Race in British and American Youth Culture

I got a great letter on my paper for British Youth Culture and I have attached it – since I spent ages on it. Maybe, just maybe, one day I will want to read it again but until then I think I will avoid looking in its direction! No pressure to read as I know it is rather long!

Race in British and American Youth Culture

Since its genesis in early 1950’s America, youth culture has reflected social progress and change in both Britain and America.  These two unique youth cultures are continuously engaging in cultural cross-talk and subsequently shaping each other’s development.  The imaginary band fUSe elicits a fictitious response from British and American youth that is a reflection of the future of youth culture; it is tolerant of a richly diverse world as seen through the racial, political, and socio-economic backgrounds of the band members. FUSe is a proudly-American four-boy band that “fuses” Mexican hip hop with popular music and classic rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960’s and 70’s.  Its multiracial nature is unique to modern youth culture and allows its musical message to transcend typical racial and national boundaries, thus making them marketable for youth both in the US and across the pond.  The melting pot of distinct racial identities within fUSe directly illustrates the racial pluralism still emerging in today’s youth culture.  This racial diversity within youth culture is something that is generally tolerated in contemporary American and British society, but the racial cultures themselves are not necessarily intermingled.  This racial tolerance, specifically amongst blacks and whites, has evolved throughout the history of youth culture, while racial intermingling continues to change through the youth cultural outlets of fashion, music, and media.


The UK is arguably a much more tolerant and progressive nation than the US in terms of racial diversity.  The guilt of slavery was not as weighty in British society, as the institution was abolished in 1833, 32 years before the same legislative decision passed in the US.  While it occurred directly on American soil, for Britain, slavery existed only in regions of the British Empire thousands of miles away.  This lead to less of a sense of displacement, and also less white anxiety about vengeful and now-liberated blacks close to home.  In fact, after WWII, large numbers of ethnic immigrants traveled to Britain of their own free will to pursue better opportunities.  Because of the comparably delayed arrival of black immigrants in Britain, the emergence of a uniquely black youth scene was a very recent development.  Although the US has been consuming it longer and at-source, the black culture that appeared in the 1970’s in Britain was much more unique and racially integrated, and it allowed for more social engagement.  One of the most visible manifestations of a heightened sense of acceptance of racial diversity in Britain is that historically there have never been laws mandating segregation in any form, including interracial marriages.  In stark contrast, it took until 1967 for the final 30 states in America to pass federal laws allowing mixed marriages.


The racism that appeared to stand in the way of growing integration in the 1950’s was proliferated by the older generations, the government, and the mass media, and not by the youth of that era, who characteristically rejected the status quo, moral codes, and authority of their parents and sought out new styles and culture.  Until the emergence of its own black youth culture in the 1970’s, Britain was more or less importing America’s.  The blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll were heavily influenced by African American musicians and their culture, and many Britons expressed anxiety in the 1950’s and 60’s about the “infection” of the British youth by such music and culture.  A similar moral panic arose in the US when Elvis Presley entered the youth scene in the 50’s.  His partnership with Berry Gordy and his Motown styles and influences scandalized older generations of Americans who saw their teenagers being shaped by distinctly African American culture.  In the 50’s, “whites were enjoying the sweet, innocent sounds of the Big Bands, [and] rhythm and blues, with its especially strong sexual overtones, predominated among blacks.”  Thanks to films like “Blackboard Jungle” in 1955, which introduced to the ears of the youth such rock ‘n’ roll hits as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”, parents were forced to increasingly resist “their children’s growing love for rock ’n’ roll.”  And “Elvis Presley… was hated and condemned by grown-ups” (Hornberger).  According to Billboards Top 20 Charts, during his reign, Elvis had “149 songs appear on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop Chart in America.  Of these, 114 were in the top forty, 40 were in the top ten, and 18 went to number one.”  Clear was parents’ increasing loss of control over the pursuits of their children.  And perhaps rightly, they felt “the trend toward rock ’n’ roll” caused teenagers “[to reject] their social teaching” (Hornberger).


While the youth was generally more progressive than their adult counterparts, select factions of the youth subculture called skinheads broke off in the 1970’s and 1980’s and became associated with “white power” racist groups.  An important distinction to make is that when the radical faction broke from the original skinhead subculture, it became classified as a counterculture.  As theorized by sociologists Cohen, Cloward, and Ohlin, “subcultures [are] subdivisions within the dominant culture, emerging when individuals in similar circumstances [feel] themselves isolated or neglected by mainstream society” (Osgerby 116).  In contrast, members of a counterculture go out of their way to rebel against and outright reject the mainstream.  One of the radical groups, Blood and Honour, developed in the UK during the 1980’s, where it later also split into two factions: one that promoted white power through music, and the other which took to terrorism as a means of spreading their message. This latter group became popular in the US, where dozens of members still operate today (“Blood and Honour”).  Due to these radical factions of an initially politically and racially impartial youth subculture, the skinheads have oftentimes become associated with racism, which is an enduring example of racial intolerance among youth and others.  It is important to emphasize that some of the non-racist skinhead groups were also not even racially homogenous. As exemplified in the movie “This is England”, many skinhead groups in fact consisted of peaceful multiracial gatherings. Future youth culture will only see these problems mitigated through the mutual exchange and enjoyment of the youth cultures from different racial groups.

Just as Elvis’s propagation of Motown music demonstrated the beginnings of cultural integration in the youth culture of 50’s America, places like Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in the UK offered the same chance for British youth to experience other cultures in a trendy context.  The club allowed them to enjoy the modern jazz developed by black musicians like Miles Davis, and in turn helped form the early British subculture known as the Modernists, or Mods.  Another example of the budding cultural integration through the music of the youth is the advent of Reggae around 1976, when Bob Marley jumpstarts Britain’s first black youth culture.  Though proud of their Jamaican heritage, the black Anglo-Jamaican artists that were popular during this time sang about being British rather than Jamaican like their immigrant parents, which depicts a fusion of the two identities and cultures with which they had experience.  Paul Gilroy makes claims about this complex diasporic identity in his book Black Atlantic, in which he “[eschews] notions of a pan-global, homogenous black identity, but he also [resists] notions of distinctly British, American, or West Indian black culture”.  However, Gilroy asserts the idea that “the history of intercultural connections [link] globally dispersed peoples” in a way that creates “new ethnicities [that] are made and remade” (Osgerby 173-174).  In this way, Reggae demonstrates Gilroy’s concept of fluid and changing cultural identities, and lyrics like “Tomorrow’s what we’re on about, not yesterday” show that the new youth culture of Britain was indeed of a forward-looking and progressive nature.


The fact that the 2Tone genre took off in the UK in the 1970’s and not in the US depicts the starkly contrasting history of racial mixing in youth culture between the two countries.  While American youth showed an appreciation for musical styles of different races, they were less interested in the groups that were themselves multiracial.  This being said, the genesis of 2Tone—the first multiracial youth culture—was no small event in the UK; the Specials’ performance on “Top of the Pops” in 1979 marked the first time blacks and whites appeared together on stage.  2Tone was more than the mere consumption of multiple groups’ styles.  It gave way to the direct socialization and interaction between blacks and whites in the UK and allowed for a cultural conversation unlike any seen up to that point.  Early attempts by the Clash and Marley’s Steel Pulse to marry such music as punk and reggae were ineffective in terms of social intermingling, because the bands themselves were not multiracial.  This example could be considered more of a metaphorical “salad bowl”, compared with 2Tone’s “melting pot”.  Meanwhile, in America, this progressive effort was less successful due to the extent of seemingly chronic racial divisions in the wake of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.  The American response to 2Tone was similar to that of other racially mixed genres and aspects of youth culture in that it illustrated a mild progression toward fluid interracial cultural conversation. The more lukewarm response that American youth historically gives to these mixed-race genres and movements compared with their British counterparts is a theme that permeates the entire history of youth culture in the two countries; for every leap forward the British took toward racial intermingling within youth culture, American youth has taken only a small step.  Again, this is due to their more recent and literally close-to-home struggles with the deep-seated emotions associated with the abolition of slavery and racial equality.

The mass media plays a crucial role in the propagation of ideas and the spread of culture in both the youth scenes of America and the UK.  There were multiple films produced in Britain that depict interracial mixing, including “A Taste of Honey” (1961), which lend to the idea of a nation less concerned with racial relationships.  The mere fact that the mixture of races is featured in forms of entertainment in the UK, and particularly in the 1960’s, is a testament to the idea that it was becoming more acceptable on a larger, national scale.  Even so, particularly in America, media is also sometimes used to promote unfair and prejudiced propaganda against African American youth specifically as a “scapegoat”, leading the public to believe they are the “cause of urban America’s social problems”.  American cultural critic Henry Giroux claims that “media representations of African-American youth have helped promote a white moral panic” which has encouraged “stereotypes about blacks by portraying them as criminals and welfare cheats”, and has also “removed whites from any responsibility or complicity for the violence and poverty that has become so endemic to American life” (Osgerby 86).  All of this can be seen in the 2009 American film “Precious”, which features a pregnant black teenager living in Harlem in 1987 and struggling with a life of abuse, drugs, and educational inadequacy.  This film also depicts the very strong correlation between race and socio-economic status in America, which is a relationship less evident in the UK.

Based on the steps slowly taken throughout its history, the future of youth culture in America and the UK is of one that does more than tolerate racial diversity in music, fashion, and the media.  It will be a symbol of progress and cultural conversation as opposed to mere consumption.  This will be facilitated by forms of social media like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter that allow for the instantaneous sharing of culture internationally.  Less than a decade after the advent of YouTube, two-thirds of a 3,000-teen survey uses the video-sharing website as a means of listening to and discovering music (Michaels).  If trends of recent years are any indication of what the future of youth culture may be, then musical artists and fashion icons of all different ethnicities will be celebrated and become household names.  Even now, foreign-born artists like the Canadian singer Justin Bieber and the Colombian artist Shakira can make it big in the American and British entertainment industries, despite their backgrounds.  In the future, not only will the youth come to celebrate the best talent regardless of where it originates, but it will also fuse those influences and continue to reshape youth culture as we know it.


2 thoughts on “Race in British and American Youth Culture

  1. Enjoyed your paper! You realize , don’t you, that what you were writing about in a historical perspective I was LIVING it all in the moment…?? That period was my adolescent, teenage and young adult years of my life– I was experiencing the very ‘youth culture’ to which you were referring– though, admittedly, probably didn’t really comprehend what all was actually taking place in the ‘big picture’… I was just busy living it and enjoying it. Thanks for the perspective!! Love you & proud of you.!!

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