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“To be honest, I think racism is stronger than ever. Subtle racism is still racism.”
My teen years were spent listening to bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, The Specials, and Fishbone. I was especially attracted to the band Fishbone for their FUCK RACISM stance and the fact that they were people of color playing music that I could identify with. Young men from Los Angeles playing alternative music that was and still is void of much diversity. It was an exciting time for me to see a band of minorities playing this mix of ska, punk, funk, and everything in between. They made me want to be in a band and inspired me to write songs about my own experiences of racism as an Asian American.
In 1989, I started a band called Skankin’ Pickle in a tiny garage in San Jose, California. We were six friends that included myself as the only minority and a guitarist who was a woman and openly gay, which in 1989 wasn’t the easiest thing to be. We worked hard and were somehow lucky to land a booking agent early on and we somehow were graced with the opportunity to tour around the globe and play our music. It was an exciting time in my life to be able to travel and see the world. I remember touring the South for the first time and realizing shit ain’t like the melting pot of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Memories of playing a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where a group of skinheads were dancing and having a good time, but as soon as we started playing a song called “Racist World” the vibe completely changed. From good time drunken skinheads, to pissed off and scary racist skinheads giving me the sieg heil salute. This was around 1990 and to say I was scared is an understatement. The assumption was that they were SHARP (skinheads against racial prejudice), but I was wrong. Thankfully we survived this encounter due to a badass club owner who didn’t tolerate their shit and had them kicked out. There were about seven of them and though we as a band were pretty big guys, skinheads can be pretty friggin intimidating (especially the women). And they stayed out the parking lot waiting for us afterwards, but again the club owner came to the rescue with a shotgun and a whole lot of crazy of his own. I think he was used to dealing with boneheads.
Years later, Skankin’ Pickle played a show in Tampa, Florida. We were at the peak of our popularity and the show was packed and the energy was high. Sometime during the sweat-filled set, I recall hearing somebody yell out slope. Was I hearing this correctly? Our trombone player Lars was yelling something at somebody in the crowd and then I heard it again and saw a young man staring me down in front giving me the Nazi salute. A ruckus broke out as people in the crowd saw what was going on and started to beat the living shit out of this guy. I jumped into the crowd and pulled this guy out of the mob, over the barricade and onto the stage. Can you imagine the look on his face when he saw me trying to help him? Security quickly tossed him out and I never saw him again. I wondered if my actions changed his racist ideas or if it was all done in vain. Violence never solves anything, so I’m glad I did what I did. But at the same time I remember a feeling of sadness that it happened in the first place.
It’s crazy to look back and reflect on these life-changing experiences. It doesn’t feel that long ago, but these specific incidents occurred over 20 years ago. And where are we now in 2015? Every time I feel like there’s progress being made, you hear about more race tensions and the feeling of hopelessness returns. It’s like taking one step forward and then two steps back.
To be honest, I think racism is stronger than ever. Subtle racism is still racism.
We form opinions based on the actions of few and stereotypes continue all day long. I’m certainly not perfect either. I’ve caught myself passing judgment on people due to race, religion, gender, sexual preference, but I’m not giving up. This old man will continue to push, learn, engage, and progress towards a brighter future.
Mike Park is a Korean American musician and progressive activist. His musical ventures include Skankin’ Pickle for whom he both played the saxophone and sang, The Chinkees, The Bruce Lee Band, and most recently an acoustic solo project under his own name. After his time with Skankin’ Pickle he went on to found Asian Man Records, a label which he has run out of his garage in California since 1996.