Punk has largely been considered the white person’s rebellion/resistance music par excellence. While it does have roots in rock and roll (read: co-opted black identity), most of punk’s affects are far enough removed to be indeed considered white, in broad strokes, of course. But such broad strokes indelibly ignore that punk is totally consumed and concerned by race politics, if only implicitly dealing with the “problem” of whiteness — namely, how do white people rebel against white society? How do punks acknowledge their institutional and hegemonic racial privilege (even in an ostensibly enlightened, post-Civil Rights, Western culture; that just means that racism is that much more ingrained/invisible in our culture, but nonetheless all too real) while rebelling against that same privilege, in essence, allying and aligning themselves with marginalized identities? Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay collect over 50 essays, articles, reviews, anecdotes and field reports for White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, one of the definitive entries in the field of race politics, cultural studies and punk.
As is the norm for such an edited volume, both Duncombe and Tremblay open the text with their own experiences, navigating the predominantly white world of punk rock as marginalized identities — marginalized identities in a marginalized subculture. Both Ducombe and Tremblay are white and work through their inchoate whiteness as problematic within punk rock. That is to say, both of them faced (and continue to face, in all likelihood), the contradiction of claiming “membership in a community that was ostensibly anti-establishment and at least ideologically proletarian derived directly from privilege, both race- and class-based.” Often, punks identify solely as that, “punks,” but that has the easy potential of erasing class and race struggles in favour of white, hegemonic homogeny.
However, punk does have a long history, almost as long as the genre itself, of being at least aware of its own whiteness. Starting with the Clash, perhaps one of the first punk bands to put race at the forefront of their political strategy, who called for punk and reggae, and moving through bands like MC5, who were aligned with the Black Panther movement, Patti Smith, who identified as a “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger” and early ’80s hardcore’s problematic stance on race politics (see Minor Threat lashing out at those “guilty of being white”), White Riot takes a socio-historical approach at the evolution of racial identity in punk rock. It’s a complete and expansive effort that stretches to include the major cornerstones of punk’s relationship with race, moving beyond merely black and white to welcome Latino and Caribbean punks, Afro-punks, Middle Eastern punks and Asian punks. At the centre of it all, each entry in the volume circles the white, patriarchal, middle-class, heteronormative male that ostensibly defines not only punk itself, but Western culture at large, complicating him and trying to invert or undo structural, naturalized, power hierarchies.
Duncombe and Tremblay do well to intersperse more academic texts, by noted authors such as Normal Mailer (“The White Negro”), Greil Marcus (“Crimes Against Nature”), Dick Hebdige (“Bleached Roots: Punks and White Ethnicity”), and Steve Waksman (“Kick Out the Jams! The MC5 and the Politics of Noise”), with liner notes, letters to magazines, such as Maximumrocknroll and interviews with punk pioneers. This has the effect of humanizing the theory, injecting the politics of practice into what easily could otherwise be another privileged text talking about resistance. Punk is always about action, inclusion, and accounts from the front-lines, as it were, give the already effective work added depth and punch. White Riot is as complete as could be expected — though not, by any means, with finality — and essential reading for anyone into identity politics, race and punk.
By Sebastian Buzzalino