Sometimes when someone says something racist, it's an accident -- that's what happens in The Human Stain -- but other times, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the person knew what she was saying. Lesley Arfin, a writer for HBO's Girls, responded to criticism that the show doesn't have any non-white main characters by tweeting on Monday, "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME." She deleted the tweet Wednesday night, and apologized -- "Without thinking, I put gender politics above race and class. That was careless. The last thing I want is girls vs girls" -- and then deleted the apology. (Perhaps because there do not appear to be any gender politics involved in her original response.) But there are some other weird racial quips Arfin's written that haven't been erased, and they highlight the creepy strain of "ironic" racism among the crowd she is a part of. Racism is cool if a young urbanite is doing it ironically, right?
Well, no. On Arfin's website, she's posted a guide to being a groupie on tour titled, "The Groupie Chronicles 3: When the Shit Hits the Fan." It's about to deal with the unpleasant physical realities of being a girl on the road, like getting your period. The fourth section is about defecating, a topic Arfin introduces like this: "That Which Shall Not Be Named: You know, 'dropping off the kids' or 'taking Obama to the White House.'" Get it? That is "funny" because the president has brown skin, and brown is the color of feces. There are other examples of her, ah, insensitivity on these issues. A reader sent a long this screencap of when Arfin favorited a swastika tweet, which she has since deleted:
The tweet doesn't show up in her favorites anymore, but it still exists on the feed of William Strobeck, a filmmaker which one online bio boasts his ability "to produce some of the gritty, underground art that motivates and enhances this culture we call skating."
Who knows why Strobeck tweeted it. ("Isn't it weird that there's a character for a swastika?" "Hey, look, I can do something on Twitter that'd get me branded a Nazi if I did it in real life!" "This is art.") He doesn't say. And there's plenty of ambiguity in what a Twitter favorite means, so who knows why Arfin favorited it. In her 2007 book Dear Diary, Arfin describes herself as a "high-maintenance Long Island Jew," so if it's an appreciation for Nazi imagery, it's probably ironic.
And that's where this vein of hipster racism starts. It tests the idea that anything wrapped with enough irony can be transformed into something else. The more uncool the raw materials are -- trucker hats, ugly T-shirts, mustaches, smoking crack -- the better the trick. What it really does is say, "I do not care what other people think (aside from my immediate social set who are in on the joke)." That others aren't in on the joke -- watch me make racist jokes! -- is the joke. So what if someone's ironic racist or even real racist, right? Repeat the process enough and you get something like "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME."
It probably sucks to have to endure so much scrutiny because something creative you've worked on is suddenly popular and successful. What does one writer's bad joke have to do with a TV show? The thing is, the show's writers' biases are reflected in its content, and the cumulative effect of TV shapes how the country thinks about the people who live in it. People are more likely to support gay rights, for example, if they know someone who's gay, and studies show that gay characters like on Will & Grace are almost as good as IRL gay friends. Which is why last year's casting calls for Girls are troubling. At Racialicious, Kendra James pulled one up from the casting site Breakdowns Express:
James writes, "Girls, set in Brooklyn, where only one-third of the population is white, somehow exists in a New York where minorities are only called to cast for one liners and nanny roles. 'Pleasantly plump' Latinas may also inquire within." James explains the silliness -- it sucks that this has to be spelled out -- of the idea that black girls are like girls in Precious, and white girls are like girls in Girls. James, who is black, has a remarkably similar background to the show's creator, Lena Dunham:
We’re both the products of independent high schools. She went to St Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, while I boarded at The Taft School in Connecticut. We’re both graduates of Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH, where we were separated by two years. Dunham majored in creative writing, while I majored in cinema studies and anthropology. We weren’t friends at Oberlin, and we weren’t acquaintances, but it’s a tiny school; I could have picked her out of a crowd by her tattoos alone. Like the character Dunham plays on Girls, Hannah, I spent almost two years after graduating toiling in a thankless, underpaid internship in my desired industry.
Dunham says the shows characters are "definitely based on me, my circle of friends, and combined with the lives of my staff writers." Perhaps she should expand her circle just a teeny bit -- not to Precious, as her staff writer might suggest, but just to some of her fellow Oberlin grads.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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