There are sights that I consider intrinsic to what makes Barnumbia what it is: the pink-purple sky softly illuminating the gentle dome of Low Library, the scarf wrapped protectively around the statue of Diana during a heavy snowstorm, and the colorful stream of Fjallraven Kanken backpacks that runs from Barnard Hall to the Diana Center, from Mathematics to NoCo, and in every space in between.
If I were to assemble a moodboard to describe Barnumbia, I’d cut out photos of objects like Kanken backpacks, mom jeans, chunky Dr. Martens, and rimless Harry Potter-style eyeglasses. In conjunction, these items form the exoskeleton of the art hoe.
But what exactly is an art hoe? I love taking Polaroids, I only feel comfortable writing with Muji pens, and though I don’t own a tapestry, I would totally go buy one at Urban Outfitters. Am I an art hoe?
My first instinct is to Google what the term even means.
The first thing I encounter are elements of the “art hoe” aesthetic that I notice on College Walk everyday: Google Images churns out a plethora of starter pack memes, many of them featuring mustard-yellow Kankens (sorry, Kånkens), wildflowers, and socks printed with Van Gogh’s Starry Night. None of these associations surprise me. Images of the quintessential art hoe on the Tumblr tag #arthoe depict attractive white girls in mustard sweaters and denim, with fairy lights and cacti in pastel pots. Some captions I find under these photos include, “Adopted some new plants today!” and, “Yellow bikes have such a happy vibe.”
This fixation on material objects does little to fulfill my curiosity about where the trend originated—is there anything more to being an “art hoe” than outward aesthetic?
A few more clicks finally lead me past the mainstream understanding of what the “art hoe” is to the real core of what the term entails. I finally land on a Dazed article that contextualizes the term in its radical and empowering origins: an entire art movement founded by nonbinary artists of color with the goal of promoting self-love and using “artistic expression as a weapon against cultural stereotyping.” There was no mention of the material objects upon which the entire meme definition (and my own uninformed conception) of art hoe relied. It’s a digital display of solidarity and love.
There lies a huge gap between the origin of the term art hoe and its current usage, at least on our campus. How has a movement pioneered by predominantly nonbinary black artists turned into a stereotype championed by mostly affluent white girls? Are Barnumbian users of the term aware of its activist history?
Rachel Fischer, a sophomore at Barnard, tells me that art hoes are people who want to be acknowledged for a certain aesthetic. She started to hear the term more once she came to Barnard and knows that on paper, she, too, reads as the stereotype. She owns Frida Kahlo socks, “billions of succulents,” and though she doesn’t have a Polaroid camera, she would totally get one. She carries a brown khaki backpack with illustrations of buses that she purchased at the Clearwater Festival, which gives her a “degree of authenticity” when she compares herself to the starter pack definition of art hoe.
Fischer says that until our conversation, she had genuinely identified as an art hoe because she majors in architecture and is always in the studio. When I tell her about why the term was originally coined and how it has since been appropriated, I’m greeted with a moment of awkward silence. I recognize the shock on Fischer’s face; she likely didn’t anticipate the topic of our conversation to shift from fun backpacks to the racial and socioeconomic implications of an online movement.
A few days later, I sit down with Idris O’Neill, a first-year at Barnard, to ask her the same questions. O’Neill was first exposed to the term art hoe through social media platforms, like Tumblr and Instagram, as a growing movement created by black femmes to claim artistic space for their blackness. The first image under the #arthoe tag she remembers seeing was of a black woman with pastel pink braids, a sight that has since inspired her to get gray braids of her own. O’Neill, however, has stopped viewing the term for its original intentions and currently defines art hoes as white girls who own Kånkens, shop for produce at farmers’ markets, and work at co-ops. To O’Neill, the theft of the term—an act she calls “culture vulture”—indicates “the resurgence of white femininity as a progressive movement.”
As a black queer woman growing up in an all-black neighborhood, O’Neill did not feel comfortable wearing hoop earrings or nameplate necklaces, because those items were deemed too “ghetto” by those in her community. Nowadays, they’re proudly displayed on the non-black bodies of self-proclaimed art hoes. Karen Yoon, also a first-year at Barnard, says the stereotype depends heavily on cultural appropriation in order to craft an image of the “alt-white” girl who uses her art hoe persona as a form of progressive activism.
“I can never tell you what an art hoe of color looks like,” O’Neill says. “It’s about our diversity and talking about our individual experiences and that’s always going to be so radically different because we’re a perspective that’s never been visited before, you know?” The irony is pungent: Art hoe, now a trendy stereotype, was originally a term that inherently defied stereotyping.
Both Yoon and Fischer had few encounters with the term before coming to Barnard, where they claim the stereotype is inextricable from the campus culture. While I thought the stereotype was prevalent at most liberal arts colleges, O’Neill believes Barnard attracts more art hoes due to the school’s aura of “corporate feminism,” a Sheryl Sandberg-esque brand of feminism that encourages women to climb the corporate ladder as it stands—without critically considering how that ladder may be entirely out of reach for women who aren’t upper-class, white, cis, and straight.
Hearing O’Neill and Yoon discuss the ways in which the starter pack definition of art hoe robs artists of color, black femmes in particular, of their opportunity to self-express, I question my complicity. I can’t deny that these material possessions help me curate a certain quality of “contrived quirkiness,” as O’Neill puts it. I am still trying to process what art hoe means to me and grapple with how my ignorance of its history and my decisions as a consumer have actively supported its appropriation.
I ask O’Neill what steps we should take to deconstruct the whitewashed art hoe subculture.
“Stop racism,” she replies.