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Why hipsters could be seen as modern-day colonisers

Hipsters take part in Berlin’s “Hipster Winter Cup” of throwing old vinyl records. Hannibal Hanschke/EPA

From Maboneng in Johannesburg to Bandra in Mumbai, Neukölln in Berlin to Gulou in Beijing, and Crown Heights in Brooklyn to Hackney in London, hipsters are everywhere.

Their distinctive look – (beards for the men and ironic retro cardigans for the women) and very particular consumer tastes (most recently, a combination of cream cheese and food colouring that’s called unicorn toast. Yes, really; it looks good on Instagram) – make them a highly visible subculture.

Hipsters are often associated with art, makers, other creative fields and the tech industry. They’re mostly millennial middle-class professionals.

They are also, as I’ve found in my research, considered socially progressive. That’s because they’re often affiliated with progressive political and cultural movements built on socially liberal ideals like anti-racism.

They are environmentalists. They champion women’s rights and queer rights. Many follow vegan diets.

But, my fieldwork also shows that hipsters are a paradox. They appear progressive, but they actually demonstrate some parallels with the practices and ideologies of the settler-colonialism of earlier centuries.

My research on global hipsterification – hipster-led gentrification – focuses on what happens when hipsters move into lower-income urban neighbourhoods. When these areas are “regenerated” by hipsters, real estate developers come too. These areas become more expensive and the original residents are pushed out often causing controversy. This is happening in both developed and developing countries.

Read more: In their rush to become "global", cities risk creating spatial apartheid

The link between hipsters and settler-colonials, then, is more than metaphorical. Both these groups literally displace less powerful occupants.

In the case of hipsters, these displacements are often hidden behind their oft-stated claims of advocating inclusive urban renewal. But there is a vast divergence between hipster progressive rhetoric and the reality of how much they contribute to gentrification and displacement.

And they exhibit a nostalgia for the past that goes beyond their sartorial choices and actually echoes the hearkening back to the past seen in contemporary right-leaning political movements around the world.

Evoking the past

Globally, nostalgia is a general feature of our current political and cultural landscape. Supporters of the UK’s Brexit want Britain to go back in time to a period before immigration supposedly “ruined” the country. US President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” nostalgically refers to an era some time in the past when America was ostensibly “great”.

India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party relies on the evocation of “past Indian glory” to gain support for its programmes. And Europe’s right-wing nationalist parties traffic in xenophobic notions of a past Europe which was supposedly better because it was more culturally homogeneous.

Hipster culture also demonstrates these nostalgic tendencies. Quite often it harks back to the colonial period, and particularly the Victorian era.

This manifests in several ways. When it comes to architecture, hipsters gravitate towards city neighbourhoods with Victorian-era buildings. Cafes and co-working spaces that are “hipsterified” tend to have a very distinct aesthetic. This includes 19th-century memorabilia and antique industrial machinery like pedal-driven sewing machines as décor.

Even when they don’t use vintage cameras to take photos, they use photo editing apps on their smartphones to give pictures a retro sepia-tinted look. Steampunk – a trend that fuses Victoriana with technology, film, literature, fashion and so on – is very popular. The founders of a food company even named their brand after Sir Kensington, an imaginary Victorian coloniser they made up to give their startup an exciting origin story.

Hipsters are also known for their eclectic fashion. Many of these clothing choices are throwbacks to the colonial period. It isn’t uncommon to see South African hipsters wearing suspenders and veldskoene, which was formerly a shoe associated with the lifestyle of the old-fashioned white farmer.

In the US, hyper-masculine frontiersmen style clothing consisting of work boots, distressed denim and checked plaid lumberjack shirts constitute one hipster look known as the “lumbersexual”. And that brings us back to male hipsters’ general obsession with beards, another potent symbol of the rugged 19th-century frontiersman.

This may all seem fairly harmless. But when hipsters’ nostalgia for the past combines with gentrification, it actually places others at risk.

A dangerous trend

Gentrification can be romanticised by hipsters as living on the edge. As they move in to the “Wild West” of lower-income neighbourhoods, dressed like 19th-century colonials, hipsters often think of themselves as “adventurers” or “pioneers” who are striking out into the urban jungle’s “unsettled frontier”.

But this masks its less than romantic consequences for lower-income residents who are displaced from their homes and neighbourhoods.

Many hipsters don’t recognise the colonial overtones of their “hipsterifying” practices. Even when these are pointed out, some refuse to accept “gentrification guilt”. But that’s another manifestation of their relative privilege. The lower-income residents who are displaced don’t enjoy this luxury – they might only be left with nostalgia for their former homes.

This article is based on a new book, Reversing Urban Inequality in Johannesburg, edited by the author. It will be published in paperback in November 2018 by Jonathan Ball.

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