Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets

Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets

Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets

Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets


2011 Honorable Mention for the American Sociological Association Community and Urban Section's Robert E. Park Book Award

The color of clothing, the width of shoe laces, a pierced ear, certain brands of sneakers, the braiding of hair and many other features have long been seen as indicators of gang involvement. But it's not just what is worn, it's how: a hat tilted to the left or right, creases in pants, an ironed shirt not tucked in, baggy pants. For those who live in inner cities with a heavy gang presence, such highly stylized rules are not simply about fashion, but markers of "who you claim," that is, who one affiliates with, and how one wishes to be seen.

In this carefully researched ethnographic account, Robert Garot provides rich descriptions and compelling stories to demonstrate that gang identity is a carefully coordinated performance with many nuanced rules of style and presentation, and that gangs, like any other group or institution, must be constantly performed into being. Garot spent four years in and around one inner city alternative school in Southern California, conducting interviews and hanging out with students, teachers, and administrators. He shows that these young people are not simply scary thugs who always have been and always will be violent criminals, but that they constantly modulate ways of talking, walking, dressing, writing graffiti, wearing make-up, and hiding or revealing tattoos as ways to play with markers of identity. They obscure, reveal, and provide contradictory signals on a continuum, moving into, through, and out of gang affiliations as they mature, drop out, or graduate. Who You Claim provides a rare look into young people's understandings of the meanings and contexts in which the magic of such identity work is made manifest.


I am often asked how I was able to study gang members. Mostly, I have Emily to thank. When I entered her classroom and the rest of the students ignored me, Emily came and asked for help, easing the painful awkwardness of not belonging. Her long black hair flowed over a lacy, off-white long-sleeved blouse with a little tie around the collarbone. Her voice was sweet, even dainty, and I was flattered that perhaps she was flirting with me as we worked out the questions on her grammar worksheet. As I returned to her alternative school over the next four years, I was relieved that she continued to seek me out for help and send friends to talk with me.

When I asked students if they would like to be interviewed, Emily wanted to be the first. At a quiet spot in the front office, on two badly stained, overstuffed and comfortable old beige chairs, I placed my tape recorder on the table between us and she told me a tale that continues to haunt me over ten years later. She began by showing me how those lacy sleeves hid huge and ornate tattoos in medieval script, spelling out BLVD up her right arm and the name of the boulevard on her left. In the forty-five minutes of our interview she told me a classic tale of redemption through love. After seeing her brother and mother shot at fifteen, she spent three years staying away from home, smoking weed, getting drunk, smoking PCP, sniffing glue, writing on walls, getting tattoos, and beating into a bloody pulp any females intruding into the neighborhood from rival gangs. Then an older man at the local liquor store asked why she was gangbanging and began to gently court her, encouraging her to change her style of clothes and her way of talking and presenting herself. According to Emily, “He’s an ex-gangbanger. He knows what’s going on. He said, ‘I ain’t gonna die for something that ain’t even mine.’ See, he knows. And I still went into the fight, I wanted to be in the gangbanger life. But then, little by little, when I started going out with him, he told me, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to dress like that, please?’ Because I liked him, I wouldn’t dress like that. So then I would follow him all the time. I forgot about my homeboys. I stopped going over there. I would just, I would . . .

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