The Null Device

The whitest place in Melbourne

Christian lander, author of the Stuff White People Like blog (and book) visits Melbourne, pronounces it to be "white":
'MELBOURNE is definitely whiter than Sydney," says Christian Lander, before taking a sip of organic Fair Trade coffee. "In Sydney, most people seem to spend their days jogging around large bodies of water," he adds. "Melbourne is more chilled. If I lived in Australia, I'd live here."
And the "whitest" part of Melbourne is apparently North Fitzroy, my old 'hood:
We're in North Fitzroy, huddled over a small table in a trendy cafe-slash-grocer. It's the sort of place that sells organic vegetables, bio-dynamic meat and expensive pots of jam. On weekends, it's overrun by couples with babies on their chests and The Age under their arms. It's the perfect place to begin our search for Melbourne's Whitest Spot.
We leave the cafe and wander down Scotchmer Street and St Georges Road. "This place ticks all the boxes," Lander says excitedly. "Organic bakery! Cafe with retro furniture! Vintage clothing store! Authentic Thai restaurant! And old-school pub! Another organic bakery!"
But then we encounter a pub with — oh no! — pokies. "Everything about this place is problematic. It's definitely not white. But, paradoxically, it makes this suburb even whiter because it reminds everyone that working-class people still live here, which makes it more authentic."
Lander has some other observation on the "whiteness" of Melbourne:
We hop on a tram and spend the next three hours strolling around Brunswick and Fitzroy. Lander asserts that Smith Street's grungy vibe makes it slightly whiter than Brunswick Street. But Gertrude Street, with its record shops, handmade toy retailers and natural cosmetics stores, is the whitest of the lot. It is here his wife Jess buys a funky koala doll for a friend's baby. "That koala was made by someone who lives in Fitzroy," the assistant tells her. Big white tick.
(Smith St. is "whiter" than Brunswick St.? I'm guessing that he hasn't encountered its significant Aboriginal community. Or is Brunswick Street by now gentrified and suburbanised and changed to a different colour (perhaps pink, after the SubGenius usage)?)

Of course, by "white", he undoubtedly means "creative class" or "bourgeois bohemian" or somesuch, with an undertone of opprobrium, a hint of latent racism or sharply wielded and insufficiently atoned-for privilege. Note: merely having the privilege of not having been oppressed for one's skin colour doesn't seem to qualify one as "white"; otherwise, why is having a preference for organic food, vintage clothing and authenticity any more "white" than, say, NASCAR racing or country music, or the default option of honestly vegetating in front of a suburban plasma screen with a bucket of KFC? Lander seems to be identifying whiteness as the hypocrisy of pretending that one is something other than an oppressor whilst maintaining privileges derived from oppression. At least people who drink instant coffee, listen to commercial radio and get their clothes from K-Mart are honest, he seems to say.

Landers doesn't put the case directly in this fashion, and doesn't actually level a serious accusation. Instead, he asserts that "white people" here are "hipsters". Which brings us to the question of what is a hipster. Originally it meant a jazz enthusiast in the 1950s (and, coincidentally, Norman Mailer described the hipster as "the White Negro", in reference to their embrace/appropriation of African-American culture). Now it seems the word is used in several ways. It is used by people of low cultural engagement saying "those people are weird, I don't get them, heh heh", sometimes in a pejorative sense. On the other hand, you often get people who are engaged in creative cultures self-describing as "hipsters", in quotes, because it saves having to explain themselves, and in the next breath using the word pejoratively for superficial fashion victims (or perhaps those whose subculture they don't get).

When the word hipster is used in the pejorative sense, at its harshest it becomes synonymous with pejorative uses of the word "gay"; an aggressive assertion of the metaphorical homosexuality of the subject.

Incidentally, this is not the only parallel between hipsterism and homosexuality. Richard Florida, author of The Rise Of The Creative Class, pointed out a correlation between locales with gay scenes and locales with creative activity. As such, Lander's "whiteness" could be a repackaged form of "gayness", and if one can argue that being a "hipster" is latent racism, one could also argue that hipster-bashing is latent homophobia.

There are 9 comments on "The whitest place in Melbourne":

Posted by: Greg Thu Jun 11 08:33:43 2009

The problem with trying to discuss SWPL is that it is in fact two discussions - one about class and one about race. SWPL cleverly conflates them. It's easy to disprove the silly assertion that behaviours like choosing organic food are racially determined. The odds of a penchant for skinny jeans being coded in DNA are pretty slim. Then there are the global counter-examples, like the white working class found throughout the Western world, and the middle classes of Asia and Africa. The terms "white" and "middle class" might be co-extensive in Williamsburg or wherever this guy lives, but it's not true in most places and it would be a shame if it ever was. Society takes a step for the ugly when class becomes determined by race. ... But try to advance this argument and before you know it, the discussion morphs and people are debating whether hipsters are good or bad. The thing is, that's an entirely separate argument.

Posted by: Eugene Thu Jun 11 17:17:27 2009

Well, I think what makes SWPL so funny is the premise that race is determined by class. So if you shop in organic markets - you are "white", even if your skin is not. And vice versa - if you prefer fast food, frozen dinners and wrestling - you are not "white", even if all your ancestors were vikings.

Posted by: acb Thu Jun 11 17:58:21 2009

Does wrestling have a significant African-American following? Just wondering. I thought it was a predominantly white Southern working-class thing, like NASCAR racing and country music.

Posted by: dj Fri Jun 12 01:09:25 2009

If you go by how many African-American wrestlers there are, which would have some relation to the demographics of the audience, you would think not.

Posted by: acb Fri Jun 12 01:14:47 2009

I don't know much about wrestling, though all the wrestlers I recall seeing images of were Caucasian and looked vaguely redneckish.

Posted by: Greg Fri Jun 12 05:04:50 2009

It's funny seeing people accept, or appear to accept, something that's wrong. Like astrology and creationism are funny. But I wonder if it's going to be one of those things that gets repeated so often that people come to believe it.

Posted by: Peter Sat Jun 13 13:52:04 2009

I've always kinda hated SWPL, for many of these reasons. I don't find it funny, because what it's doing is really all too easy - and it's interesting that I'd never realised (hadn't really thought about it though) that part of it is a class thing.

Re wrestling: Until I read the wonderful Hernandez Brothers' <i>Love and Rockets</i> comics I'd missed the obvious fact (to USAians) that WWF style wrestling is inherited directly from the Mexican wrestling tradition. So there's a whole racial aspect mixed up with the class aspect right there. But it's not one that a middle-class Aussie like acb or I would pick up on - it just seems like weird American shit...

Posted by: Peter Sat Jun 13 13:54:01 2009

The more I think about it in terms of class, the more I realise this was a major part of what's made me nervous about SWPL. No doubt also I just find its hit-rate's pretty low with me (even though I'm middle class and, well, "white", and liberal/indie/whatever), so half of it's "get fucked" and only some of it's nervous-titter-inducing "Oh yeah, that's me".

Posted by: fertile mind Mon Jun 15 12:21:19 2009