My kid got this book, Dads are the Original Hipsters, for his dad for Father’s Day this past June. The description from Amazon reads: “This book celebrates dads as the original hipsters. Vintage photos of real dads back in the day—in their short shorts and tight tees playing arcade games—accompany snarky captions that at once tip a cap to Dad’s glory days and poke fun at modern hipsters!”
It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance for the reader to realize that not one dad photographed in the book is Black or Brown. My first thought was “Doesn’t the author have any Black friends?”
The reality is much more complicated and complicit than a white guy not having any non-white friends. This book speaks to the larger problem of Black and Brown representation in our cultural images; and more importantly Black and Brown representations of manhood and fatherhood that reflect the real lived experience of those men. Men who love, who are caregivers, who are kind, who are warm, who are breadwinners, who laugh, who are silly, who are creative, and who are cool. (Images of Barack Obama not withstanding.)
I have written before about the lack of Black and Brown representation in political, cultural, and social images. And, how important it is to see oneself reflected in all spaces, locations, and sites. But, this book speaks to another problem: the invisibility and hyper-visibility of whiteness.
The white male figure is the imagined and normalized image that is so reflected everywhere, that we do not even see a white man as being white. He is just a man. The dentist. The teacher. The doctor. The president. The CEO. And, now, the hipster. (I will get to cultural appropriation later.) We only notice whiteness when it is juxtaposed against non-whiteness. Or, when our expectations are not met; when we as white people assume that our dentists, teachers, doctors, politicians, CEO’s will be white and they are not. White people expect white men to occupy positions of authority, power, and wealth. White people are not surprised if their janitors, garbageman, hospital transporters, or dishwashers are Black or Brown.
The lack of an imagined or real representation of Blackness or Brownness creates a cultural climate where whiteness carries normalcy, but never stigma.
The invisibly and hyper-visibility of a white man is the benefit which allows white men to be seen and not seen, all to their benefit. We expect them to be role models. We don’t expect them to be criminals. And, if they are, their pathology is blamed on individual psychology and behavior, rather than on their race.
Dads are the Original Hipsters may seem harmless. But, I am reminded of an experience of a recent graduate student. While taking a required course for a Master of Urban Planning degree, the student quoted the professor (and chair of the department) as saying that “Black children are perpetually impoverished because:
“There are no role models in urban Black communities”.
The professor went on to present the now debunked and disrespected Culture of Poverty Theory which blames black matriarchy, single-motherhood, the expansion of welfare programs and ghetto culture as the causes of poverty in Black families.* Let’s repeat that: “There are no role models in urban Black communities.” I asked my student to respond. He wrote:
“My reaction to it was shock because I could not believe a white Ph.D. told such a blatant lie to a group of majority white and international students. I immediately began to think about all the role models I had growing up. My uncles, my father, my mother, my sister and many others who got up every day and worked their asses off in order to provide for their families. I wasn’t sad or hurt by his comments, but angry because how dare he tell me, a Black student [and man] who grew up in an urban Black community, tell me, I did not have role models, as I sat and learned side-by-side with my white peers in the SAME classroom?”
“I hate the stigma attached to Black fathers. I know for me, as a soon to be Black father, I see other Black fathers my age who are AMAZING fathers. We are abundant; we are not few and far between. We are present, we care about our families, we take care of our children AND our significant others. And, to be a bit snarky, the next time I hear about absent Black fathers, I will bring up abusive, alcoholic white fathers. I wonder why there aren’t any columns about that.”
*This student’s experience was validated by several other students in the class.
He is dead-on about the columns. In a July 2020 “Letter to the Editor” in the Buffalo News, a reader wrote what he believed to be a cause of Black underachievement in education and economics; “One obvious factor that persists is 73% of Black children are born out of wedlock.” He continues to complain about the “many men” out there “with multiple children with different women” in his “community work” who are not held financially responsible. This is ignorant and frightening; that a social worker is unaware of the effects of the history of enslavement and Jim Crow and how structural racism and purposeful underdevelopment in Black and Brown communities are the causes of poverty. Or, that being married does not make a man a good father or a responsible father.
These moments and experiences speak to the racist stereotypes and images that are reflected in the white world and in the white mind set. This is why I find the book, Dads are the Original Hipsters, so unsettling. It is a metaphor of sorts, of the assumed absenteeism of the good, Black or Brown dad…
…all while co-opting the definition of coolness that was defined by Black culture. The cover photo has a white dad carrying a boombox, or as the author calls it, “a portable music player.” Huh? The boombox was a status piece in Black and Latinx communities in the mid-1980’s and it quickly became associated with hip-hop and break dancing. The wide use of boomboxes in urban communities led it to being coined the “ghetto blaster”.
There is no single concept of what is cool or hip, but the existence of those expressions comes from Black culture and white-counter culture. Now, part of the mainstream, as this book attests, being cool and hip was a form of expression that was not constrained by western, white, elite, cultural and/or capitalist norms. It was a way of deciding for oneself what is one’s worth.
The author’s blindness to what were originally Black and Brown Black sites of coolness are numerous throughout the book. “DJing”, “Barbecue”, “Hanging Out on Rooftops”, “Nonconformist”, “Not smiling”, “Working Shitty Jobs”, “Drinking Cheap Beer”, “Protesting”, “Big Headphones” and “Tube-Socks” to name a few.
The lack of a political, historical, and social consciousness allows for the white-washing or making invisible the presence and value of Blackness and Brownness. Books likes these are not harmless. They re-write history. They call for a celebration of a whiteness that is not real. They are exclusionary.
How did the writer, the editor, the publisher not see this? Why is this okay?
So, again, I ask? Who is the writer? Who is the reader? Why are they always assumed to be white?
Therefore, in the interest of offering a corrective and counter narrative, I offer this picture, given to me by my colleague and friend. It is of activist, scholar, and writer: Dr. Henry-Louis Taylor with his first son. Taken around 1965. One cool dad.