Celadon Books: How do you define a Black skinhead? And where did the term come from?
Brandi Collins-Dexter: In the book, I define a “Black skinhead” in three ways:
- A disillusioned political outlier who is underrepresented in mainstream media discourse;
- A Black voter who is only defined by their voting history and not their expressed ideology; and
- A Black person who rejects their societal value or cultural identity being defined by their willingness to vote for the Democratic Party during presidential elections.
Essentially, Black voters who challenge how the general population, politicians, and media have been primed to think and talk about Black voters and our voting behavior. Inspiration for the term is taken from Kanye West’s song “BLKKK SKKKNHEAD” and album Yeezus, which thematically is about how racial animus, rejection, and social decline chip away at the psyche.
I also drew inspiration from the rise of the skinhead subculture in London. It’s a youth-driven working-class subculture that could only be possible in a multicultural society, even as the question of nationalism and who defines a nation becomes a wedge issue. The hard-right-turn and politicization of white British skinheads shows what can happen when the economy, institutions, and politics don’t feel like they’re working for everyone. I was interested in applying that analysis to Black Americans in the U.S. and some of the trends I’ve been studying and observing online.
CB: Black Skinhead is as much about politics as it is about media and pop culture. How are they intertwined?
BCD: I’ve always believed the adage that cultural change precedes political change in both positive and hostile ways. Oftentimes by the time ideas show up in an overtly political sphere or something is being legislated, we’ve already seen signs of it moving through pop culture. Alternatively, the best way to create a sea change and political adaptation of an idea is through pop culture
An example of this would be the ways in which movies, music, and television shows directly influenced in the ’70s and early ’80s how the general population felt about the Vietnam War and the military as an institution. That public sentiment forced a public response from politicians. In the ’80s, the Pentagon began pouring a lot of their resources into Hollywood and the emerging video gaming industry in order to shift public sentiment. Cut to today, where the military and law enforcement are the only public institutions with a positive perception by the general public according to surveys.
But the other reason why I focus on pop culture is because as a latchkey kid and part of the first generation (older millennial) that was targeted as a consumer from childhood, I spent a lot of time consuming cultural products. My way of understanding how the world works tends to come from pairing a complicated concept with a cultural frame of reference. I could read all the academic books in the world about populism and nationalism, but nothing has helped me understand it more than watching sports. I wanted to tell a story (or set of stories) that I related to and that would hopefully be relatable to others. I wanted to write something that I would want to pick up at an airport bookstore and read, something that people could put down and come back to.
CB: In the book, you write beautifully about your family and the profound influence they had on your life. How do their stories fit into the story of Black skinheads?
BCD: That’s an interesting question. I went into the book-writing process thinking I had a clear concept of where to place different family members in or out of the concept of the Black skinhead. In a lot of ways, my family is prototypical of a lot of what is assumed about Black people as voters. They come off as very capital D Democrats. My mom identifies as a conservative Democrat. I thought I would almost position them in the book as a foil to my own political beliefs and growing disillusionment.
But in talking to them, I found that nothing was… well, Black and white. I am my parents’ daughter, after all. Because of the monolithic way that Black voters are discussed, we are all essentially Black skinheads. There is a dangerous lack of understanding of why we vote the way we do. There’s a failure even within Black political discourse to consider that abstaining from voting could be a conscious choice that’s more an indictment of failed systems than political apathy or laziness. Again, there are a lot of Black political science books that show this, but I wanted to write a book that brought people into the tension behind the data and statistics.
CB: In Black Skinhead, you highlight many instances of the disappearance of Black communal spaces. How do you think this has impacted Black political identity?
BCD: What I’m arguing in the book is that Black cultural identity in America and even globally is because of institutions and public spheres — Black-owned and -controlled religious venues, businesses, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, nonprofits, cultural spaces, and media, to name some. Black as a shared identity and lived experience came through the circulation of Black cultural products that showed facets of Colored/Negro/Afro-American/Black life, and though there were certainly regional cultures pre–Civil War, it wasn’t really possible to have a shared story until after emancipation, because in many places it was illegal (and deadly) to read and write a story, own our land to tell and debate our story, participate in democracy to shape our story, etc.
I think a lot of people don’t realize how fragile Black as a cultural and by extension political identity really is. We didn’t become overwhelming Democratic voters overnight; if left to our own devices, we wouldn’t all be Democrats. Becoming Democratic voters was a pragmatic choice that required community organizing and a shared consensus. Absent those spaces — and in an online environment that silos people based on a presumed racially neutral political spectrum — Black voters are being divided in ways that we haven’t been historically despite the fact that we’re voting for one party at a higher level than we did for most of the 20th century. In the book, I speculate that because of the loss of spaces for consensus building, it’s only a matter of time before Black voters vote more in their own interest instead of for the presumed community good, which is traditionally how Black people have voted, even when voting in different parties. Instead of voting for the culture, people will do it for self.
But I want to add that I do see Black people in many ways as both canaries in the coalmine and an easy way to understand what’s happening to our communities at a broader level, because our voting patterns are so monolithic, even if our voting ideologies are not. Every day in a number of places you see that fallout from the loss of hyper-local community spaces and people being less connected offline and siloed politically online. So my hope is that people don’t just see this as a Black people problem but as part of a larger issue that needs to be addressed through things like antitrust regulation and enforcement and the preservation of smaller, locally owned businesses and infrastructure.
CB: Did the process of writing this book change your relationship to the idea of Black skinheads? Would you consider yourself a Black skinhead?
BCD: I consider myself a Black skinhead. I wrote the book not from a place of outside observation but in trying to understand myself, and whether fundamentally there were people who felt similar to me even if their voting behavior or rhetoric didn’t necessarily reflect my own. But I guess I would also say that I started the book from the question: Is Kanye West an outlier, reflective of growing political disillusionment, or a harbinger of the severing of Black politics from Black identity? In interviewing Black MAGA supporters, I found that I had more in common with them than I was comfortable admitting.
CB: What do you think the future looks like for Black voters in America?
BCD: Depending on the day, you’ll get a different answer from me, because so much about the world is rapidly changing in ways we can’t fully comprehend. Today the future look bleak… but ask me again tomorrow.