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People of Color Don’t Have Luxury of Giving Skinheads the Benefit of the Doubt

I’m wary of anyone who dresses in skinhead fashions, regardless of whether they’re harmless.

Recently, I was involved in a Facebook “discussion” in which there was a majority of people (mostly white, but also some white-passing) who were arguing that when people see a skinhead, they shouldn’t automatically assume that they’re a neo-Nazi or even racist.

One of the biggest non-white supporters of this theory was a white-passing Indigenous person and a light-skinned black man. Both had grown up steeped in punk and rude boy culture and saw the relation between those (mostly) harmless subcultures and the skinhead subculture. But what they all failed to realise was that most people—particularly visibly non-white people like me—don’t have the luxury to give any skinhead the benefit of the doubt.

Though the origins of the skinhead subculture have nothing to (directly*) do with racism, there were a bunch of literal neo-Nazis who ruined it for the rest, and the scaremongering by the mass media in the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t help; since then, the average person is likely to think “Nazi” when you say the word “skinhead.” I can see the point of these defenders of non-racist skinheads in a time before Trump, but now, their undying defense of skinheads seems not only misguided but ignorant and privileged as fuck.

I remember when I was a kid and American History X came out; I remember not even being able to sit through it all because it was so scary to me: the idea of literal Nazis in my lifetime seemed like the ultimate nightmare—and I’m not even Jewish but knew enough history to know that my Pakistani family and I would’ve been targeted by the Nazis as well. Fast-forward to modern day when literal Nazis are openly and unashamedly marching in cities in the United States (and becoming emboldened in other countries, including quaint lil’ Canada) and I’m perpetually afraid of every white person I see because I can’t tell if they’re an ally or a white supremacist who is slowly becoming emboldened.

Related: How White Fear Breeds Terrorism

People tend to think that Canada is somehow better than America when it comes to things like racism. They like to think that because we have a liberal national leader and all sorts of cute socialist ideas like universal healthcare and government-assisted loans for postsecondary education that we’re too progressive to deal with old-fashioned problems like racism. And most (white or white-passing) Canadians will deny that we have any sort of racism problem, especially in our major cities, but they’re wrong.

Right after Trump was elected in the U.S., Conservative party MP Kellie Leitch sent out an email to Conservative voters basically saying that she intended to bring Trump’s ideas to Canada. There were white supremacist marches and rallies planned in Toronto as well; there was a warning going around that there were razor blades hidden behind white supremacist posters on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus; and most recently, there was an anti-Trudeau rally to be held, which was being organized by known white supremacists in the city.

I’ve lived in this city since I was 8-years-old and have never, ever felt unsafe in it—until this year. This year, I’ve been wary of everyone who isn’t a visible BIPOC. When I would see a group of white men standing together, I would walk on by, but now a chill runs down my back and I speed up and pray to the God I don’t really believe in that they won’t notice me. So, the white(-passing), punk-loving folks who think I shouldn’t judge a skinhead by their fashion will have to excuse me if I decide not to give every white person with a shaved head and black Doc Martens (with red laces) the benefit of the doubt. They’ll have to excuse me if my first thought isn’t “Oh, well maybe they’re a SHARP [Skinhead Against Racial Prejudice] and are just expressing themselves.”

Related: How White Millennials Became Neo-Nazis

In this Facebook “discussion,” I did say that if a visible person of colour was dressed in skinhead fashion I wouldn’t be as wary, but I’ve revised that opinion since I learned that there were non-white skinheads (a part of skinhead culture was appropriated from Jamaican rudeboy culture after all) and that South Asians were (or maybe still are) prime targets for neo-Nazis and that “paki bashing” was a pastime for white and black skinheads in 1960s Britain. So, I’m now wary of anyone who dresses in skinhead fashions, regardless of whether they’re harmless.

However, I truly think that if you’re a skinhead who’s not a racist but just like the culture or the fashions, you should eschew them considering the political climate right now. Your right to express yourself through your clothing is not nearly as important as IBPOC feeling safe in their own cities. If you’re truly an ally and really want to end racism in the world, you can start by not habitually paralyzing us with fear by dressing like someone right out of American History X. It’ll be no skin off your back and it’ll help us feel less isolated and allow us to put our guards down just a little.

This is what being an ally is, after all: giving up some of your privilege so that the under-privileged can feel safer and speak louder without fear of retribution.

*I say indirectly because the subculture was started by a bunch of working-class white British youth and though their first intention wasn’t to be racist, I highly doubt that they were open to non-white folk (particularly South Asians) joining in their movement.

Featured Image: Uliana Ryapolova, Creative Commons


Sarah Khan is a Toronto-based editor and writer, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency, and raging intersectional feminist killjoy.

  • Rab

    I made my first speech at 17. I spoke because fashionable virtue-signalling offended my most basic, most fundamental value. Equality. My shakey working class accent as nails down a blackboard among voices much better educated than mine.

    When the democratic process delivered a racist result in London, we travelled 800 miles to fight against its repetition. When neonazis tried to recruit at soccer matches we risked more than jail in efforts to repel them.

    This was all nearly 30 years ago.
    Standing up for yourself, and your community, in which you have pride, no matter background, are values fundamental to me as a skinhead.

    To dismiss the fights -for equality- against racism- is something I can shrug off as lack of education, but the damage goes further than the minor matter of my ego. Such ignorance is handing over ground already won to the racists.

    That ground is my identity.

    And so I return to my initial core value. Equality.

    Be most careful about abandoning that fundamental. Equality was at the root of my argument when I defended the rights of people to dress according to their religious choice without being judged, when that religion had been hijacked by terrorists and the fashion in public debate was people being ‘uncomfortable’ with those dressed in a manner associated that religion. I will continue to make that defence.

    I would respectfully ask that, if you see me, you remember that attempts have been made to hijack my identity too. Remember rather than give ground and appease the neonazis, I have fought to retain my identity and that and that my boots and braces do not make me a racist.

    I am ,
    Skinhead til I die.

    Nov 4, 2020
  • Mmmhmm

    I think this whole predilection to assume all skinheads are racist only works if you stay blissfully ignorant of the subculture. One could easily compare this folk devilling to the way Hip hop fans and rap enthusiasts feel they have have been Unfairly labelled “Thugs” and “Criminals” and although a large chunk of Rap music has explicitly crime driven motif lyrics , but we’re to accept these are merely feelings of angst about being poor, and the street, and not to be taken literally.
    So is this view still acceptable, and not prejudice for say,
    Caucasian people who see “Gangsta rapper” style people on the street to fear for their safety based on the stereotypes that that particular group has imposed upon themselves, wherein, skinheads have been trying to remove the racist stereotypes that the media has places on them?

    Jun 8, 2020
  • Nobody12345

    *I say indirectly because the subculture was started by a bunch of working-class white British youth and though their first intention wasn’t to be racist, I highly doubt that they were open to non-white folk (particularly South Asians) joining in their movement.”

    Asian skinhead in the middle


    Also skinheads were never a ”movement” more often than not skinheads fought other skinheads based on area and gang allegiance. The whole subculture is more complex then most realize.

    Jun 17, 2019
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