Guilty of Being White

By Sara JaffeJanuary 23, 2012

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race by Maxwell Tremblay and Stephen Duncombe

"NO ONE IS MORE DANGEROUS than he who imagines himself pure in heart," writes James Baldwin in "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," "for his purity, by definition, is unassailable." Baldwin's essay is a response to his friend Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," in which Mailer describes the birth of the "hipster," a.k.a. the (white) "American existentialist," who learns the ropes of living in desperate times from those who have had that desperate living covered for centuries. Mailer's hipster, Baldwin argues, is dangerous and insidious because he believes himself so hip, so down, that he's unable to see his own connection to how power works in society. He sees his purity of heart as the soap that can scrub the stain of power from his hands.

These essays — from 1957 and 1961, respectively — open Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay's anthology White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. The editors chose to begin with Mailer and Baldwin, in part, to exemplify what they term as one of the racial "tendencies" in the history of punk: the I'll-leave-my-privilege-at-the-doorstep posture that's been adopted by white punk or proto-punk musicians from Patti Smith to the nineties Chicago hardcore band Racetraitor. But Baldwin's notion of "purity of heart" speaks, I think, to more than this one problematic tendency in punk. Punk as a belief system has historically assumed — demanded — some form of idealistic loyalty from its adherents. The terms of that purity vary by context, from the explicit rigidity of Straight Edge or White Power punks to a less clearly defined but no less consuming call in the punk scene at large to view it as a utopic, radically political alternative to the mainstream (where gratuitous mention of things like race, gender, and class only serve to distract from the unifying Pure Punkness of it all).

Especially for young kids first getting into the scene, punk purity is a powerful draw. I remember, as a disaffected teen, my sense was that everything sucked so completely that whatever could save me from the suckiness must feel, at least, as totalizing. The same teenage tendency to view the world as a monolithic either/or that turned me on to college radio and 7" records also made The Fountainhead my favorite book when I was 16. When we find out as punkish adults about the ghastliness of Ayn Rand's politics, it's easy enough to disavow our teen dalliances with Objectivism. But what do we do about punk when we realize that that purity to which we were so drawn was, in fact, homogenizing, exclusionary? That's the question, I realize, of a white punkish adult, as I am, and as are the editors of White Riot. For punks of color, that realization may have clouded the promise of punk from the beginning.

For a punk-turned-academic (or "punkademic," to borrow a term from a recent article in the Boston Globe), one way to begin to address that question — What do I do when I begin to see punk as contested territory? — is to make punk the object of your study, in order not only to uncover and analyze its history but also to begin to frame it in a way that eschews the either/or of its foundational ethos. To put it another way, books like White Riot are attempting to alter the way the punk scene sees itself. Duncombe and Tremblay present a commendably diverse array of source material: seminal cultural studies texts by Dick Hebdige, Roger Sabin, and Paul Gilroy; music criticism by Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, and Greg Tate; and rants and letters from established publications like Maximumrocknroll and Punk Planet as well as tiny zines like Skinned Alive and Mimi Nguyen's Race Riot compilation. The editors ask the reader to consider how and why race matters in punk.

As White Riot demonstrates, it matters not simply because Skrewdriver spewed Nazi rhetoric or because Bad Brains turned Rasta or because of Rock Against Racism or Anti-Racist Action, or even because some punks of color got fed up with racism in the scene and let it be known in their zines and song lyrics. Rather, the editors argue that punk "constituted itself around whiteness." As Duncombe writes in the introduction:

Punk offered a space for young Whites growing up in a multicultural world to figure out what it meant to be White ... Whiteness was an identity, a subjectivity, a culture to be embraced, distanced from, reconfigured, and redefined, but in all cases, something to be acknowledged. As Dick Hebdige claims, punk, in its first incarnations, was an attempt by young Whites, dissatisfied with the world they were born into, to grab and forge a new ethnicity for themselves. What form it took was up for grabs.

For some white punks, the form this newfound ethnicity took was a "conscious White racism." For others (such as Duncombe himself, in the early eighties), punk brought about more of an "inchoate whiteness": an awareness that one was white, without an accompanying sense of what that did or should mean. For Tremblay — who came up in the generation following Duncombe — punks, particularly white punks, were meant to abdicate race to achieve a sense of "universal subcultural citizenship," the Pure Punkdom I described above. Of course, in a pervasively white-dominated scene, "universality" was ultimately whiteness by another name.

However, the argument that punk constituted itself around whiteness means much more than that the majority of punks were, and are, white. It even means more than the fact that punk, despite its origin as an alternative to mainstream society, inevitably ends up replicating the racialized power dynamics of that society. Or, as a young African-American woman named Ayassa puts it in a letter to Maximumrocknroll, included in the anthology: "THE SCENE ain't no different from the mainstream when it comes to racism." The boldness of Tremblay and Duncombe's argument comes in its implication that "whiteness" was in some way inherent in the way punk was conceived and born, and that it perpetuates itself in the way punk still rages in eternal, rangy adolescence.

But what does it mean to posit punk's inherent whiteness, knowing that there have been punks of color since the beginning? What about all-black D.C. hardcore band Bad Brains, or Chicana Alice Bag of Los Angeles's The Bags, or the subjects of James Spooner's recent documentary Afro-Punk? Perhaps more complicated, how are we to understand a song like Black Flag's "White Minority," whose chorus ("We're gonna be a white minority/We won't listen to the majority/ We're gonna feel inferiority") seems on first listen to encapsulate a particular persecuted-white-boy way of thinking to a tee — even though the members of the band have said the song was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and, in fact, both the singer and drummer on the original recording were Latino?

White Riot does not fully answer these questions, but it does offer some useful approaches to them. In the anthology's 1982 Village Voice article on Bad Brains, Greg Tate claims that the all-black band plays hardcore "just like the white boy — only harder." Tate's article is both an appreciation for the bad-assness of Bad Brains, and an exploration of what it means for them to be black musicians playing punk rock. (Never mind that the Brains played reggae, too: those songs, according to Tate, were "mediocre.") It would be too simplistic to claim that the band is simply channeling the indisputably black roots of rock-and-roll, because, as Tate argues, "[N]o matter how much Hendrix and Berry they ripped, it still ain't nothing but some whiteboy sounding shit now." This is the story of appropriation, Tate is saying, in his eloquent, breezy way. This is how power works. If the thieves have the power, it doesn't take much for them to appear the rightful owners — and in punk, as any good reader of the Birmingham school of cultural studies knows, appearances are everything. Tate helps us see that if Duncombe and Tremblay's historical claim that punk was about white people making sense of being white is even partly right, then that's a hard, if not impossible, history to shake. Our sense of what punk is won't let us see punk as anything but white — even if the black band rocks harder than the white band. Even if you tell me that the guy singing "We're gonna be a white minority..." is Puerto Rican. No come on. No who cares. No really.


And now our friendly neighborhood devil's advocate sweeps in to say to Duncombe and Tremblay: Dudes, calm the fuck down. You all are taking this shit way too seriously. Because punk has always been about messing with symbols, detouring signifiers here and there, right? The display of swastikas by early punks? Okay, a little iffy, but still, they just did it for the shock value. Even some Jews wore them. To dismiss the significance of swastikas, says Roger Sabin in his important 1999 article "'I Won't Let That Dago By': Rethinking Punk and Racism" (reprinted in White Riot), is to minimize the historical context in which punk was enacted; in this case, England in the late seventies. There was enough National Front organizing going on in that period that punks who wore swastikas knew full well what they signified — and wore them anyway. According to Sabin, black-white (reggae-punk) unity movements like Rock Against Racism are held up as evidence of punk's ultimately anti-racist agenda, but Rock Against Racism didn't have much to say about, for example, the prevalent "Paki-bashing" (incidents of white youth attacking Asians) going on at the time.

Even more telling is a 1977 article by Edward Meadows in the National Review that reads the ambiguously, or ironically, rendered symbology of punk as in conservatism's favor. Meadows, hilariously, takes the Sex Pistols's "God Save The Queen" as a nationalist anthem, and accepts at face value Paul Weller of The Jam's declaration that the band planned to vote Tory (though Weller later insisted it was a deliberately reactionary publicity stunt). Even if any punk who read that article would laugh his or her ass off, it doesn't change the fact that irony is only effective for those who are already in on the joke. I laughed when I read Meadows's article, but I squirmed too. On the one hand, where would punk be without irony and provocation? On the other, how funny is it to be a fake white nationalist at a time when white nationalist movements are actually perpetrating real aggression and violence? Isn't it just sort of ... redundant? The very fact that white punks thought themselves exceptional enough to be beyond seriousness is itself a privileged position to take.

Duncombe and Tremblay admit that there have been interventions into, and resistance to, punk's constitutive whiteness. They've duly noted attempts by punks of color to expand the conversation of what constitutes punk; for example, nineties Chicago hardcore band Los Crudos, whose songs include lyrics in Spanish about issues relevant to Latino and immigrant audiences: "Todos sufrimos de la misma enfermedad, se llama gobierno (We all suffer from the same illness, the Government)." White Riot also includes a surprisingly moving piece by Lester Bangs, "White Noise Supremacists," in which the famously irreverent music critic calls out racism in the New York seventies punk scene — including his own.

One of the most interesting artifacts in White Riot is a 1983 roundtable discussion from Maximumrocknroll among Minor Threat's Ian Mackaye, Articles of Faith's Vic Bondi, and MDC's Dave Dictor, in which the latter two bring Mackaye to task for not adequately taking into account his own privilege in the Minor Threat song "Guilty of Being White." Mackaye insists that he wants to "deal with people as individuals, not black and white," and that he, as a white person, should not be made to feel guilty for slavery or other historical instances where people of color were oppressed. To which Bondi counters:

If you say, "Fuck this guilty shit, I ain't gonna feel guilty, it's not my fault." [Black people] are going to say, "Well who the fuck's fault is it?" It's like, well, it's nobody's fault; it's history. But the situation is that they're still left with the remains of their historical past.

Here Bondi charges Mackaye with imagining himself ahistorical: one of the most insidious manifestations of privilege. (As Mackaye's band Fugazi would later put it in the 1988 song "Bulldog Front": "Ahistorical/You think this shit just dropped right out of the sky.") Such ahistorical thinking can be a pitfall for an idealistic political movement that wants to imagine itself making a clean break — with the past, or with the mainstream culture it rebels against. Though Mackaye's arrogance in the roundtable is off-putting, to say the least; one sees in it the desire that punk culture could truly be a place where race just doesn't matter any more. The problem is that the real first step in ending racism is for people with privilege to recognize the ways in which they benefit from the system, even if they agree that that system is broken.

As is so often the case, the task of addressing the ways in which, in the words of zinester Mimi Nguyen, "whitestraightboy hegemony organizes punk" has fallen to punks of color. The anthology's penultimate section, titled "Race Riot," collects what the editors term a "literary explosion" of fanzines by punks of color in the late nineties and early oughts. These writers used zines as a forum to denounce the racism — both institutional and individual — that they faced in a scene which was supposed to represent an alternative to the racist bullshit they encountered in their everyday lives. In her widely reproduced article from Punk Planet, "It's (Not) a White World: Looking for Race in Punk," Nguyen notes that it's not just punk's idealism, but also its strain of brazen individualism, that makes it difficult for punk culture to come to terms with its own racist tendencies. She identifies a double standard when it comes to white punks and punks of color on the individual versus community issue. On the one hand, if a person of color (or, in other cases, a woman, or a queer person) makes too "big a deal" of his or her racial identity, then he or she is not adequately letting punk subsume his or her being. But when it comes time to understand racism as a structural inequality that pervades every part of society, white punks are often quick to point to their own non- or anti-racist actions and attitudes as proof of their essential innocence, and to valorize the actions of the individual above all. (Not so far, as it turns out, from Ayn Rand.)

The writers in this section all identify as punks. They believe, or really, really want to believe, in punk. But because they don't have the luxury to disavow both race and racism, they know that punk purity is a pipe dream. What Nguyen and her fellow Race Rioters eloquently argue in their zines is that it is only when white punks put down that pipe dream and recognize structural inequality that a real alternative to mainstream society — a place where people aren't colorblind but rather see difference and let it reign, rage, and reconcile — is truly possible.


The editors of White Riot make a point of emphasizing that they've organized the book not chronologically but instead by racial "tendencies" they've identified in punk: "White Negro"-style appropriation; the inchoate, put-upon, but ultimately non-violent "White Minority" stance; fascistic White Power attitudes; separatist-solidarity politics à la Rock Against Racism and punk-reggae allegiances in seventies Britain; punks of color playing punk music; punks of color critiquing racism in punk; and, finally, punk beyond the confines of the original U.S./U.K. paradigm. Still, there is a historical meta-narrative on offer here, one which starts in the mid-to-late seventies with a lot of white people and ends in the twenty-first century with a more diverse cast of characters. The narrative of White Riot, then, moves from the past to the future, and from whiteness to non-whiteness. It thus feels a little bit as if the editors are looking to people of color as the future of punk, and I wonder whether that vision undercuts the complexity of the argument they've been making throughout. Does it ultimately foist the job of interrogating how race matters in punk onto people of color?

Maybe most people who read anthologies don't read them cover-to-cover, though. More often, they pick and choose pieces that seem interesting throughout. And that's where I think the most exciting potential in a book like White Riot lies: in getting to read Lester Bangs right after Mimi Nguyen, to think about their different modes of intervention into and against the monolith of punk-rock whiteness. Or, in reading the anecdote about Joe Strummer introducing The Clash's cover of the reggae song "Police and Thieves" by saying "This isn't white reggae. This is punk and reggae. There's a difference. There's a difference between a rip-off and bringing some of our culture to another culture," followed by the editors' interpretation that "there's never much doubt that punk is White and reggae is Black." It's curious to then come across Tasha Fierce's unintentional riff on Strummer's comment; Fierce is a young African-American woman who wrote in her zine Bitchcore in 1999, "I am not a black punk — I am black, and I like punk. The two are mutually independent of each other." If Fierce is a "black punk," then without the "black," punk is assumed white. In separating out her terms of racial and subcultural identification, Fierce asserts that punk doesn't get to speak for race — not white, black, or otherwise. Read in this way, White Riot allows us to view race as contested, complex, always both part and all of the person, the movement, and the story. A punk heart that understands the politics of race in this way isn't "pure": it's a messy organ, and it's still beating.


LARB Contributor

Sara Jaffe's first novel, Dryland, was published by Tin House Books in September 2015. She co-edited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata. Find her online at


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