It’s (Not) a White World: Looking for Race in Punk (Nov/Dec 1998)

by mimi thi nguyen

I cringe, re-reading this essay. For one thing, I became a Maximumrocknroll shitworker about a month after it published in Punk Planet — and in a short time, I felt more affinity with Maximum than Punk Planet. (Disclosure: Though this is not the whole of this change of heart, I was dating one of the MRR coordinators at that moment.) For another, the language is so unfamiliar to me — too many damn quips– and my analysis has become something more and less than what is presented here as a bricolage of theory and politics and piss and vinegar.

That said, I recognize that this essay absolutely archives where I was at in 1998. And its targets are for the most part still relevant and worthwhile. (And those that are not, still apply: I continue to believe that too much of the “race traitor” movement depended upon the affective appeal of a self-heroics.) And herein do lie some of the seeds of what little academic scholarship I can bring myself to produce on punk (my reluctance is another story). My talk “Aesthetics, Access, and Intimacy; or Race, Riot Grrrl, and Bad Feelings” at the Sarah Lawrence College 12th Annual Women’s History Month Conference “The Message Is in the Music” began here.

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Everyone knows it. Every once in a while, if I’m lucky, someone will say something definitive about it: yes, it’s true. But then it just sits there, untouched.

I’m a girl who likes to lay it all on the table, so here it is: “whitestraightboy” hegemony organizes punk. And I’m not just talking about its dominant demographic.

Wait. I’ll back up.

Race, in punk, is like outer space: this distant constellation of “issues” clustered way, way out there. This isn’t to say, for instance, that punks haven’t produced some shrewd analyses of US foreign policy (a perennial punk favorite), effectively organized huge protests against apartheid or the Persian Gulf War. In fact, punks seem to be pretty good with political economy; I first learned about the World Bank/IMF from the zine Assault (With Intent to Free), ferchrissakes.

But somehow the p-rock backyard got disconnected from the world on the other side of the fence and what happens “out there” is rarely reflected “in here.” So when Kathleen Hanna screamed, “SUCK MY LEFT ONE!” and nailed the Punk Rock to the wall, and when the core soon after went queer, I jumped for joy because it was about time.

But still I’m waiting for my race riot.

Take the way in which travel gets talked about in punk. It reveals all kinds of assumptions we make about privilege and social mobility. Travel is almost always about leisure, self-discovery, “freedom,” and rarely ever about immigration, refugee movement, or exile. It’s never about how some people –white, heterosexual, middle-class, male– often travel in more comfort than others –nonwhite, queer, poor, female). Don’t mistake me, I’m not suggesting we chuck that new Cometbus out the window. My point is this: we need to examine our categories, the words we use and how we use those words, for the exclusions we make when we oh-so casually invoke them.

This essay tells several stories. The first admits to a motive. That is, it begins with my cynicism, my disappointment and my anger. The second story is half-formed: it’s the story of writing a critical analysis of a set of communities –grouped under the umbrella of “punk”– with which I have a sordid past, an ambivalent present and a mutual love-hate relationship. The third and most obvious story is about those communities and what gets circulated under the sign of “race” there. Unfortunately, this is also the most complex story.

So let’s map out some of the ways the punk scene deals with race and break down some of the assumptions and problems involved with these particular approaches. I’ll just give a general overview-there’s a lot more ground to cover. So rather than present a laundry list of specific examples of racist statements or misdeeds, overt or otherwise, produced under the name Punk Rock, it might be more useful to try to understand the “why” and “how” — the politics and attitudes that make room for those acts and misdeeds.

And remember: I critique because I care.

i got your theory right here, whiteboy.

I’m going to say something blasphemous: there’s something really “American” structuring the rhetoric of punk rock citizenship. When social critic Joan Copjec wrote, “If all our citizens can be said to be Americans, this is not because we share any characteristics, but rather because we have all been given the right to shed these characteristics,” she could’ve just as easily been talking about punk. Somehow punk is a quality that’s understood as transcending race, gender, sexuality, or whatever.

To get our official membership card, we’re supposed to give up our put certain parts of ourselves aside — or at least assign them to a secondary rung. Differences are seen as potentially divisive. Some -like race or gender- are seen as more divisive than others. The assumption is that somehow “we” –because punk is so progressive, blah blah– have “gotten over” these things. But when something earth-shattering like riot grrrl ruptures the smooth surface of p-rock, punks scramble to “unify” again. Appeals are made to a “common culture” – whether as “Americans” or punks (dude) – in order to flatten, soothe, or (if those don’t work) bang out those erupting differences.

Of course, this “common culture” is not really that common at all. Whiteness falls into a a “neutral” category, and race is a property that somehow belongs only to “others.” (How many times have you heard, “Yeah, this girl said” with the assumption that she’s white taken for granted?) So this abstract, conformist citizenship offered by punk to someone like me is a one-handed affair – it all depends on how I want to narrate my raced, sexed, and gendered body into these supposedly democratic communities. If I keep my mouth shut and don’t “make an issue” of it, I’m told that I’ll get along fine– and never mind the psychic erasures I might have to endure.

That’s the paradox: some kinds of “individuality” are valued according to punk’s “common culture” while others, well, aren’t. This is what I mean when I say “whitestraightboy” hegemony organizes punk, and this is why I make a point of my “Asianqueergirltomboy” specificity.

So while race everywhere else but punk is understood as institutional, structural, within the scene it gets talked about in terms of often isolated, individual attitudes. So racism in the scene is then commonly understood as something that irrational extremists (you know, good ol’ boys in white sheets or marching around with shaved heads) and maybe the Big Bad State do, while “ordinary” people occasionally indulge in individual acts or attitudes of “prejudice.” Racist, sexist or homophobic individuals are usually denounced as detractors from “real” punk principles, as if punk were inherently anti-racist, -sexist, or -homophobic. But both blunt-object and garden-variety racisms are only part of race as it’s understood as a system of classification, one that overdetermines all our institutions and intersects with other social categories (gender, class, sexuality) and capital.

Simply put, racial hegemony is big, scary, and messy.

This is not me pointing fingers and saying, “You’re a racist! And so is he! And her, too!” When I say “whitestraightboy,” I want to invoke how the category is socially constructed with all kinds of privileges attached. I don’t mean to indict everybody who “fits” – why, I have a number of friends who are white boys! (She said, batting her lashes in innocence.) This is me, however, confronting a widespread phenomena in punk called Dodging Accountability for My Privilege(s). That is, I want to insert the idea of “power” into the conversation.

And power isn’t always obvious. We can point to the State and say, “Now, that’s power, sonny!” But where, or how, do we locate oppressive ideologies? This is where power gets slippery because it seeps into everything — even in our language.

That is, we have to look at race not as something as simple as “color” discrimination, but as a system or structure of power that’s deployed -in any number of ways- within any given historical moment. (I’m going to say the word “power” again and again, so get used to it.)

That said, how exactly does race get talked about in punk?

the “dude, punk is equal opportunity!” syndrome

Reading MaximumRocknRoll is like dredging sewers for corpses; the stink is something awful. MRR tends to epitomize the “angry white male” knee-jerk response so popular to the national neurosis, only with spikes and three chords. Trading on crude stereotypes and slurs, the typical MRR fan (or columnist, for that matter) will usually assume he (because it’s usually a white, hetero “he,” but often enough a white, hetero “she”) is pushing the envelope — “ohhh, I just called that guy a fag, tee hee!”– and then wave his little fist in the air, triumphantly taking recourse to the First Amendment and the Constitution to defend his speech acts. Alternative, my ass.

This is known as “equal-opportunity offensiveness” — although if you dare say anything about white straight men and their pencil pricks, you’re just being plain mean. Poor babies.

But it’s not particular to MRR (which may or may not evolve under new editorship). Punk luminaries from any number of other venues, whether Fucktooth or AK Press, have learned their lessons well at the knee of free-market (hi, capitalist) ideology: punk is an open emporium of ideas and you, the supposedly savvy shopper, is “free” to pick and choose. It’s a perspective that assumes each individual is happily “rational,” “objective,” and handily armed with “common sense.” Yeah right. You don’t go to the mall with no clothes on and everyone shops the open marketplace of ideas with certain social logics intact. What gets called “rational,” “objective” or “common sense” is always, always shaped by the ideological baggage someone  brings with them (i.e., it’s “common sense” that men fuck women and women give birth to babies, and it’s “non-sense” that men fuck men, women fuck women, and babies come from test tubes).

I make this point to reiterate how problematic punk’s “rugged individualism” is for any expression of politics because of the ways in which it ducks the question of power. Artist Jenny Holzer wrote, “The idea of transcendence obscures oppression,” and punk is not an exception. From punk’s hyper-individualism it’s a slippery slope to the kinds of neo-conservative political arguments suggesting, among other things, that affirmative action is “unfair” (like structural inequalities aren’t) and why don’t more of “those people” (welfare recipients, immigrants, whatever) just pull on those boot-straps? You know you’ve read those kinds of opinions in the pages of many a fanzine.

Talk about American mythologies. It’s the punk version of Manifest Destiny and the Lone Ranger, re-imagining the Wild West for disaffected and mostly white youth. It’s a privilege to believe that you can extract yourself from the context of social relations and imagine yourself the sole shaper of your fate. It’s the kind of attitude that puts big obstacles in the way of asking the critical questions about why punk is largely white, heterosexual, and male, and why punk’s politics look the way they do.

invisibility rules (not), okay?

The most famous liberal response to the question of race is compounded by the shrug — the color-blind approach that would have us believe “we’re all just human” or, in this case, “we’re all just punk.” Color-blindness suggests that race is only skin-deep; that beneath race is something more fundamental. It’s a typically power-evasive move, one that pretends that individuals don’t operate within the context of uneven social relations.

The call to transcend differences obscures the material and psychic effects of living in a maligned body — of racial, sexual, or national not-belonging.

And of course, it’s always those of us who are “other” -non-white, non-Western, non-hetero, non-male- who are called upon to “transcend” these to become generically “just human,” to enter a neutral state which presumably white straight men have got down pat without even trying.

Even on the most surface level, the process of making sure everybody is “just human” glosses over histories of people of color in punk because, so the story goes, it doesn’t matter what “color” they are. But of course it does matter – the reasons why I got involved with punk have everything to do with my refugee-queer background, the way I came to understand myself as “alien” in a white working-class neighborhood in central Minnesota. And it might be hugely significant for kids who are otherwise wondering what the hell this white Punk Rock has to do with them, anyway.

But worse, this insistence that “we’re all the same” leads to all kinds of equivalences that just make no sense at all. That is, “blue hair” discrimination does not even come close to rivaling racism. And if one more punk asks me to explain the difference between calling someone a “whiteboy” and calling someone a “nigger” or “chink,” blood is seriously gonna flow. It’s called history, people.

As Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White,” Black Flag’s “White Minority,” the Avenger’s “White Nigger,” or even Heavens to Betsy’s “White Girl,” aptly demonstrate, not all states of alienation are alike or “equal.” That is, mine does not match up neatly with yours.

where’s the riot, white grrrl?

and yeah some of you say we are “out to kill white boy mentality” but have you examined your own mentality? Your white upper-middle class girl mentality? what would you say if i said that i wanted to kill that mentality too?

would you say: “what about sisterhood?!”

–Lauren Martin, You
Might As Well Live 4 (Spring 1997)

When it first delivered a good, swift kick to the masculinist punk paradigm where it counted most, riot grrrl marked the not-so-generic-after-all “whitestraightpunkboy.” That is, riot grrrl confronted the popular illusion of the “abstract (punk) citizen” and forced punk to examine its given categories of ex-/inclusion. And while previous –and, I think, less radical– manifestations of feminist politics in punk went the way of grim assertions of equality, riot grrrl made you look. That is, riot grrrl practiced an unabashedly embodied polemic, exercising an oppositional body politic that ruptured the foundation myth of punk egalitarianism.

Now, I truly believe that riot grrrl was –and is– the best thing that ever happened to punk. Please, quote me on that. Riot grrrl critically interrogated how power, and specifically sexism, organized punk. Unfortunately, riot grrrl often reproduced structures of racism, classism, and (less so) heterosexism in privileging a generalized “we” that primarily described the condition of mostly white, mostly middle-class women and girls. For students of feminist history, the so-called second wave -also white-dominated- stumbled over the same short-sighted desire to universalize what weren’t very universal definitions of “woman,” “the female condition,” and “women’s needs.”

Again, all differences are not created equal. In the hey-day of the second wave, Euro-American feminists caught a lot of flak for comparing (white, middle-class) housework to (black) slavery and riot grrrls are hardly innocent – I’ve read work by white grrrls abusing the loaded symbolism of black skin to describe the condition of fat discrimination. Hierarchizing oppressions isn’t the point, but historicizing oppressions and accounting for material inequalities is.

“a friend of color equals better living!”

Once race finally came up in conversation, a deluge of white punk/grrrl confessions flooded the arena. Suddenly everyone was “working” on his or her privileges. Because I’m a demanding girl I’m not impressed – the ways in which “accountability” gets defined and expressed are really problematic. So when p-rock individualism meets riot grrrl’s insistence that we take it in the backyard, sometimes not-so-revolutionary things happen. The result is often self-referential, guilt-stricken confessions, broken record-style.  I read in one white girl’s zine, “i work on the racist thoughts and actions that are just totally subconscious, but i still feel weird about everything. i don’t have any friends who are of color. i don’t know how to react to people of color.” Um, what? Just who was this written for, anyway?

From another  zine: “i’m working on my sexism, classism, racism — my revolution deals with me. these are things i am doing to make myself feel better.”

And another: “[She] told me that if I wanted to understand and work on my racism, classism, sexism that I need to actively pursue intimate relationships with less privileged people and prove that I can be a real ally to them.”

Revolution narrowly defined as individual self-improvement (“I’m doing this for me!”) isn’t much of a revolution. Again, it’s a national phenomena: social change shrinks to fit. It’s a popular “band-aid” liberal response to structural inequalities, something akin to “love sees no color” or “I have black friends.” I’ve even read zines that define racism as a “lack of love,” easily remedied once “we all recognize each other as family.” (This is me, puking.)

The original feminist maxim “the personal is political” registered a transformative logic. Certain personal experiences, like rape, were reinterpreted as social phenomena with histories and political consequences. This was –and is– still a revolutionary concept that grounds politics in our everyday lives. But when all politics become only personal, they become removed from both history and immediate social realities so that “race” is acknowledged only as this frozen thing “we” (a conditional, white-ish “we”) have to be “more sensitive” to. Meanwhile, social change on any other level is put off and rarely addressed. God knows I’m the first girl to utter all kinds of blasphemies about the ways in which we organize or “do” activism, but getting down to brass tacks, I still think social justice is, you know, important.

Moreover, the whole “pursuing friendships with the less privileged” has a real creepy paternalistic vibe. Like other liberal approaches to race, it not only commodifies the “racial other” (“How many friends of color can you collect?”) but again denies individual deep complicity with the systematic structures of race and racism. What’s uniquely annoying here is the whole “it’ll make me a better person/I’m working on my racism” confessional spin – it’s ultimately self-serving, self-referential, and, really, arrogant. As a friend of mine put it, “It makes befriending folks of color sound like a pottery class: personally enriching.

in/appropriate behavior

Uh huh I see / Mm-hmm ohI see / You So aware / but my I.D. is your novelty

–Sta-Prest, “Let’s
Be Friendly With Our Friends,” Let’s Be Friendly ep

Appropriation is easy – it supposedly lets “us” off all kinds of hooks, as if the desire to be near, speak for, or even be the Other, was in itself an antiracist strategy. A few years ago in a zine called Wrecking Ball, two girls conducted an interview with one another that neatly “ate the Other,” to paraphrase black feminist bell hooks, taking the notion of “colonizing blackness” to new levels. Citing a “possible Ethiopian ancestor,” a up-until-then white (Jewish) girl shared with the reading public her decision to “claim” blackness. This was framed as a big antiracist breakthrough. She then went on to speak about an “us” that was defined as “African people all over the world,” ignoring the enormous material privileges of being nationally and racially Euro-American. Romanticizing blackness and black oppression, she of course doesn’t have to actually live in a black body. And the emphasis here on a depoliticized “love” (she insists “we are family”) performs a kind of amnesia -disguised as something utopian- by abandoning an analysis or engagement with structural inequalities for a privatized, individualized solution.

The Make-Up -with their white-ish gospel thing-kinda bother me. Not that I have anything invested in authenticity. I don’t believe that “culture” is or should be understood as static or unchanging, but call me cynical, I’m suspicious of Western avant-garde (including punk) claims to transgress bourgeois banality channeled through acts of cultural confiscation. So can the Make-Up exist without referencing Elvis’ gift to rock ‘n’ roll — making black music safe for white folk? This isn’t a judgment call as much as it’s a demand to critically examine the dynamics of any so-called exchange.

there’s always room for leftovers.

Other ways to not account for (racial) privilege, or, at least, do it badly? Out-and-out condescension is an option; there’s always talk in punk of “making room” for the voices of people of color, talk that never quite examines the power relations involved, i.e., who’s making the room anyway?

And we can’t forget the “my great-grandmother was an Irish immigrant” narrative that romanticizes the past in order to evade complicity and privilege in the now.

Or the “voice of the voiceless” syndrome: rich white kids talking about people of color or Third World revolutions while avoiding their own complicity in systems of domination. That is, avoiding –for one thing– the power implicit in presuming to become the “voice” for a population assumed to be otherwise “voiceless.”

And there is, of course, the increasingly popular “race traitor” card — anarchists really like this one. Called the “new abolitionism,” the formula is pretty straightforward. If enough individual whites voluntarily decide not to be white, creating some sort of critical mass of “ex-white” people, racial inequality will be toppled by their collective sacrifice and we can all rejoice. Saved by the white, oops! I mean, “ex-white” people.

Of course, we have Howard Winant to put a damper on proceedings: “[The new abolitionists] fail to consider the complexities and rootedness of racial formation. Is the social construction of whiteness so flimsy that it can be repudiated by a mere act of political will, or even by widespread and repeated acts at rejecting white privilege?”

Do I need to say it again? You know the drill, but here’s the buzzwords: “rugged individualism,” accountability, uneven power relations. Go.

“what the hell now?” — coalition politics for a punk age

There are lots of zines that do good –often amazing– work on cultural politics and the social and psychic relations of race: Keyan Meymand’s Kreme Koolers, Bianca Ortiz’s Mamasita, Kristy Chan’s Tennis & Violins, Rita Fatila’s Pure Tuna Fish, Lauren Martin’s You Might As Well Live, Chop Suey Spex, The Bakery, just to name a few. And again, there are always those writers and activists who are doing a lot of important work around institutional racisms– interrogating the nitty-gritty structural issues and ideological underpinnings of urban underdevelopment, environmental racism/toxic dumping, the prison-industrial complex, welfare reform, affirmation action, and yes, U.S. foreign policy. And they can and do write responsibly, accounting for their social location, aware of how that might position them in relation to the subjects about which they’re writing.

Punk doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even on the most superficial level, recruitment, while fun, isn’t a solution. Diversification of our membership rolls is way different than effecting critical transformations at the analytic level –and in any case hardly addresses the people of color who are in or around punk now. (And yes, we’re here, thanks. Banging our heads against the wall, maybe, but we’re here.) What needs to happen –on a punk-scale and a large-scale sort of way– is a revolution in the ways in which we frame ourselves within social, psychic and political relations. If you can read Noam Chomsky, you can also read Chandra Mohanty, Andrew Ross, or Lauren Berlant. If you don’t know who they are, find out.

What all this doesn’t mean is, “I can’t talk about anything because I’m a white, straight male.” That’s too easy — too often an excuse not to do your homework. I don’t believe that the specific plot-points of your social location have to determine your conscious political agenda (i.e., there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the two) and I’m way over the “more oppressed than thou” calculus. I’d like to think my praxis is more complicated than that. And no, I’m not “just like” you but hey, coalitions are risky –and hopefully productive– that way.

So if you’re white, own your whiteness. Don’t assume whiteness describes the world. (And yes, I realize that people live their whiteness differently according to how it intersects with gender, class, sexuality, et cetera, within their personal context.) Challenge others when they do. My friend Iraya –Aloofah of the sadly defunct multiracial multisubcultural queer pop ensemble Sta-Prest– calls it “doing the white on white.”

You (and I mean everybody now) can be accountable to your social location. Interrogate and historicize your place in society, punk, whatever, and be aware of how you talk about race, gender, sexuality – it’s political. Examine all the categories you’re using at least twice for hidden assumptions, exclusions, erasures. Recognize power in all its forms, how it operates. Engage it, even use it strategically. And work with me, not for me.

Actively creating a public culture of dissent -punk or not- will have to involve some self-reflexive unpacking of privileges/poverties and their historical and political contexts. Here’s my bid, where’s yours?

Mimi Nguyen edited a compilation zine called evolution of a race riot. 100 pages of writing about race and identity by kids of color in punk/grrrl, you could get it from me, maybe, if I feel like giving it to you.