Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Using the term "multiculturalism"

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.
Nancy Fraser. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the Postsocialist Condition. Chapter 3.


  1. That is a very interesting point you raise with the incorporation of the term "multiculturalism", and one I hadn't considered before.

    I used to teach Spanish classes at a university, and I'd introduce the idea of multiculturalism by talking about different "kinds" of white people, and why it's not the same to grow up in Brussels, or Barcelona or Mobile, AL. Once students see that there are differences as well as similarities in what they thought was a unified culture, it's easier for them to see that the idea of a single "Hispanic" or "Latin American" culture is a myth. Just like it'd be a myth to say there's a single "Malaysian" culture.

    Steampunk, by drawing on the 19th century, is in a unique place to explore how the ideas of race and ethnicity are constructed culturally, and how they can be broken down. For example, in the US immigrants from southern Europe (Italy mostly, but also Spain) were discriminated against because of, basically, racial and economic stereotyping. The US still uses quota-like systems, and favors immigrants from certain countries (culturally and legally), but the places in favor have shifted as the idea of who classifies as "other" have changed.

    As time goes on, it feels to me like Steampunk is getting more and more stuck in the "Victorian" niche and forgetting that the industrial revolution was a global phenomena that had a direct or indirect impact on every continent. Which is a pity- there's a whole world outside of London to explore.

  2. Yes, multiculturalism is used a lot these days and it's used to describe a lot of things which is unfortunate. Technically, it should mean different cultures living side by side or together in a single space and if you've got a problem with that, there's something wrong with you.

    However, in the name of "multiculturalism," a lot of problems that are/were associated with immigrants, at least in continental Western Europe, were ignored for many years, specifically in the 1990s. The anti-multiculturalism sentiment today (conservatives declaring "multiculturalism" over or dead) should be understood not so much as a rejection of multiculturalism per se but as a rejection of the laissez-faire attitude of government with regard to immigration.

    Now you can think of that what you wish but I think it's important to point out that right wing criticism of "multiculturalism" isn't necessarily anti-immigrant. Although in same cases, it is.

    As for multiculturalism in steampunk -- I don't see why white steampunks should have a responsibility to ensure that people of color "feel safe" in the movement? That seems to demand they do something whereas I think the only reasonable thing we can demand of white steampunks is that they not do something which is to engage in blatant discrimination.

  3. Hollie: I'm feeling a dynamic where steampunks in US/Canada WANT to move beyond Victorian milieus, but don't know how to proceed / find it difficult to disseminate their work. There HAS been works produced that try to get outside London. However, they're also produced by white people, with all the problems that entails. What does it say when most of the cultural production is done by white people, while POC creators are assimilated or sidelined? Is this real multiculturalism, or a vision of multiculturalism produced by a single culture?

    Ottens. While I don't expect you to understand the dynamics of racism easily, given that you clearly do not experience them the way people of colour do, to say that white people have no special duty to ensure the ugly history of racism does not raise its head (ESPECIALLY in a historically-inspired imaginary space as steampunk) is simply to say that white people don't have to do anything to combat the systems that create racism. This is what allows people to perpetuate racism, in all forms, even unconsciously.

    You may think that not engaging in discrimination is "the only reasonable thing" to demand. I, however, am telling you that the stakes are higher, and am thus demanding for more action.

    Seriously, Ottens, you may not have engaged in blatant discrimination, but my encounters with you in the past were deeply distressing and a reason why I, as a person of colour, do not feel safe in steampunk, and a reason why I DO think white steampunks should step up more in helping POC feel safe, so I would really appreciate it if you would please read up on anti-racist texts before engaging further.

    It is not to say I don't appreciate your input on the rejection of multiculturalism in continental Europe (it's very interesting and thought-provoking, raising all sorts of other questions re: govt policy on immigration and the dynamics of migration and diaspora versus legal measures) but, given recent circumstances, I am not up to 101-education at the moment.

  4. I think we're talking about slightly different things though, and since your post wasn't specifically about this topic, your casual remark here raised an eyebrow on my part.

    I agree that steampunks (white or otherwise) have a responsibility to keep steampunk free or racism.

    I also agree that steampunk have a responsibility to combat racism whenever it does appear. (Although, I suspect, we'll disagree sometimes on whether something's racist or not.)

    What I don't believe is that steampunks have to do is make an *active* effort to make sure that all people can feel "safe" in the community.

    (In a general sense, I don't think this is even possible because it would imply that every single person should be enabled to be drawn into the culture which would make steampunk meaningless.)

    That's what you seemed to suggest with that line though -- as though I have to ensure every steampunk person of color that I'm not a racist. That's ridiculous. They should be able to assume that I'm not a racist.

    Besides, trying to assure people that "we're not racists!" would suggest that it's somehow natural for people to assume that we are because we're steampunks. If that's the case, it would be deeply disturbing.

  5. We damn well SHOULD be able to assume you're not racist. But you know what? YOU still use "Victoriental" in your vocabulary, even after I explicitly told you, this term is racist and deeply problematic, as a person of colour I would really appreciate it if you dropped it. And you decided to defend it, rather than take me seriously. So right there, you're definitely racist in that you would rather ignore the consequences of the term on people like me, just so you have the "right" to use it. How am I supposed to assume you're not racist? I am a person who is often on the receiving end of racism. And if someone who is often a victim of racism tells you that something is racist? They're probably right and you should listen. But you refused to listen. That is a hostile act, even if you do not see it that way. And that is why I do not trust you, and why I cannot believe you act in good faith that you're "not a racist".

    People who benefit from racism have the privilege of ignoring people like me. And that is racist. This thing between us is just one example of the continual failure of people who are part of the dominant culture to recognize the harm they do, while demanding that their victims trust them.

    It's not that steampunks specifically are racist, but that steampunk is NOT a separate sphere. We DO carry in baggage from "outside". And part of that baggage is racism. If you cannot see how easily racism is reproduced in steampunk, then you need to go do some more reading on how racism permeates EVERYTHING, and yes, we do have to actively work to combat it, because ignoring it doesn't go away.

    I've already told you that our previous encounter was distressing. That should have been your cue to shut up and STOP HURTING ME FURTHER. I do not often do this, as I'm usually quite tolerant of bullshit in my personal space, but if I see one more disingenuous "but I'm not racist" comment from you, I will delete it. Do not engage with me on this particular point further until you've proven that you've informed yourself with POC perspectives on racism. There're over 200 years worth of text. Happy reading.

    I, for one, find it deeply disturbing that you continued to operate without any apparent consequences yet when you proved yourself racist. But you know? That's how racism works. And no, steampunk is not free from it.

  6. @Ottens: [i]I don't see why white steampunks should have a responsibility to ensure that people of color "feel safe" in the movement? That seems to demand they do something whereas I think the only reasonable thing we can demand of white steampunks is that they not do something which is to engage in blatant discrimination.[/i]

    If blatant discrimination was all there is to racism, this would make sense. It's not, and this doesn't. Because we live in a racist society, we receive privilege at the expense of people of color. That doesn't go away just because we declare a space Steampunk. The playing field is slanted in our favor, if you will. For that reason, one can actively or passively support racism; but one can only oppose racism actively. Opposing racism passively would only be possible if the playing field were level.

    "They should be able to assume that I'm not a racist."

    Now, here's a pretty good example of what I'm talking about. This notion that you should expect people to assume the best of you? That's white privilege in play right there. The reality in the world we occupy is that People of Color don't have this benefit extended to them, and no one's going to give it to them just because they ask for it. What's more, there's a real risk to People of Color assuming a white person isn't racist in the absence of evidence. Your expectation that they take that risk for the benefit of your comfort is also white privilege.

    If you want to live in a world where this is an assumption that can be safely extended to you, and in which you're not getting special treatment other people don't get, you're going to have to help build it. And you can't do that passively.

    Leaving aside, of course, Jha's other examples of your racism.

  7. Jha, I don't mean to upset you. I know we've had differences of opinion and I understand whereas this is an intellectual discussion for me, for you, it may be personal.

    I'm interested in discussing because I don't fully understand your perspective. I'm not ignoring you. I'm here. I trust you're sincere but I don't simply assume you're right. For you to say that I should simply trust you're right because you're a person of color and I'm not doesn't cut it for me.

    That said, this is your blog and it takes two to tango so if you're not interested, I'll respect that and won't think any less of you nor try to push you.

    If you are interested, let me know and I'll respond on substance.

  8. Justice is not merely an intellectual concept. If you want proof that I'm right? Read beyond my words, to the words of people I draw from. As I said, there are over 200 years of anti-racist texts out there, describing the experiences of racial minorities, the challenges we face, the neocolonialism enacts on our countries and our bodies. This isn't the first post I've made on the matter. There's a Reading List 101 on my sidebar for a reason. I didn't come to my understanding of my pain with just a few conversations; it took me years of listening.

    Upon what substance do you wish to respond to? You have been told that you hurt me, and that you continue to do so. This is more honesty than you will get from other POC. What more substance do you need for your intellectual standpoint? If you break someone's arm, do you tell them you don't believe they're right until they can substantially prove this to you? My pain is no less real.

    So no, no intellectual discussion for you, for reasons which I hope will be clear to you in time. You can read all you like, but so long as you can only understand this as an intellectual discussion, not a matter of survival and dignity, you're probably not going to understand very much.

  9. When people are telling you something hurts, even if you don't understand all the reasons, continuing as though they didn't say anything doesn't come across as wanting to understand their perspective. It comes across as not caring that it hurt them, because your fun matters more than someone else being hurt.

    There are times when it's difficult to balance such things. Some things that would be healing for Jha are hurtful for me, and vice versa. But you can't really claim Victorientalism is one of those times. It's someone having fun causing someone else pain. It wouldn't cause anyone pain to stop having fun that way. You don't need to understand all the racism and colonial stuff to understand that concept.

  10. "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?"

    This is similar (but not the SAME, certainly) as the work some people have been doing to try to stamp out sexual harassment at cons. I've been trying to follow those people's suggestions (like the Back Up project).

    My problem is, as a white person, I don't know what to do to help the POC feel safe. When I read that many POC are offended by the pith helmet look (pith helmets are seen as symbols of oppression by some cultures), I put the pith helmet away. I will not wear that look. But that seems a very small step. What else can I do? Where can I read what I should DO, as opposed to refrain from doing?

    I will be wearing 19th century Egyptian clothing at an upcoming convention. It's based on historical research and then accessorized for steampunk. It is not a caricature. Will it harm someone? I am hoping not, as I'm trying to honor a culture I care about.

  11. There're a lot of sites and blogs on being a racialized person to read, and most of them say the same thing: listen and learn. You put away the pith helmet, and that is the great start.

    On LJ itself, which I see you're on as your OpenID, there are whole communities dedicated to talking about this: debunkingwhite, racism_101 are two I think of immediately.

    And I want to know WHY you feel the need to honour another culture by wearing its accessories? (Are you going to TeslaCon? It sounds like you are.) How do you know it's not a caricature? Again, the answer will lie in the reception. Maybe you will fuck up. Accept this and make sure you have another costume on hand. Are you pretending to be a POC in this getup? Never forget that some of us will never shed being a POC the way you can shed your costume.

    If you are a con organizer, make anti-racist policies very clear in your programming. If you are an attendee, CALL RACIST CARICATURES OUT.

    I invite you to check out my 101 reading list on the left-side of the blog.

  12. Thank you very much for the reply and the suggestions.

    I want to honor the Egyptian culture for multiple reasons. I love Egyptian music and dance. I want to pay tribute to their current struggle for democracy. I want to break the notion that Egyptian women of the past dressed as harem girls or as the fantasy creatures seen in many Orientalist paintings. I would never attempt to pretend to be a race other than my own, I find that pretty horrifying. If I screw this up and somebody is offended and calls me on it -- damn straight I won't wear it out again.

    I am not a con organizer. TeslaCon is actually doing something that really bothers me: a mummy unwrapping. Yes, the Victorians did mummy unwrappings, but to be this seems disrespectful! I did express my feelings about that but I don't think it had much affect. Nor did they respond to my request for an anti-sexual-harassment policy.

    Again, thanks for your writing.

  13. Yeah, mummy unwrappings, even fake ones, do bother me. I feel like they CAN be done right--really good questions around mummy-unwrapping can be asked, but so far, I haven't seen or heard of any programming that tackles this. But it's great that you voiced your concern.

    (Do say hello to Ay-Leen the Peacemaker at TeslaCon, and provide her any assist she may need in dealing with racist fucknecks at the Orientalism panels. Alternatively, take pictures of her punching racists in the neck ^_^)

    (Also, boo to non-response on anti-sexual-harassment policy =( It's such a huge concern in so many scifi cons too! I've not seen anything addressing those issues myself. SIGH. Harking back to the past doesn't mean we have to STAY there.......)

  14. I am really hoping to meet Ay-Leen! I love her blog. I hope she is on a panel or two.

  15. Thanks for this, very much. These are important questions to raise within the fan communities, and I'll go better-armed (with arguments) to those discussions after this post.

  16. I totally want to jump in. I just found this blog and I love it. I particularly wanted to respond to this:

    "I want to honor the Egyptian culture for multiple reasons. I love Egyptian music and dance. I want to pay tribute to their current struggle for democracy. I want to break the notion that Egyptian women of the past dressed as harem girls or as the fantasy creatures seen in many Orientalist paintings."

    Sooo, I am of Egyptian background (my parents immigrated to Canada from Egypt.) I have to say this first though: I, in no way, speak for all Egyptians and I'm going to have different experiences than an Egyptian living in Egypt because, well, I'm also Canadian. However, in some ways, I'm more aware of racism towards Egypitans/Arabs because I am in Canada and surrounded by those who perpetuate it.

    That being said, I just want to say THANK YOU for straying away from the harem girl look. I cannot explain to you how infuriating it is to see (mostly) white girls take up belly-dancing en-masse, without realizing that belly-dancers, even though they're hired for, example, weddings in Egypt, are actually looked down upon and confront their own forms of oppression, separate from middle-class/upper-class women who often view belly dancing (in public, not in private amongst only female friends) as degrading.

    And then you have, in my city anyway, these Egyptian dance troupes that have no Egyptian dancers. They dress up in the most "ethnically correct" way, create an exotic caricature of WOC and in the end they get to take off their costumes and return to their privilege at the end of the night. This blog post explains how I feel about it and really, I recommend you read it before you dress up as a WOC: http://irresistable-revolution.blogspot.com/2011/09/jasmine-diaries-part-ii-exotic-is-not.html

    So, I assume you're dressing as a female. FIRST, and this is the problem when people dress up as a WOC, make sure you're not creating an exotic archetype. Does your costume play on a stereotype? Does it depend on dirty white clothing and turbans? Then scrap it. Please.

    This is the period where Victorians were dressing up as Egyptians at their little parties. They were travelling to Egypt (if they were rich) to escape a head cold--because Egypt would cure it or some shit. They were plundering our history, stealing our artifact and taking them back to Britain. They still retain these artifacts, and Egypt doesn't own its own property or history. So yeah, there's a connection to the Vicotrian--but not a good one. And seeing as the Victorian period is the leading, erm, thing in Steampunk, you could end up looking like a Victorian at an Egyptian-themed costume party. And there were a lot of them. Have you thought of this, and have you thought of ways of getting around it (while simultaneously acknowledging that this kind of oppression exited and still exists)?

    Note: Please don't go crazy with the self-tanner. Egyptian women come in many colours, and Egyptians actually consider themselves white. There are white Arabs/ black Arabs etc. Don't try and make yourself more foreign/exotic/mystical looking by painting your face darker.

  17. Now, I referenced earlier that some of these belly dancers try really hard with their costumes. But, "proper costumes" are often inaccurate. These belly dance costumes were inaccurate; in Egypt today a belly-dancer hired at a regular function does not actually reveal her belly--that would be scandalous. They might expose their arms, but then be covered until the knees. (Im)Proper costumes do not prevent a person from being racist.

    Are you aware of the politics of the time period? What the gender norms were? Are you aware of how colonization changed politics/gender norms? Can you analyse these things WITHOUT using a western framework? Do you believe there are western/eastern frameworks? Do you recognize that there's debate about universalism/relativism even WITHIN Egyptian culture? Do you recognize these tensions?

    I am a little concerned that you said you really like Egyptian music/dance. These are not monolithic entities. I like some Egyptian music too--in the punk genre. And dance? Well, I hope your costume has nothing to do with that. Most "belly dancers" now DO dress up as fantasy girls found in orientalist paintings. So I guess I'm just not sure about what aspects of Egyptian dance you like.

    Further, it's really easy now to empathize with the Egyptian struggle for democracy. But even within this movement there are differences of opinions. Where was your solidarity before the movement? It's easy to look at Arabs now and think of them as more friendly and more Western (because they want democracy) when after 9/11, and still, to this day, they're portrayed as barbaric savages who keep their women behind hijabs. What did you think about Egypt BEFORE the Arab Spring?

    I'm not 100% against you dressing up as an Egyptian. If you admire a culture, then that's fantastic. But what is it exactly that you admire about it? I think you'd have to say something more than song/dance/revolution. I do, however, think it's theoretically possible to dress up as as someone of another culture without being racist. It's just really difficult. You might consider dressing up as an actual historical figure, steampunk version, and that allows you to hang on to specifics about an individual instead of creating a character based on generalizations.

    I hope I helped, and sorry for the really really long post.

  18. That was an amazing two-fer, Sarah. Thanks for your comments!

  19. Haha, yeah I like to go on and on and on. Thanks for this amazing blog!