semiotics

Summerhill (Hipster Racism & Gentrification)

Summerhill, a bar / sandwich shop in Crown Heights Brooklyn, has been making waves for the last few days.  The restaurant has been open for roughly one month, but recently sent out a press release stating the bar was “Instagramable” because of a “bullet hole-ridden wall” and serving forty ounce rosé in paper bags.

bullet image from Summerhill Instagram

First, it is important to point out that Crown Heights has been undergoing gentrification for the last 15 years.  According to the Census Bureau, from 2000 to 2012 the white population of the neighborhood increased from 3.5% to 12.4% while the black/African American population decreased from 83.6% to 76.8% (based on NTA “North Crown Heights).  In the last five years the trend has continued.

The owner of Summerhill is a white woman named Becca Brennan, which means she is literally a ‘Becky,’ from Toronto.  She has only lived in the neighborhood for two years and identifies as a “reformed corporate tax attorney.”  In an interview with Gothamist she stated “As someone who lives on Nostrand, I was getting tired of walking to Franklin,” Brennan said. “It’s three blocks, but it’s three long blocks. You just deserve something close, and a hang out, especially if you live on New York [Avenue] or Schenectady or something like that.”  Comments like these have lead to signs being placed around Crown Heights quoting the Brennan.

eater ny summerhillimage from Eater NY

The bar’s bullet holes and “rumored backroom illegal gun shop” authenticity has come into question and the use of violence in communities of color as a marketing tool has been roundly condemned.  Serving forty ounce rosé in paper bags is an obvious use of a stereotype of black people.  The juxtaposition of the forty in a bag and rosé is a great example of hipster racism, where supposedly it is not racist because it is supposed to be ironic or funny.

rose.jpg      image from Summerhill Instagram

Brennan’s early response to the backlash was pretty terrible.  As a Facebook comment she made “a joke about her tan in response to being called white in the Eater article.”  In a later interview with Gothamist she also backed out of her plan for serving rosé, stating “I also want to clarify about our bottles of rosé,” Brennan added. “We serve them in ice buckets and we have them on our menu because rosé is delicious, and it’s a great deal for what amounts to more than a standard bottle of wine. We have no intention of serving them in any other way.”

Whatever the argument, a white woman is attempting to capitalize off of aestheticizing the violence and poverty people of color have experienced in Crown Heights. Neighborhood residents are planning a protest and yelp has been inundated with negative reviews.

Don’t Touch My Hair

Don’t Touch My Hair by Solange featuring Sampha, addressing complexities around black hair.

lyrics from azlyrics.com

Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know
Don’t touch my crown
They say the vision I’ve found
Don’t touch what’s there
When it’s the feelings I wear

They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know
They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know

You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine

[Solange & Sampha:]
What you say, oh
What you say to me [x8]

Don’t touch my pride
They say the glory’s all mine
Don’t test my mouth
They say the truth is my sound

They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know
They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know

You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine

[Solange & Sampha:]
What you say, oh
What you say to me [x8]

[Solange & Sampha:]
What you say to me [x16]

Paris Burning and/or Burnt

The documentary Paris is Burning is a particularly important record of LGTQ people of color in New York in the 1980s.  More specifically, the film is about the ballroom subculture, made up primarily of young, disenfranchised LGTQ POC gathering to “walk” and dance (where “voguing” comes from) in costume.  The film has had a lasting impact on current vernacular, such as “shade,” “kiki,” and “realness.”

There was controversy after the documentary around compensation and how the project was represented by Jennie Livingston.  The subjects of the documentary lived difficult lives in poverty and the film ended with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza.  The resulting question is for documentary film makers as it is for ethnographers – When your career is based in the lives of your subjects, what do you owe them?  How might you change their lives by making them famous while they still live in poverty?

The discord around the film reoccured around the 2015 Celebrate Brooklyn screening of Paris is Burning, which was to be accompanied by Jennie Livingston and DJ’ed by JD Samson, both of whom are white queer people.  No people of color or representatives from the continuing ballroom scene were invited.  Attention was quickly drawn to the silencing of people of color around their own stories and parallels to ongoing gentrification in Brooklyn.  A change.org petition declaring “#ParisIsBurnt” was started calling for canceling the event.  Ultimately Samson dropped out and ballroom participants who appeared in the documentary were invited to participate.

This year the documentary Kiki was released and has drawn parallels to Paris is Burning, though the director seems to have taken a more collaborative approach and learned from Livingston’s mistakes.  It looks at the contemporary ballroom subculture, the importance of DIY, and activism.

Black Women’s Hair

Our Eurocentric society has a strong bias against black women’s natural hair.  For black women in particular, hair can be tied to a sense of self.  Whether or not to wear hair natural is heavily politicized.  Only recently did the US Army loosen hair restrictions to include braids and twists.  It is unclear as to whether or not an employer can legally discriminate against natural hair.  Currently, some companies cite vague terminology in dress codes such as ‘professional’ or ‘clean cut.’

thesocietypages  image from The Society Pages

White women are particularly terrible on the issue of black women’s hair.  Not only do white women judge black women’s hair as less professional and attractive, but we have simultaneously culturally appropriated black women’s hair styles, such as re labeling cornrows ‘boxing braids’.  Recently, white women have even been featured in advertisements for natural hair products historically marketed towards black women, resulting in an online backlash and apology from at least one company.

black hair whiteimage from The Independent

Ethnographer Dr. Yaba Blay speaks more about the issue in Color Complex: Untangling Black Women’s Hair discussing politics around black hair.

Protest on the Runway

In 2014 Karl Lagerfeld was critiqued for using feminist protest in his Chanel runway show.  The immediacy and profound meaning of protest imagery was coopted to sell clothing.

guardian chanel.jpegimage from The Guardian

In an interesting twist this year there was a return to actual political demonstration on the runway.  Last month , a young model / musician named Raury staged a real protest in the middle of Dolce and Gabbana’s runway.  Dolce and Gabbana have dressed Melania Trump and anticipating the controversy, sold a shirt that said “#Boycott Dolce and Gabbana,” mocking the idea of boycotting.  Raury wrote “I am not your scapegoat” and “Give me freedom” on his body.  In an interview with GQ, he stated “Me, as a young man from Stone Mountain, Georgia, the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan, I really felt this mockery of boycotting. Who knows, if boycotts didn’t happen, if Rosa Parks and M.L.K. didn’t step up…who knows if I would even exist. Boycotting matters. Boycotting is real. Dolce’s entire campaign says it’s not real.”Dolce & Gabbana - Runway - Milan Men's Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2018image from Time