Reading & Understanding Norman Mailer and Romantic Racism

Reading & trying to understand 20 pages of Norman Mailer’s garbled prose presented me with a lot to think about. SO, regarding beatniks and hipsters and romantic racism:

Some Background Context
(And Hipsters/Beatniks explained, to some extent)

For post-war white america, the 50’s sired an empowered, unionized, and rapidly expanding middle class, with significant spending power and countless dreams of Norman Rockwell fantasy homes away from the grit of cities. Thus, suburbia was born in tandem with trending consumerism. For many Americans, it was a time when fulfillment meant immediately acquiring what you wanted, and materialism went hand in hand with “a better life”. It was a culture of a common ideal; an “American Dream”.  Works such as Death of a Salesman illustrate the cultural pressure to conform to this ideal , and the consequent suffering of a generation in which the individual’s self worth is defined by their proximity to the “American dream”, and poisoned by materialism.

Above: advertisment capturing 50's family values  (source:

Above: advertisment capturing 50’s family values

This was the status quo which the beats so vehemently –and understandably– opposed. Mailer uplifts the contextually controversial lifestyle lead by “hipsters” of the 40’s; white youths who emulated the superficialities of the jazz-musician’s life style. In short: they took to moonlighting about black neighborhoods for jazz and swing-dancing, and were defined by their self imposed poverty; their use of drugs and black vernacular. The “beatnik” picks up where the “hipster” leaves off. In an era of heightened conformity, there was heightened stigma, and attached to the idea of urban life. City life became associated less with success and more with poverty, and thus urbanity became more strongly associated with people of color. The expansion of suburbia was certainly fueled by “white flight”, and thus the idea of the suburbs being almost homogeneously Caucasian  is not without reason.  A “black suburbia” was far less promoted or financially accessible,  and it was therefore far less realistic for people of color to leave the city for a slice of suburbia. At the time, it was against the grain for white people to opt out of suburbia in favor of the city, so that’s exactly what the 50’s nonconformist did. Hipsters grounded themselves in controversial anti-materialism and give rise to a sweeping wave of literature, and thus the beatnik was born.

…….The Big Picture?

In case it hasn’t been glaringly obvious, beat-culture deeply rooted cultural appropriation. While this term factors into romantic racism, the two terms are not synonymous. To understand the concept of romantic racism, one has to grasp the difference between conformity and oppression; the very line which Mailer is incapable of recognizing. Mailer articulates what the beats & hipster exemplify.

for jazz spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond

Above, he justifies the effects of appropriating jazz; not just the appropriation itself, but the consequent modification and distortion of an appropriated material–in little words: “it is ok to take something that is not yours just because you like it. Since you have it, it’s also ok to disrespect, dilute, and destroy what does not belong to you for profit, publicity, and personal gratification.”

While his validation of an entitled dominant culture (whites) cherry-picking aspects of a systematically oppressed, marginalized group (people of color) is a perfect example of cultural appropriation, it does not illustrate romantic racism. The difference: selectivity of appropriated material, and distancing what has been appropriated from the element race. Appropriation takes something that is endemic to an ethnic or racial group, and removes it from its context for the demeaning convenience of inclusivity. Romantic racism, on the other hand, does not fully erase race.

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.

Romantic racism appropriates, but also assumes that the race (and/or class) of an oppressed people– whose culture is now being used to accommodate the oppressor–and the obstacles that those people face as a result of their oppression, are things that enrich quality of life. According to Mailer, the violence, drugs, poverty, and denial of personhood that defined life for inner-city people of color did not damage or limit communities or individuals, but enlightened and freed them. Romantic racism is when an oppressor has the leisure of viewing the outcomes of oppression as desirable, and their own privileges–which are denied to so many–as being burdensome. Mailer disregards the difference between high-pressure conformity and oppression: free-will. You choose to conform. You do not choose to be oppressed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.