Thursday, February 16, 2012

Racist Things Steampunks Are Not Immune To: Aversive Racism

I talk a lot about racism in my work, not least because, uh, part of why I get pretty fucking angry about colonialism and whatnot is because the histories of colonialism that many POC live with today are the foundation for systemic racism that exists today.

It's gotten to the point where I am kind of aggressively avoiding novels that feature straight white dudes unless it's a YA (out of the four novels I have attempted to read in the last while, the only one I could stand was a YA novel) because I am just kind of pissed off at the reminder that straight white dudes have been allowed to call the shots when they have been so utterly wrong, and have created such utterly wrong worlds, both in fiction and in reality, and continue to be accepted when they exhibit utterly wrong behaviour. It gets to the point where I want to cloister all my white friends who are wonderful people away from all this wrongness in case it's catching, like a flu.

But I can't, so instead I go about identifying Things That Are Wrong and tell any listening public (like all four of you reading this blog!) about them, so I have the satisfaction of having at least attempted to mitigate the wrongness of the world. And you will have some names for Things That Are Generally Wrong With The World that also creep into steampunk, so you can start learning how to call it as you see it and thus help in the long arduous battle against racism in steampunk! Our first term is: Aversive Racism!

Aversive Racism is when people, in particular white liberals, say that they are not racist, and may genuinely consciously believe in egalitarianism, but unthinkingly display a bias. This bias is unconscious, although very easy to see if you're a POC on the receiving end of it.

Think, for example, of this 2003 study on names affecting work prospects (if you have access to the NBER database, here's the PDF). In it, resumes were sent out, fake ones which pretty much show the same qualifications for a job. However, names that "sound white" received 50% callbacks. More recently, check this article on Asian-American students who don't check "Asian" on university applications, to increase their chances of getting into Ivy League schools.

So at PDX GearCon, I had a detractor during my Steam Around the World presentation. He began with a compliment, and then went on to criticize the third part of the presentation, because that's when we talk about racism and Orientalism and other uncool stuff. He said, and I paraphrase, "you were having so much fun, and then you got all politically correct, and you stopped having fun, and we stopped having fun too." I pointed out the dogwhistle that is the term "politically correct."  He went on the defensive, saying, "well see, you just judged me, because of a term I used," and went on to claim that he was Not A Racist, that he worked in some organization or another that pretty much proved he was a Good Person. However, his reactions were very much the reaction of a white person attacking a POC for pointing out the existence of racism and the histories of colonialism that run in the undercurrents of steampunk play. I believe that he believes he's not a racist; at the end of the day, though, the way he reacted spoke more about his biases than his words.

Or take for example any time you hear steampunks proclaiming, "we're not racist! Steampunk is the most welcoming subculture! We accept everybody!" but at the same time, when asked to explain what steampunk is, they say, "Victorian science fiction" or something similar. Despite a declaration of Not-A-Racist, the self-same folk will fall back on what is a very exclusive definition of steampunk that not only demonstrates a deep bias, but also harks back to a racist, colonial era. This puts off people who don't identify with Victorian-inspired steampunk. (There is a local group here run by a very nice lady who holds regular meetups. I've spoken to her before, face to face even, and she thought my work was very cool. But everytime she sends out an invitation, there is ALWAYS the caveat of a dresscode: Victorian or Edwardian clothing. I don't do that kind of costuming, for obvious reasons. In fact, I'm pretty sure this not only alienates me on a racial basis, but a lot of other people on the basis of, we can't always afford that kind of costuming.)

Aversive racism occurs because people with racial privilege believe they are in no way racist. Because they hold so tightly to this belief of Not-A-Racist, they cannot recognize the ways in which they are. It is especially difficult to deal with aversive racism, sometimes even moreso than dealing with outright bigots. With outright bigots, I'm good: I know to avoid them, I know to not engage. Aversive racists, though, will insist they are Good People when their actions directly affect PoC negatively in a racist manner. And then I have to point out every little thing they said which was racist, which means I also get to listen to them defending themselves or assume that it was just a little thing, an isolated thing, how dare I judge the whole of their being.

You may not realize it, but you may not actually be treating other people equally, and you wouldn't know it, because you believe so strongly that you are Not A Racist, and you foreclose the possibility that there could be other things you could do, to better help eradicate racism. And if you've met or know one of these Not-A-Racists, you know how exhausting it is to call them out, because it feels like you need to keep a catalog of all the times they were definitely being racistly problematic, otherwise they just wouldn't believe you.


  1. I'm a black woman in a relationship with a Not-A-Racist. We've recently started using your blog as relationship therapy. It's amazing how all the same things I've been saying for the last two years (which have been meet with vehement denial) all of a sudden "make sense" when you say them in your blog. Whatevs, I'm just glad you're speaking up for all of us.

  2. It absolutely is exhausting trying to get people to understand that the unconscious bias they display is 1. there in the first place, and 2. a problem. Just had a conversation last night with a guy who claimed that racism "isn't as bad as all these people seem to think it is," and then found out he was born and raised (and still lives in) rural Wyoming. [Head/Desk]. At least when I pointed out that his background indicated a certain lack of experience with overt racism, he conceded the point...