Me in London, 1995: I crouched next to this random scooter and jokingly said my ’67 Lambretta went tits-up, so I get around on this Spree.
(photo credit: Silvia Manzanero)

Once upon a time, I was a self-loathing Asian who hung out with the skinheads. Now, they weren’t neo-Nazis; they were traditional skinheads, or “trads” (I’ll get more into that in a minute). And ironically enough, they were more antiracist than I was!

Before you say, “But wait, aren’t all skinheads racists?” it’s important to note that when skinheads emerged as a youth culture in late ’60s England, they embraced Jamaican ska music, ultimately helping disseminate it—often called skinhead reggae—all over the country. However, neo-Nazis co-opted the movement in the 1970s and recruited violent white supremacist skinheads. This subgroup, with its right-wing extremism, has unfortunately exemplified skinhead culture to the mainstream ever since.

Found on nearly every continent today, skinhead culture comprises an array of political beliefs. The most recognizable antiracist faction is the  Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs); other skinheads consider themselves to be trads, a term referencing their apolitical origins. And there are plenty of nationalist wingnuts, like the culturally confused Malaysian neo-Nazis. (More on skinhead subculture and identity can be found here.)

My introduction to the skinheads, or “skins,” came through ska. Although this upbeat music is ubiquitous enough now to be heard on any used-car dealership commercial, it was underground and hard to come by for a long time. When I was 11, my older sister brought home a record that changed my life; it was the debut album by The Specials. The track that made me jump to my feet and take notice was Do the Dog. With its explosive drum intro and the lead singer’s bawled, profane vocals, this song would foretell, and maybe even determine, my later interest in radical politics and punk.

“All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead”
—The Specials, “Do the Dog”

As a gothic punk in high school, I never stopped listening to ska and eventually became a full-fledged “rudegirl” (a female member of the ska subculture). Most of my favorite bands were on the 2 Tone record label, but I listened to old-school Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and nonracist Oi!. I wore all black-and-white clothes under a bomber decorated with ska buttons and patches (part of the skinhead aesthetic), and frequented ska shows, where I’d “skank” all night with other rudies and skins, who were some of the most avid fans.

Rudegirl _ room at home.jpg
Rudegirl selfie, Philly, 1994: I’m in a ’60s dress with ska paraphernalia (most of which I drew myself) all over my walls.

It was easy enough to take on a subcultural persona; it was much harder to deal with my racial identity. In spite of being staunchly antiracist, I was at odds with my Asianness. As a kid, I was bullied because of my ethnic features, and as a young adult, felt entirely detached from Korean culture. I didn’t have Korean friends, barely knew the language or who my grandparents were, and was usually at odds with my immediate family. Being Asian, for me, meant only experiencing racial slurs and fetishism; it was a deficit and a liability and, at best, a major inconvenience. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

As an alienated 19-year-old, I met and got to know the Philly United Skinheads (PUSH). The first encounter was uncomfortable: on a lonely West Philly street one night, a drunken skinhead began talking shit to me and ripped a patch off my bomber. I screamed at him and got the patch back; then two of his friends came up to apologize to me for his behavior while he reeled away and puked in a vacant lot. From then on, I was accepted by the group.

PUSH was led by an intensely charismatic 27-year-old skinhead named Spud. He could have been mistaken for a neo-Nazi because of his Aryan features and German blackletter tattoos. His girlfriend, an African-American skinhead, was a former mod/goth hybrid (she’d worn a lot of black suits, apparently) and daughter of a southern Holy Roller. We busted out Madness moves on the dancefloor and drank heavily while watching early-’90s ska bands like The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim play. (The stalwarts of 2 Tone ska, such as The Selecter and The English Beat, hadn’t reunited yet, but I would later see these bands in London and Seattle.)

I quickly learned that PUSH had its heroes, antiheroes, and an intricate, occasionally self-contradictory, system of values. These skins were almost religiously antiracist without identifying as SHARPs. They always partied on the anniversary of Hitler’s death and, conversely, abstained from alcohol on his birthday. They also villainized a newly dead neo-Nazi named Joe Rowan, the 22-year-old singer of a Delaware white-power band. PUSH celebrated on the anniversary of his death, too, and didn’t drink on his birthday. Like all antiracist skins, they shunned the neo-Nazis’ favorite numbers, 88 and 14 (representing, respectively, “Heil Hitler” and the 14-word white supremacist creed).

When the neo-Nazis, or “boneheads,” would visit town, members of PUSH would go fight them, but I would stay out of it. Even though I was violent, rambunctious, and ready to use my fists at the drop of a hat (and did, more often than not), I wasn’t ready to take on race. My racial identity had not crystallized enough for me to confront these rabid white supremacists.

It seemed strange to me that PUSH, who were primarily white, felt more strongly about racism than I did. I appreciated their activism, but felt almost a little suspicious, wondering if there was a white, self-heroicizing, hetero-paternalistic element to it, or at least a perverse kind of privilege.

In 1995 I moved to London and got to know some of the skinheads there, mainly at the ska shows. England had its own virulent brand of fascist boneheads, mainly from the National Front and the British Movement, but it also had more diversity in its skinhead culture than I’d seen before. I met Caribbeans, East Indians, and even an Israeli skin one night.

Rude London roomMy room in London, 1996: checkered skirt and a car coat, along with dozens of fliers from ’60s mod and ska events around town

In both England and America, there were aspects of nonracist skinhead culture that I disliked. The men were usually looking for a fight and often homophobic. Many were blatantly sexist and would get sloppy drunk, relying on their girlfriends to help them get home. (But let it be known: skinhead girls are not to be messed with—they are feisty and can hold their own.) Plus, there were many “fence-sitters,” who would hit on me but still confess to having racist friends. In one particularly chilling encounter, a good-looking but semiliterate skin flirted with me at a party and then, sidling up, admitted he’d been best friends with Joe Rowen, the infamous neo-Nazi.

As I spent more time with the skinheads, I realized that my own personal rage—which had helped me relate to them—came from my own cultural ambivalence. I couldn’t identify with my Korean heritage and didn’t care to understand it. I felt alienated from other people of my race and avoided them. Yet I also hated those who hated my race. In other words, I was a convoluted mess.

It would take decades for me to fully accept and embrace my Korean-American identity, and begin work as an antiracist activist, making art around it, leading workshops on race at University of Washington and Seattle University, and eventually drumming up the courage to confront the white-supremacist Hammerskins.

These vicious skinheads were rumored to be marching in Seattle, but never showed up. I joined about 400 other antifascists to meet them with a counter-protest on a cold, blustery night. After waiting for a half hour, we marched through the Seattle streets; I led several chants, screaming, “Say it loud! Say it clear!” The crowd responded, “Nazis are not welcome here!” We sent out a strong message: we will fight to protect Muslims, refugees, and racial minorities against fascists.

That night felt like less of a closure to my skinhead past and more of an entry into something new and dangerous, but filled with an irresistible and fortifying sense of promise.