By Sheroog Kubur, August 25 2023—
As a movement, punk is supposed to be against the mainstream. When the mainstream says you have to be professional and agreeable, punk encourages you to make noise and cause problems. When the mainstream wants you to be cold-hearted towards outsiders, punk encourages you to be inviting. The very nature of punk is to liberate the people that were tossed aside by conventional society by teaching them to fight against the powers in charge. In theory, punk and other alternative subcultures are tools of liberation.
At the same time, alternative subcultures tend to be very exclusive against minorities. The stereotypical look of punk is oftentimes a white, masc-presenting individual with dyed hair and excessive piercings. The bands that are most strongly associated with the punk movement fit this description perfectly — Sid Vicious was the epitome of the white punk, with his unkempt look and crass attitude. But at the same time, the Sex Pistols were taking over the punk movement, bands like X-Ray Spex, fronted by the half-Black Poly Styrene, Death, the Detroit Black proto-punk rockers and Bad Brains had already made a name for themselves.
While punk hasn’t necessarily been uninviting to Black people, there’s a glass ceiling that needs to be broken before Blackness in punk is considered mainstream. The spaces are mostly occupied by white people. Black people can theoretically go to them and feel welcome, but are these spaces truly welcoming?
Unfortunately, as much as punk totes itself to be the most open-minded and inclusive movement, it still exists within a racially insensitive society. This highlights that racism isn’t always a conscious practice — sometimes people think they’re genuinely being inquisitive and helpful. There may be practices and behaviours that act as a deterrence from being further integrated into the punk movement
Attending punk shows, I’ve faced my fair share of microaggressions. Despite being vocal about the role of race in subculture, the extent of these observations translating into real-life interactions was quite minimal. I’ve had bartenders muse about my ethnic origins after reading the name on my ID, excitable attendees assure me they don’t listen to racist bands and other generally inoffensive behaviours. I can’t say that it was any worse than being in a mainstream space, but it was nonetheless off-putting.
The most egregious case of racial insensitivity happened after a white, masc-presenting friend assured me that punk is supposed to be a common ground for anyone who’s a fan of the music. Mere moments after this conversation, I was ignored at a bar while desperately searching for a glass of water and my white, masc-presenting friends weren’t. It’s not the most aggressive case of racial discrimination I’ve ever experienced, but there was a cruel irony to the situation — being treated as the other after being assured that wouldn’t happen.
Punk was never meant to be a victim of circumstance but it consistently finds itself in those predicaments. Punk spaces are predominantly occupied by white people because punk feels like a white-centered genre, and when people of colour enter into this space they’re treated the exact same way they would be in any other situation. There’s nothing inherently more inclusive about this space because it acts like every other “inclusive” space.
The issue of punk feeling very white isn’t at the fault of the movement itself but because it exists in a system catered to whiteness. This means that small interactions that may seem inconsequential could push away people of colour before they are even invited into the movement. This means it’s the responsibility of those who are at the front of the movement to do what they do best — fight back against preconceptions and make noise while doing it.
This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.