Archives for posts with tag: racism


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.



My heart’s been hanging at my knees, with the one-year anniversary of Ferguson and the controversy around the BLM disruption of Bernie Sanders’ visit to Seattle. There are feelings I’m finding hard to articulate right now—they exist only as a molten mass in my head—but I did convey some of them as abstract drawings on paper, using permanent marker and a very blunt pencil.

Divided ever
Divided Ever
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The past few days have reminded me that as whites and people of color, we live in radically different worlds. The ferment around Ferguson and the Sanders disruption has shown, with very few exceptions, the grievous lack of understanding we have toward each other. Our comprehension and empathy still hinge on social constructs, and this often creates an impasse, and enmity, between groups.

It pains me to see this kind of fracture happen, and I don’t know how else to talk about it beyond carving marks into paper with a blunt pencil (as in 90% wood, 10% graphite)—a study in impotence and a physical reminder of the emotional limits to our subjectivity. We say we support a movement outside of our experience but still remain ensconced in our respective paradigms.

There is a movement to emphasize that black lives matter. And there are many non-black allies, but how much do we really understand about being a racial minority without wearing it on our skin and seeing how it feels?

We cannot understand
How We Cannot Understand/Stand
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The drawing above came out of the hostile response to the disruption of Bernie Sanders’ talk in Seattle. Some of the most mean-spirited comments came from those who should be the best allies to the BLM movement, white progressives. It occurred to me that as different races with differing agendas in that moment, we could not understand, or even stand, each other. We simply cannot stand if we continue operating this way.

I’m frustrated by the impotence in racial discussions. We are bound by our limitations, so how can we unite and fight?

Scan 1
We Hate You/They Hate Us
Sharpie and pencil

There are allies out there with deep hearts and broad imaginations. These are the people who can help, and yet today I’m feeling discouraged, haplessly bound by my own skin and embroiled in conflicting, mutually uncomprehending discourse. I’m especially tired of hearing stubborn but futile attempts to analyze the Sanders situation. These are as effectual as a blunted pencil, whose insignificant marks cannot rival the deep, plush darkness of a brand-new Sharpie, a symbol of the stark and unyielding truth of racial inequality.

(This drawing, published in Philomel Magazine in 1997, wasn’t included–though it could have been, with its themes of gay/interracial relationships and AIDS.)

Last Tuesday, January 27, I presented some of my visual art at the juried Arts & Social Change Showcase, a booking conference that is part of the Arts & Social Change Symposium, in Bellevue, Washington. I was one of nine featured visual artists, who ranged in style and subject matter. In addition, there were 14 live performances, ranging from Guinean dance to Taiko drumming, held in the same room—which kept things lively (and loud). The event was attended by arts professionals, bookers and funders, including members of 4Culture, Washington State Arts Commission and other organizations.

I was surprised to find that much of the featured visual art was created by “diverse” artists but did not necessarily have a clear social message. My pieces were some of the more pointed there—no surprise when you include a drawing of a petroleum conglomerate’s CEO ejaculating oil. Then again, the event was organized around the idea of social change, not social justice. (Further clarification of this kind of terminology can be found here.) So I understand that showcasing artists of different ethnic backgrounds helps inform the public and shift cultural perceptions, which can contribute to social change.

I showed the following pieces at the conference.


Atrocities V, 2001
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing above is part of a series on the ravages of war (which can be found here on my website). This and the drawing below, of BP CEO Tony Hayward, were published in The Slog, the blog of Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger. You can see Jen Graves’ original post here.

3_BP Wet Dream
BP Wet Dream
, 2010
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing that follows was published as the cover illustration of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, an interdisciplinary journal that comes out of the Seattle University School of Law. It was a tribute to Robert Frank, whose unflinching outsider’s eye exposed the hypocrisies and existentialism of American life in the twentieth century.

 1_SJSJ cover

The United States of Inequality, 2010
Cover illustration for Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Fall/Winter 2010
Mixed media on paper
8.5 x 11 in

The next two drawings come from a conceptual collage series I created around racial politics and the minority experience. (You can find more here on my website.)


Slippage, 2012
Ink on canvas
10 x 8 in

During production, I poured Sumi ink through a slit in the protective plastic wrapping of a blank canvas to suggest the infiltration of the postcolonial “Other’s” perspective into a previously white canon.


Camp, 2012
Mixed media on bristol
14 x 17 in

Composed of shreds of black paper left on Scotch tape loops, Camp represents containment and internment, compromised identity, and the tenacity of survivors.

Overall, the work I showed at the Arts & Social Change Showcase elicited a positive response from viewers. It helped that the attendees and presenters were already thinking of how an aesthetic medium can be used to produce transformative social change. There are myriad ways to do it, and it will take me a lifetime to figure out the best, most generous way possible. But for now, I am taking one step at a time to get my work out there—both visual art and writings—to help effect some of these changes.

Over the holidays, I laid a large piece of raw canvas on the floor of a friend’s art studio and slashed and hacked away at it with a housepainter’s brush. Sure, it was action painting—nothing nobody wasn’t doing in 1951 (wait, does that triple-negative still make a positive?). However, old methods can convey new messages, including one that represents the sweaty, immediate present.

This was the result:


Every single inch of the 5-foot-long canvas is affected; even the seemingly blank areas are activated by small splatters. In this way, this painting acts as a metaphor for race; that is, there is nobody in America that is not affected at this cultural moment by the discourse of race and difference. Ferguson was the watershed, the explosive catalyst. Eric Garner, like a wide receiver, carried the message farther.

I titled the piece Denature because it talks about how Michael Brown, and many others before and after, was stripped of his dignity–and all his essential qualities–as he lay bleeding in the street. It talks about the denaturing and pervasive effect of systemic racism.

Denature closeup
Hiccups and droolings of paint: Denature, 2014 (closeup)

Working spontaneously on a large scale was extremely cathartic for me; a lot of grief and rage bubbled out. However, as an artist, I was careful to follow up with methodical refinement. Right now this piece and another larger painting, titled 12:01 to Eternity (referencing the time Michael Brown was shot), are in an incubation period. I’ll leave them alone for a month or so before revisiting them for additional revisions. Because, as with emotion itself, time provides some perspective. But in the end, this perspective may only open up more questions than answers, not unlike race in America.

12PM to Eternity closeup
12:01 to Eternity, 2015 (closeup)

For contrast, a painting from 2008, Convergence 

A small drawing I made using Sharpie, Dec. 2014

From a racial perspective, 2014 has been a watershed year. In light of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it feels as if we are on the cusp of a new, reinvigorated and more media-savvy civil rights movement—one that is manifesting in intellectual and visceral ways. All of the sudden, being minority, and especially being black, has an urgency to it. Take, for example, the website of #BlackLivesMatter; its main text is telegraphic and immediate: Get Active, Get Organized, Fight Back.

The events of the past few months have forced race into the national discussion to an almost overwhelming degree. We’re no longer avoiding the topic; we’re glutted with it. There have been innumerable articles, from both mainstream and underground publications, that offer incisive social critique and cultural analysis. Ironically, the more the country talks about race, the less I feel compelled to write about it. I’m more inclined now to simply witness, and gradually process, the societal change this dialogue is fostering. There’s too much to take in; I’m speechless.

As a side note: For those who still believe that the police were justified in killing these black guys because they were criminals, you’re ignoring the national subtext—an entire cultural narrative—underlying these events. Wake up and smell the prejudicial coffee!

Even though this blog was originally designed to talk about race (it’s even built into the name, for better or worse), I’ve delved less into general musings around it and more into the specific experiences of being an Asian American. Life is politicized when you’re a minority, and as an Asian-American female, I’m reminded of that fact every single day. Even the minutiae of everyday life, such as habits, personal appearance and conversations, are charged with identity and difference.

My hope is that in the new year, the discussion around race continues and we learn to understand one another better. Increasing awareness and recognition engenders compassion and empathy—at least, ideally. With the President of the United States candidly admitting he’s been mistaken for the valet, and even multinational conglomerate Starbucks taking a stand on racism, this kind of bipartisan social change could very well happen, maybe even quicker than we imagined.