There is this thing Ay-Leen and I do at our Steam Around the World presentation, and it's when we get to talking about racism. We get the whole audience to yell, "RACISM!"
This is what I like to explain as a speech act. Here's a thing explaining what speech acts are, and how we like to rely on obfuscation rather than stating outright what we really mean. The bit I like the most is the recounting of the conversation from When Harry Met Sally, where Harry tells Sally she's attractive (7:10 - 7:26) and she says, "It's already out there." it then goes on to talk about the profound consequences of this mutual knowledge about what we're all talking about, that it enables a shared platform for which we can begin to have meaningful dialog about the same subject, and there's a great thing about the Emperor's New Clothes (8:56) enabling a collective challenge to the Emperor's assertion that his new clothes are awesome.
When you use precise terms, and you know their history and their meanings, the implications of saying them, it becomes a lot easier to have conversation. So when we get the audience to say out loud, "RACISM!" it means it's out there now. We can totally say it, and because we can say the word, we can now have a conversation about it.
I unfortunately use obfuscating language on this blog, because I try for a message that people can find themselves in, in as varied a subject position as possible. It's not always useful or helpful, of course. Which probably explains the lack of comments, haha.
But anyways, there is something to be said about being able to use the term "people of colour" in public to identify racialized persons, or people who self-identify that way.
So, I don't know how many of ya'll attended the Amphitrite Tea Party at SteamCon. Very belatedly, I realized that the con photoshoot was right afterwards, and I should take advantage of having so many steampunks out there to do a steampunks of colour shoot! So I went to Diana during the tea and asked her if it was okay for me to do that, and she said sure, and that she'd announce it, which was very nice of her to offer. And so she did, and afterwards asked me how it was, because she was sending people my way. And because it was so late-minute, and I was tired, and I'm still a socially-awkward person, it was kind of a mess anyway, but it was still cool, you know?
But during the announcement, Diana said, "and for those of you who are... who identify as... not Caucasian?" and she kind of stumbled over (not for long) the phrase, and finally settled on "non-Caucasian" but it was still kind of awkward anyway, and my brain was all like "!!!! /o\ =O diana what are you doing" and I felt so fucking awful for putting her into that spot where she was clearly not entirely comfortable nor sure of how to say it. Sorry Diana =(
This isn't any condemnation of her; I really do appreciate that she said it, but it probably would have been helpful ahead of time to have told her, just say "People of Colour." Most of us POC know what the term means, and yes, it singles out most non-white people in the room, and yes, it can be uncomfy-making because it does that, but it DOES have a history that makes it different from actually racist terms, like "coloured." Not to mention, "non-Caucasian" and "non-white-looking" are also pretty loaded unto themselves: LOTS of self-identified POC look white. Many POC are descended from, well, the Caucasus (*rolls eyes* See how terrible and unspecific the term "Caucasian" is?) and share many features with people who we can definitively say "Caucasian" (which is just the other term for "white").
Here's a video that explains the history behind "women of color" in the United States:
Here, have a transcript courtesy of Racialicious.
I don't always call myself a woman of colour--that is a very US-centric term that doesn't always translate into other contexts... when I go home to Malaysia, there aren't really any white people that I'm of colour next to. But here in Canada and in conversations with women from the United States, I will use the appellation "Woman of Colour" because, as Loretta Ross points out, it is a designation of solidarity. It tells you, immediately, who I am, what my subject position is. That's how labels are handy that way; then I don't have to give you my whole damn personal history explaining why I am doing this thing... you already understand, from this one label, what the stakes are for me and mine in whatever conversation we're having.
In fact, it's this "of colour" suffix that drew me to Ay-Leen. Even back then, when I didn't know the exact history behind the term "woman of colour," I knew enough that the term "people of colour" signified a particular political project, and when someone uses it, like Ay-Leen did in looking for other "steampunks of colour," it's done for a vision that I can co-sign. Not all of us will co-sign with this, obviously, and I rather suspect there're a lot of peolpe who avoid me because I will not stop talking about race in steampunk using overt language like that.
BUT THE POINT IS, that white people should not be afraid to use language that identifies race. It doesn't mean you have the right to use it for yourselves but in certain conversations, it makes more sense to use certain terms than others.
Language! I know! Wild stuff! I know it's hard! I still get the heebie-jeebies when asking people, "hey, do you identify as POC?" (I DM'd Janus Zarate of Vernian Process this question once. I went off to pace in my living room for several minutes out of anxiety before actually sending the goddamn thing. This shit is hard! Because I, too, have been in that race-denying colour-blind position and I haaaated the identification of my race, so I can never tell whether people will be offended by it!) It takes guts and practice and knowing how to deal with any potential outcome. And if a POC has a problem with it, why the fuck shouldn't you as a white person?
It is not that difficult to find out what's an okay term and what's not an okay term ("Asian" is okay, "Oriental" is not except for rugs, "Victoriental" will get you a glare of profound hatred from me). There is the great wide Internet. Just, please don't try to re-invent the wheel. Using the term "people of colour" side-steps all those issues quite neatly, leaving it a question of self-identification, without getting into other weird semantic and potentially racist territory. And if someone tells you, "that's now what I call myself" then just say okay and ask what they call themselves. (I can't promise it'll get any less awkward, though, and I wouldn't lie to you.)