Thursday, October 11, 2012

Racist Things Steampunks Are Not Immune To: Silent Tolerance of Racism

Lately we've been seeing a huge boom in steampunk. I think we can agree with this; we can find books on steampunk, we have more steampunk conventions this year than three years ago (possibly over 200% more), and we see steampunk costumes at regular cons too. I've met a lot of people who enjoy steampunk's newfound popularity. Yay, we're going mainstream. Woo. 

Now, I'm not sure if anyone is keeping receipts, but we have a community problem, in which certain personalities in steampunk have become somehow representative of the best in steampunk, mostly because they're smart enough to invest in the ignorance of newcomers to the scene, making them fans while covering up their tracks as they alienate other members of the subculture.

People who have issue with Evelyn Kriete, you know what I mean. 

But it's not fair to keep ragging only on Evelyn, who, as poisonous as she has been to the community, really has built her steampunk career on facilitating a variety of events in steampunk. And when she's criticised, she doesn't spend a whole lot of time creating roundabout arguments defending herself that just gets worse and worse and worse. (I've seen her do this; it gets more and more confusing and less logical, but that's pretty par for the course of defensive people.)

Robert Brown of Abney Park, though, does. 

Now, this is a blog dedicated to anti-racism, so while I understand the public outcry about Evelyn deleting entire lists on GoodReads as a Terrible Thing To Do, I'm hella unsympathetic that this is going to "make steampunk look bad" when Robert Brown has proved himself a patent racist, not once, but twice, and there was nary a murmur. I've given up on responding to every single racist thing out there, and taken to cultivating alternative spaces instead, because that's a much more fruitful use of my time

A while back, "Captian" Robert deleted a fan image off his Facebook wall. Why delete this fan image, a tribute from El Investigador, Mexico's first steampunk magazine? Because it had writing on it. In Spanish. In Robert Brown's memorable words, "If I can't read it, it's spam."

Now I don't know about you but there are a lot of things I can read, and is spam. There are a lot of things I can read, and it's patent rubbish. There're a lot of things I can read, and it is misleading racist vitriol. There are a lot of things I can read, and it's sexist tirades. 

And then there are things I cannot read. 

Like poetry in the mother tongue I have lost to colonialism.

Like the bilingual/multi-dialect work of Gloria Anzaldua articulating a borderlands identity. 

Like revolutionary literature across Latin America and Europe.

Like Jacques Derrida untranslated. 

There's a superb ethnocentrism in insisting in that your environment can only be Anglo, that it must always cater to you, and that you will not only refuse to endorse something to the contrary, something you deem foreign, but also to put it down, insult it as "spam." 

Backed with the institutional power, privilege and shied from backlash that is a benefit of the white supremacist system of North America, to dismiss something from a fan that does not suit your ethnocentrist world-view is a kind of everyday racism. 

It's so common I only had an eyeroll when it happened. 

Then there was the arguments. And the fans coming to his defense. And then the fans going all YAY ROBERT THAT'S RIGHT SPEAK ENGLISH IF YOU WANT TO LIVE IN THIS COUNTRY. 

After it became clear what a racist fiasco it was turning out to be, good ol' Captian Robert started deleting things off Facebook. And he's never been called to account for it since then. Abney Park still got to play to large crowds at Steamstock. Robert Brown is still selling albums.

Quite unlike Evelyn Kriete's funnelling fans into steampunk, whereby her methods rely on the genuine curiousity of new steampunk fans, Robert Brown's drawing in of new steampunk fans relies on the consumerist impulse to find new things to like, new music to enjoy in self-centered vicarity.


This does not mean that Abney Park fans stay in that place of consumerist fetishism; it explains why Robert Brown is never called to account for his actions: on the principle that you can separate the work from the artist, that the support for the art in no way reflects on support for the artist's actions, especially if fans of the art are ignorant of the artist's essential flaws. 

Now, I believe that it is possible to take a work of art on its own. To appreciate how it has been put together as it is. To void it of its context entirely, and come to a value judgement based on this. This is how a lot of us are taught to approach art, and I think it's necessary to be able to do this. 

Nonetheless, this approach is how we allow racists in our midst, accepting their presences as somehow valuable because of the work they produce. 


Recently, a young fan of Abney Park wrote to Robert Brown. Why? Because in an Abney Park song (as in many steampunk songs, sadly), the word "gypsy", a common slur, so common so few people recognize it as a slur, comes up. 

I'm going to cross-post excerpts of a writeup tainopunk put on Tumblr, because it's important to hear in her words. I encourage you to go over and read the whole thing:

As many Abney Park fans are aware, the word “Gypsy” comes up in the song “End of Days.”
                               Nomadic tribes are the last of man
                               Pulling caravans across the land
                               Gypsy wives hold their children tight
                               As the new super-power howls through the night!
Until recently, however, it was not brought to Abney Park’s attention that the word “Gypsy,” when used by a non-Roma or non-Romani individual, is an offensive slur at worst and an unkind, obnoxious stereotype at best. I have a Rroma friend who is very uncomfortable attending steampunk concerts or conventions, due to the large amount of stereotyping that goes on towards Romani culture in the steampunk commmunity. Hearing this song was icing on the cake for her - after the first time she heard it, she started crying and tearfully swore she would not have anything more to do with steampunk. I felt awful. 
So, I sent a very polite e-mail to Robert Brown, their lead singer/songwriter. 
I expected benevolent indifference or dismissive “Sorry you were offended” responses, honestly. But what I got was much, much worse.  
Robert Brown replied very angrily and aggressively, doing what many white people do when asked to stop doing something culturally insensitive: he personalized it. He made it all about himself, telling me how I couldn’t judge him or his life, derailing me by talking about my sources and his experiences, and calling the Roma friend who I have (on whose behalf the email was sent) a “distant relation” who was “looking for attention.”  
(Interestingly enough, watch out for RB judging people later - he seems to do it a lot, although of course no one is allowed to do it to him.) 
I’m ashamed of what I did next. 
I backpedaled and apologized. I really admire(d) this guy, and did not want him to be angry with me. I’m so disappointed with myself for it now, but that’s what I did. He didn’t accept the apology, just said “I just think it means ‘nomad’ so it’s fine for me to use it right.” 
I was willing to let it slide. I miserably told my Roma friend (who is the sweetest, kindest person who told me I had done my best, when I hadn’t) I had failed, and I wasn’t going to go the extra mile to find out if Robert Brown, my former idol, sucked just as much as a ton of other white people. 
Unfortunately, he proved it to me himself. 
A week later, [after I’d let the matter drop, after apologizing, and after hearing no further about it from him] he made this little gem of a story in one of his posts:
One of my friends moved in for a call out, after which he called her a troll and a “suburban white kid with an adopted cause,” deleted and blocked her, and eventually deleted the entire post itself – something the good Captain seems fond of doing, as he’s deleted other posts that caused controversy.
Problems with this post:
  • Words don’t come in and out of fashion like the Captain seems to think they do - Gypsy has been used as a slur for a really really long time. No one suddenly decided it’s a bad word to use.
  • Up til now, I had done nothing to indicate to him that he was a racist. I still don’t even think he’s a racist, I just think he’s a privileged jerk.
  • He acts like that because he’s been to Istanbul and collected a few CDs, he knows everything about “Gypsy culture” (lolwhut!?) and he has a right to use this word.
  • He’s lying (to his fans definitely, and maybe to himself) about the content/tone of my initial e-mail
  • Golgol Bordello is on record as being disliked by a lot of Romani/Roma folk because they use the “Gypsy” look and culture (Romani) to make money. Their lead singer is 1/4 Romani. 
 But Santa Maria! I’d love to be the angry, demanding hag of a letter-writer Robert Brown makes me out to be. But since I don’t think I am, I’ll present the facts to the public – that’s right, folks. Fans ands haters alike, here are the emails Robert Brown and I exchanged, for your viewing enjoyment.

This is the first email tainopunk sent, so you can judge for yourself whether Robert Brown's response was warranted:

Robert Brown's response:

So… you’re allowed to use the word “gypsy” however you mean it, but when it means something offensive to someone else, they’re “too caught up in semantics”? And what about that bit “in the US”? That’s part of the problem - people acting like Roma/Romani people are “gypsies” who chill in caravans in Eastern Europe all the time and dance and steal and wear long skirts or whatever. They’re not. They’re real people, with jobs and houses and cars and kids and computers.
And as tainopunk mulled over how to respond, Robert Brown further escalated:


I want to know why Evelyn Kriete's obnoxious behaviour gets enough hate that con chairs will write open letters to the steampunk fandom calling to excise her from the community, while the steampunk community at large is silent when Robert Brown of Abney Park is openly racist and remains a dominant gateway for new steampunk fans

Is it because Evelyn Kriete is just an organizer and promoter, while Robert Brown is ~an artist~? 
IMPLICATION: That the people working behind the scenes are not as important as the people working on the stage to provide entertainment.

Is it because Evelyn Kriete is a woman while Robert Brown is a cis dudely dude? 
IMPLICATION: Steampunk values its male idols more than its women workers (as demonstrated; Evelyn does work for the steampunk community).

Is it because Evelyn Kriete is a single woman on disability benefits while Robert Brown is a hardworking man of the earth supporting his family through his art?
IMPLICATION: Steampunks do not value people who do not or cannot conform to the nuclear family ideal. Steampunks value art over addressing the pain that racists cause.

Is it because Evelyn Kriete's obnoxious behaviour leaves a longer impression on other organizers, while Robert Brown's racism is just an Internet thing?
IMPLICATION: Steampunks are willing to allow online expressions of racism fly under the radar, as long as it doesn't make them feel like crap offline (but People of Colour affected by racism, well that has no bearing on business whatsoever!).

Is it because either way, calling him out, talking about how racist he is, makes steampunk look worse than it already does? Believe me, I understand; I'm pretty fucking sick of having to defend steampunk from people lampooning it as a subgenre of imperialists and white supremacists. But this is unfair because then many minorities and I also have to deal with the fact that within the community there are imperialists and white supremacists!
IMPLICATION: Steampunks are too busy trying to keep looking good than actually being good.

So this is a call-out. Not of Robert Brown because that's a waste of time; he's demonstrated more than once an inability to engage with any sense of empathy and understanding why he's a goddamn problem. No. Robert Brown's racism is a symptom, not a cause. 

This is a call-out of the steampunk community that will allow this kind of racism to stand.

This is a call-out of the steampunk community that refuses to discuss openly the myriad ways racism manifests in the subculture.

This is a call-out of the steampunk community that remains silent in the face of open racism. 

This is a call-out of the subculture I love and of the community I participate in even though it is ever so alienating every passing year. 

And seriously, like, don't talk to me right now unless you've read this whole list of links because I've just had a deeply unpleasant long conversation with someone I respect about certain assumptions of creative/artistic freedom completely separate from acts of racism and I really do not need to hear about how you're Not A Racist so if you find yourself spouting this, STOP. 


  1. This is tainopunk. You put it better than I could have - we need not an individual calling out of persons such as Robert Brown, who are so cocooned is this shell of white approval that they will never listen to the minority voice, but a large movement that revamps the racism and privilege perpetuated in steampunk subculture.
    Robert Brown is a symptom, but he's a damn big one. Steampunk community, it's time for us to collect "the Captain," and people like him.

  2. Thank you both for the call-out. Disappointing to find out that a performer I enjoyed seeing live is such a colossal prick, but it's incentive to find (and support) other bands and performers.

  3. The idea that we should "separate the artist from the art" is highly problematic and imho yet another manifestation of white male supremacism (since women artists have never been allowed to be total assholes to the extent male artists in Western culture traditionally have been) that should be discarded with, well, every single other manifestation of white male supremacism. I could write a whole blog post about this obnoxious, dangerous, and creativity-poisoning notion. Maybe I will.

  4. I have been discussing your blog post with a few steampunk friends of mine and I wanted to add my comments and thoughts.

    As someone with many international friends, I do strongly believe it is important to be sensitive of the way different ethnic groups prefer to be addressed. Thankfully as a culture we have largely stamped out the use of "Indian" for "Native American" and most people realize that "Oriental" applies to carpets, not people. Ethnic groups often choose a moniker that is specific to their culture group or area, preferring terms such as Dakota, Hmong, or Inuit to generic terms such as Asian or Native American.

    However, this in effect creates tens of thousands of cultural permutations. For a writer or storymaker reaching a broad audience, he or she has to take in mind whether or not the audience will know terms such as Roma, Bhote, or Amhara and whether or not using these terms will cause confusion. In general, we tend to use broad, familiar terms such as Asian or African simply because these are the ones that permit the greatest amount of clarity, particularly if what we are writing or saying does not allow us the space to explain a more specific term.

    Another issue is that quite often, the specific cultural group does not always collectively agree on what term they prefer. Among the Hispanic community, some take offense at the term "Chicano" while others do not mind it. Until the culture as a whole agrees precisely what they wished to be called, it is hard for an outsider to know exactly how to address the group.

    Thirdly, you point out that Roma people find it insulting when non-Roma people use the term "Gypsy". I imply by this that it is permissible for a Roma person to call another Roma a gypsy without offense (and please forgive me if I am wrong). Unfortunately, this is comparable to a woman affectionately addressing another woman as "Hi, bitch" or an African-American calling another a nigger in humor. If a culture determines that a certain term is offensive to them, it would be best if they cease using it entirely because by using it within their culture group, they are inadvertently sending the message that the term is okay to use. Please, let's all agree on this: if a word is offensive to someone, we should all stop using it in all cases; it's confusing and wrong to have a word that some people can use without offense but others are forbidden from using. Continuing to use offensive words in any context merely strengthens their place in language rather than stamping them out.

    In this regard, I must correct your statement that words do not come in and out of fashion. A good look at the Oxford English Dictionary is solid proof that language and word meaning are incredibly flexible. In Shakespeare's day a "harlot" was simply a young girl or boy and up until fifty years or so ago, "queer" and "gay" did not indicate sexual orientation. When a language becomes fixed and unchanging, it dies a quick death.

    This particular incident could have been a great teaching moment for all involved. Unfortunately it looks as if all parties reacted with offense, accusations, and hurt feelings on all sides. If people are looking for an offense, they will find one readily, and it appears the people involved all found much to be offended by. I am saddened for your friend who has been driven away from steampunk, but she overreacted to the song. Captain Roberts could have also handled the situation with more tact and grace. This entire situation could have been resolved with understanding and tolerance on all side, but sadly it became a vitriolic battle.

    No one can make you angry, insulted, or offended - you choose to become angry, insulted, or offended. Sadly, the people involved in this incident all chose to be offended by it and much hurt and damage has been caused.

    1. You are arrogantly wrong and insensitive and ignorant in many points of your argument and I believe I have a "Read These Before Engaging" tab above which you really should have read before writing this comment.

      But good to know that if I stab you one day with a knife, you absolutely have the ability to choose not to be hurt.

    2. Were you crying as you wrote this? Because you used the word "sadly" a lot. I'm sorry to hear you chose to be saddened by the situation.

      ~"Thankfully as a culture we have largely stamped out the use of "Indian" for "Native American""
      Try again? My current Contemporary History textbook book, published only two years ago and still thought acceptable for use in a college prep school, refers to Native Americans of any tribe as "Indians."

      ~"I imply by this that it is permissible for a Roma person to call another Roma a gypsy without offense (and please forgive me if I am wrong). Unfortunately, this is comparable to a woman affectionately addressing another woman as "Hi, bitch" or an African-American calling another a nigger in humor."
      Words like "Gypsy" and "nigger" belong to the minorities they are used against to reclaim. It's not my job or your job, both as non-Roma/non-Romanis, to tell them to forget about the word and move on. You don't get to dictate what is "best" for them to do with the word, because that is exercising your privilege over them and your (possibly subconscious) belief that you know what's best for "those people."

      ~"he or she has to take in mind whether or not the audience will know terms such as Roma, Bhote, or Amhara and whether or not using these terms will cause confusion"
      Just because you see a word you don't know and react with "DAFUQ?" doesn't mean someone else will. Perhaps someone will see the word Rroma, think "What's that?", do some research, and have their eyes opened. Look! Education just happened for another person, while you were busy scratching your head. Another issue is - Robert Brown wasn't trying to reference Rroma people. He was operating on a hurtful stereotype, so this argument's rather irrelevant anyway.

      ~"Until the culture as a whole agrees precisely what they wished to be called, it is hard for an outsider to know exactly how to address the group"
      So ASK, instead of throwing up your hands in defeat - by this you imply, 'I'm too lazy to make an effort to be decent, so I'll just use whatever word I like.'

      ~"if a word is offensive to someone, we should all stop using it in all cases"
      The word "fuck" is offensive in certain situations to certain people. Right, so let's stamp out cussing.

      ~"Unfortunately it looks as if all parties reacted with offense, accusations, and hurt feelings on all sides"
      Right, I CHOSE to be offended that Robert Brown made a private, polite (at least on my part) into a public matter in which he demonized me and lied to his fans about what I said. Sorry I CHOSE to be offended that he judged my friend, a girl he'd never met, as "overly dramatic," "looking for attention," and "distantly related."

      ~"I am saddened for your friend who has been driven away from steampunk, but she overreacted to the song."
      Sure, she overreacted to a word that's made it impossible for her mom to find a job in the US, a word that's been spat at her and used to deride her when she chooses to wear headscarves and long skirts. Sure, she just overreacted to oppression. I'll be sure to tell her a white woman on the internet has it right - that she can just CHOOSE not to be hurt by oppression!

      TL;DR - Take a seat. You are speaking from a pedestal of privilege, promoting "peace" and "tolerance" in favor of a bigot who doesn't even have the decency to react politely and maturely to the kindest of emails. This is a space where that garbage isn't tolerated.

    3. Hello fellow PAFP (Privileged As Fuck Person)! I knew it was only a matter of time before someone responded this way either to Tainopunk's or this article. Since Tainopunk asked me to read your reply and comment if I wished, I will do so.

      I know this line of thinking you're going through. Someone you admire or something you like has been so thoroughly thrashed by a group of people crying foul. You check it out (since it concerns things you love) and see they're making a mountain out of a molehill. However, being the good, balanced, progressive, colorblind, post-racial person you are, you decide to try and mediate the situation using facts. Good, hard facts you learned in some history class at some point. It's perfect! You're showing how understanding and sympathetic you are while still defending the non-offensiveness of what you love!

      Congrats, you've only proven everything. Yes, it's because you're white. No, it's not "reverse racism".

      It's hard to see from where we stand in life, but if you take the time to examine the unfiltered world, you'll realize it doesn't matter how many international friends you have, how long you went to school or lived in an area, or how much you believe in "liberty and justice for all".


      Recognizing this doesn't mean you turn into an evil, mustache-twirling villain from a cartoon bent on spreading oppression. It means you can start reprogramming to break out of your systemic programming. You are part of this system of oppression, and recognizing how intrinsically oppressive you are--even when you don't mean to be--is part of breaking the cycle for everyone.

      Does it suck? It can, if you think of it as losing power. However, you're really not losing anything; everyone else is just gaining the same amount as you.

    4. i like how you think you can come into a space created by POC in steampunk for POC in steampunk and dictate to them how they're supposed to feel about oppression.

  5. Khul.

    I was a hardcore steampunker, a solid fan of Abney Park.

    The one thing I have to ask is, if Mr. Brown holds us in such low esteem, why would he want to use our sound and describe his music as "gypsy" (shudder)?

    Oh, I remember: the majority pretty much detest us but love our music. I am certain that, if they could, they would exterminate us (which I believe is starting in Europe) while keeping our music.

    "Ah, too bad this awesome music had to come with these sucky people. Well, we will still have their music after we have exterminated them... that's all that matters."