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"Basic" Controversy among University of Guelph Students

Thursday, October 2, 2014

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  • The new Starbucks location at the University of Guelph

    The new Starbucks location at the University of Guelph

  • A google trend analysis of interest and usage of the term "Basic White Girl"; Google Trends.

    A google trend analysis of interest and usage of the term "Basic White Girl"; Google Trends.

  • Regional interest and usage of the term "Basic White Girl", from Google Trends.

    Regional interest and usage of the term "Basic White Girl", from Google Trends.

Written by Pegleess Barrios

The University of Guelph opened a Starbucks café last week, replacing the former William’s Coffee in the library. Since then, social media pages run by students have been flooded with images of the Starbucks, compliments and complaints to the staff, and a general frenzy of excitement among Starbucks’ loyal consumers has surrounded the extremely busy location. Much of the social media activity, however, has been revolving around memes concerning “white people”, or specifically, “Basic White Girls” and their supposed obsession with Starbucks.

Urban Dictionary defines the term “Basic white girl” as “A female who conforms to her surroundings and claims she is unique. She often drinks Starbucks, wears Ugg boots in August, and posts selfies on social networking sites every. single. day. Also uses hashtags that don't have anything to do with the picture itself.” Drawing from comparisons with other websites that have attempted to define the slang term, it is clear that an obsession with Starbucks is integral to the identity of the “basic white girl”. However, the term is relatively new; a Google Trends search showed that although the term originated in 2008, it did not pick up in headlines and web content until 2014, when the term was used by R&B superstar Rihanna in a recent single. Further searches with Google Trends also showed that interest in the term was almost completely unique to the Western world, with the majority of searches involving the term occurring in Canada and the USA. Popular sites such as Vice and College Humor have continued to develop and popularize the term, creating viral posts jokingly teaching readers how to identify if they are or someone they’re dating is “basic”. Although the initial usage of the word when it was first coined in 2008 was simply meant to call a person unsophisticated or unrefined, it has evolved through these sites and popular use into a joking insult poking fun at consumerist behavior, brand loyalty, and first world privilege.

However, as the jokes concerning loyal Starbucks customers flocking to the new location on campus flooded local social media, complaints arose as well. This topic came up in conversation on Overheard at Guelph, a public Facebook page with 18 712 members. University of Guelph student James Stewart started a post on the page saying, “Inb4 huge argument – overthought by me after reading overhears by you – why is ok to make fun of white people male or female but not ok to make fun of any other race? Think about that the next time you make a remark about white girls liking Starbucks and then get offended if someone picks a different stereotype to make fun of.” This comment prompted remarks from Guelph students, alumni, and town citizens regarding the nature of the “basic white girl” web content, with several marking it as “reverse racism”.

In order to fully respond to Stewart’s post, it is necessary to first define the terms “discrimination” and “racism”. Discrimination is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people”, or in other words, an excluding action based on prejudice. Racism is defined by the Daily KOS as “patterns of discrimination that are institutionalized as ‘normal’ throughout an entire culture.” The author, who identifies as a college professor in the US, continued to explain that in this case, it is not just one person discriminating, but a whole population which operates in a social structure that makes it difficult for a person not to discriminate – it is ingrained into people’s belief systems and part of the infrastructure of social norms. Sarah Luckey built on that in an article for Feminspire, saying, “Racism exists when prejudice + power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread media bias that contribute to the oppression of the rights and liberties of a group of people.”

Therefore, the important point to be made is that given the definitions of discrimination and racism, it is clear that “reverse racism” is in fact not a real concept. The jokes and memes about “basic white girls” are not based in a history of oppression, prejudice and discrimination; in fact, they are jokes about Caucasian privilege. Being a “basic white girl” does not inherently make a person more likely to be picked on by police or less likely to be picked for a job, and in fact, for every dollar a “basic white girl” makes in North America, a woman of colour makes $0.89 and a man of colour makes $0.94, or even less if they fall within certain minority groups.

To address Stewart’s post and the responses of others to it, although the jokes made about “basic white girls”/ “white girls”/ “white people” on Overheard at Guelph and their supposed obsession with Starbucks coffee and Ugg boots are certainly rude and potentially offensive, it is by no means “reverse racism” or racism of any form. They also certainly do not make it appropriate to retaliate with any sort of other stereotypes, racist slurs, or any other sort of other hate speech. As Guelph students fortunate enough to have our Pumpkin Spice Lattés, it could even be argued that these jokes and memes are a great way identify and explore our own privilege in a humorous way, and help take down the societally ingrained wall of perceived racial superiority, in order to better understand and empathize with the challenges many of our colleagues and peers face.

So, next time you scroll through a post on your laptop joking about the “basic white girl” and how she JUST CAN’T EVEN without her no-whip low-fat caffeinated drink of the day, perhaps consider taking a step back and considering how fortunate you are to be who you are, living in war-free zone, studying at a great university, scrolling through images on a computer in your free time. Then go take a walk in the crunching leaves and get yourself something flavoured with pumpkin spice because jokes, stereotypes and insults aside, autumn is the best season at Starbucks and those drinks are delicious.

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