Beyond White Pride: Identity, Meaning and Contradiction in the Canadian Skinhead Subculture

By Young, Kevin; Sumner, Judith H. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May 1997 | Go to article overview
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Beyond White Pride: Identity, Meaning and Contradiction in the Canadian Skinhead Subculture

Young, Kevin, Sumner, Judith H., The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Unlike other flamboyant post-war youth subcultures - teddy boys, mods and rockers, new wave, rap or grunge - for a variety of people and generations throughout the world the label "skinhead" conjures an immediate, if often stereotypical, sense of what the group represents. Much of what is known of the skinhead movement both in Canada and abroad stems from the aggressive behaviour of the first generation of British skinheads in the late 1960s and the 1970s, or from the more organized and xenophobic practices of the present generation of ultra-right skinhead gangs that are active across Europe. The current moral panic associated with skinheads largely derives from the fact that countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France are known to have experienced an increase in white-supremacist skinhead attacks on refugees, immigrants and gays (Maclean's, Nov. 23, 1992; Bjorgo and Wilte, 1993).

Of course, the deviant reputation of skinheads stems not only from their behaviour but also from the very menacing image they project or, in other words, their style. According to Brake, style is made up of three main ingredients: image, which includes costume and accessories; demeanour, which includes gait, posture and practice; and argot, or the use of a distinct vocabulary (1985: 12). With such identifying characteristics or style in mind, Brake described the early British skinheads as:

Aggressive working-class puritans in big industrial boots, jeans rolled up high to reveal them, hair cut to the skull, braces, and a violence and racism [that] earned for them the title "bovver boys," "boot-boys" on the look out for "aggro" (aggravation). Stylistically they have roots in the hard mods, forming local gangs called after a local leader or an area. Ardent football fans, they were involved in violence on the terraces against rival supporters. They espoused traditional conservative values, hard work, patriotism, defence of local territory, which led to attacks on hippies, gays and minorities. They became a metaphor for racism .... "Puritans in boots," they opposed hippy liberalism, subjectivity and disdain for work, attempting to "magically recover the traditional working-class community" (75-76).

Since the first generation of British skinheads, surprisingly little research into the various manifestations of the subculture has been conducted. Exceptions to this are Walker's (1980) study of second generation London skinheads, Burr's (1984) analysis of London skinheads' drug-related lifestyles, and Moore's (1990) study of the relationship between alcohol consumption patterns and ethnic identification among Australian skinheads. Notably, none of these studies looked at North American skinheads.

North American youth subcultures have arguably not enjoyed the same flamboyant history as their British counterparts. Early American sociologists have consistently, if unpersuasively, argued that working-class American youths find membership in a gang a more viable option than membership in a youth subculture (A. Cohen, 1955; Miller, 1958; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960).(1) The apparent difference in youthful expression has been attributed to broade differences in the historical, political and even educational (Tanner, 1992: 224) circumstances of Britain and North America. In Canada, neither the gang solution nor the subculture solution appears to dominate - examples of both exist, and these are becoming more visible and of greater interest for study.(2) However, Brake has gone so far as to say that youth culture in Canada is "largely derivative, [that it] uses elements of borrowed culture, and (that) any oppositional force is highly muted" (1985: 145).(3) What purpose North American youth subcultures serve for their members remains unclear, and they have yet to be as rigorously investigated as, say, British subcultures.

Skinheads began to appear in the United States and Canada in the late 1970s.

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Beyond White Pride: Identity, Meaning and Contradiction in the Canadian Skinhead Subculture


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