Punk’s most celebrated icons have long been largely white and male figures—from The Ramones to The Sex Pistols to The Descendants, the punk rock stage has been constructed as a white, male space. Not only is this idea of a punk performer’s demographic not an accurate representation of the participants in the subculture’s origins or modern offshoots, it’s not conducive to punk’s central ideologies.
The image of the punk rocker as a white man is, first of all, a product of a misleading historiography. It should go without saying that punk rock has always had figures of a wide range of races, ethnicities, sexualities, and genders.
This is a sort of violence done upon the history of the subculture that works to further marginalize anyone who is not a white, straight, cisgender man. That violence has lasting and powerful implications upon our little “scene,” which, whether you think it’s “punk” or not, is at least a descendant of that genre and culture.
I want to note that I am a white, straight, cisgender man—I have no position to speak personally about structural, institutional, and cultural oppression because of race, gender, or sexuality (I recommend that you seek out and open yourself up to these voices and perspectives). But I do have the position to point out the shortcomings that we as a subculture have fallen into, which, through a lack of challenging my own consumption and celebration of punk musicians, I have played a part in creating.
The punk subculture rose out of a need for young people to rebel against the structure of the culture they had been forced into. I argue that this is still true for the emo/alternative/punk scene we find ourselves in, except that our qualms with normalcy are less directed at the government and capitalism and more pointed toward our everyday interactions and personal experiences.
For this reason, the idea that the dominant voice in this scene would be from a straight white male perspective is directly antithetical to the ideology we claim. Because we (straight cisgender white men) do not face everyday systematic oppression.
So, why is it important who the dominant voice is? Well, part of becoming a safer scene is being an open scene—and being “open” to everybody isn’t something that just happens by saying over and over again that we are open. In the end, it’s the fans who run things—we put bands on stages, in a manner of speaking.
As such, we all have a responsibility to do our best to have a balanced representation, because representation begets representation. We have to seek out bands who reflect perspectives and positions which we may not hold. Because punk is supposed to be a community for change, a platform for the marginalized youth.
So, when selecting a new band to listen to, it’s important and relevant to think of the artist’s subject position—whose voices have been quelled and marginalized and whose have not?
It should also be noted that, as members of a community for change, we have a responsibility to hear and do our best to understand these perspectives. I said in my last piece that the kids in front of the stage will soon be standing on that stage.
More importantly, the kids in front of the stage will soon be (or already may be) making the decisions that will affect change on our culture as a whole. Punk is a youth-based movement—will we let a new generation of fans enter the subculture with a prescribed, whitewashed, heteronormative view of a punk rocker, or will we do our best to break that harmful mold?
I would like to note that I am a white male, not in the position to speak personally on oppression within this scene, and I would like to take this opportunity to amplify the voices of those who have spoken out about this and whose voices are more important than my own on this subject:
- “Black Invisibility and Racism In Punk Rock” by Tasha Fierce
- “White Washed: Black Women In Rock” by Annalee Schafranek
- “Growing Up Queer: A Brief Lesson On Hetero- and Homonormativity” by Gender Bent
- “You Know What Makes Me Feel Unsafe?” by Lauren Denitzio
- Laura Jane Grace Talks With Fan About Transphobic Assault In Punk Community