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.