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Bystander Racism

March 16, 2011

[This post is a clumsy reaction to another at Writing Is Fighting. While I try and stay informed and educated about race issues, I had rarely engaged issues of race in metal beyond representations of POC metal musicians.]

I’m white.

I bet you already assumed I was white. I didn’t even have to point it out, but I just figured I’d clarify.

Of course, as a white woman, I get all kinds of privileges I didn’t earn. People don’t harass me for no reason. They don’t assume I’m a criminal. They don’t clutch their bags closer when I walk by. People don’t regard me with a suspicion they reserve for People of Color (POCs). There are a whole myriad of privileges I’m not even mentioning here. They would take too long to list.

However, one of the most important bits of privilege whiteness has conferred is not having to think about race. I don’t have to think about it because, as a white person, I don’t have a race – at least not in terms of what US terms as race or anything racialized. Those non-white POCs? THEY have a race. Not me.

Except, I do. Some people crossed on a boat from Europe for whatever reason and plunked themselves down in the US.

At metal shows, rarely do we think about race. A lot of the time, we’re just a bunch of white people hanging out and listening to angry loud music without having to think about people who are different in some way. And then, we see some POCs in the crowd. Well, sometimes we’re stunned.

“Holy crap, black people listen to metal, too? I thought all of them liked rap!”

Yeah, we all harbor ignorant assumptions sometimes. Whenever there’s a discussion about race, it’s never about us. We don’t have a race! We’ll just stay quiet and hope above hope nobody calls us racist. Ugh, that would just be the WORST! (But I’m not racist! I have lots of black friends!) [epic eyeroll]

Anyway, I don’t think about race as much as some POCs because I’m considered the norm. They’re considered the other. When people talk about blacks, or hispanics, or asians, my senses don’t heighten because I don’t think, “Oh shit, they’re talking about me again. What are they saying this time?”

Race doesn’t concern us white metal fans. So we continue to support Varg and NSBM, along with other bands who spout hateful messages.

As an ally, I don’t think I can really support those kinds of bands.

“It’s not about their politics, it’s about their music! Metal is not supposed to be political!”

Well, here’s the thing: Metal should be for anybody who wants to listen. If they like the music, why should anybody be hostile towards them?

“Yeah, but metal is made primarily by white people! If they want to listen to it, they’re going to have to deal!”

No. While it’s true that everyone is allowed to have their thoughts on the subject, and yes, white people have a lot of different views on race, it shouldn’t be ok for people to be hateful and racist. And it’s not ok for me to stand by and say nothing while others are making life uncomfortable for POCs who are just minding their own business at shows (and everywhere else).

Yeah, you can be fascinated by Varg and his ilk. You can like his music. But can we really stand around and not call people out on their shit? Can we feature him in magazines without denouncing his views? Should white metalheads just pass the buck on this one? Should we just hope someone else will say it?

For a group of people that sometimes delights in making those who don’t like metal squirm, we’re being really quiet about race (because, you know, it’s so touchy! And, like, SO not OUR problem!)

At shows, we get white-people-diversity: less than 20% POCs. The majority of white metal fans can just ignore the stuff that doesn’t affect them and move on.

Metal shows are some of the places I’ve felt most safe. There have been a few incidents where I’ve felt seriously threatened, but those are the exception. Imagine if that were the rule? Metalheads can be a community of tightly knit friends. When one undergoes hardship, I’ve seen metalheads rally support and organize all kinds of cool stuff that might not be possible in other groups. My motto has become “Metalheads look after our own”.

This might not be true for everyone, but I feel a heightened connection to a lot of people who like metal. The rest of the world tolerates this racist crap. We need to talk about it if we want metal shows to be welcoming places for folks who like metal, and not just the white ones.


Ms. Anthropia

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 1:47 pm

    Excellent post. What frustrates me most about metal and race(ism) is how resistant “metal culture” is to having a frank discussion about this. Too often when it gets brought up, there’s always someone trying to shut down the conversation either by trying to write it all off as “just music” (because we spend all this time listening to metal, thinking about it, writing about it, going to shows, wearing the shirts, etc because it’s just some meaningless thing that isn’t worth taking seriously) or, worse, with a weak appeal to “freedom of speech”, as if that freedom has ever meant escaping criticism.

    I’m not really into the self-promotion thing, but I’ve written a fair bit about this on my blog if you’re interested.

  2. Sharon M. permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:24 pm

    Yeah, but metal is made primarily by white people! If they want to listen to it, they’re going to have to deal!”
    Oh gawd: I was just listening to Ice-Ts Body Count song There Goes the Neighborhood too. The next time someone says that? Point out that Rock and Roll would not even be here if not for black people. Robert Johnson, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, et al. I dragged my friend to a bar last year to see a (local) thrash band. She didn’t want to go (she doesn’t like thrash metal) and complained she’d be the only black person there. Surprise! She wasn’t. I’ve never heard racist remarks (so far) but if I do, I will call it out.

  3. March 17, 2011 9:04 pm

    I was just perusing the internet and came upon this blog. I talk a lot about these sorts of issues in my own blog (linked above)

    I just wanted to say thank you.

    Thank you for talking about it. Thank you for admitting (that word is important) that there is an issue in the scene as well as the fact that you are privileged as a white metal fan. Just a simple fact.

    We need more individuals like you who accept that metal appeals to not only white people but many people that would not be expected to appreciated it. (Just like how a genre like reggae can appeal to everyone).

    You guys never have to think about it because white is ‘normal’, specifically within the metal community. But everyone likes to turn a blind eye to the fact there are many POC that enjoy it. Its almost taboo. Which is funny because metal is supposed to be ‘In your face’ and opinionated. Sometimes I feel as though the black metal head is sort of like the big foot of the metal scene.
    Do we exist or not?
    We do. And I and thousands of others attest to that.
    Its not just metal though. There are blacks in other alternatives forms of music that are ignored. That’s why I’m so glad for sights/movements like Afropunk or the Black Rock Coalition.
    Metal should just be about the music but that is not a reality for the POC.
    Great entry, by the way.

  4. AngeliKlaw permalink
    March 22, 2011 5:37 pm

    Yeah! I think it’s freaken awesome that you talk about this Ms. Anthropia! You easily cover some of the numerous ways white privilege invades our community, and it makes me feel like there’s still hope for metal! I’ve been feeling a bit lost lately, what with all the -isms I’ve been encountering at shows and in the music itself. I just can’t stand it anymore.

    To continue specifically on the topic of racism, I want to point out how nu metal is usually overlooked as a “valid” subgenre of metal because of its association with hip hop, and perceived popular black culture. All kinds of metal subgenres borrow influences from a myriad of other genres – electronica, classical, modern, jazz, folk music from israel, norway, china, japan, etc. When metal is mixed with other influences, which ALWAYS involve race and ethnicity in some way, it usually isn’t considered a negative quality unless it’s Nu Metal.

    Nu Metal is hated for it’s association with Hip Hop, which is associated with mass media and black people. Some people say because it’s too mainstream; I’d like to see these same people publicly denounce Iron Maiden for being too mainstream. Some people say because it’s weird to see white people try to act like they “have rhythm” – I’d like to see these same people explain how metal, or any genre of music excluding perhaps noise, lack rhythm. Some people say it’s because the music is simple and predictable: And death metal, black metal, deathcore, metalcore, grindcore AREN’T SIMPLE AND PREDICTABLE?! To these people, I say watch Brian Posehn’s music video “Metal by Numbers.”

    There’s something about the way white people perceive music and black people that makes Nu Metal in particular the black sheep (pun intended) of the community. Whatever is going on, I just want to clarify: Nu Metal is METAL and when it’s done right, it’s FUCKEN AWESOME!

  5. March 28, 2011 5:10 am


    That POC term is kinda corny–why not just say humans…. Also what about people of mixed race, what about people mostly one race but 1 quarter or less mixed blood?

    Obviously early metal was influenced by Blues—-Jimi Hendrix was a part of early metal—I know some will debate that but the tritone in Purple Haze is heavy just like the Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath.

    Metal is a melting pot of people. There’s Katon from Hirax. I think Tom Araya is of middle eastern descent. Pete Sandoval, Dave Lombardo, Robert Trujillo…. Lots of different races-then if you look at Sepultura and tons of other bands not from the US or Europe….

  6. April 1, 2011 8:32 pm

    A lot of Heavy Metal music is very aggressive, and even bloody. Some bands describe violence in such a graphic manner that one has to wonder from where they draw their inspiration from. This is all art though. You don’t have to like this art, but even the lyrics of Cannibal Corpse or Gwar are a form of artistic expression that has a right to exist. The question whether a particular person likes their lyrics or not is irrelevant in this respect. *I* take myself the right to not listen to such bands, but I would never forbid anybody else to listen to them. Well, okay, if I had children then I would probably forbid them to listen to such bands until they have reached a certain age, but my aim would still be to help them to develop the ability to make such decisions for themselves one day.

    Burzum and a lot of Black Metal stuff is different though. Bands like Gwar or Cannibal Corpse are like a bunch of kids with a preference for splatter horror stuff, but Black Metal is the real deal. What is particularly bad is the fact that these bands are trying to exploit the level of tolerance that is usually given to lyrically violent Metal bands like Cannibal Corpse, and that many Metal fans fall for it. Well, I have news for these Metal fans. You may like Gwar or Cannibal Corpse or not, but whatever you think about them, you have to admit that they do not have a political message. Many Black Metal bands do have a political message though. They talk about the power of the white race, about how stupid black people are, and such messages are extremely political!

    Trying to say, that a statement from Varg Vikernes that most Black Metal fans act like ‘stupid niggers’ (sorry for the “n” word, but I felt that it had to be said for once) is not political, is simply stupid! Something like that IS a political statement, a racist statement and the argument that such a statement is not political just because it was made by a Heavy Metal musician is even more stupid than the original statement itself. Seriously, if this logic was sound, then it would be perfectly okay to start a “pro Al-Qaida” Metal band with lyrics glorifying 9/11, ‘because Metal is not political’. Oh, I can already see the Metal shirts with the burning twin towers… And if somebody should really believe that this would not be a political statement, because ‘it is only about the music’ then this person should definitely do the world a favour and simply shut up.

    (Note: Just in case that somebody did not get the sarcasm in my statements about the twin towers, it is there. Also, I hope that nobody felt offended by my twin tower analogy. I used this analogy for the sake of argument, and I would like to apologise to anybody whose feelings I might have hurt. *I* was out with a couple of friends when we heard about NY and the WTC, and one of them had a nervous breakdown, because her best friend was working in the WTC at the time. Her best friend had a day off that day though, but we didn’t know at the time. So yes, I think I have an idea as to what 9/11 meant and still means.)

  7. April 2, 2011 12:00 am

    Except for Cannibal Corpse hasn’t just taken the route of dwelling on gory violence, but specifically misogynistic gory violence. Come on, is it really so easy to dismiss songs like “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled” as mere escapism? And this is the most mainstream example–what about the whole brutal death metal genre generally? Can we understand this as mere fantasy/escapism/entertainment given the reality of sexual violence?

    I will never defend Varg Vikernes, but if you listened to his music without knowing anything about him or his crimes, I would think it pretty unlikely that you’d get anything political from it. I think it’s a lot simplistic to say that his music and his politics are distinct, but at the same time Burzum isn’t Skrewdriver.

  8. ogunsiron permalink
    May 4, 2011 4:28 am

    Where to start ?

    I feel like the point of view of so called “allies” of so called POCs is incomprehensible. I don’t relate to it at all. I just don’t understand that need to constantly be sickened about your white self. That need to constantly bemoan the whiteness of this and that audience. That need to put any and all POCs that you don’t even know on a pedestal. Wtf ?

    I (black male) have been into metal for years and years. I have white friends into it of course. None of them would be described as “allies of POCs”. I don’t think i would be able to stand them anyways as i just don’t like those white people who make a show of hating their so called “priviledge” etc. Could I have a normal conversation with an “ally” ? Would they dare disagree with me on a subject ?probably not, lest they appeared to be patronizing. Could we be intimate ? Maybe not, lest she appeared to be “colonizing my body” ? I hope you don’t mind me specifying that a potential partner for me would be a She. I hope that’s not too normatively heterosexist. Can’t help it.

    The way I see it, there was something that already existed in metal that attracted me. That thing was there *before* I showed up. They didn’t need my POC approval to create it. They didn’t need to “include” me as POC for their art to be worthwhile. If I want to be included, I will try to figure out what the rules are and will apply for inclusion and if they don’t want to include me so be it. I simply do not believe in the right to impose my inclusion into already existing groups. Personally, I feel quite included in my local scene without people going out of their way to make me feel welcome as a POC. I don’t need that stuff.

    Someone mentionned reggae earlier.
    Sure, there’s the multiracial reggeae but does anyone here doubt that Sizzla has an extremely strong black *racial* identity ? I say racial because Sizza is not just some “victim of oppression”. He is a black african man of black genetic heritage and I bet that matters a lot to him, unless I’m completely mistaken about the man, in which case i’ll stand corrected.
    I also bet that it helps make him the compelling artist that he is.

    To me Varg is a bit like that. My understanding of his current views is that he values the racial homogeneity of his country in general and of his immediate surroundings in particular. He seems to be extremely rooted. Blood and Soil and all that. And you know what ? I’m glad he is like that because that must have contributed to his genius. He’s an extremist. Extremists aren’t always nice but they’re often very interesting people even if dangerous. As i listened to him talk about his childhood in a homogeneous community, I could think back to my own childhood in a black african country. We weren’t 100% homogeneous racially (there were a few foreigners) but it was close.
    And it was not a problem that needed to be solved. It was actually very much a strength, as homogeneity is often associated with solidarity and cohesion. Believe it or not, there’s social science on that. Look it up.
    I never, ever consider homogeneity a priori a problem. It may possibly be a problem, but that needs to be shown. I can’t stand those stupid articles about how portland is hell because it’s white and it “needs” black people or something. Same for the metal scene. There are black people in it. It could still exist and be a worthwhile music scene without us though. Simple as that. Just like hiphop includes whites to some extent but wouldn’t be worthless if it didn’t. Oh and i’d probably love Portland! I’d love to attend some ultra-mega-white event like a WaldTeufel concert 🙂

    I have spent years going to extremely white metal, industrial, neofolk etc shows, I can’t even begin to imagine criticizing the whitness of those crowds. I don’t know. My mind just doesn’t work that way. Must be that “inclusion” module that I don’t have.

    This is black metal we’re talking about. It’s not riot grrl punk. It’s not propaghandi stuff. It’s not about bell hooks, michael eric dyson, tim wise and all that garbage.
    It’s about, among other things, knowing what feeling hate is about.
    It’s about feeling hate or gazing into the eyes of the hateful. It’s not necessarily about anger. It’s certainly not about equality and “inclusion” ! It can also be about purity, order and the beyond.

    As far as i can see, those black people (I’ll talk about black people if you don’t mind, instead of that POC nonsense) who are truly into metal are able to join the subculture and to leave their mark in it if they’re talented.
    I can think of Blasphemy, Mystifier and Suffocation. There are others.
    Metal, even blackmetal, isn’t RAC.
    If you’re compatible and you understand that you’re dealing with a subculture that was created by whites, primarily for the enjoyment of fellow whites and you have no problem with that, you can probably join. I think that’s fine and that there’s nothing that needs fixing about it.

    PS : I just thought that you might be interested in a diametrically opposed point of view once in a while. I wanted to represent those black folks who fell in love with this scene knowing full well what it was like and who embraced it, of their own accord. I’m probably more euro-enthusiastic than the other black folks i know into metal 🙂 Most of them are a tiny bit more disturbed about burzum than I am 🙂 . Still: None make a big deal out of the whiteness of metal.

    • May 6, 2011 11:35 pm

      I don’t recall saying “I hate my whiteness and my white privilege!” at any point during this post. I merely spelled out what it looks like in some instances. I also don’t recall putting anyone on a pedestal.

      You bring up several good points, but they’re not what I’m critiquing. Metal should be for everyone who wants to listen to it, and no one should have to “apply” for “membership”. Yes, metal already has plenty of black folks and women. That’s the way the community looks in my neck of the woods. Yet some people still cling to the “default trueness” as white and male – and therefore anyone who is not those things is suspect or an imposter. They feel no problem voicing these opinions because they’re backed by this assumption.

      In my attempt to problematize this, it might have come off as a “Portland needs more black folks!” scenario. However, instead of saying, “well, I hate the whiteness and it needs to change!” I’m saying, “Ok, this is one aspect of this community. What would it look like if people challenged these assumptions and called folks out on their shit?”

      Whenever someone brings up race, there’s usually an awkward silence among the white folks, or hate speech, or transparent insecurity about appearing “racist”. I’d like to hear something different every so often.

      I guess it came off as “introspective white person feels bad about privilege and must single handedly solve the whiteness of metal while using sterile PC terms!” Or maybe “delightfully diverse crayon box of metal friends dances under the black metal rainbow with unicorns!” Or something. But, as a feminist, I must eschew all humor and go back to being super serious. 😛

  9. June 17, 2011 3:47 pm

    Way to call out the hypocracy of people not minding confrontation in general, but remaining mum when bigots spout hatred. Either you condone their message through your silence, or you speak out against it. Your choice.

    Well done, Ms. Anthropia, well done.

  10. mercedez permalink
    September 28, 2011 3:50 pm

    good morning!
    as a latina metalhead, I really appreciate seeing the racism in metal culture being addressed especially by my fellow metalheads and most especially by the whities. It’s really important to know that while, yes, many of us believe that in this alternative type of cub-culture we don’t see people by the color of their skin, inherently and subconciously racism exists (everywhere). I was lucky enough to grow up in a community of metalheads who were mostly mexican and understood my culture, family and background. I exist in a community comprised of mostly black and brown punks and radical queers. I find myself to be pretty comfortable at shows. It even seems there’s almost an unspoken rule about “ladies to the front” when we’re all together. because we all know each other it’s no surprise that i can outbang some of the dudelys at shows or that i sometimes know the names of “obscure” black metal bands. I find that I encounter racism and sexism mostly when I chose to leave my safe little bubble of queer feminist metalheads of color. To white men, I should stay out of the pit if I can’t handle their large bodies being thrust at me or I am overly sexualized and only knowledgeable about metal to get guys. or when I speak up about NSBM and why it actually does suck or when simply addressing the issue of racism and that no matter how many black brown red and yellow folks exist within it, whether we like it or not, it exists. folks are just afraid to be called out. the more we refuse to tolerate it the better. thanks.

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