Alex Campbell and Skinhead Authenticity

Campbell, Alex. “The Search for Authenticity: An Exploration of an Online Skinhead Newsgroup.” New Media and Society 8 (2006): 269-94. Print.

If something can be a mouthful or a handful, this article is a headful. It makes me feel so. Many. Things. Also, I have a strong jones to watch This is England again.

Basically, the author conducted an ethnography of a skinhead newsgroup to better understand how racial discourse works in that community—a community that, Campbell is quick to point out, is hardly monolithic. Indeed, among people who self-identify as skinheads, there are both explicitly racist and explicitly anti-racist groups, as well as what Campbell terms a “non-racist” majority that don’t go out of their way in either direction. One of the most interesting segments involves looking at how some of the members of the group carefully position themselves as non-racist in ways that still permit them to make racist statements, just, you know, without the label.

(Can I just say how much I love that at least in this community the skinhead epithet for racist skinheads is “boneheads”? A lot, my friends. Even as I recognize that the attempt to assign racism to someone-else-but-not-authentic-skinhead-and-therefore-not-us is problematic, I still love the term.)

Photo via slybaldguys, which is actually a fascinating juxtaposition: this is a forum for men who shave their heads, and the photo is linked in a comment thread about how NOT to be mistaken for a skinhead.

From the beginning, Campbell positions her study as a counterbalance to popular conceptions of both skinheads and of the internet itself. She first establishes that while popular discourse about the internet tends to hover in either utopian (it can solve all of our problems by making everyone equal!) or dystopian (omg it gives the bad people a way of connecting with each other and society will soon be blasted to pieces by a coalition of evil!), both of these are overly simplistic. More than that, Campbell argues that these are not just reductive visions of the internet but of the way that racial discourse works, portraying racism as something that occurs only in particular marked and overt ways.

In fact, Campbell says, because people know that actual racialized discourse is frowned upon, racial terms tend to be replaced with cultural ones—it isn’t African Americans that are criminal, it’s black culture, didn’t you know? Nevertheless, the cultural markers clearly stand in for racial ones, and this isn’t any less racist for all it attempts to couch itself in terms of culture and choices. Campbell also points to a shift in the way that racism manifests itself—where before races were put into a hierarchy and the discourse revolved around questions of eliminating the Other, now concern is more inwardly directed, fearing contamination of the self. Borders are more important than ever.

What this does, although this isn’t quite how Campbell frames it, is underscore the need for creating those boundaries within certain kinds of discourse. There can’t be an us until there is a them, basically, so much of the rhetoric is oriented toward marking who does and doesn’t belong.

Truly, I cannot believe how closely this adheres to the work I’ve been doing on bro culture. Subculture associated with repugnant points of view? Check. Discourse that revolves around defining the boundaries of the group? Check. Emphasis on understanding how a particular group creates and polices “authentic” performances of identity? Check and check. Actually, if I’m smart, I’ll use this as a model as I revise the article going forward. I think that I can make a lot of the same arguments about the exigency of my study that Campbell uses to justify hers.

I particularly love the argument that she makes about how the fact that these utopian and dystopian visions are popular rather than scholarly actually makes them more important because they are the opinions of the people who are actually creating the discourse. Bravo! Just what I’ve always thought! Who cares what we think of these things in academia? What feminism and misogyny and racism and antiracism actually look like are being determined by the people who practice them on the ground, not in the ivory tower, so of course there are the manifestations we need to be looking at.

Anyway. I look forward to thinking about the kinds of synonyms that stand in for misogyny in my bro spaces, as well as how certain members create unassailable positions that determine the direction of acceptable discourse, as “Bill” does toward the middle of the article. Her focus on the more “innocuous” comments really provides a great model moving forward to see how these identities—publics, I might say—are performed and called into being one comment at a time.

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