On Riot Grrrl Books and White Male Privalege and Getting Older And Not Going to Punk Shows

Girls to the Front:The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
Sarah Marcus
Harper Perennial

I’m a little fucked up at the moment. My anxiety has kicked itself into high gear tonight for some reason. There was this show in Columbia Heights tonight featuring Canada’s Burning Love who I really like and DC’s awesome and underrated and probably dead Deathrats. It’s probably Deathrats last show. I really should go since I am leaving Washington DC soon. People I want to see are gonna be there and it would be cool to see their faces one last time, enjoy some punk rock and try to relax. But seriously, just thinking about driving my car into yet another DC neighborhood that I don’t live and have no vested interest in on any kind of immediate level that are filled with people that have less privilege then I do just makes my heart race.

Originally this was not gonna get reviewed until I finished reading this book about Black Flag. I wanted to compare and contrast them, but this suddenly feels very urgent. As it’s been pretty well documented, I am a 33-year-old white, male from the suburbs of Washington DC in Northern Virginia. I went to a pretty great high school, got a college degree, worked a straight job for a decade and at one point owned my own home. I worked for a lot of this, but by no means did I struggle (at least not in the sense that the cards were stacked against me. One day, I will write my missive about the psychic destruction that a 9-6 office job induces on a soul, but that is for a later day, but still worth mentioning) to get to any of the standard, middle class milestones I managed to achieve. I think I may have successfully dropped out of these things now, the future will tell. However, punk rock leaves me in this very complex place. I am tired of my privilege continually contributing to the displacement of ownership of people who actually occupy the communities that punk rock exists in.

In the 18 or so years or so I’ve been going to shows that are off the beaten path, a great deal of them are held in spaces that are part of communities the organizers are not actually vested in. There are a lot of basement shows in houses filled with 20 something white kids that are surrounded by non-white people. These white kids often come from similar backgrounds as myself (not exclusively and it would be idiotic of you or me to assume that) but their race, and when it’s a bunch of white boys especially, provides them with certain allowances in society that their neighbors don’t often have. There are also a lot of spaces in these neighborhoods that are re-appropriated without exploring the traditional avenues. Now, I am not against the concept of squating or utilizing collective resources to create space out of abandon, neglected or forgotten buildings. I think it’s one of the beautiful things that punk rock ideas have. But in fact Sarah Marcus does a really great job of exploring just these facts with early nineties DC collective The Bee Hive.

For those not in the know, the Bee Hive was a dilapidated house on U Street in Washington DC that was “collectively” run by a bunch of idealistic punk kids. What these “radicals” probably failed to see is how their presence would ultimately effect that neighborhood. U Street in the 90’s was plagued with crime and drugs and basically forgotten by Bureaucratic Washington. But droves of white kids going to punk shows changed that. Now U street is mostly condos for the resurgence of white people who are now taking over DC. Marcus retells tails of this DC collective in her book. Her main point was to explore issues of race within the Riot Grrrl movement, but she easily shines a light on the bigger problem of race and punk rock. White kids entering into neighborhoods and fucking it up for the people who live there. Often they rarely actually integrate or attempt to be a part of the community. They just set up shop, implore upon each other with radical ideology, and watch as the neighborhood out affords even them.

Punk rock is idealistic, but it’s not realistic. It remains a white boys club of hedonistic, musical violence. It’s never really been about creating space, it’s always been about taking space. Any exploration into The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag or any of those mother bands is ripe with rhetoric about pissed off kids taking space. And while this is a grand and romantic gesture, the fact is this always comes at the expense of someone else. Usually non-whites and women. This book review has barely hinted upon the actual arguments  (which is good, and really you should read it) but this is kind of what got me thinking and spun me into a sea of anxious bullshit. Riot Grrrl wasn’t perfect by any means and Marcus does a really great job of talking about the pros and cons of Riot Grrrl and she does it with a good deal of objectivity. It does seem now, in hind sight, a group of white women trying to take space without realizing what privileged they  did have, often at the expense of non-white women. By no means do I think the women involved in Riot Grrrl were oversimplifying matters or ignoring race and class. But when the violence is daily and real and profound against you just for your gender, just getting over the psychic death is a struggle. It’s hard to occupy every aspect of every person when self-preservation is key to survival.

The Riot Grrrl movement taught me a lot as a young man growing up. I still have a lot to work on. I attempt to be cognizant when I fuck up and behave poorly. Sometimes people are cool enough to point it out, sometimes very harshly and without forgiveness. I have learned to accept that because often we think it is a woman’s role to point out to shit head men when they are being assholes. But it’s clearly not. I still very much love and believe in punk rock. It’s imperfections far outweighs it’s glory, even after 33 years (yes I believe I was born in the same year as punk, eat shit) there is still a lot of learning and changing to do. I will never stop believing in punk rock or everything I have learned. But tonight, I just can’t be that adult, white male in a community where I am a stranger. I can’t occupy physical space when I do not have anything invested in its actual growth. I can’t occupy that physical space when there are kids that live in that neighborhood who need that space to exist in and to express themselves. The suburbs make me crazy and are choking my soul as I sit here. But tonight, this is where I need to be.

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3 thoughts on “On Riot Grrrl Books and White Male Privalege and Getting Older And Not Going to Punk Shows

  1. great post.

    i was out of the country when most of the Riot Grrrl scene happened, and got back after it had blown up/exploded/turned into a fashion thing by big media, so i kind of missed out on it. but i was always sort of interested in it.

    will look forward to checking this book out.

    1. Thanks man. Thanks also for reading so faithfuly. It rules. I’ve been thinking so much about this, lately and over the years as well. Punk privallege is such an odd concept. There is a lot of talk about this though, and I wonder if there has been any positive action anywhere.

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