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Young skinhead, they call you hooligan

Just because you don't make any sense to them

You're a hardworking man who's paid his dues

But they still call you racist on the evening news
Dropkick Murphys, "Never Alone"

Ah, skinheads. Right up there next to feminists when it comes to subcultures people are most likely to have the wrong ideas about. Quick answer: Yes, there are Nazis among them, but they're not all Nazis, and a good number of them are likely to strongly disagree with such an assertion.

Skinheads first truly emerged in British culture in the '60s, following the long post-war economic boom. They were working class youth who made use of their money by buying clothes that reflected their lifestyles (straight-leg jeans, work boots, braces, and occasionally suits) and going to dance halls to enjoy styles such as ska and rocksteady. They were technically mods (more famously known for their upper-class, more refined image), but broke off from the other mods around the late '50s and became their own subculture, eventually becoming known as skinheads around the late '60s.

Now, as for the racism... in the early '60s, there were individual attacks launched by skins on Pakistani and other South Asian immigrant families. It wasn't until the '70s, with the rise of the National Front, that a number of skinheads organized and adopted racist dogma. At the same time, though, there were still skinheads who joined up with other movements opposed to the National Front, such as Rock Against Racism, or would found their own, such as the SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice). It's just that, around that time, there were neo-Nazi groups that operated openly and were made up mostly of skinheads, and the media put two and two together and got headlines.

These days, the skinhead subculture isn't as large as it was, but still pervades amongst working class Brits, as well as working class Americans. It's just that the stigma is hard to avoid. It's a little bit easier in Britain, where while skinheads still bear racist associations, there are also vocal and active skinhead groups that speak out against racism, which kind of blunts the stigma (hell, skinheads are something of a fetish amongst European gay men). America kind of developed the skinhead subculture "second hand," however; while skins did make their way over from the first days on, and while the SHARPs came together in New York City, skinheads aren't really well understood as a subculture outside of the punk/hardcore/street subcultures assembly. As a result, "skinhead" and "Nazi" are practically synonymous in American media. This is possibly because, in the United States, there has yet to be a single skinhead movement or subculture which has received any media attention at all for being anything other than a pack of neo-Nazi scumbags. SHARP might have got its start in New York City, but by this point it may as well not exist in the US.

The original movement still exists and has spread to cities on all continents, but because of the Aryans, they don't refer to themselves as 'skinheads' anymore. They are longest-lived subculture currently existing, probably due to remaining under the mainstream radar, which they're content to continue doing. The Aryans simply co-opted a few costume elements, and care less about preserving the movement than their own high profile.

As has been outlined extensively, skins dance all over the political spectrum, from neo-Nazi skins to anti-fascist skins, who are likely to try and club the shit out of each other if they were to meet in a dark alley. There are also traditionalist skins, who try to avoid politics all together and focus on the working class pride the subculture originally was supposed to embody. Skinhead fashion is mostly uniform amongst guys: flight jackets, Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts, suspenders (braces), tight "bleachers" (bleached jeans), and work or combat boots (usually Doc Martens, though many skinheads have switched over to other brands after production for Doc Martens moved out of Britain to countries known for sweatshop labour).

Examples of portrayals of skinheads:

  • The recent British film This Is England focuses on a young boy who ends up befriending a group of mostly apolitical skins during the days of Thatcher's England. When the group's leader returns from prison having joined the National Front, it splits between white power and anti-racist skins.
  • The movie American History X is about neo-nazi skinheads, the protagonist being a young teen whose older skinhead brother just got out of prison for brutally murdering a black man who tried to steal his car. In prison, the older bro reformed and learned to accept people of other races. He passes this well learned lesson on to his little brother. Then the younger brother gets shot and killed by a black kid he insulted the day before.
  • "Bigmac" from Terry Pratchett's Johnny Maxwell Trilogy is mentioned to be a skinhead. No nazi, however, more following the example of his elder brother.
    • Although he does wear swastikas, as revealed in the third book. However, he has only the vaguest idea what they represent, or why wearing them when you've time travelled back to 1943 is a bad idea.
  • The novel American Skin is about a kid who joins an anti-racist skinhead culture, but is sent to prison when the main character is forced to kill a black man in self-defense. Neither the prosecutor or the jury believes him, because he's a skinhead.
  • Romper Stomper is a 1992 Australian film written and directed by Geoffrey Wright and starring Russell Crowe. The film follows the exploits and downfall of a neo-Nazi skinhead group in blue-collar suburban Melbourne.
  • A group of neo-Nazi skinheads sit in the cafeteria of Steve's school on American Dad. They are racist, but uncharacteristically polite.

 (On Judaism) Yours is a rich and fascinating tradition which we despise.

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