What's a White Yardie, Mum?
by Harry Compton
Trends change constantly as a new generation strives to instil a new cultural element into its existence. With the hippies of California dreamin’ across the 60’s, the skinheads shaving their mark into British punk culture in the 70’s and 80’s and an era marred with change until the noughties, what do the current trends say about us?
Les Back’s ethnography “The ‘White Negro’ Revisited: Race and Masculinities in South London” invites us to consider a perspective which I feel is valuable for defining our current cultural identity that a younger generation, especially white males, converge towards. We are witnessing a racially driven era, one in which white individuals are appropriating ‘black’ mannerisms and style in order to make use of its attractive features and potent masculinity. Back writes,“the existence of an interlocked dualism of ‘fear and desire’ is an essential feature of white constructions of black masculinity” (Back, 2017). There is an overt desire to actualise qualities of ‘blackness’ in consolidating this newly constructed identity of the ‘white negro’. Instead of embracing and integrating their culture into ours, we are trying to replicate it and practice key desirable features of it.
Historical events have acted as catalysts to these interests. For instance, the area of South London in which Back conducted fieldwork “has a long history of migration from the 1950's onward” and “by 1981 black people constituted 25 per cent of the overall population of the borough and in some districts between 40 per cent and 50 per cent” (Back, 2017). Migration to the UK, and especially London, saw an influx of Caribbean migrants occupying large areas of estates which used to be impoverished areas with high crime rates. Such areas included Peckham, Tottenham and Hackney which have a notoriety for ‘Yardie’ gang culture and were focal areas for the London Riots in 2011. The riots, which followed in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan, saw London descend into uncontrollable episodes of looting and crime. However, more revealing than the violence itself was the demographic of people who were arrested and interviewed following the riots. Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the LSE, cites the following in his report with the name ‘Reading the Riots’: of those interviewed, 47% were of ‘black’ origin whilst 26% were of ‘white’ descent. These statistics allude to the fear that the British public has towards certain racial groups. This is also reflected in policing, more specifically New Scotland Yard has been criticised for its racial tendencies. Continuous black-targeted stop and searches in an effort to solve the wielding of offensive weapons reflects this mere fact. Newburn’s report itself displays an important confusion. It reffers to these racial groups by ‘ethnicity’ that does not adhere to a nationality or a skin tone, but to a shared practice of customs. It would be fair to say in reflecting on Back’s ethnography that white men are trying to culturally appropriate a ‘negro ethnicity’. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that it has become racialized and to not recognise this would not come off as being socially ignorant.
Now here is my point, and don’t expect it to be a socially transforming one. Beyond the estate which Back describes, I hold that the cultural climate of adolescents, including a substantial majority of young white people, in Britain have been raised in tune with the growing attraction and fear of a potent and racialised ‘black ethnicity’. Back’s informant, a seventeen year old girl called Delora, states “Yeah, I remember one white boy talking about going out with black girls, it was like ‘once you go black, you never turn back’ ” (Back, 2017) . The above quotation reveals that white adolescents are curious and attracted to the “mysterious” and “elusive” black cultural identity, which seemingly stems from demographically deprived settings and only represents a small transect of black individuals. So the question I ask is: why does this attraction or appropriation exists in the world beyond the estate, in the riots for example, where ethnic origins have become racialised? We only have to look at a few stereotypes of white adolescents appropriating a ‘black’ racialised ethnicity to understand and realise the extent of it. To illustrate this further, I will present a few examples from my own observations and assess to what extent they have been appropriated.
The Woking Roadman
Sliding both Super-off peak return from Woking to Guildford and railcard into his Nike side bag, this middle-class ‘Yute’ has seen harsher days. Stuck in the breadline at the shopping centre waiting for their NY Vanilla cheesecake milkshake from Shakeaway, his posse have to let everyone know that their beverage of choice is both ‘Peng’ (meaning delicious) and that they are ‘gassed’, implying their excitement for it. Not even their favourite Grime rapper ‘Giggs’ could have put it any better, ‘you dunno’. Back to their five bedroom cul de sac they go for dinner.
The Minted Mandem
“Take this one with the flash on… there should be a setting which would really go well with the derelict theme we’re going for” unable to hide under the shade of their quaffed curtains and signature Nike Air Max kicks, a derelict council estate in Bermondsey is where you’ll find these privileged posers. Advertising a brand of streetwear on their themed Instagrams, that would equate to the same cost as a months rent for a two bedroom house. They are blissfully unaware of the irony they represent; this wasn’t taught at their boarding school in Sussex. These posh hipsters adore the gritty aesthetic the estate offers, whilst not knowing a single person who actually lives in them. The only thing they’ve ever given to the estate are the half eaten ends of their Tennessee chicken wings. I’d say a toast with a can of Red stripe would be more than appropriate for the Russell group Rasclat..
Although I have used these stereotypes in a comical manner, there is one significant cultural influence that is noticeably idolized, especially by young white people beyond South London. The use of London slang, descending from Patwah as mentioned in the first example, to the finessing of a gritty estate image in the latter, are both clear indications. However, it is of vital importantance to acknowledge the irony as the ethnic image has progressively become racialised. Is it morally correct to masquerade in their image, since ethnicity has become conjoined with complexion? Or is it essential that white people appropriate it, to help reduce the racial connotations that ethnicity imposes upon blacks? Is it acceptable even if its roots stem from a sense of fear? Either way, British youth culture is certainly welcoming the phenomenon with open arms, as our new generation instils another multicultural layer to it’s growing identity.
Back, L. (2017). The 'White Negro' revisited: Race and Masculinities in South London. In: A. Cornwall, ed., Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.