It’s odd how “old” I am in “punk years.” Here, Osa (from Shotgun Seamstress) ponders the “bad old days” of being a person of color in punk rock in a 2009 Maximumrocknroll column. I want to respond to some of these questions at some point in the future (I still read Maximum every month! I’m not dead yet!), but for now, I’m glad I had some impact on pushing punk to be a little bit better than how I found it.
Race Riot was an anthology put together by Mimi Nguyen and How To Stage a Coup was another anthology put together by Helen Luu. Both came out in the late 90s. These two women, and the legions of punks of color that submitted to their anthologies, had been part of predominantly white punk scenes, including riot girl. They were totally pissed about their experience, and understandably so. These anthologies are straight-up rant fests calling white punks out on their ignorance and hypocrisy.
I think what made racism in predominantly white punk or activist scenes more disappointing and hurtful than the racism one might encounter anywhere else is the fact that these people who are making your life miserable claim to be anti-oppressive, feminist, anti-racist. Naively, some of us expected more from our white peers and got let down harder.
Subsequently, many of these POC punks left the scene. They were bitter and fed up with their experiences. Now this is where my mind starts manufacturing millions of questions. 1. Where exactly did these “ex-punks” end up that was an anti-racist utopia? Where do you go if you’re a person of color where you don’t have to experience racism? 2. How did these people suddenly turn un-punk? I mean, they’re all making a totally diy zine together. That’s punk, right? Some of those people continued making zines and participating in punk after that, although maybe to a lesser degree. If you found a home in punk because yr a super weird queer kid, if punk is something useful to you, if it’s the way you make art and the way you were politicized, how do you just leave? Where do you go?
Anyway, the only thing I can assume is that it really was that bad for the POC punks who came before me. As far as my experience goes, I can definitely say that the pros of being a black punk outweighed the cons. But ten or fifteen years ago, that wasn’t the case, and it may not be the case for many punks of color today depending on a number of factors, including what part of the country they’re in. The people who paved the way for us did so and then moved on because they couldn’t stand it anymore. So, as much I appreciate all the support that people like Tobi and Layla to give newer, younger generations of feminist punks, it would’ve blown my mind to see Mimi, Bianca or Iraya at one of our shows. It would’ve meant so much. It’s immensely disappointing that punk rock, a movement that claims to be so forward thinking and progressive has been (and to some extent, continues to be) alienating to people who do not represent a punk rock norm (which, by the way, isn’t supposed to exist!).
I wonder what the expectations were of those punks of color who left punk rock. What did they envision for punk kids of color in years to come? Even though the fact that they left the scene is pretty much a sure sign of their pessimistic cynicism, I’d still like to believe that their intention was to leave the scene better than they found it. What was the point of putting out zines like Race Riot & How to Stage a Coup, if not to try to spawn some kind of change in the punk scene? Well here we are! The change (I hope) they wished to see in the world! People of color punks, empowered by the words and deeds of those who came before us, building community with each other, and ready to fuck shit up.
With all of the new books and DVDs coming out documenting riot girl, it’s completely unacceptable that those riot girls’ brown punk sisters are left out of that history. As much as people try to document punk history, punk rock can still be so ahistorical. People leave the scene and move on, records and zines go out of print, white punks continue to ignore the contributions of punks of color… and it’s like all of it never happened. Well, a race riot did happen and I’m living proof. I know I wouldn’t be here if other punk rock feminists and POCs hadn’t carved out by force a nice comfy space for me to exist.
I guess all of this is just a long-winded way of saying, “Thank you.”