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How to talk about race without talking about race

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Way back when, "basic" was a computer language and "bro" was a greeting.

But the two words have since wandered into the badlands of American tribalism. In the process, they have become entangled in debates about race, above all, but also about cultural appropriation, elitism, sexism, conformity and consumption.

The strange trajectory of these words is a reminder that America remains hardly post-racial in the Age of Obama. They also reveal how difficult it is for Americans of every hue to talk about white people and white subcultures, and the tiptoeing they engage in when they try.

"Bro" and "basic" are the latest steps in the ballet. Each offers a way of insulting a certain stereotypical white subculture, while maintaining plausible deniability that race is at issue. And yet for all the tiptoeing, the words seem to foreshadow the future: White Americans are transitioning toward minority status for the first time. As they do, perhaps their ways will be treated less as the default mainstream, and more as subcultures among subcultures.

Consider "bro." It used to be little more than a chummy way of addressing a fellow man: "Hey, bro, how’s it going?" It was particularly well-used among blacks. Then "bro" acquired a new connotation: It was now a particular kind of white guy, oblivious to his privileges of race and gender, a little arrogant, very possibly an ex-fraternity brother.

In Silicon Valley, this meaning has fastened itself to members of a brash young technology elite that consists largely of white men. Sometimes called "brogrammers," they are not frat boys, per se, but can indulge in fratty behavior. When a group of mostly white tech guys recently sought to eject a group of mostly minority local youths from a San Francisco soccer field in the city’s Mission District, various local headline writers used "bro" to sharpen the story’s racial angle without having to be explicit: "Protest Planned After Tech Bros Kick Mission Youth Off Soccer Field."

But the new "bro" isn’t just an epithet. It’s also a badge of honor. Just ask the people at BroBible, who have a popular website and book dedicated to bro-ness. As with the headlines, BroBible’s invocation of whiteness is always oblique and deniable. Coded messages abound, as in this account of bro lifestyle: "He’s puffing on a cigar, executing a keg stand, fishing for a trophy, posing with cheerleaders, or running the table in beer pong."

The story with "basic" also begins with appropriation. By all accounts, calling a woman "basic" first gained traction among blacks. "Basic," followed by an unprintable epithet, signified, among other things, a shallow flashiness. And then it somehow jumped into the discourse of young white women, where it mutated. It now puts down the girlie conformist who wears Ugg boots, obsesses over Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and closes tweets with "blessed." A CollegeHumor video that helped propel this connotation has attracted at least 6 million views.

As with the new "bro," the new "basic" is sometimes claimed pridefully. Cosmopolitan magazine listed the "41 best things" about being basic. (No. 15: "Using Pinterest to plan your wedding when you’re not even engaged.") As with "bro," "basic" can become a passive-aggressive way of praising or criticizing or describing a white subculture. But because no one seems to know if that’s acceptable, outlets like Cosmopolitan don’t mention a racial dimension. What journalists artfully dodge, though, is easily intuited by readers, who tend to write on comment forums what such articles sidestep: This article is about white people!

There is nothing more awkward than a conversation whose participants don’t know how to have it. But perhaps these rather elementary put-downs are a sign of a country grappling with change. Perhaps America is preparing itself for a post-majoritarian age in which to be white will be freer of baggage — whiteness as just another subculture and not The Culture, as just another color on the easel, as just another butt of a motley republic’s omnidirectional teasing.

Anand Giridharadas, New York Times

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