A Girls Writer's Ironic Racism And Other 'White People Problems'

This week, on the internet, we are talking about 25-year-old prodigy Lena Dunham's new HBO show Girls and race. (Girls and gender was last week's topic. Keep up.) On Monday, after the show's premiere, Jenna Wortham wrote on the Hairpin about her disappointment in the show's overwhelming whiteness: "[T]hese girls... are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out... I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them."

On Wednesday, Girls writer Lesley Arfin seemingly responded to Wortham's and similar criticisms in a tweet. "What really bothered me most about Precious," she wrote, "was that there was no representation of ME."

Was there ever a chance that Girls would get race right? (Or even get it at all?) The young urbanites that Dunham depicts are more diverse than they're often given credit for. A show set in that milieu — the post-college-publishing-internship-Greenpoint-apartment scene — featuring a nonwhite main character (or two! Or three!) wouldn't feel unrealistic in the way that a black ad executive might feel on Mad Men. It would be nice to see a show that that acknowledged the existence of young people of color as privileged and narcissistic (albeit relatable, to some of us) as Dunham's characters.

But a nonwhite friend at your opium-tea dinner party doesn't make you John Brown, and the young white people who write and are depicted by the show are just as uncomfortable and unthinking about race as most white people in this country. There's been a lot of pressure on Girls to be the voice of a generation — or "a voice of a generation," as Dunham's character Hannah puts it in the first episode. Its writers certainly seem to have captured my generation's awkwardness about race.

Lesley Arfin was probably not thinking very hard about how her tweet would be taken when she wrote it on Wednesday. (She's since deleted both that tweet and a followup apology tweet; reached by email last night, she declined to comment.) But it wasn't, as eager bloggers pointed out, the first time she'd made a bad race joke. Her most popular Tweet of all time, according to the Favstar.fm account she links to in her profile, is "Repost this if you are a beautiful strong black woman who don't need no man"; in a post on her personal site, she calls pooping "taking Obama to the White House."

And then there was the Huffington Post interview Arfin gave to my editor, A.J. Daulerio, in 2007, in which A.J. pushed her to choose her favorite word out of three that Russell Simmons had condemned: "H-word, B-word, or N-Word." After a short rant about the "ridiculousness" of banning words, Arfin went there:

"Nigger" is a great word. It just packs so much punch. The two g's next to each other are like literal two G's, broin' out, tough as nails, them against the world. It gives me chills that a word can hold so much power, it really makes me feel like I chose the right profession.

A.J. says he pushed her in that direction when they were emailing; Arfin still answered, and reveled in the shock she knew she was creating.

Arfin got her start at Vice magazine, where co-founder Gavin McInnes would, with studied nonchalance, throw out slurs in his signature fashion column "Dos and Don'ts," and where Arfin wrote a recurring feature called "Dear Diary." In 2007, Arfin, with McInnes' help, turned "Dear Diary" into a book; that same year, McInnes, whose gleeful bigotry was threatening to define Vice's identity entirely, left the magazine and started a new publication, "Street Carnage." (He also has a column at Taki Magazine, your home for racists who think of themselves as cosmopolitan.) Since his departure, Vice's coverage of race issues has been toned down in favor of the run-of-the-mill incoherency of the resentful and privileged, as Kelly McClure's baffling and unreadable piece in defense of Arfin demonstrates today.

Street Carnage, on the other hand, is perfect for people who thought McInnes' aggressive posturing was the best thing about Vice, and Arfin, known as Barf, has been a sometime contributor. Yesterday, one of its bloggers, Benjamin Leo, wrote a post about Girls trumpeting her involvement and calling Touré a "fuckin one-track-minded McCarthyist hijacker" for asking Dunham about her show's lack of diversity. He then posted a screenshot of Arfin's Precious tweet, and wrote "Brilliant... Guys, you've kept it SO real – please don't suck their balls. It's 2012 and Obama's in the white house: the McCarthyism 2.0 witch-hunting mob has been disarmed!"

To be exactingly clear, I don't think Arfin is a true believer in racial difference the way McInnes is, and she's definitely not as inarticulately stupid as Leo. I don't think she made those jokes, or went for "nigger" in her interview with A.J., because of a deep-seated hatred for black people. I imagine she thought they would be edgy and shocking and mind-blowing: a way of saying "fuck you" to the squares, of asserting your counter-culture bonafides.

Instead she sounds juvenile and embarrassing, over-reliant on an over-active racial imagination. Arfin may not be "racist" (who knows; I'm not a mindreader) but she's engaging in what an unfortunate number of young white city-dwellers (dancing around another h-word, here) do when dealing with race — what The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve calls "hipster racism." (There it is!)

To avoid getting sucked in the black hole of discussing "hipsters," maybe we should call it "ironic racism." It's a distancing gesture, racism with the acknowledgment that I should know better and I don't care. Assiduously casual, meant to demonstrate a kind of worldliness or edginess, "hipster racism" acts like a behavioral flannel jacket or a trucker cap, a rejection of perceived upper-middle-class values, still wrapped in enough layers of irony to create a distance from the mythical rednecks or hillbillies it's thought to be emulating. Whether or not the hipster racist "actually believes" the bullshit he spouts (or thinks it's some kind of sophisticated satire) is immaterial; it's a posture, a performance, a middle finger to mom and dad and all the "McCarthyist hijackers" who won't let Benjamin Leo say "nigger," or whatever his beef is. (Sometimes, to be clear, it's just cluelessness.) The deep-down beliefs of the hipster racist are also immaterial, it goes without saying, to the subjects of his invective.

Even if Arfin's dabblings in race jokes and shock slurs are repellent, and beneath her, they're appropriate; if Girls is the voice of this generation, it needs to give voice to this generation's discomfort with race, one important manifestation of which is "hipster racism." (See not just Vice but the "Kill Whitey" parties, "Blackface Jesus," and so on.)

Dunham, for her part, is not a "hipster racist." When asked about her show's lack of diversity, she's been contrite and open to criticism. But her answers are still awkward, and reveal the other way that the kind of people depicted in Girls — should we say upper-middle-class urban millenials? — deal with race: by rendering the nonwhite members of their community — their "generation" — invisible.

That Dunham calls the show's whiteness a "complete accident" is telling. As Kendra James writes on Racialicious, Dunham grew up and went to school with people of color, people who were surely part of her social circles, and it's odd to see that her fictional self exists in a world composed almost entirely of white people. I believe her when she says it was an "accident" — it's possible, even likely, that the nonwhite classmates and friends she met and cultivated simply scanned as "white" to her.

In some sense, that's a good thing. But it's not as though Dunham doesn't acknowledge or understand the existence of race, or its effects. When a Huffington Post writer asked Dunham if she was concerned that Girls was "another example of white people problems," she replied that she "tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go 'Hashtag white people problems, guys.'"

What are white people problems, exactly? Getting cut off by your parents? Getting dropped from your publishing internship? What makes those "white people" problems and not "upper-middle-class millennial people" problems? "White people problems," and its cousins "white whine" and "first world problems," are frequently used by people I know in a self-deprecating way, an acknowledgment of privilege. But they, and Dunham's accidental erasure of the people of color who live in Greenpoint and go to dinner parties, substitute race for a sort of nebulous sense of class — unhelpfully ignoring millions of middle-class people of color, not to mention the millions of white people living and working in poverty.

And funny enough "white people problems" ends up doing the same thing that Arfin's Precious tweet did. Girls is the white people problems show; Precious is the black people problems movie; look, everyone's been represented. Dunham is self-deprecating, Arfin self-aggrandizing, but the result is the same: there's no room for people of color in the self-representation the two have created on HBO.

None of which makes Girls' portrayal of urban millennial life unrealistic. I've been to plenty of dinner parties where everyone was white, including myself. In fact, I'd argue that the show, taken as a whole, is even more accurate for these shortcomings. It really is the voice of a generation: a generation of white people who suck at talking about race.

Further reading: Jezebel's Dodai Stewart on "Why We Need to Keep Talking About the White Girls on Girls" and The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates on the systemic failures of HBO and the television industry.