Tasha Shermer is a writer and activist living in Los Angeles, CA. She resides on the web at http://www.cuntabulous.com, and she can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Black Invisibility and Racism in Punk Rock
by Tasha Shermer
I'd always get pissed off when, on IRC in a punk chat room, people would just assume I was white. Even when I gave them my pics, they'd think of every ethnicity but black to guess as my race.
When I would tell them, "Well, I'm half black and half white," they'd be shocked.
"You're black???" would invariably be the reply. "Wow, I've never met a black punk."
I suppose eventually I learned to take it in stride, but I also started to think about the subtle racism contained in that reaction. It's as if when I state my race as being black, automatically a taste in music, a style of clothing, and a type of speech come with it. I'm sure most of these punk rock revolutionary kids don't even notice that they're prejudiced the way they are. I'm sure they believe they are totally open-minded and that there is nary a racist thought in their liberty-spiked head. I'm sorry to say that this is not the case.
To like punk should not be like joining a whites-only club. But when you get involved in the "scene," when you come in contact with other people who like punk, when you go to shows and do zines - you're stepping neck-deep in an institution steeped in racism. It's subtle. It's not like I'm going to go to a Peechees show and find myself swimming in white power skinhead girls testing out a tree to lynch me on. It's the kind of thing that I described earlier when talking about my appearance - really hard to put a finger on, yet there nonetheless. Maybe a group of "friends" will make some racist jokes and then laugh, because "it's all in good fun." Maybe when I comment on how I need to relax my hair they'll go off on how black people smell funny. Or as I talk about how clipart depicting black people costs money whereas clipart depicting white people is widespread and free, they'll launch into an hour long tirade about how black people should have to pay for their clip art because white people are better. Then they'll call me a militant for disagreeing with them.
Invisibility is paired with racism. Once I got here, they had insults waiting. The invisibility manifests in the fact that they don't even know a black person could like punk. The racism illuminates the reality that, although I have that one thing in common with them, I am still an alien being. Maybe it’s because punk hasn't been infiltrated by blacks for as long as some other forms of music, and they don't know how to act around a black person who likes anything other than rap or R&B. Maybe all they know of black people are the stereotypes they've been force-fed by popular culture. You can't turn on a TV today and see many black people doing anything but what white people think they're supposed to. It's like a caricature, and in all my encounters with people in the "scene," they are operating off of this caricature - and I don't fit it. They pay lip service to stopping racism yet it's not racism when they say "a thousand black men at the bottom of the ocean is a good start" and then laugh. Saying "nigger" isn't appropriate but nothing is said when I'm called, disparagingly, a Rastafarian because I have braids. Because we're all fighting for the same cause, right? We all hate the government and we all love punk, and what does it matter that I feel isolated because I never see another black face and you're constantly telling me I'm an aberration? This isn’t about "fuck punk." It's about fuck you and your racist attitudes. It's about you waking up and realizing that you're not some kind of revolutionary while you continue to support this institutionalized racism that has poisoned even your precious little punk rock community.
I am ostracized by the black community and I am only partially accepted by the punk rock community as a token of punk's "fight against racism." Even other people of color are more accepted in punk than blacks, simply because they are perceived as being "whiter." Other people of color don't have a pre-defined style of music that they should listen to; therefore it is more believable that they could like punk. I am in no way saying that racism doesn't exist for these people of color in punk. I am simply saying that there is less of a musical stereotype for them, and that facilitates their acceptance.
The idea of punk rock as some kind of beacon of open-mindedness is bullshit. Most white punk rockers like to consider themselves absolved of their privilege simply because they publicly denounce racism and don't attend weekly KKK meetings. Let me reiterate: JUST BECAUSE YOU THINK RACISM IS WRONG DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE NOT A RACIST. Whites will always have that underlying residual racism, and that applies as much to the punk rocker as it does to the redneck. People will always have the need to feel superior, and for whites one area that they have been made to feel is superior about them for so many years is the color of their skin. This does not change when you start to like punk rock. Yes, you can recognize that white superiority is false. Yes, you can work to change it, and yes, you have all made such wonderful progress. But shreds of memories of being number one, even if it wasn't in your lifetime, will always haunt you. This is what causes my invisibility in your punk rock world and this is what causes you to believe that it is O.K. to say one thing and do another.
Please take note that I don't hate whites. I completely recognize that not all white people will do these things all of the time. But I also recognize that even my mother's family, who I love dearly, also bears the burden of racism. They are white, and they are privileged. I, as my mother's daughter, am more privileged than many black people. That is one reason why I am as accepted as I am in the punk rock community. My manner of speech, my pale skin, my house in suburbia - all of these things cause me to gain points of acceptance. But yet, I am not fully in the door, nor will I ever be. But I will not stay invisible. I will not stand idly by while you assume stereotypical things about me that do not apply. Punk rock is mine, too. I am not a black punk - I am black, and I like punk. The two are mutually exclusive, and if you must use one, don't use the other.
I seriously doubt the issue of racism and invisibility in punk will ever be resolved, much like the issue of racism in society. I just want it to be known that although punk rock claims to be fighting the larger war, it must first win its own internal battle before any progress will be made.