On “Punk’s Race Problem”


Still from Romeo Void’s music video for “Never Say Never”

If you’ve so much as put a couple of studs on a leather jacket, then you probably know how much people like to argue about where punk started. But here’s the funny part about that argument, it’s always about what white guy invented the genre. A more accurate depiction of punk would be a significant musical shift that occurred sporadically across the globe for both localized specific reasons and as a large-scale reaction to changes in global politics and commerce. Those who stood out in the mainstream were, of course, those who reflected the mainstream – the straight white males. But, punk women of color have played a role since 1977, the so-called starting point. Across an ocean from one another, Poly Styrene and Alice Bag were making music even before the Sex Pistols were on Bill Grundy. But they, of course, never factor into the Sid Viscous versus Joey Ramone debate.

Many people have described punk as a reaction to white isolationism and the loss of community and identity resulting from post-modern malaise. This may be true for particular populations within the overarching umbrella of punk rock, but it does little to describe the involvement of Other (so-to-speak) groups. Punk cannot be seen as homologous and I believe casting punk through such a narrow lens perpetuates the kind of hegemonic thinking that so many punks seek to challenge.

Even critics of punk’s “race problem” continue to frame the genre as being the invention of white men. From this perspective, punk is defined as something originating in whiteness and “given” to the Others with the logic that they could not have evolved (or devolved) without assistance. To describe the entirety or even the inception of punk in this manner is an act of whitewashing that ignores the impact people of color have had in shaping the genre.

As Golnar Nikpour describes in her critique of the book White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, this way of thinking perpetuates the myth of the helpless indigenous and the helpless “third world” in need of progress and white enlightenment:

This is a deeply problematic timeline. Most obviously, it is one that utterly excises the essential globality of punk scenes, not to mention the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll as a transnational form long before the advent of punk. This insistence that punk travels from “the West” to “the rest”—a typical imperial trope here espoused by self-proclaimed anti-racists—ironically mirrors and reproduces racist assumptions that “the rest” of the world is living in a belated present, and that their today is not coterminous with “ours” but rather with an era that for “us”—and there is no mistaking who “we” are in this argument—is fully in the rear-view mirror.

At the same time, many of us non-hegemonic punks did enter into a very white, hetero and male-dominated scene, sometimes even a rather racist, sexist and homophobic scene. And many of us have experienced that battle over the right to claim ownership of an aesthetic and musical style that seemed ours to begin with. For me, learning about artists like Debora Iyall (who, yeah, was technically New Wave, but there was still something very punk about) and reading the zines of Mimi Thi Nguyen made me feel like both my frustrations with and desire to be a part of this community were simultaneously valid.

Excerpt from Suzy X’s comic: “Punk Is Not Just for Straight White Guys”

If punk is about revolutionary thinking and confronting the normative forces in society, than isn’t it a much more destabilizing (i.e. punk) approach to consider that this genre may be rooted in something very not white? I think Sara Rene of Native Punks Unite put it best:

Being Punk and Native seems to me the most natural thing in the world. Music aside, the ethics and drive behind Punk have been ever present in Native communities. DIY was not a white invention, and neither was resistance or anarchy. More and more alternative radical spaces are pushing to return to the land, a dismantlement of capitalism, neoliberal exploitation, of oppressive gender roles and the classist and racist systems that try to separate humans into the deserving and undeserving. Punk is a statement that says fuck conforming to this broken system that doesn’t care about us.  But really these have been our way of life, defending ourselves from the colonial institutions that created the dominant culture it is today. For tens of thousands of years our traditional way of life, our entire existence, is a resistance to the bullshit oppressive society that tries to dominant us. We have been resisting with our minds, our spirits and our bodies at the frontlines of colonialism. Punk is what you call everyone else waking up.

Although, the specifics differ greatly, I also can’t help but think about influential hip hop artists, such as Melle Mel, whose indigenous heritage is by and large ignored within social discourse about the genre. Indigenous scholar, Andrea Smith, talks about “genocidal logic” as the pervasive line of thinking that indigenous populations no longer exist (or that they are fully assimilated) and thus settler-colonialism and its impacts are no longer of political concern. I’ve created this project with the intention of striking at the heart of genocidal logic. I wanted to record both a history and an image of the present that is all too frequently ignored or even systematically silenced.


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