Monday, March 19, 2012

Racist Things Steampunks Are Not Immune To: Dysconscious Racism

Dysconcious racism is a term coined by Joyce E King (in the Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1991, JSTOR, but you can get it through Google, too) as “the uncritical habit of mind (i.e., perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given.” It's pretty much the reason why Moff's Law exists as a comment policy on pretty much any blog that seeks to analyse pop culture.

You know when people say stupid shit like, "there will ALWAYS be racism," or "people have ALWAYS been prejudiced towards one another" and "human beings are just like that"? And, like, what the fuck kind of argument are you going to have with that kind of statement, anyway? It's not like there's any kind of untruth to them; it's just that it's a really fucking lazy thing to say, and absolves people of any responsibility to actually think and address the problem of, you know, RACISM!

Dysconscious racism in steampunk is part of a larger attitude of escapism, usually exhibited by people who just think steampunk (and other kinds of fiction) is a fantasy, and whenever you try to engage with them about the political implications of their very problematic ish (whether it's literature or world-building or whatever), they get their "Why Do You Have To Be So Political About This?" tantrums on and Suddenly The World Is Ruined and it is Totally Your Fault because you brought it up, so there.

On another note, dysconscious racism can include the refusal to consider the ins and outs of racism, and a lot of grouching about "being made to feel guilty." Sometimes, some effort is made to engage, but there's a lot of tip-toeing around the actual problem, a lot of stumbling around, and rather than have an actual conversation, we all sit around making vague statements about why racism still exists. Which, fyi, doesn't actually help any.

Anti-racism is a conscious thing. It has to be cultivated as conscious habit. We grow up with so many unexamined assumptions, and with poor education systems that cannot possibly cover the length and breadth of the world. Sometimes, our own education systems don't even cover the ins and outs of our own countries' histories (and seeing as how schools are as form of state apparatus to mold citizens that comply with state expectations, it's no wonder!) so it's easy to grow up not realizing all these histories.

Dysconscious racism, then, is sort of a default state of mind for a lot of people who refuse to develop the critical thinking skills needed to actively combat racism. There're only so many ways to combat dysconscious racism, and unless the person exhibiting it is willing to give thinking a try, there's really not much you can do, except reiterate, over and over, "racism can be fixed. Racism is not a natural state of being. Racism is not here to stay. Racism is taught, not intrinsic to humanity," and hope they gradually internalize that.


  1. It's dangerous ground though, logically, this sweeping term. Theoretically it could be applied to anything, as it lacks an objective metric. The danger when *anything* can be declared x, or not x, is that x losing power. So I can say that his coffee cup is dysconsciously racist because it's an aspect of material culture that relies on racism for its manufacture. That kind of thinking weakens, I think, the point one is trying to make.

    When I write steampunk fiction, I write with the world view of the characters: some just swim in colonial waters – "of COURSE English speaking white people are better, just look at the conditions in which people x live by comparison, good heavens wot wot!" and it's a cartoon. Others are made villains by their patent or surface racism / imperialism. It's a great literary device. "Character x is an asshole because he treats the servants thusly". I have a character in my book who's an Arab, and he plays the servant – but it's obvious to the reader that it's all an act, there' s a lot more going on with this guy, he doesn't miss anything, but he'll carry stuff for the Europeans and play dumb because that way gets to know what's going on discretely, and this gives him power.

    But all this, to the reader, is apparent. Even though all the characters are at some level playing to 19th century racist norms, it can illustrate the political and social realities of the period in order to move the story forward and serve the plot. Does this compound dysconscious racism? Arguably. That's why I think it's not entirely an intellectually responsible term in the context of steampunk.

    Food for thought, though, and that's always good.

    Great blog!

    1. If you don't have the intellectual courage to be honest about your work (or your life) in how you could be inadvertantly encouraging or manifesting dysconscious racism, that's on you, and not on this term created by POC to describe a real phenomenon. It is intellectually and ethically irresponsible to take issue with a term because you're afraid it could apply to you.

      Dysconscious racism happens. All the time. I've no time to judge, because as far as I can tell, everyone is guilty unless proven otherwise. And fuck your objective metric and your logic. Many genocides have been justified with logic. I should hope my audience smart enough to understand that A, B, C can co-exist with X, Y and Z in the same body.