Using The Term ‘Multiculturalism’

By Guest Contributor Jaymee Goh, cross-posted from Silver Goggles

I’m currently re-reading Angela Davis’ Abolition Democracy, and her interviewer, Eduardo Mendieta, in response to her reiteration that “we need a new age–with a new agenda–that directly addresses the structural racism” (30) about multiculturalism: “very smart strategies are being used, ones that displace attention from issues of racial justice by speaking in terms of multiculturalism” (31).

Over the last year or so, I’ve become incredibly disillusioned with how the term “multiculturalism” is used in various spaces, including steampunk.

I’ve always loved the term, and multiracialism as well. In Malaysia, we are openly a multi-racial society; you see food stalls with Chinese lettering and Indian mamak shops. Wherever you go, there are clear signs that any given space caters to the needs of specific races, and it’s only hyper-consumerist spaces that cater to as many people as possible, that are, ahem, “race-less”. (Neocolonialism, you see, strips a country of its cultures, and replaces it with a singular culture of buying and selling and marathon window-shopping.)

We’re super-imperfect, and there are a ton of things I do not know about the different races and cultures within Malaysia alone. Partly because it’s simply not part of regular interracial interaction and thus it never comes up in conversation. Partly also because sometimes these practices are deeply private and specific to certain groups, and we kind of don’t see why we HAVE to tell others about it. But at functions, we are fairly happy to see each other dress appropriately, and in the cultural clothes associated with the race of the host.

Contrary to the politics of Malaysia, I really do think that the Malaysian people get it right sometimes, or at least, it did. Recently I’ve come to believe that our taciturn attitude towards talking about our cultures has become a wall and now we stand around awkwardly and don’t really know how to talk to each other about our cultures anymore.

Multiculturalism is much unlike what France and Britain’s leaders think. When those prime ministers bleat about how multiculturalism has failed, they’re really saying, brown people refuse to get in line. Non-white people are refusing to learn the language properly (by abandoning their own and their funny accents) and they are refusing to integrate properly (by entering and staying in white spaces that alienate the shit out of them). Multiculturalism to these people has failed because these immigrants have refused to play by the rules set by the white people who so nicely let them into the country. (Sara Ahmed’s chapter on the Melancholic Migrant in her book The Promise of Happiness talks about this.)

I’ve said this before, but it is worth saying again: culture is about the people, not just the stuff. A culture isn’t just about the clothes and the language and the literature. It’s also in the way people interact and behave, the way we think, the way we live.

And I just don’t see this happening in steampunk very much.

Now, I get why. If you’re white, you can’t very well pass as someone of another race without engaging in some squicky, racist-as-fuck colour-face. And I don’t deny that some folk do some fine work adapting the fashions of non-Western European cultures into workable, lovable clothing that looks good, makes sense, stays true to the original garb, and doesn’t bank on racist stereotypes.

But here’s what bothers me most: the fact that when we say “multicultural” in steampunk, I’m often hearing “non-white”. It’s just another way of saying “ethnic” which is also code for “not white”. And “exotic”, which means “foreign.”

This bothers me, partly because it’s semantically incorrect (there are various ethnicities associated with people lumped into whiteness, and multiculturalism includes interacting with whiteness as well, or European-derived cultures, but from what I can see, “multicultural” currently signifies anything that’s not Western European), partly because it’s another way of celebrating some mythical post-racial state (“we’re all human! let’s celebrate each other’s cultures by raising awareness about them through these clothes we are wearing on our white bodies!”), partly because… I just don’t see anything that really engages with what it means to be multicultural.

Multiculturalism, in its very name, indicates the interaction between multiple cultures. Which could be very different cultures. With some major disagreements between them. Living in one space.

And, in our racist world, these disagreements have some shitty consequences that include but are not limited to work discrimination, disproportionate crime rates, exclusionary laws, and flat out shitty behaviour that receives no punishment or is outright supported. In our world, the presence of multiculturalism means that certain cultures get to be dominant, and stick the others into disadvantaged spaces (aka ghettos).

I have never encountered a space which consists of a plurality of cultures living alongside each other, elbow to elbow, where each community has the wherewithal to take care of itself, and members feel free to speak to other communities without fear of reprisal or discrimination. A space where any neutral ground has rules negotiated upon by representatives of different groups (like in Nancy Fraser’s articulation on public spaces in plural societies, as opposed to hegemonic societies).

And let’s face it, this shit ain’t happening in steampunk. Non-white people are expected to play by the rules. We’re expected to mess around in the Victorian era. We still come in by way of Western European, specifically English, frameworks and paradigms. If we’re there as purposefully non-white, we’re nifty, but… beyond that? What do we mean to white steampunks who dominate the scene? How is someone like Monique Poirier supposed to comfortably do Native American steampunk if random folk will joke about the “steampunk Trail of Tears” around her?

That is why I can’t get behind a celebration of multicultural steampunk that really seems to bank on being able to create and dress in costumes and clothing and props of other cultures. Something different and something fun to do. Something cool to research. Something interesting to get to know, and maybe learn something about a different culture. But for all your knowledge about how we dressed and what the gender norms of 19th century China were, what is being done to ensure POC steampunk feel safe? Feel more than just tokens? Tony Hicks of Tinplate Studios said to me at GearCon, “sometimes, you just want to be.” And sometimes, that being also means being able to talk about some of the dumb shit we experience and being understood for that, being comfortable that no, we’re not alone.

Before you start bleating about how it’s a multicultural world and ain’t we all human and race doesn’t matter and we should all be free to use different things from different cultures, let me reiterate once more: culture is more than just things. It’s about people. And people of colour live in the still very racist system that dictates the discourse on what multiculturalism should be like. And thus multiculturalism is co-opted, not to begin critical conversations between peoples, but so white people can get their jollies off dressing like an exotic non-white person, eat weird foods, learn about foreign cultures, as a nifty thing for the day, without necessarily doing the hard work of confronting how difficult living in a multicultural world can be, when certain cultures are privileged over others.

And this needs to change.

Stuff that got cited in here:
Angela Davis. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture.
Sara Ahmed. The Promise of Happiness. Chapter 4.
  • Jaymee Goh

    I think I know some of these self-proclaimed leaders you speak of ;) But no, I disagree that steampunk subculture is fundamentally so different from “real world” culture–it’s still the same whack-assed white-dominant nonsense, except with some post-modern self-collapsing and self-referentiality. The strategy remains the same: create conversation (and the opportunity for conversation) but I cannot see steampunk as a singular community unto itself. (I mean, come on, they tried to establish that with the Great Steampunk Debate, and that went to shit really quickly, eh.)

  • Jaymee Goh

    Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories and the sequel are where I would tell you to get started. 

    We are building.

  • Claire Dawn

    I just did a workshop on writing Multicultural YA, and one thing I said is that I don’t think every multi-racial book is mticultural. It’s a misnomer.

    Also, I think a big problem with multicultural is that the US is the driving force in entertainment these days. And even though there is now no clear majority of race in the US, they still love to act like they are a white majority. And POC in the US and outside are faced with limited options. Deal with the all-white casts and stories. Deal with the often poorly put together or stereotypical POC offerings. Or boycott entertainment.

  • Claire Dawn

    I just did a workshop on writing Multicultural YA, and one thing I said is that I don’t think every multi-racial book is mticultural. It’s a misnomer.

    Also, I think a big problem with multicultural is that the US is the driving force in entertainment these days. And even though there is now no clear majority of race in the US, they still love to act like they are a white majority. And POC in the US and outside are faced with limited options. Deal with the all-white casts and stories. Deal with the often poorly put together or stereotypical POC offerings. Or boycott entertainment.

    • Jaymee Goh

      “Deal with it”? What the fuck else do you think we’re doing now? But how is the real crux of the matter. I refuse to deal with the terms and conditions set by the colonizer. There is no need to boycott entertainment where clearly POC can create their own. Are the options limited? Only by the limits set by the dominant paradigms. There are always ways in. These issues we face in entertainment also affect everything else in our lives. We don’t boycott life in response.

    • Jaymee Goh

      “Deal with it”? What the fuck else do you think we’re doing now? But how is the real crux of the matter. I refuse to deal with the terms and conditions set by the colonizer. There is no need to boycott entertainment where clearly POC can create their own. Are the options limited? Only by the limits set by the dominant paradigms. There are always ways in. These issues we face in entertainment also affect everything else in our lives. We don’t boycott life in response.

  • Cara DiGirolamo

    I’ve actually found this to be one of my difficulties of the idea of writing steampunk.  I adore the core founding literature of the genre, Verne, Wells, Haggard, Conan Doyle.  But it is from an exceptionally privileged-white-male point of view.  And a lot of it is about encounters with the foreign and the exotic.  That’s actually one of the wonders of steampunk, the idea that the world is full of all of these new and wondrous and strange and terrifying things that you couldn’t imagine and you will never be able to count.  But how do you write that feeling without exoticizing?

    But perhaps you’ve given me the answer to the story.  I love the image of the bazaar, with people from a hundred different places rubbing elbows, and talking and shouting and *interacting.*  That’s where a story can spawn, a story with protagonists who are different, who act and think differently, but are in a relationship of trade and exchange, not one of ‘friendly guide’ or ‘dark woman.’  Characters, not tokens.

    As I’m not in the steampunk society, I don’t really know about the actual issues that come up during events.  All I can hope is that having by iconic characters of many races, orientations, abilities, we can build a steampunk!zeitgeist that is truly multicultural, in the best sense of the word, one that everyone can see themselves as being part of.

  • Drhiphop85

    Another issue facing multiculturalism is that,at least in the US, it’s always a focus on changing things from white-centered to everyone else centered. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a good thing. But what it fails to address is that those “others” don’t take to kindly to the other “others” (so to speak). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been apart of initiatives to spread awareness and information about different groups and some other minority group thinks its a waste of time or that the group doesn’t matter. As an Afro-Brazilian/African American it’s frustrating because I want to expose other African Americans to other cultures, the same I want to expose Whites to other cultures, in my programs but I run into so many issues from my own group. It’s a daunting task and one that is not addressed. 

    There has to be a drive for awareness on all fronts. Just as we need the White majority (this is speaking solely racially and not on class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion) to understand the experience of minorities, we need the different minority groups to understand the experiences of each other. There has to be self-reflection. you can’t expect things from your enemy you don’t expect from yourself.

  • JCat

    It seems to me that one of the keys to achieving an understanding of multiculturalism, particularly for a white-identified person, is to understand that whiteness is a culture. For a group to be multicultural, said group does not have to include a POC. Being white in a particular country comes with a culture (though certainly it interacts with religion, class, etc. as always). The alternative to denying this realization is the mindset that white is normal and everything else is “other,” which is one of the main reasons the definition of multiculturalism=non-white persists.

  • Jaymee Goh

    No, I think it definitely DOES connect. We’ve had this conversation before, back during RaceFail, and it seems we’re STILL having the conversation now. It’s frustrating. It’s one of the reasons why, when Doc Fantastiques Books’ call for submissions for the steampunk Shakespeare anthology I’m working on went out, I asked the head editor to specifically insert in overt encouragement for non-normative identities in the submissions. JoSelle Vanderhooft, who’s worked on both Steam-Powered anthologies, does the same thing, and as a result, she’s put out a couple of anthologies which have a WIDE range of peoples. (I was not so lucky, heh, but I think what I do have is pretty good for a start!)

  • Jaymee Goh

    Yes, Canadian multiculturalism bothers me the same way! How is it multicultural when I can’t take time off for Chinese New Year, but have to celebrate Christmas and Easter? Mind you, it’s nice to have mandatory days off work, but I wish there was some thought put into this policy to make way for people who have important cultural celebrations that aren’t Christian. 

  • Anonymous

    It totally connects. I’m working on a novel, too, and I know it will be a hard sell because of the age of the protagonist, the voice, and the biraciality part of the plot.

    I see diversity initiatives as mostly good, in the same sense as affirmative action, in their intent–they exist so that they won’t have to in the future. But there are still major issues with it as it goes through that process of becoming moot, and it can hit a lot of nerves. There may be some truth in what people are saying, if they mean that your book maybe won’t fit into a certain publishing company. For example, I greatly appreciate that Kimani Tru exists, but I wouldn’t want to publish with them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t think my style, treatment, or “quality” fits with theirs.

    There’s also the fact that constantly identifying or pointing out difference makes it harder for you to eliminate it. So there’s a fine line to walk between emphasizing diversity while not emphasizing it as **DIVERSITY!!!rainbowsandunicornsandhandholding**, you know?

    • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

      Sweet. I love to read YA and adult sci-fi/fantasy in general that has protagonists of color. Also, @@facebook-1346063469:disqus , keep an eye out for my book when I get it published! At the moment, three of the main characters are queer, with more on the way. 

    • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

      Sweet. I love to read YA and adult sci-fi/fantasy in general that has protagonists of color. Also, @@facebook-1346063469:disqus , keep an eye out for my book when I get it published! At the moment, three of the main characters are queer, with more on the way. 

  • http://pickygirltriestoeat.wordpress.com/ mclicious

    Thank you for this. I have (and others have) been saying this forever, but in the context of children’s and YA literature–I hate it when white people say “ethnic” as if they don’t also have an ethnicity, and I hate that “multicultural literature” just means “literature about brown/black/red/yellow people,” even if it doesn’t really involve interaction of cultures. I’m trying to dissect that a little bit now that I’ve started an MA in children’s literature. I’ve only recently been discovering steampunk, but this will be great to keep in mind as I delve more deeply.