Racist Things Steampunks Are Not Immune To: Looking For Other People’s Hurt To Be Offended By

Image Credit: Zyllan Fotografia.


By Guest Contributor Jha; originally published as part of the series “Racist Things Steampunks Are Not Immune To” at Silver Goggles

So, this morning I woke up to two emails about the exact same thing: Some nonsense-filled thread talking about “how to not offend people” when it comes to multicultural steampunk. And a cursory glance through the emails proved to me once more how impossible it is to talk to white people who don’t want to change their minds about what offensiveness is and what not to do.

While I am certainly pleased that there are people who are aware of the racial implications of what they do–even in some fuzzy way that they can’t articulate–I am also aware that there are a ton of people, shall I say, “looking for offense,” or rather, the chance to be aghast by some perceived limitation of their actions and options. There are white fans of steampunk who will set up strawman arguments about how fans of color actively look for offense (e.g. racism and appropriation), so much so that other poor folks are walking on eggshells every time they move.

“I can’t wear a pith helmet,” they will whine, “because then it would be colonialist and thus offensive!”

“I can’t wear a kimono,” another set will whine, “because then it would offend Asian people!”

“I can’t incorporate gypsy styles,” some more will whine, “because then I’d be accused of appropriation!”

Can we even consider the absurdity of these statements?

You can’t because then… someone will remind you why it sucks for them to see you wearing it?

You can’t because then… someone might tell you off and express their anger at you doing it?

You can’t because then… someone will remind you they are hurt that their culture has become a commodity item, while they’re trying to live their daily lives trying to gain recognition as human beings?

I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of arrogance it takes not to empathize with the people you perceive are being needlessly offended. This reaction is stunningly, fucking self-centered–all about you and how you can’t, with no thought spared for anyone else. There is nothing at all in these statements demonstrating an understanding of what makes these actions problematic, much less why your offense is bankrupt.

Someone expresses anger that you done fucked up again? It’s about you and your anger and how you feel about being put on the spot and made to feel guilty, not the much larger and much more damaging issues of race and privilege and colonialism, etc., that have impacted millions across history.

I get comments at Silver Goggles sometimes from people peg as looking for offense: “Well now I know [x or y is wrong], but you didn’t have to be so rude about it.”

If politeness got us anywhere, I wouldn’t be writing regularly about the pain I get reviewing potentially good, white author-written steampunk about people of color, ruined because the author clearly doesn’t talk to a wide range of PoCs with diverse experiences of oppression, let alone other white people on various axes of oppression. Gosh!

This is not a steampunk problem; this is a cultural problem–and this is a problem with white supremacy.

“Steampunk is just fantasy!” cry these people looking for offense.

Well then, don’t let your fantasy ruin mine!

“People aren’t perfect!” whine these folks looking for offense, in response to perfectly reasonable requests to not do things that may cause harm.

Well then, go fuck up on your own time and in your own goddamn space! Not where I can see you and not where other people can be collateral damage!

We ask nicely and get told “well, whatever.” We ask again and get told we are looking for offense where there is none. We ask again and get told that we always have a problem and never a solution. And we ask again and get told, “I just wanna do what I want.” We ask and ask and ask.

Since you want to make it about you, how about I make it about me?

I want to do what I want, too. I want to have fun in steampunk and have great discussions about how it can teach us real history and help us have conversations about the past. I want to talk about how the genre has been skewered and misread by historians and overlooked as a site of culture and knowledge. I want to have wonderful dialogue with wonderful people coming up with strategies to help ameliorate current suffering that came about because of the history we want to re-imagine. (Mark this: Solutions can never come about through one person alone. Solutions only arise through cooperation, willingness to listen, and honesty about the problem. If you expect an individual who notices a problem to come up with a solution alone, you fall back on the individualist hero thinking that got us to where we are in our selfish society).

And you know…despite all that, I still do this–even with assholes railing against our work illuminating racism because they’re more keen on digging in their heels and defending their freedom from knowing about other people’s hurt and anger and even with ubiquitous louts who aren’t willing to admit that there is a problem or, if there is one, it’s really not that bad. I will still do this, even though I know, at every event, I’m going to come across at least one of these irredeemables looking for offense.

My love [for steampunk] is stronger than your ignorance. It is fed by the knowledge of past wrongs never uncovered because we are too afraid to reckon with them. And it is fed by the rage of knowing those past wrongs still surface today. And it is fed by the pain I feel that every thing I consume, every move I make, every cent I spend, is part of a machine built by greedy people and run by their fearful, perhaps innocent, minions and oiled by cowards.

Yes, my love manifests with fury and vengeance. If you cannot fathom how this can even be, yet allow that injustices will happen and you don’t have to hew your mind to fully comprehending your place in it…you’re not as open-minded or as inclusive or as welcoming as you like to think you are. Because you cannot accept that there are variegated ways of being and doing that are beyond your measly comprehension.

So yeah, go ahead, go do what you want to do. Just don’t limit the reactions you receive as a result. That’s not welcoming. Don’t try to tell people how they should react to you. (Frankly, I  doubt anybody is going to engage with you about your offensive-ass steampunk costume, anyway. If you have the brainlessness to wear it out in public, you probably don’t have the peace of mind to handle criticism of it without doing some crazy mental acrobatics justifying that shit.)

Do what you want to do. Just do it far away from me. Fandom is big enough, right? I’m certainly not looking for fuck-ups anymore. I don’t even have to; people keep pointing them out to me. I got better shit to do. Cut me a break and go fuck up somewhere else. But never mistake that I am offended by anything anymore. No, I’ve come to expect racist shit. I’m done having high expectations.

And you people allegedly cowed by the idea of giving offense? You sure do take a lot of offense when being told you’ve being offensive.

I’m now going to go read about slave ships. I’ll see you all later.

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • zdrav

    Steampunk is a loving memorialization of a time when Western Europe was undoubtedly the most dominant power in the world. It’s difficult to simultaneously romanticize that period AND gloss over the imperialism/racism of that era.

    I’m willing to bet that most steampunk writers aren’t good enough to tread that line with skill. They probably overestimate their abilities because they self-servingly see themselves as forlorn and imaginative romantics just because they like cheesy gaslight romances.

  • http://twitter.com/dorkphoenyx lizzieb***

    I definitely think there is a lack of awareness and diversity in the steampunk community. As far as I can see (from a position of being involved with it for a long time, but not at an incredibly deep level), there’s not really anything being done. All I can say in its favor is that at least in the groups I frequent, no one does racialized cosplay – no “Oriental princesses” or “Native Warriors”. Unfortunately, I think this is due less to an awareness of the problematic aspects of steampunk than it is to these players having come from the RenFaire crowd (so – corsets. and more corsets.)

    Now, I *really* wish I was going to Wicked Faire! I would have loved to have a discussion/panel on this – although finding individuals to lead it might be difficult, as it is still a predominantly white group (at least among the leadership; the hoi polloi is beginning to diversify).

    • http://twitter.com/jhameia Jaymee Goh

      No “Native warriors”? I’ve seen some pretty shit Orientalism in the last couple of years, and steamfashion is full of racist shit.

    • Diana Pho

      Jha and I have been working on anti-racism & multiculturalism in steampunk for several years now, so by reading her here, you’ve just met one of the people fighting to bring larger awareness to the steampunk community. And yes, it can be a frustrating process because of all of the crap we get from privileged folk who can’t understand what it means to be a PoC in any geeky subculture, not just steampunk.

      I’m actually based out of NYC, and have gone to Wicked Faire before! Won’t be going this year because it falls on Lunar New Year, but I can certainly consider presenting if Jeff Mach makes the offer XD

      Btw, feel free to check out my blog beyondvictoriana.com for some PoC-supported steampunk goodness.

  • http://twitter.com/cupcakecore cupcakecore

    Ugh sometimes steampunk is the worst. I think it suffers from what sci-fi/fantasy suffers from which is that anything is possible except diversity, but steampunk suffers from it more, possibly because it’s built on the notion that you can re-write history. I don’t read a lot of the genre, but I really really love the Leviathan series, which is predominantly white people but it’s more respectfully diverse than it had to be. And Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series is also pretty good.

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com/ Blake

    I can’t say I’ve ever really followed steampunk, though I’ve been intrigued by the aesthetic. However, I think I’ll steer clear. It would be helpful for the uninitated to see a basic primer on what steampunk is and is not doing to be sensitive to other cultures and ethnicities. Thanks.

    • http://twitter.com/jhameia Jaymee Goh

      I have a series of interviews with steampunks of color at my blog. I try to feature one every month.
      I’ve of course given up on featuring white people being sensitive to other cultures; it’s not worth my time anymore and it just makes the white liberals feel better when they have no reason to congratulate themselves.

      • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com/ Blake

        Very enlightening. Thanks for sharing. Also, your “Read these before engaging” list is one of the best I’ve seen.

  • SuperHyugaYoshichan

    I’m certainly not looking for fuck-ups anymore. I don’t even have to; people keep pointing them out to me. I got better shit to do. Cut me a break and go fuck up somewhere else. But never mistake that I am offended by anything anymore. No, I’ve come to expect racist shit. I’m done having high expectations.

    Fucking this! I’m only 17, and I’ve become jaded enough in order to expect and deal microagressions yet I deal with them all the same. Especially at school. It’s just something I keep on slaving away at, but the best part is when people say that all the stress and energy you go through means nothing and isn’t “real”. Fuck ’em, is what I gotta say! Be as blunt as possible, and don’t even bother holding them to a standard.

    If they want a fucking standard, they’re gonna haf’ta earn one!