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What Is a Skinhead?

A skinhead often conjures images of aggressive, shaven-headed youths, but the truth is more nuanced. Originally a British working-class subculture from the 1960s, skinheads were known for their distinct fashion and love of ska music. Over time, some factions adopted extremist views, overshadowing the group's diverse roots. What's the real story behind the skinhead movement? Join us to uncover the layers.
Ray Hawk
Ray Hawk

“Skinhead” is usually a derogatory term that refers to a young person, usually a white male, who has a shaved head and who holds white supremacist and racist views. As such, it's an oversimplification of a social group that does not fully explore the complexity of the issues involving skinhead distinctions from contemporary values. As with any subculture, stereotypes are based on an element of truth that must be researched to separate conjecture from fact.

The origin of the term skinhead can be traced back to the 1960s in the UK. The social group arose out of two other prominent social groups of the time period. The first were Mods, short for modernists, who were a group of middle class youths formed in the late 1950s in England. The second influence came from Jamaican sub-culture, whose followers were known as Rude Boys.

A skinhead is usually a white male with a shaved head.
A skinhead is usually a white male with a shaved head.

Mods were interested in fashion, motorcycles, and ethnic music. They followed rock music British bands from the Liverpool and River Mersey areas, and foreign music from the African-American and Jamaican cultures. The Mods began to split into two groups in the 1960s when hard Mods, who were working-class young people, were unable to afford a more lavish lifestyle. Hard Mods shaved their heads and dressed in jeans and work boots to mimic working class men of the period. This distinguished them from traditional Mod followers, as well as young people involved in the hippie movement.

Jamaican Rude Boys brought reggae music to England and lived in working class neighborhoods along London's docks and East End. This brought them into close contact with the Hard Mods. Both groups began to share behavior, slang language, and a common interest in styles of dance.

The skinhead culture emerged from common elements in these groups as a working class, multi-racial sub-culture of the time. They shared a dislike of all government authority with the hippie movement, and their ranks grew in popularity until the early 1970s. The movement then started to decline due to negative media representation of their affect on society.

Reemerging in popularity in the late 1970s, the culture took on elements of neo-Nazi extremism which had not existed in its original incarnation. As it grew in numbers, it spread around the world. Today, skinhead groups are politically diverse, ranging from the far right to the far left. Several segments of the culture are also apolitical, not interested in politics at all, as was the nature of the original skinhead movement.

Far right versions of the culture separated themselves from the Jamaicans when racist themes became dominant, and they instead found stronger bonds with the Punk movement of the 1980s. Fascist groups began actively recruiting skinhead sympathizers into their organizations, leading to violence against non-racist skinhead groups as well as non-whites and moderate Punks. Organizations such as SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) sprung up in response to the violence in the late 1980s in the US, and soon spread to Europe.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, fascist organizations of skinheads have been marginalized in society by the efforts of more moderate groups to suppress their activities. As a whole, skinhead culture is diverse, and comprises a range of political and social views that is not immediately evident. Meeting someone on the street who professes to be a skinhead in fact reveals very little about the beliefs and values of the individual. Though the physical appearance has remained largely unchanged over the decades, what individual skinheads stand for is about as conflicting and complex as any other subset of modern industrialized culture.

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    • A skinhead is usually a white male with a shaved head.
      By: soleilc1
      A skinhead is usually a white male with a shaved head.