Friday, November 25, 2011

Things This Blog Doesn't Cover (But Wishes It Could)

So I was saying to Adrienne Kress the other day while hanging around the autograph table at SFContario, that there have been three separate incidents throughout this year, at three separate cons (that'd be Nova Albion, CNSE, and SteamCon), that have something in common: at each con, someone has asked me, if I knew anything about Jewish steampunk. 

My first reaction is always an awkward, "well, um." The first time, I spouted Ted Chiang's story in the first Vandermeer Steampunk anthology. The second time, I listened to a woman tell me about the difficulty of researching Yiddishness, particularly from Eastern Europe where her family is from. The third time, was during a SATW presentation and all I could say was, "there is some."

I write a lot about literature and analysing it, as well as analysing practices in the steampunk subculture, mostly focusing on the rhetoric people spout in defense of racist practices like cultural appropriation. I write about tropes and common ideas that are harmful. 

I think a lot about decolonizing the mind, which tends to be a deeply personal thing for me. It's tied to my history as a Malaysian, in which I have to question what it means to be a product of colonialism. I have to ask myself what is racist about my upbringing and what I was surrounded with and how to combat that in a productive manner that promotes dialog between the races living in my country. I have to criticize the people I was brought up to respect and obey. I think about the colonization of my people and how it has continued, even after we were "independent." Because, make no mistake, our independence is relatively modern, and although the economic neocolonialism of our wealth and resources come from other sources beyond the traditional British, the reasons why my people often uncritically and unwittingly embrace these memes that deprecate and demean us, that tell us that we are lesser (because we are not rich enough, according to white standards, because we are not pretty enough, according to white standards, because we are not cultured or civilized enough, according to white standards) are rooted in hundred of years of a foreign presence that persisted in maintaining a military and a culture war against us as national, political, tribal and ethnic entities.

But there are other stories to talk about, too.

I do not, for example, talk specifically about black Americans/Canadians and American indigenous peoples very much. I read about them a great deal on Tumblr, and I always have to cringe at the anti-black racism that comes from Asians in such conversations, just as I cringe from the continued erasure from white people that black people face. I could not list the hundreds of tribes, either.

 I do not write about the Roma who still face persecution in much of Europe (and their exoticization here in North America). Thank you, Colette, for reminding me of this. Just like how I do not know much about the Jewish Diaspora (from which we get diaspora studies from, as well as trauma theory) I don't know much about the Roma diaspora either.

I do not write about other specific regions of Asia, such as Laos, much less our own indigenous peoples in Asia. Thanks, Bryan, for taking up that particular region, and also to people like Mia, who write consistently about the Philippines' history with colonization and how that colonization has affected the people today. 

In the middle of writing this post, I reblogged a post on Tumblr about the women of Jeju Island, a very generic post, which was then reblogged with a great deal of history and the current conditions that the island faces today. I am guilty of the charges in the post, of reblogging uncritically and buying into the exoticized and romanticized images of the Jeju women. I am guilty of that ignorance. Which is why the extra commentary is so important, because it is important to acknowledge that ignorance and share the knowledge that I, and so many others, have been freely given. 

In a world where privileged people demand answers and knowledge from the oppressed, defensively crying "well how was I supposed to know?" and becoming impatient when the knowledge is not delivered in a kind, maternal tone that soothes their soul and assuages their desire to be a Good Person, it is important to step back and take stock of that which we do not know. It is important to be able to acknowledge that this lack of knowledge is dangerous to people less fortunate than we. It is important to accept the fear that our ignorance will harm others is an important part of the process of teaching ourselves to seek knowledge. 

Let me admit straight up that this blog, whenever it is my own thoughts, is mostly theoretical. What else do I do here, besides ask questions? What else do I do here, besides ask you, my audience, to ask questions? How else do I square my knowledge against that which I do not know? 

Knowledge in which it is not just theory, but lived experience, is no longer just my purview alone, but a shared knowledge among other people that I am simply communicating to you. How do I then turn this knowledge (new to me, not to others) towards productive uses? What does it mean to use the knowledge productively?

This is not to downplay this blog. I appreciate every one of you who have decided to follow me, every one of you who have added me to your RSS feeds, everyone of you who have recommended this blog to other people, and every one of you who just keep reading, even through this blog's long silences. I appreciate the emails I receive (just as I regret the emails I don't find time nor words for a response).

I have spent the last two years thinking through issues of colonialism. There's a lot I have thought about, which simply doesn't make it to this blog, because, it always feels repetitive, since other people have said it much better, or because, it feels lacking, because there're better ways of saying the same thing. 

It is one of those things I need to stop myself from worrying about. Just as I have to stop worrying about reaching the widest audience and hurting white people's feelings. (It's not that I don't love ya'll. It's just that I don't exactly owe ya'll the effort.)

But there are things I do spend time worrying about, which I don't regret worrying about: does my work do justice to the stories I am unaware of? Is there a way I can tie my understanding of the world to these stories I am less aware of, that my language will always reflect an awareness of them, even if it doesn't center them? Are there people I should be listening to who center these stories as parts of their lived experiences?

It's important to ask these questions while doing work in steampunk (and anti-racist work in general). I still can't decide whether it's because it's the backward-looking aspect of steampunk that makes it possible to ask these questions, or because these questions are important when doing steampunk. It could be both. But if you can acknowledge that you look backwards in steampunk for inspiration, then it is entirely possible to look in other directions, too.

There are lots of things I wish I could talk about, but can't. And I could also talk myself blue about my subject position and whatnot, but that would still only be a sliver of the big picture, a tiny piece of the many conversations happening at the same time.

Therefore, here is an open invitation to you, to talk to me about what you wish you could talk about, the questions you're looking for answers to, the histories you are looking for or trying to preserve. 


  1. Hi Jha,

    Great post, as usual. I'm currently in a conversation with someone, and you mention that people in privileged positions want us talk to them in "soothing, maternal tones." I totally agree that's true, but I also wonder what the alternative is to that.

    While I don't believe it's a POC's responsibility to explain privilege, the questions often come to us anyway. Or, no questions come to us and we're left to voluntarily speak up when we see something oppressive.

    But the thing is, if I was to express my anger honestly (and sometimes I do), then the person I'm speaking with will get defensive, bottle up and refuse to accept what I'm saying. It's not my responsibility that s/he's an idiot who refuses to understand, but from a totally pragmatic approach, if you want that person to change his or her mind, then what alternative to do we have than to speak about things in soft baby voices? If my ultimate goal is to persuade another person to change his/her behaviour, then how can I do that without compromising my anger and sense of personal injustice while also managing to persuade that person? I know it's not my job to convert everyone, but I'm also compelled to speak up when I see something's wrong.

    Any thoughts?

  2. I wish I had an easy answer to that, to be honest, if they don't want to accept what you're saying? They don't want to accept it. They're going to get defensive anyway, no matter what you say or how you say it. You get to make a decision on whether you want to continue that particular instance of a conversation, or walk away. In online conversations, this is fairly easy.

    However, if you have to have prolonged contact with this person, you WILL have other chances to keep calling them out and make clear to them that you will not let them off the hook. You can just say, "that was a shitty thing you said" and leave it at that, and let them decide how important you are to them. And you have to decide how valuable "getting along" is to you in this particular relationship.

    What, I think, makes the most difference is your relationship to the privileged person, and how invested the two of you are in maintaining it. I do most of my education by talking into the ether here, or by delivering presentations that the audience can just take or leave. The few people I've had to confront over and over in real life eventually get cut off when they show no signs of improvement. Sometimes, a diversity of tactics help as well, and again, depends on the context of your situation and what you have available to facilitate the education.

    The other thing I would like to address is that you've posited changing someone else's behaviour as your goal. And, well.... that ain't gonna work! They're not going to change unless they WANT to (see above). They're people too, and it's kinda... not cool to force people to see things your way if they don't want to?

    I've personally found it a hella lot more productive to simply have my anger made clear and acknowledged on some level. That way, I don't have to deal with runaround justifications and I don't have to take responsibility for someone else's continued shitty behaviour because I've somehow "failed" to change their mind. And thus, it's less skin off my back. I still get pissed off and I still express that anger. That doesn't guarantee the offender will validate or agree with my anger, but I'm not responsible for their feelings about my anger: I'm responsible for expressing my anger, and making sure it is out there and heard. Speaking out is difficult enough; nobody needs the added burden of trying to persuade someone else that the anger is justified.

    Which, I guess, is tl;dr for, it's really not pragmatic to try to change someone's mind if they're not invested in the rightness of the change.

  3. Haha, I always read your full posts! So don't worry about it being tl;dr.

    I just wanted to address this,

    "The other thing I would like to address is that you've posited changing someone else's behaviour as your goal. And, well.... that ain't gonna work! They're not going to change unless they WANT to (see above). They're people too, and it's kinda... not cool to force people to see things your way if they don't want to? "

    I think there's a difference between coercing and persuading a person, and that's why debate's so important. My background is in politics where, you know, EVERYONE is calling out everyone else for being wrong on some level. So I'm used to confronting people and explaining what they did is wrong (and vice-versa.) Sometimes people change their minds, sometimes they don't. But I always try, and I don't blame myself for their failures. I just don't see trying to persuade someone as wrong--it's really tough, though. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I see debate and discussion as a good thing that brings about new ideas, not a manipulative tool.

    I found your post really enlightening, but I don't think I have the ability to make my anger known and simply leave it at that, especially if it's a friend that says this (and if this is a friend I've known since I was a child.)I suppose I'll have to keep calling him out, and if he refuses to understand and continues to hurt me and the ones I love, I might have to cut him out of my life too...that's not something that would be easy.

  4. Ah, okay. Well, I've kind of seen situations, especially in the feminist blogosphere, where debate is used as a manipulative tool to wear down the unprivileged, by treating their lives experiences as something debatable, something to change one's mind and feelings about. In an environment that actively promotes debate and discussion as a good, call-out culture can very quickly become a performance, and a poisonous environment for unprivileged people who are already exhausted from LIVING their unprivileged lives, but now have to justify their feelings.

    There are also different dynamics in different contexts, and different choices, too. I wouldn't hesitate to be openly hostile and shut down a classmate, for example, but if it's someone I have a prolonged friendship with, I just point out their problematic statement, make sure they understand what I've said, and move on. Because I've made the decision that the hurt they're dealing me is negligible compared to the rest of our friendship. There ARE, however, friends whom I've known all my life, who are absolutely problematic. I keep up with them on superficial levels, but I don't expect them to change, nor even trust them to do so. And my friendship is not contingent on their changing.

    It IS very very difficult to learn how to rein in anger and learn when to just drop it. I learned how to do it because it's easier on my mental health to stop expecting a two-way street when it's clearly only going one way. I try to maintain a low threshold for bullshit, and high tolerance for people who obviously want help. But I do it because 1) I can! and 2) I would fast quit anti-racism if I didn't.

    You're not alone in being unable to simply leave it at that, though: my friend Jaded16 is very similar! And it's not a bad thing exactly... it's just a different way of doing the same work. You have do what feels right for you, given your circumstances, and there're no easy ways out, alas.