Stickers and their Discontents

10410953_10203604925216333_5073732925099061044_nSome excellent social commentary was made during SXSW this year, something that I would have loved to see years ago. Someone put stickers on East Austin business replete with the COA logo that said, “Exclusively for white people. Maximum of 5 colored customers, colored BOH (Back of House) staff accepted.”

The satire clearly linked the historic institutional racism of Austin with the ongoing consumer-led gentrification and displacement on the East Side. This has stirred discourse in the city, but to a level, which falls short of what we are capable of. All the reaction from the media has been laughable. There is a disturbing collective feign of ignorance floating around about the intention and meaning of the art. Let’s not kid ourselves – it is a pretty straightforward message about race and gentrification.

Main points aside – here are some considerations of Stickergate before it fades into the unfashionable fortune of having happened last week:

  1. The flash issue obscures gentrification.

 There is a lot of gentrification happening in the city and it is partially fueled by SXSW. It would be great to see people take more responsibility in mitigating the negative effects that tourism and consumer-based economies have on historic neighborhoods. I would love the same engagement on revitalizing the East Side and holding exploitative City and capitalist practices accountable as I do from people reacting to relatively innocuous art.

The same week, for example, a beautiful and historic mural on East Cesar Chavez was nonchalantly painted over by a foreign artist. The Lotteria mural is culturally significant to Cesar Chavez as a Mexican neighborhood, but as the makeup of businesses is changing, our culture is being erased. This was not covered on the news, and that layer of paint doesn’t peel off quite so easily. Neither does the displacement of thousands of people from their neighborhoods across the country. Another example is the demolition of Piñatas Jumpolín (see Dale Dale Dale postmarked 2/23/15) – a far worse act in terms of destruction and insensitivity, but one that was defended and as specifically “not racist” by many.

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  1. People missed the satire.

 Sadly, many people thought the stickers were made by White supremacists and to be taken literally. Geesh! I don’t know what to say. That would be like reacting the Right Wing ravings of Stephen Colbert. Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the act “appalling” and “offensive”. This comes from a mayor who made no public comment of the demolition of Jumpolín or the destruction of the Loteria mural. It seems like making White people uncomfortable is a greater sin than destroying the culture and heritage of historic Communities of Color (which is exactly the point of the stickers, so maybe Adler is really in cahoots with the artist and is just laying the satire on extra thick).

Others mistook the stickers to be aimed at garnering ire toward the businesses and the city by framing them as overtly white supremacist. This was not an attack on the businesses or the city or the people associated with them. That some civil rights leaders took it there was an unfortunate diversion. The point was to imply that the City of Austin is racist as an institution, and businesses cater to specific class groups that follow racially segregated norms.   There, that’s not so bad, is it?

  1. People misused the concepts of racism and hate-speech.

 People were really offended by the stickers and called them racist. One business owner called it “ hate-speech”. This messaging was also consistently and conveniently accompanied by a message of confusion – “why would they do it?” If you do not experience gentrification as a painful reality resulting in the displacement of your community or understand the racist history and current structure of our city, than you might not understand the point here. However, your ignorance does give you the authority to claim the status of a victim. Regardless of who owns or runs the targeted businesses – they are profiting from a system that is rooted in exploitation. That does not mean we hate you. Please stop pretending that pointing out social reality is hatred because it makes you feel guilty. Racism is real and the stickers probably reflect a painfully accurate depiction of who patronizes these businesses.

I was so flabbergasted by the conviction of the business owner’s whine that I thought about staging a boycott of their business – just because they so distastefully inserted their own self-serving grievance. Instead I decided to write this. You can thank me later (with free cupcakes  – kidding!)

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  1. The weak response from POC community leaders is inconsistent with the political history (and I’m not sure why).

Instead of Black leaders seizing the opportunity to bring attention to the plight of their communities and the legacies that have been mostly forgotten, Councilwoman Ora Houston, NAACP chairman Nelson Linder and Representative Dawna Dukes all responded with White protectionism. Completely out of touch, missing the satire and feigning ignorance of meaning and intention, the cadre of Austin’s old guard Black activist seemed to parrot the naiveté of the city’s rookie mayor. How disappointing that even when the door is blown open, these leaders failed to simply walk through it.

Each of these three community leaders has been vocal on segregation, racism, gentrification and fair business practices. How could they have possibly missed the satire and the political opportunity to respond? Why when the clueless enactors of gentrification ask “but why?” do our POC officials not have such a simple answer? This makes the need for disruptive art/activism so important.

  1. Back of House comment should not be overlooked

 How many Austin businesses have POC working in the kitchen and all White, or white-passing, servers up front?

If you answered “probably most of them”, you are absolutely probably right.

Racism is inequitable outcomes where there shouldn’t be. Mexicans are not naturally just better at washing dishes and Whites better at serving because they have fine breeding – no one really thinks that. No one really thinks they are racist either – but take a look in any restaurant in town and it is plain as day – real, live racism! I’m sure there are no business policies or city mandates for BOH/FOH racial segregation. The point is that there doesn’t need to be. Let that soak in before reacting.

 

  1. It is pretty funny

 

“Uh, Earth to Brint, I was making a joke, okay?”

With all the horribly racist violence against People of Color, the cultural and historic racism in East Austin, the racist outcomes of profit-driven exploitation and gentrification and everything else POC deal with, can we have a simple joke? The stickers peeled right off.

The fact a few little stickers are such a problem for people is harsh. Lighten up. This is a long haul and there is a lot of real work to be done to heal, undo racism and stop gentrification. Don’t fall too hard.

It’s just a sticker – It’s not like somebody destroyed the neighborhood where you grew up.

Thanks to Native East Austinites Andrea Melendez & Estrella de Leon for your strength and inspiration for this response.

Some links:

Video of alleged artist

kxan news story

18 Comments

Filed under austin, gentrification, politics, racism, Social Justice

18 responses to “Stickers and their Discontents

  1. Brilliant. I’ve been struggling to adequately explain to FB world most every point you make here and should have just waited for your blog to wrap it up so poignantly. Many thanks!

  2. godli_dabju

    Nail. on. the. head.

    Especially on the topic of BOH.

    Virtually all restaurants have POC working the kitchens. If they’re also serving the food, good luck at ever being anything other than “a dive”.

    Does Torchy’s really have the best tacos? Is Fresas really 3x better than the spanish speaking Mexican chicken joints? Nope. They just figured out that having White servers is more favorable to their clientele. Ditto for (excellent) Mexican restaurants like Curra’s.

  3. Chris Mosser

    Very, very nice treatment of a rare opportunity to increase understanding of a major issue that most in our city do not even know exists. Great work!

  4. Thor Olsen

    Good points in the article, but I think there’s another point to make still. The edgy way the stickers manage to be both sardonic and facetious about the issue is a key part of the gentrification process going on. The fact that mainstream people (regardless of color) didn’t seem to “get it” points to what’s really going on here. Gentrification doesn’t start with big investors, it starts with white or “passing” hipsters shunning the boring white bread neighborhoods and moving to the cheaper ghettos and barrios where housing is cheap and just the right amount of dangerous to be cool. It’s not until a certain tipping point that the investors show up to capitalize on the critical mass of white-enough people living in the hood. The people at the cutting edge of the process are exactly the ones who aren’t content with the boring suburbia of anything west of 35, but who have no cultural ties to the east side neighborhoods. They move there because it’s edgy, just like these stickers. They have a certain taste for irreverence line that because it is, after all, poignant and daring. I gotta call it how I see it though, I bet the one who made these stickers is one of the get riders too, just one who’s so f$cking cool that they feel the need to pint to it. In the end the stickers probably did more to fuel gentrification than to mitigate it because of all the people who “get it” so much that they want to be a part of it.

  5. I’m curious why you emphasize white people’s discomfort regarding the stickers. Most of the discomfort (outrage, shock, anger), I saw came from people of color, mostly black folks. Yes, Dawnna Dukes, but also dozens of commenters on her facebooks posts, in other Facebook discussions people had, on twitter. I mean, it started with a black girl put in tears seeing this sticker on her shop. Yes, some, maybe even the majority of them wrongly interpreted the sign as holding an unironically white supremacist message (though the fact that so many did should, in itself, give pause). But many understood the message and just thought it was neither funny nor constructive.

  6. A valuable and articulate perspective. I frankly missed the satire, and am thankful I read this. Gentrification as racist and destructive is real.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I’m keen to satire so I recognized it as culture jamming immediately. Poe’s Law always applies, but enhances the impact. If it’s not offensive, it’s not subversive.The guy Adam Reposa is worth investigating, and in my opinion pretty legit and high concept.

    There are stickers like that popping up in Seattle too. It’s the fastest growing city in America. Take a look:
    http://tinyurl.com/kremxhz

  8. Good write-up. It was amazing how badly so many people, most notably Representative Dawnna Dukes, missed the point completely. It’s not like it was that complicated of a statement, especially if you have any background knowledge of the ongoing gentrification.

  9. Pantsless Santa

    We have all probably tried to tell people that the intent of their racist jokes and comments isn’t relevant vis-a-vis the way they are interpreted.

    This is not a racist joke. It’s political satire. But if such a huge majority of the satire’s audience, including local progressive leaders, have trouble understanding it, it is not their fault. It’s just failed satire. Which is okay – there is no way to communicate this kind of message without experimenting and pushing the envelope. If the people who did this are willing learn from their mistakes, their next action will be even more effective. If they just blame others for not understanding, it probably won’t be so effective.

  10. Whiteness is nothing but false and oppressive-
    compulsive-obsessive on how, “I don’t even see race”
    yet from day one we’re conditioned with regard to our place
    and theirs’
    Binary pairs
    black or white good or evil in the country where all men are supposed to B equal
    we go to great lengths to protect just one people
    White flight now gentrification
    Anyone watching Detroit the sequel?
    You know Episode 6 the return of white people.
    It used to be Black but whiteness got a lock on what’s legal
    And what black got is locked up/shot up
    Disproportionately
    “I’m not racist” but I live in a society that is, at least
    Structurally
    If not de facto – whiteness won’t acknowledge the facts though
    So our gaze is fixed, pretend not to notice Uncle Sam’s Bait & Switch
    Instead we discuss the efficacy of policy like the 7 year itch
    Which is very abstract
    but when black walks by I clutch my private property he’s liable to snatch
    Subconscious bordering on instinct we act,
    On the lie we’ve been told, but I for one am determined to break out of this mold,
    we can’t just wait for the crown jewels to be melted so we can return the gold
    we stole cause we’re too bust still stealin
    after all we commodified wheelin and deanlin,
    and when we finally pull out the indigenous left realin
    we label em developing when their lands depleated
    & now the cycle is being repeated
    And the World Bank will finance the problems we seeded
    Or will we stand up declare Ubuntu!
    not money is what’s really needed

  11. Ross Smith

    It would be interesting commentary, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the targeted businesses are actually owned by people of color. Kind of muddies the message.

  12. Message or subtleties aside, can you get that business owners in that area who had the misfortune to be singled out for a sticker, who may or may not be struggling to not go broke starting that business, might be TERRIFIED that someone who didn’t get the joke might bust out a $2K plate glass window at the least, eating up what little they had left in the bank for next month’s rent and thereby putting them out of business?

  13. Pingback: Stickers and their Discontents: On Gentrification | New Texas Sunrise

  14. Annemarie

    Thank You for writing this and making so many wonderful points. I’m a 5th generation Austinite and we need this kind of discourse here!

  15. Pingback: Sticker shock: On Dawnna Dukes, Adam Reposa and Rare Trends | First Reading

  16. I’ve lived in Austin for 23 years. There used to be neighborhoods and lofts and warehouses for poor artists, punks, poor minorities, and even (gasp) people that had lived there for generations, both central and East. As it is, the neighborhoods have been overpriced.,. All the old weird/poor people, are suffering. Either we’re cleaning your toilets and driving in from Buda, or we live somewhere in Austin and half our salary goes to rent!! How is it that Adam Reposa is taking static for pointing that fact out? Have we become so Politically-correct that we are too afraid to face our own prejudices and conceptions of what we think?

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