Skinhead: What This Word Really Means

Today’s skinheads are the evil twins of what used to be a noisy but anti-establishment and anti-racist subculture. Andrew Gregg, director of Skinhead

“American History X” probably has more to do with the modern interpretation of a skinhead than any other scrap of North American culture. In the 1998 movie, Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi poster boy, the archetypical ‘racist skinhead,’ romanticized as an anti-hero, trying to find redemption.


I found myself working against that movie while making my new doc SKINHEAD the soaring music, the gang-as-family narrative and the phoney sentimentality underneath all the hate. The skinhead movement I was introduced to is really more pitiable than anything else, a collection of lost boys looking for a place to belong.

But it wasn't always that way.

The racist stereotype of the skinhead is what bothers the original skins the most. The movement started in the UK in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the reaction working-class kids against the rising middle class and what they saw as conservatism creeping into British society. Those early skins took their fashion and music cues from two other sub-groups – the Mods (think “Quadrophenia” by the Who, or early Jam) and the Jamaican Rude Boys (think Skatalites, Prince Buster), who had emigrated from the West Indies. These were the early underpinnings of punk music, blending ska and reggae with what the skins called “Oi,” a sheerly guttural and raw angry scream (think “Cockney Rejects”).

By the 1980s skinheads, while still outsiders, were part of the punk fabric – and the ones who weren’t apolitical generally declared themselves pretty far to the left. But then, with Thatcherism, immigration and a crummy UK economy, some young angry people veered right and took the skinhead image as their own – creating a tough, bellowing hoard of ostracized whites in bomber jackets, the violent evil twins of what used to be a noisy but largely benign subculture.

It caught on – through the ‘90s White Power Skinheads became the vanguard of neo-Nazi marches in Europe and then North America. By this point, they had almost completely co-opted the old anti-racist skinhead guise right down to the Fred Perry shirts and the Doc Martens (note that today, the emerging White Power Proud Boys wear the same Fred Perry polos and suspenders that would’ve been seen on punk skins in the ‘70s).

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Popular symbols of skinhead culture

These days it’s rare to see white power skins at a pro-Trump rally or an anti-Islamic march in Canada. They’ve been replaced by young men in chinos or slightly older leaders in dapper suits, trying to make their racist message more palatable to a larger audience.

People trying to keep the original skinhead anti-racist, anti-fascist message alive are still chugging along — the SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) have been around since 1987, pushing back against the racists. Meanwhile, there is a definitive anti-racist, militant left skinhead vein through the “Antifa” (short for anti-fascists) movement that’s recently been vilified by Trump’s “Alt-right” white nationalists. These days in the US, it’s the Antifa blaring punk and ska music square at every far-right rally that springs up.

Skinheads have been around for more than 50 years now. When it came time to decide on a name for this new documentary, we went back and forth with a lot of different ideas, but settled on “Skinhead” because right now, in 2017, it’s still a familiar one-word catch-all for racism and intolerance. Maybe now that the chinos and 3-piece suit brigades have taken up the parade’s lead, the definition of a skinhead will slip back to what it used to be. But for now, it’s simply something nasty.