Minh-Ha at Racialicious has an amazing post up on a modern example of Orientalism which everybody should read. She nails it here:
Lagerfeld seems to anticipate this critique when he argues that his short film represents “the idea of China, not the reality. It has the spirit of, and is inspired by, but is unrelated to China.” Without meaning to, Lagerfeld describes precisely one of the core truths of Orientalism (a system of Western knowledge that, as Edward Said explains, “had since antiquity [imagined the Orient as] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”). Lagerfeld’s China, like the Orient Said discusses, is a European/American invention.It's a brilliant send-up of everything that's wrong with Orientalism, and yes, steampunks are utterly susceptible to this.
The last time I bothered engaging on a discussion of multi-culturalism within steampunk, it ended up being a long discussion on exactly what multiculturalism is, and how nothing is sacred. In fact, there was a lot of "people should feel free to share their culture," which contains the damning implication of "if you're possessive over your culture, then you're selfish, which makes you a bad person."
To which I say, so fucking what? Why the hell should I let the majority take what is already not mine, because of colonization in the past and present, and regurgitate it in their own vision, their own ideals? We have done that for years - taking Western ideals and imagining them to be the best, to be better than us. When Westerners do the same to us, it is without the same respect, but all the idealization and projection of what they think should be our identity.
When I hear, "I would love to see [marginal race] steampunk!" I immediately think, "what for?" For who is this show of multiculturalism? What sacrifices are you willing to make to ensure that the very culture you think should be a part of steampunk has its place? I have never seen anything like that. Instead, it's a bunch of white steampunks coming up with ideas inspired by marginal cultures. Cultural appropriation at its best, which, as said by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "leaves its living sources on the margin, and pats itself on the back for being so cosmopolitan."
Lagerfield's argument is so very seductive - "we're not hurting anybody", it seems to say. "We're simply re-imagining them in what we would like them to be." It is like taking a human partner and making them do things that they feel doesn't suit them - "I love you and would never hurt you. I just think you should do this and that and this because it would make you even better," even as it erases who they really are. It's seductive because it does not overtly destroy, overtly hate. Instead, it shows a form of love, affection, for this thing which isn't really there, and must be built - must be tamed and civilized before we can trot it out into fine society.
So it is when steampunks try to re-imagine the Orient and re-make it in the image that they want it to be: basically, you just have to create a new map that erases the current map, create new peoples that erase the current peoples, and re-discover these strange savage lands all over again.
Here's the thing, steampunks: when you try to re-create the spirit, and only take the good, of exploration while ignoring the bad of it, and acknowledging that the bad of the colonial past has had truly harmful effects on people today, you betray the anti-racist movement, the same way white people who have taken the helm as white gatekeepers for racialized bodies have, you re-create colonialism, which once again seeks to assert a specific culture, all in the name of fun. You may not do this consciously, but without acknowledging the true past, your "mockery" of the past (and indeed many steampunks claim to want to mock the past by aping historical attitudes) merely becomes a re-creation.