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The real history of skinheads

Photo// Sarai Nissan

A LOST IDEA OF UNITY

Today, “skinhead” has become something of a dirty word. It is inevitably associated with racism, nazism, and white supremacism; but what the majority of people don’t know is that “real” skinheads were not connected to racism or prejudice.

The skinhead movement is traced  back to 1960s English working-class youth. In an era where various named subcultures were predominant, the young and overworked felt displaced against  the characterized flamboyant escapists. The Mods and Teddy Boys—examples of these subcultures—were young people who had more of a disposable income and often bought high-end fashion brands and scooters.

Known for their consumerism and preoccupation with fashion and music, they separated themselves from the lower working class youngsters of England. Skinhead fashion was an appropriation of the working class uniform: cropped hair or closely shaven heads (really for practicality and safety reasons in the workforce), durable shoes or boots, white tees, and faded Levis.

During the mid 1970s neo-Nazi groups began to come to the forefront of the economic climate in England. Many of these groups began to recruit the white skinheads—taking advantage of the plight of the working class, manipulating them into turning against their immigrant friends and neighbors. It was around this time that the already isolated, displaced, and terribly confused working class youth of England began to join the National Front and other neo-Nazi groups in the UK.

Gregory Walker is a Professor of Performance and Music History at CU Denver. While he is currently teaching a course called “The Real History of Rock and Roll,” he chatted with the Sentry about his own research on the topic of musical subcultures. 

“I am not going to be an expert,” Walker said, “except for the fact that I am obviously a music teacher and a person of mixed race background, which everyone has at some level. But as a musician, you just see a certain point in history repeatedly; these misguided efforts, collections of individuals searching for some kind of purity, it happens throughout classical music as well as popular music.”

Due to the negative reputation that skinheads had received for the unfortunate association with neo-Nazi and fascist groups, the movement was nearly nonexistent for a time in the 1970s, but it never truly died out. Violence often broke out between the true skinheads and the racist groups.

“The ironies are always there,” Walker said. “In the case of the skinheads it’s classic; just that when the movement began it was literally the opposite. Maybe the moral is that people who present themselves as ‘skinheads’ or others who will point towards a Confederate flag or point towards Aryan mythology as you find in classical music, that they realize that they are not even appropriating their terms. Basically they’ve just reversed the original meanings and implications of what was going on and they can’t hide behind some made up history just because it’s their own construct.”

The skinhead movement never began as a fascist group or a movement concerned about race or politics. In fact, the first skinheads were often of Asian or African-American descent. The skinhead movement was created for the young people of England who valued the beliefs of the working class, the belief of unity and equality among all races, and their love for the ska beat.

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