The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories, from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective [Essay]

by Guest Contributor (and regular commenter) Jha

Steampunk! Variously described as an aesthetic, a genre within scifi/fantasy that sprouted from cyberpunk, and a subculture vaguely related to the goth counter-culture. Like many other things with vague origins and a tenuous identity that overlaps with others, it is hard to pin down what steampunk is.

The only that we can all seem to agree on is the aesthetic involved. In a way, it’s a lot like the SCA’s medieval roleplaying, trying to recreate the past with all the good stuff and none of the bad. For other steampunks, it’s a lifestyle movement, in which they transform practical items into works of art and live their lives with exquisite manners.

Here’s a good summary of the literary genre stemming from the 1980s, written by Lavie Tidhar. Cory Gross of Voyages Extraordinaire has a very comprehensive history, delving deep into not just the literary but also the film aspect of the aesthetic before the actual term was used and the evolution of the movement afterwards in literature, RPGs, graphic novels, anime and the general subculture afterward. In Steampunk Magazine’s first issue, the essay “What Then, Is Steampunk? Colonizing the Past so we can Dream the Future”, stridently declares, “First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. It rejects the ultra-hip dystopia of the cyberpunks—black rain and nihilistic posturing—while simultaneously forfeiting the ‘noble savage’ fantasy of the pre-technological era. It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics” (4).

Steampunks express themselves with Victorian-inspired clothing (or costumes). Goggles, chains and pocketwatches are typical gear for a steampunk. Steampunk styles range from fastidiously neat (streamlined, heavy clothes typical of Victorian aristocracy/middle-class, e.g. anarchronaut) to greasemonkey bricolage (dreadlocks, the ‘airship pirate’ look, merging with more ‘mainstream’ punk fare, e.g. Abney Park). For a sense of the visual aesthetic, one should look to the 1999 movie Wild Wild West (although it’s a terrible movie) and the graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. Cory Gross discusses the two ends of the Steampunk spectrum in his essay “Varieties of Steampunk Experience”: Nostalgic Steampunk, which idealizes the Victorian era as it should have been, and the Melancholic Steampunk, which focuses on the gritty reality of the Victorian era, bringing to the fore the dirt and soot and grime (60 – 63). Japan has its own steampunk movement, the most cited example of its technology-focused aesthetic can be seen in the anime Steamboy. (I’m not going to touch Japanese steampunk in this article.)

Steampunk is still an emergent subculture, gaining ground fast with its DIY creativity and elegant nostalgia. Stephen H. Segal has a cute article on why steampunk is considered friendly, even optimistic despite drawing inspiration from what was a very oppressive era. As a genre that’s in its adolescence, the rules (if indeed any counter-culture has rules) haven’t been set in stone. But it’s getting attention anyway: the New York Times did an article on steampunk fashion last year.

This is where being a Steampunk of Colour comes in.

Problems Peculiar to Steampunk

As an emergent subculture, steampunk has its various factions of participants. The steamfashion LiveJournal and Facebook community believe that “the ‘punk’ in steampunk is a cute turn of phrase used because it sounds interesting and exciting, without any deeper meaning than that.” Dr. Dru Pagliassotti asks if steampunk has politics, and if so, what its ideology is. Steampunk Scholar Mark Perschon wrests with the definition of steampunk through his reading. This is the most universal problem for steampunks: trying to define just what steampunk is (without limiting the discussion to what it is not).

Steampunk has problems for the average person of colour who can’t ignore the colour of their skin. I attended a steampunk-themed party once; the attendees were forty-strong, and I was the only PoC. Ay-Leen the Peacemaker, who spoke at a steampunk panel at AnimeBoston recently, counted one PoC besides herself at a mass photoshoot. As any PoC knows, it’s pretty awkward being the token minority in any setting, even if we’re not treated like one.

Which is why I want to point out the NYT article again: the three men featured are clearly of colour, and it was a relief to see them after seeing scores and scores of white steampunks. Another notable person is anachronaut, a half-Asian fashion designer who wrote:

“I don’t know if I’d even consider the look ‘steampunk’, more of an abstract 19th century cargo cult. It’s partially based on the images I’ve seen of native cultures dominated by industrialized societies. Wearing the clothes of the imperialists, adopting their mannerisms, but retaining an identity in their hair and skin. There’s an odd subjugation yet an ownership of the style in these old photos. Take the trappings of your enemy and wear them in your own way, use them against them.”

He said it here.

Nevertheless, his talk about wearing the clothes of the imperialist doesn’t necessarily resolve one of my main issues as a steampunk of colour: if I buy into this aesthetic, what does it say about how I feel towards my own culture? Do I appropriate Victorianism as someone who’s clearly a minority? (Is that possible?) How does my cultural identity play into my steampunk’d sense of fashion?

This is a question that many a steampunk asks, even those who are white and descended from peoples that the Victorians oppressed. How do we take the trappings of the enemy and use it against them without simply assimilating into the imperialist’s culture?

Another major problem with steampunk is that it romanticizes a Victorian era. While the British empire was arguably cosmopolitan (cue the ORLY owl), it was still racist, classist, sexist, and all-round oppressive. The Victorians, busy with industrializing their country, couldn’t even be bothered to care for their own, and their Far East colonies were Oriental, spaces of Other, where they got tea, mined for tin, and imported their fine china from.

But steampunks are not necessarily racist. Many steampunks don’t feel weirded out by PoC wanting to participate in their subculture, and a few welcome them (for reasons I personally find suspect). Steampunks are not necessarily sexist – the average steampunk woman is as likely to wear trousers as they are petticoats, and we like to wear our corsets on the outside to express our sexuality. Nor is classism a steampunk dominion, as steampunk outfits are just as likely to be cobbled together from thrift stores as they are bought from craftspeople. Anybody with some time, resources, DIY ethic, inspiration can contribute to the bricolage nature of steampunk’s aesthetics. It’s not just for the elite.

But like in other subcultures, it can involve any of these -isms, because we bring along our attendant baggage from the mainstream culture, which is predominantly white and has on many occasions ignored such various concerns.

A PoC’s Context

I’m aware that other steampunks come to the subculture differently. Our stories are as diverse as our backgrounds, our reasons for participating are many. Interests tend to overlap in steampunk; we’re all geeks in some form or another. Reasons for being drawn to the subculture are various: a love for history, a love for speculative fiction, the giant robots, the ray guns, the fabulous clothes.

Before I explain further my interest in this subculture, I should give some context on myself: I was born and raised in Malaysia, a nation formerly part of the British Commonwealth, colonized from the 1600s until after World War II. Many things British still exist: it manifests in our education systems, the fact that English is a common second (and first) language for folks middle-class and above, our parliament, et al. I grew up reading English literature, and eventually left to get a Canadian degree in English. Malaysia has its own peculiar set of problems with regard to race and nationality, some of which are after-effects from our dual history (of British colonialism versus Islamic influence).

I sometimes feel my “Western” sensibilities are after-effects of British colonialism, or Western imperialism in general – it would explain my disdain for Malaysian culture when growing up, the admiration for Westerners who seemed so individualistic, who had all those bright ideas, who wrote such interesting stories that even a person on the other side of the world felt transported by them. (And then RaceFail happened…)

I was not initially interested in the steampunk aesthetic. While I always admired steampunks from a distance, enjoying their gadgetry, their fine clothes, and outgoing individuality, one of the major problems with steampunk, of course, like with many other genres, is the fact that the default steampunk is probably white. And I am clearly not white. Corsets looked uncomfortable. I’m Asian and it looks weird being Asian and wearing such specifically Western clothes (although my everyday clothes are, in themselves, Western). My literary interests leaned towards “the classics”.

I came to steampunk in a roundabout way: through my studies in English literature, I followed a path towards science fiction and fantasy, and was piqued by Victorian science fiction. How interesting that they dreamt up such things in such times! I thought, while at the same time thinking that Victorians were terribly, terribly boring people. I relented when I realized that Dickens was generally paid by wordcount for his serials. I studied literature of the fin de sieclé, John Stuart Mill, and predominantly Oscar Wilde.

So I liked how steampunk trotted Victorianism out into the present. I had my reservations about it. I didn’t want to alienate myself from my own heritage more than I already was. But I was galvanized when I read Girl Genius. Kaja Foglio, one of Girl Genius’ creators, admits to there being much more “steam”, and she uses “gaslamp fantasy” to describe the epic webcomic. That’s not the important bit here. The important bit is that Girl Genius revises the history of Europe, presenting an alternate version called Europa, where mad scientists rule and political alignment is vastly different from what we know of European history.

This is one of the many possibilities offered by the steampunk literary genre.

Let’s imagine an Asia which was industrialized enough to take on colonial powers, to resist Western colonialism, and assert itself on the face of the map. An Asia which is not the Far East, but dominion of the Middle Kingdom (as China once called itself), whose culture was not meant for Western consumption and appropriation but commodified for assimilation by Westerners themselves. An Asia that is not the Mysterious Orient, but an assertive culture (or several) that stands on par with Western imperial powers. Admittedly, this Asia would have China and Japan as major powers, and the whole thing would still be a power struggle, and it would probably still be very racist – nonetheless, it would be an Asia which is visible, that demanded and got representation, which exists as its own entity in the consciousness of today, as opposed to being an Other shaped by assumptions.

This was how I really got into steampunk and started identifying myself as one: that dream of historical revisionism in scifi/fantasy where my heritage is worth a damn rather than some exotic element that makes a story more exciting. Looking at the socio-political commentary of the Victorian era, I allowed my undergrad degree to inform my view of steampunk – Elizabeth Barrett-Browning wrote about poverty, Wilde was a homosexual, Mill believed in liberty; these are still valid issues, wherever the geography, and instead of simply limiting myself to what they said, I could add it to my own commentary, building on their words. Not only that, but it drove me to research my own country’s activities during the era.

Also, I like corsets, ray guns and Victorian fashion. In tandem. Part of the joy in steampunk is the self-reflexivity involved.

Possible Roles for PoC

Because steampunk is currently so fluid, it is subject to many influences, opinions, and the building of work within it. Some find it a more welcoming space compared to other subcultures; some think it’s already closed its doors. I’m a more optimistic kind. While steampunk spaces are admittedly very “white”, the beautiful thing is that it doesn’t have to be that way. After the RaceFail conversation(s), it becomes even more important for PoC to assert themselves into spaces of their interest. As said on the LiveJournal comm steampunkdebate by klgaffney:

“i think it’d be great if steampunk could adopt the race/religion/creed all-inclusiveness as a major hallmark from the get-go, and be able to back that up with actually, y’know, walking the walk, as opposed to having to salvage a bad reputation later, as some subcultures have had to. seriously. it would save so much grief and bad press, down the road.”

I believe that the youth of the subculture makes it an ideal space for PoC to step in and take a hand in shaping it so it is more inclusive and more welcoming of diversity. The Victorian age was oppressive and colonialist; the steampunk subculture can allow for liberation and diversity. The alternate history aspect of steampunk enables a wider playground for PoC to assert their cultural backgrounds in their many forms of expressions. The Internet – ah! the Internetz! – makes it difficult to be unaware of the cultural issues that both bind and break peoples in participating.

The ‘punk’ in ‘steampunk’ is indicative of a counter-culture, and to be a minority participating in steampunk is counter-culture in itself, as we are asserting our presences in what was white Victorian space, and what is still part of default white culture. And we can do it in a way that is cheerful, joyfully creative, with its brass, goggles, clockwork, and friendly non-discriminating sepia tones.

Some Bibliography and Recommended Reading:

Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective (NYC). “What Then, Is Steampunk?” Steampunk Magazine. Issue 1.
Cory Gross. “Varieties of Steampunk Experience.” Steampunk Magazine. Issue 1.

http://www.steampunkmagazine.com/inside/downloads/

Ruth La Ferla. “Steampunk Moves Between Two Worlds.” New York Times. May 8, 2008.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/08/fashion/08PUNK.html

Cory Gross. “A History of Steampunk.” Voyages Extraordinaires. August 28, 2008.

http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com/2008/08/history-of-steampunk.html

Lavie Tidhar. “Steampunk.” Sub-Genre Spotlight, The Internet Review of Science Fiction. February 2005.

http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10114

Stephen H. Segal. “Five Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk.” Fantasy Magazine. September 17, 2008.

http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/?p=928

Dru Pagliassotti. “Does Steampunk Have Politics?” The Mark of Ashen Wings. February 11, 2009.

http://ashenwings.com/marks/2009/02/11/does-steampunk-have-politics/

Dru Pagliasotti. “Does Steampunk Have an Ideology?” The Mark of Ashen Wings. February 13, 2009.

http://ashenwings.com/marks/2009/02/13/does-steampunk-have-an-ideology/

(Image Credits: Steampunks from the New York Times, A Steampunk-modded PC, RPGFan image of a ship from Skies of Arcadia: Legends, Art from Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shambala, A Steampunk Laptop from Datamancer)