity –white identity— vis-a-vis the aforementioned consumer identity. Chipster renders Chican@s suitable for existence solely based on consumer power/potential. Indeed, the Telemundo segment argues that tastes in fashion, movies, and music— or consumption— are primary indicators of your qualification as a Chipster.
Folks may still argue that Chipsters (or Xipsters if you’d like) connotes a critical and intellectually conscious Chican@, one wonders why their disassociation from Chican@ in the first place? Why not identify as Chican@ or Xican@ and leave it at that? It may speak to other issues regarding the term Chican@, however it’s still worth noting that, as of yet, Chipster is predicated on a primarily consumer identity and a (real or perceived) upwardly mobile aspiration.
While there is much more to be said on the Chipster question I hope to have provided some material for future critical engagement. IMHO, a healthy dose of critical thinking around this term is definitely in order as the economic restructuring of Los Angeles continues and communities of color fight to weather each wave of gentrification.