A few weeks ago, actor Charlene Yi told a story about comedian David Cross. She recalled on social media that the first time she met Cross, a decade ago, he said several racist comments to her. Yi was offended, but Cross at that time was a popular celebrity, and she felt too powerless to respond.
Cross responded by saying “I do not remember it like she remembers it,” and that “I am NOT accusing Charlene of lying and I’m truly sorry if I hurt her,” but he concludes “I am not a racist nor a bully and loathe them in real life.” Then, Cross added later that he was likely “doing some asshole redneck racist character,” and that “Charlyne” [sic] “did not understand I was doing my ‘welcome to Shreveport’ greeting.” He concludes “I had NO IDEA she was upset or I would’ve apologized.”
Many commentators determined that what Cross is guilty of in this interaction is hipster racism, a behavior Wikipedia defines as “engaging in behaviors typically regarded as racist and defending them as being performed ironically or satirically.”
Hipster racism was a big thing in the 1990s among urban white people who liked to imagine themselves as worldly, sensitive people. They’d make racist jokes in ironic quotation marks as a way to demonstrate that they were aware of the differences with their friends from different backgrounds, but that they were cool with it.
Of course, here’s the thing: you can’t put quotes around racism. Racism isn’t an action or an intent; it’s a system. And you can choose to be outside the system or inside of it. If you say racist things to someone in an ironic hipster context, you’re not being the cool white friend who’s showing how aware you are of racism. You’re just being racist.
We’ve finally reached a point where hipster racism is no longer socially acceptable. This is great news. And before you fire up your Twitter fingers to let me know that nobody should be shamed out of a job for some dumb joke, you should be advised that David Cross will be just fine. He’s not losing his livelihood. Nobody’s sending him to jail. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson from this, or maybe he’ll be bitter and whine about it. That’s his choice. But if you’re going to confuse honest criticism with being silenced, I’ve got no time for you.
All of this is setting the table for John Hodgman’s new book of essays, Vacationland. Let me be very clear that Hodgman does not commit hipster racism; there’s not a trace of that here. Instead, throughout Vacationland Hodgman indulges in something I’ll call hipster privilege.
Here’s what I mean: whenever he’s given the opportunity, Hodgman will make a self-deprecating joke about being white, or wealthy, or famous — or all three of those things. He’ll toss off a comment about the fact that he doesn’t deserve his platform, or that he’s surrounded by rich white people (many of whom are famous.) He’ll say that he’s ashamed of these facts, but he’ll still tell you about them at length. Here, he discusses his privilege directly:
This country is founded on some very noble ideals but also some very big lies. One is that everyone has a fair chance at success. Another is that rich people have to be smart and hardworking or else they wouldn’t be rich. Another is that if you’re not rich, don’t worry about it, because rich people aren’t really happy. I am the white male living proof that all of that is garbage. The vast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction to me. Money cannot buy happiness, but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constant worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous.
He talks about a wealthy white family that he encounters at an auction:
I didn’t think I was as bad as them. But then, the most compelling villains always think they are the heroes.
He recalls, with suitable horror, the time at a vacation rental when his children asked, with weariness, “Why can’t the cleaning people just leave?” Hodgman sympathizes with his children, and is ashamed about it:
I didn’t want to be there with the sounds of actual work surrounding us, reminding me that the Kingdom Property did not clean itself, but that I was paying other human beings to deal with the food waste and dank towels I had littered behind me. But I knew to push this feeling deep, deep down into a shame compartment to revisit later. My children did not.
Hodgman catches the eye of one of the people there to clean his house, and he mentally apologizes to her: “We’re not what you think! I wanted to tell her. I’m not fancy! I only went on television by accident!” Of course, in the end, he says nothing.
He recalls the time that former Seattle city council candidate John Roderick introduced him at a performance with the line, “Ladies and gentlemen, the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman,” which Hodgman cites as “a painful but fair assessment.”
The list goes on. Hodgman “accidentally” buys a boat and a summer home, then lays out the stories carefully, in lovely language, embroidered with all the embarrassed bragging that a reader can stomach. You see, because he’s aware of how gaudy and awful and wasteful all these things are, because he puts ironic quotes around all his stories, he’s not really exercising his privilege.
Except that’s not true. Just as you can’t throw ironic quotes around racism, you also can’t throw ironic quotes around wealth, or the fact that a system favors you. Your jokes about being in the wealthy upper class of a society don’t make you one of “the good ones.” They just make you one of the ones who are willing to make jokes about it.
I want to be clear: Vacationland is very funny, and very well written. Hodgman is a warm and intelligent and pleasant narrator. He seems like a very nice person. I read the book because I’m from Maine and I was curious to see what he had to say about it, and his observations about Maine (that it’s full of people who are quiet and dignified and poor and who are cursed for three months of every year to tolerate swarms of tourists and summer-vacationing folks From Away like — yes — Hodgman) are absolutely spot-on.
I also want to be clear that nobody is calling on Hodgman to be shamed or silenced. I'm calling on him to be better, because he demonstrates plenty of evidence that he's capable of being better. The hipster privilege in the book is noteworthy precisely because Hodgman seems to be a canny enough narrator to understand the error of his ways. Plenty of rich assholes make jokes about being rich when other people are poor; Hodgman doesn't seem like one of those assholes. He's halfway to an epiphany throughout the book, but he can never quite resist falling back onto an easy laugh instead.
And let's be clear that hipster privilege is not the same thing as self-deprecation. Hodgman is self-deprecating throughout the book, and many of his jokes are successful. But it's when the joke is at the expense of those who have less than him — when his self-deprecation disguises the fact that he's punching down — that his attempts at comedy fail.
The hipster privilege keeps popping up in this book, again and again, to the point where it feels like an obsession, and it gets to be grating. It feels as though Hodgman wants to score points for his awareness of the problem without doing anything to actually fix the problem.
Cracking jokes about being rich when others are very, very poor is less than helpful. In fact, people who are on the unjust end of those systems of race and class will very likely find his self-aware jokes to be hurtful. Even though the jokes are in quotes, and even though Hodgman believes he’s telling the jokes about himself, he’s still also telling them at the expense of economically disadvantaged people. The pie he’s throwing in his own face is still falling down on those who are lower on the ladder than he is.
So what can humorist and famous television commercial actor John Hodgman do to resolve systemic problems of class and race privilege? On his own, not a whole lot. But there are things he could do to leaven the hipster privilege in the book. One heartfelt passage in Vacationland turns on Hodgman’s awareness of police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement; that passage strikes exactly the right tone. It's thoughtful and compassionate and informative. But that passage is also noteworthy because it stands, relatively, alone. More like it might have resolved the problem.
Further, Hodgman could have used his platform to extend awareness of other writers of color who are doing work that he likes. He could have written more sympathetically to those of other perspectives, or he could have even tried, after the fact, to do a little journalism and ask the disadvantaged people in the stories how they felt about their interactions with him.
Or he could have turned the stories a little bit so they didn’t center entirely around his own discomfort at his own wealth. The above story about the cleaners in his vacation home is noteworthy because the cleaners basically don’t exist in the story as anything more than a vague force — a sound in the next room over — except for a fleeting moment when Hodgman is actually looking directly at one of the young women. They’re props in the story, just as they’re props in his life, and just because he knows that this is a horrific arrangement doesn’t make anything any better.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant