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L.A.'s "White Minority": Punk and the Contradictions of Self-Marginalization

From: Cultural Critique
48, Spring 2001
pp. 30-64 | 10.1353/cul.2001.0040

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Cultural Critique 48.1 (2001) 30-64

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L.A.'s "White Minority"
Punk and the Contradictions of Self-marginalization

Daniel S. Traber

Gonna be a white minority
All the rest'll be the majority
We're gonna feel inferiority
I'm gonna be a white minority

White pride
You're an American
I'm gonna hide anywhere I can

--Black Flag, "White Minority"

Part of popular music's allure is that it offers fans tools for identity construction. Lawrence Grossberg argues that musical choices open sites for people to negotiate their historical, social, and emotional relations to the world; the way fans define and understand themselves--what they believe and value--is intertwined with the varying codes and desires claimed by a taste culture associated with a specific genre (Grossberg, "Another," 31). An example of claiming social and cultural difference through music occurs in Dissonant Identities, Barry Shank's study of the Austin music scene. In explaining her impetus for joining the punk subculture, a fan states, "[I]t really had something to do with just wanting to do something different. With in a way being an outcast but then being accepted. . . . And you were sort of bound together because the other people hated you. I think that [sic] might be part of the attraction, too, is being in a minority. Being in a self-imposed minority" (122). This tactic of self-marginalization to articulate a politics of dissent is central to the Los Angeles punk scene from (roughly) 1977 to 1983. 1 To resist meta-narratives they found static and repressive, in order to form an [End Page 30] independent sense of self, a small fringe group of youth pursued a life based on that inner-city underclass denied access to the American dream, an identity I will call the "sub-urban."

The racial and class facets of the sub-urban identity are deployed by L.A. punks to re-create themselves in the image of street-smart kids who are skeptical about the trappings of bourgeois America. In doing this they hoped to tap into a more "authentic" lifestyle--equivalent to "real," "hard," "tough," all those qualities associated with a life on city streets--than the one they thought themselves being forced to replicate. However, it is the contradictions in punk's practice of tapping into the aura of the Other that will be the crux of this essay. Underpinning punk's appropriation of otherness is the theory that social categories are fluid constructs that can be accepted, rejected, or hybridized at will, and this belief disrupts the notion that identity is fixed, that there is anything natural or concrete about one's subjectivity. But in using markers classified as subordinate, this voluntarist self-exile is laden with the baggage of preconceived social categories. Punks unconsciously reinforce the dominant culture rather than escape it because their turn to the sub-urban reaffirms the negative stereotypes used in the center to define this space and its population. I consider punk rockers who move into the sub-urban site, but I am also interested in the general celebration of this identity by those who remain at home. While noting the specific positive effects of this border crossing, I analyze punk's lofty subversive goals as a paradoxical mixture of transgression and complicity for reasons the participants themselves overlook.

I will elaborate on the theory of the underclass later; for now, I want to address labeling this space as "sub-urban." The term is more than a pun on the word suburbia, for sub-urban denotes an existence unlike the typical depiction of city life's everyday difficulties. It is important at the onset to emphasize that the sub-urban is multiracial (poverty is not just a "nonwhite" problem), but it does constitute a very specific class position, one that must confront the utmost levels of poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, and the constant threat of physical danger and death. Sub-urbanites are forced to negotiate their environment simply by surviving it as best they can, and it is...