Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Racist Things Steampunks Are Not Immune To: Microaggressions

Oh, good, you're still here. Now that I sic'd Aversive Racism on you, have another racist thing that steampunks do. Like aversive racism, this is not unique to steampunk, so much as it is baggage that steampunks will carry in from the larger culture.

So, have your second Racism 101 item: Microaggressions.

Microaggressions are the manifestations of aversive racism: little daily actions which demonstrate the bias and hurt other people. The difficult thing about microaggressions is that, it's a small thing, usually, but it has the hurtful result of invalidating and hurting a person in some form or another. This APA article has divided microaggressions into three sub-categories, microassaults, microinsults, microinvalidations, but frankly, I disagree that microassaults are a microaggression. That's just outright aggression. Dude calling me a racist at SteamCon? Outright aggression.

The thing about microaggressions is that it creates anxiety for PoC: is this a big deal? It's a little thing, but it makes me feel really bad... do I bother talking about it? Who can I talk about it who don't dismiss me for it? The key thing about microaggressions is that they tend to be invisible acts of racism, so everyday, most people just shrug it off. We're told not to make a mountain out of a molehill. We're told we're overreacting.

Microaggressions don't always come with the overt declarations of Not-A-Racist, which is the other thing about them. (By now, anybody paying attention knows that any statement that begins with "I'm not a racist but-" is going to be hella racist anyway.) Take for example, Dorothy Winterman's experience at Steampunk World's Fair 2011, where one day, she was dressed in full African Amazon gear, and ignored by a TV crew trolling the con for people to interview; the next day, when she was wearing an outfit that visually coded as "typical" neo-Victorian, safely white, they approached her. (During that same day, she told me, "Jaymee, I am making people soooo uncomfortable," with that knowing look on her face.)

We could say, "well, maybe they found other people to interview that day" but at the same time, wouldn't an African Amazon be a frikkin' amazing example of steampunk culture to interview? But she wasn't, in favour of more conventionally-dressed convention attendees.

Or take Monique Poirier's experience, where she, a Native American, doing Native American steampunk, is told, "If you’re trying to look like a Native American, you should incorporate more feathers." This is a white person telling her that she doesn't know her own culture enough, and invalidates her as a Native American, period, by buying into a mythos and image of what a Native American really looks like.

Or how about earlier last year at SPWF, where someone called out as she passed by in full NDN gear, "steampunk Trail of Tears?" (And people were also joking about how the vendors having to move out from their rooms into other areas constituted a "trail of tears.) It is this kind of minimizing of actual, painful history that contributes to ongoing racism today. This is fucking unconscionable, and yet, it happened. And yet, someone could wave it off and say, "they didn't mean to be racist."

I don't even think that even counts as a microaggression (I'm certain Monique would call it outright racism), but it's so quick, so fast, so veiled, and because a lot of people play-pretend that steampunk spaces are by nature performative spaces, it's easy to slip off responsibility by saying, "well, I was just playing a role, so deal with it."

My "favourite" microaggression is this: I had to listen to someone talk to a journalist asking about steampunk, and he gives the typical "Victorian science fiction." Here's the thing--just a few minutes prior, I had given this guy some fifteen minutes of my time explaining my work and how I think steampunk needs to expand its definition to explore other non-Victorian, non-Anglo milieus and include actual non-Anglo people. What does he do? Default back to his exclusionary explanation of steampunk.

It's an automatic response; it doesn't mean to be purposefully racist. He's said it so many times, and of course he's not just going to drop such a useful phrase. The journo gets a useful soundbite, and I get to wonder whether my work is actually making any difference.

Microaggressions are like that: little incidents that build and build and build and serve as one giant aggressive reminder of how much the white-dominant culture hates, or at least doesn't care about, people of colour.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. I had an online conversation a couple of weeks back in which someone was obviously clueless about the corrosive effect of microaggressions and how they work, and I didn't have the term immediately at hand in order to explain how these "little things" add up over the course of a day, a week, a lifetime... and how privilege allows one to ignore them, or chalk them up as "somebody else's problem".