White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race: By Maxwell Tremblay and Stephen Duncombe, 368 pgs. By CT Terry

Nov 22, 2011

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

By Maxwell Tremblay and Stephen Duncombe, 368 pgs.

Why did all those English bands try to play reggae? What’s up with the CBGBs scene and swastikas? Isn’t “anti-racist skinhead” an oxymoron? If a Puerto Rican guy sang “White Minority,” is it racist? If 1990s punk was so P.C., then why was it whiter than the supposedly bigoted mainstream? Why do white suburbanites move to the ghetto in the name of rock‘n’roll?

If you’ve ever asked any of those questions, then please read White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. It’s 350 pages of interview excerpts, fanzine articles, and academic essays that won’t give you answers so much as give you the power to ask, and consider, even more.

The interesting thing about punk—which provides a wide breadth of material for the book, but makes definitive conclusions impossible—is that it is constantly evolving and has always meant different things to the people involved. Therefore, what was subversive in 1970s New York was old hat in 1980s L.A. and incredibly offensive in 1990s Toronto. The editors, punk academics Maxwell Tremblay and Stephen Duncombe (author of Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Underground Culture), acknowledge this paradox and use the intro to contrast their formative years in the nihilist early ‘80s and the bookish ‘90s.

After the intros and a terrific forward by Afro-Punk’s James Spooner, White Riot is divided into seven sections that span from pre-punk romanticism of blackness (beatniks, White Panther Party), to the questionable shit that went on in punk’s initial incarnation (Nazi fetishes, “Guilty of Being White”…), to the white power punk of the ‘80s and ‘90s, to British punk’s back and forth with Jamaican reggae, to zine essays and letters from punks of color in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to reports on international punk.

Since this is a collection of already published writing, the styles vary wildly. Within a dozen pages, you have an interview where Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey describes punk as, “… just getting up onstage, singin’ about fings that’s ‘appened to you in your life, an’ also keepin’ the crowd in wiv wot you’re doin’,” and an academic essay by Daniel S. Traber, that is full of labyrinthine brain-twisters such as, “Underpinning punk’s appropriation of otherness is the theory that social categories are fluid constructs that can be accepted, rejected, or hybridized at will, and this belief disrupts the notion that identity is fixed, that there is anything natural or concrete about one’s subjectivity.”

The editors’ brief intros to each piece contextualize the selections within their own theories and punk at large. They are generally clear and direct, but midway through, I was considering a drinking game revolving around their overuse of the word “inchoate.” They usually leave the reader to draw their own conclusions: that you can’t just snap your fingers and shake off centuries of ingrained racism, and that even the most well-meaning of white folks born before the Civil Rights era are going to have some latent racial hang-ups.

The question of punk’s whiteness is never explicitly answered, though some essays link it to middle class privilege: so far, the people who have been accepted for long enough to get complacent, then angry enough at their own laziness to rebel, are overwhelmingly white. In lieu of a conclusion from the editors, the book implies that punk’s future is global, by ending with a series of articles on international scenes in Asia and Latin America. It shows that punk is constantly morphing, that it can mean conflicting things to people at the same show—never mind in different countries and decades—and that it will always seem fresh to the people getting involved, that it will always be…inchoate. –Chris Terry (Verso, versobooks.com)



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