Countering Victorientalism

As part of an upcoming project taking place across the steampunk community, we were recently asked by the Gatehouse Gazette if we would like to write something on the topic of Victorientalism for their latest issue. So we, in turn, asked the wonderful Jha (who has written an introduction to race and steampunk for issue #7 of SPM) if she would like to put her thoughts on the matter onto paper. Unfortunately, her piece wasn’t finished in time to make issue #11 of the Gazette, but the best things come to those who wait, and Jha has kindly given us permission to cross-post this from Silver Goggles.

Written for Steampunk Magazine’s blog, released here as in conjunction with Beyond Victoriana’s own addressing of Victorientalism (far more comprehensive this this post; treat this essay as a 101-level article as you will).


There is a fairly recent term that has sprung in the annals of steampunk: Victorientalism. It is used to refer to steampunk that is inspired by the Orient, the vague, large region that was strange and new to Western explorers back in the day when there was no Internet and travelling took many months of dangerous journeying.

It’s a pretty-sounding term, often used by well-meaning white people who don’t have any clue just how racist the term is.

I want to nip this in the bud before it takes any more traction and people start using it for Asian steampunk by Asians, because Victorientalism, created by Occidentals, does not truly describe Asian-inspired steampunk, much less steampunk participation by Asians.

Breaking Down Victorientalism

To understand why Victorientalism is inaccurate as a label for Asian steampunk, first we must investigate what the roots of the terms are. It is the mixture of two words: Victorian and Orientalism.

Victorian as an adjective, describes things related to the reign of Queen Victoria. It is often used to refer to the entire time period of her reign, too.

Orientalism was the study of “The Orient”. The term “Orient” referred initially to the Middle-East, and gradually spread out to encompass all of Asia. Orientalism was the study of the Orient, by Europeans. “The Orient”, Edward Said explains to us, “is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”

However, while the British Empire did extend very far, its reign was not absolute, nor did it encompass all of Asia. 19th century Asia had its own aesthetic, however pillaged and plundered by the Europeans it was. There were other European powers in play besides the British.

Orientalism as a study was deeply flawed, being based on ideas that Europeans had about the East. Orientalism as a fashion is not only flawed, but deeply racist, as it depended on Europe’s position of power to appropriate without complaint from the actual inhabitants of “the East”. Orientalism as an idea is really about what Europe thinks about the East, which really means, it’s all about Europe, not about Asia.

Orientalism, Racism, Story Cont’d

In the Gatehouse Gazette’s description of Victorientalism, there is an assertion that “we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it.”

Anyone who has ever engaged in examining the hubris of their own privilege will be able to see, straight off, the trainwreck that this quote leads to.

To begin with, we must assert the reality of this statement: the Orient has already been re-shaped by the very real colonialist politics of history. The effects of colonization have been devastating: Western economies benefitted from the colonies, and continues to do so even after withdrawing from their shores; the imposition of European culture on the East has caused cultural evolutions and revolutions as some countries struggle to re-shape their identities, in ways that are fraught; the Asian identity has been devalued, relegated to being objects of curiousity and exoticism, instead of being respected for being what it is.

Due to the power invested in Westerners today, borne from the history of colonization, there is no way to safely recreate the Orient, without yet creating more assumptions of stereotypes, without imposition of these stereotypes on actual people. This practice has precedent in the term “The Orient” alone: once a simple term to describe “the East”, it has over time become loaded with immediate association to the exotic, the opposite, the Other.

Today, Westerners continue to consume cultural artifacts from other cultures, many of whom unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that cultures are not meant for decoration, nor do they exist for the entertainment of the current hegemony, much like Europeans from the 19th century buying porcelain and silk.

Limiting Steampunk

To many, steampunk is associated with Victorian Britain. There are some who assert that steampunk stems from Victorian Britain – and end the argument there, leaving behind the implication that steampunk is *only* based in Victorian Britain.

Exactly why would anybody want to limit steampunk, which is, after all, yet another avenue to exercise the imagination? If a person is referring to their own form of steampunk, of course, one would want to have limits for what one will do. However, it is not only obnoxious, but arrogant to assert that this must be the case for all participants.

After all, life did not end with Britain in the 19th century. Asian and African peoples lived their own lives in their own continents, minding their own business the best they would while dealing with the colonizers. Their lives are as valid as those of 19th century Europeans. They, too, deserve to be recognized; their descendants, too, deserve to the chance to assert this history of theirs which is so often ignored in history books.

Victorientalism, by its very name, centers around a very specific experience, a very specific history, a very specific idea. That idea is the imposition of a Victorian Orientalist’s vision of what Asia should look like. And we all know what a Victorian Orientalist would be in the first place.

Laying Victorientalism to Rest

The Orient was always meant to provide a foil to the Occident. These two terms, go together, like East and West.

However, few use the term Occident anymore (the few who do use the term unironically have questionable agendas). We use the term Orient because it has specific ideals attached to it that allows us to continue Other-ing the East. It may not be as loaded as the N-word, but for the Asian community, the stereotypes that the term reinforces are exoticising, and the results are the same: the exclusion of Asian people from being counted as default human beings.

In steampunk, many participants claim that they want to claim all that was good of the age, while leaving out the bad. This is rather disingenuous, since many exclusionary attitudes and behaviours today that people are not conscious of stem from that time period. However, we must give participants benefit of doubt, and I will do so through the following suggestion.

The term “Orient”, being exclusionary to actual people of colour, should be resigned. And with it, the term Orientalism, which leaves the term Victorientalism toothless. One might give a concession to the Victorientalists, and allow the term to mean “what Victorians think Asian materials look like”. But this is a dangerous game – the term Oriental was so pervasive, not only the colonizers used it, but over time, the colonized took on the term in the auto-exoticism process. The same can all too easily happen with “Victorientalist”, as privilege systems are still very much the same and favour the descendants of the colonizers.

There is nothing to redeem in these terms, when there are perfectly good terms available – why call someone an Oriental when they are Asian? Or one can be more specific and go right down to country of origin, or ethnicity. Why use a term so fraught with a history of Other-ing, or rendering real peoples invisible and not-quite-human?

To insist on using the term is to maintain the status quo that continues to marginalize some peoples to the benefit of others.

Conclusion

VictOrientalism continues the racist tradition of Orientalism that has historically marginalized those recognized as Easterners. It maintains the East-West dichotomous construct that Others cultures.

As steampunk grows, so will the variety of people who wish to participate. Steampunk would be all the poorer if it were limited to an Eurocentric focus (and poorer still if we must insist solely on Victorian England). With the benefit of hindsight, we have the opportunity to address the injustices of the past and promote a diverse environment wherein marginalized groups can express themselves.

The world is more than what a single group thinks it to be. In confrontation with injustice, honesty can be found. In honest communication between groups and individuals, differences are discovered. In the chaos filled with differences, understanding is achieved. With understanding, creativity is unfettered.

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95 Responses to “Countering Victorientalism”

  1. I must disagree with the terms “orient” and “oriental” being racist. These words are used today by some people of the Middle East to describe aspects of their culture so as to differentiate them from “western” cultures. Just as a couple of examples, there is a dancer in Lebanon named Amani. She holds a dance festival every year that she calls her “Oriental Festival.” There is an arabic musician, Aheb Masr. He has produced a CD titled “Music and Songs for Oriental Dance.” One traveler to Egypt asked for a recommendation to a good local restaurant. The Egyptian answering first asked “western or oriental?”

    As I see it, the term “Victorientalism” means the culture of the orient (non-western) in the Victorian era as it was… not the culture as seen thru the European lens. Other people may mean other things when they use the term, but the term itself is not marginalizing or derogatory. Don’t condemn the term for the sins of the users.

  2. As far as we’re concerned, Deirdre, if a fair number of People of Colour are telling es that they find the term offensive, we should probably listen rather than attempting to tell them that they’re wrong.

  3. I think the important thing to think about in the examples you provided, Deirdre, is how these people were using the term ‘Orient(al)’. From what you’ve said, it seems that they are using the term to sell something to Westerners rather than describe their culture. In that context, what they might be saying, rather than, ‘this is how I describe my culture’, is ‘this is what you think my culture is and I’m happy to exploit that misconception to get money out of you because correcting that misconception won’t pay me’.

    Of course, I’m not in a position to speak for any of those people and I wouldn’t want to assume to. I think it’s just worth noting that all these are instances where these people are trying to sell something to Westerners with preconceived notions (I’m assuming the CD and festival were aimed at Westerners because the names are English, and English isn’t the dominate language in Lebanon or Arabia).

  4. Besides the mind-numbing ignorance that I’ve seen discussions about it parade, just the term “Victorientalism” is one of the f**king stupidest things I’ve ever heard. It is possible to appreciate the cultures, histories and aesthetics of other societies and to analyze the ups and downs of European encounter with them without having to invent cutesy neologisms.

  5. The author feels the term is offensive, and that is their perrogative. I feel it is not offensive, and that is my perrogative. We are both entitled to our opinions. My attempt was to point out that there are more than a few People of Colour who use the term themselves when speaking to/reaching out to people of European descent. The ones I have spoken to directly consider it a respectful term (orient/oriental). So far, my experience is that one person finds it offensive (not without reason) whilst many others do not.

    I would love to hear from other People of Colour on this issue. If you are from a non-western culture, how do you feel about the term? We have the author’s very well written and reasoned point of view. I have stated mine. I would very much like to read others’ opinions. What is the concensus amongst the non-western Steampunk community… offensive or not?

    My opinion is not set in stone. I love to learn about other cultures and the best teachers are those who live in those cultures. However, I am still of the opinion that the author is condemning a legitimate term based on its misuse by bigots. Am I wrong? Show me more than just a single person’s opinion that I am and I will happily change my opinion about it.

    I used to use the word “Gypsy” to describe the travelling folk of Europe. I consider myself priviledged to have been able to speak to several people of that culture over the years and they explained to me what they called themselves, “Rom,” “Roma, or Romany.” I no longer speak of the “Gypsies”… I now speak of the Romany.

    The world of the Victorian era encompassed more than just England, Europe, and the U.S. For those who wish to delve into the other parts of the world, what term should be used to describe that era?

  6. Deidre: I’m quite sure I mentioned the auto-exoticism process in my article, which is the process wherein colonized regions self-exoticize themselves, in an effort to align themselves with what the West thinks of them. This is how powerful the Western hegemony is, that we will prettify and commodify ourselves, just so we can benefit from the economic attention it gets us if we do. To assume we use the term “Orient” in a context separate from how the West has defined us in the past is to deny a key aspect of Western imperialism.

    The users define the term, and the users themselves have loaded the term. Please check out the Beyond Victoriana article – there are links for further reading on how the term “Orient” has done damage.

    Dylan Fox is right – there are a fair number of peoples commodifying pieces of their culture to sell to tourists, to make a quick buck. It’s much more pronounced in the actual regions, and makes things awkward for those of us who are minorities in white-dominated societies. You can find a related discussion here, if you’re interested, on how something perfectly normal gets translated into something “omg so cool”, which SHOULD be welcoming, but instead feels alienating.

    Cory: Inorite?! How hard is it just to say “Asian steampunk” or “Asian-inspired steampunk”, or even get right down to specifics, and say “Japanese, Meiji era” or something! Instead we need to revamp this already-vague term.

  7. Dylan Fox:

    Assuming that the descriptor orient/oriental is indeed racist. If non-Western people are using it to make money from Westerners, then they are perpetuating the very racism they complain about. If you find a term offensive when applied to you or your culture, don’t use it to describe yourself or your culture, and then point fingers when other people use the same term to describe you or your culture.

    Cory Gross:

    It is a descriptive term, and yes, it is very “cutesy.” What alternative term would you suggest? How can one communicate that the genre being referred to is non-Western Steampunk or non-Western Victorian? Is the designation of Western/non-Western even necessary?

  8. As far as I’m aware, it’s not the people using the term that are, as you put it, pointing fingers. The Egyptian, the musician and the dancer–have they called the term ‘racist’? If they are okay with the term you can’t, as you pointed out, apply the opinion of a few individuals to an entire continent of peoples. If a number of people of those cultures being described tell us–the outsiders–that the term is offensive and ask us to stop using it, we should at least stop and consider what they’re saying very carefully.

    Jha’s argument holds water, is logical and makes sense. The term Orientalism comes from a time when those using it were economically and culturally exploiting those they were using to describe it, and the legacy of that is the perpetuation of the stereotypes which those original users sought to impose. That makes sense to me.

    I’ve heard black people call each other ‘niggers’, but I wouldn’t dream of using the term myself and I’m sure you wouldn’t either. We wouldn’t use it because when we say it, it comes with the legacy of slavery, brutalisation and exploitation that those who originally used the word did as a matter of course. When I, as a white person, use the word I’m saying that I think of black people the same way those slavers did. That’s the baggage the word has been left with, and that’s why we don’t use it.

    Likewise, the word Oriental has baggage. I’m in no position to know why or how because I don’t have to live with it. But when someone who is in a position to know tells me, I have a responsibility to listen.

    (I’m hoping someone will tell me if I overstep a mark here… as much as anything else, I’m talking about my understanding of the situation which is going to be flawed, given that I’m looking in from the outside…)

  9. Jha:

    First off, allow me to say thank you for writing the article. It definitely has made me think about the issue. I did read the discussion you linked to and wish to throw out a few thoughts. (I will read the BV article this evening.)

    The adoption of different aspects of certain cultures because it seems “cool” has been going on since caveman times. Flint knapping techniques and decoration/art changed as different tribes came into contact with each other and adopted from each other those they considered “cool” (or at least useful). There are plenty of those who only care about the coolness, but there are an equal number (myself included) who are first drawn to a thing because it is intriguing, and then become interested in the culture behind it and seek to learn more.

    Myself? My introduction to Middle Eastern dance and henna body art several years ago has led me on an ongoing adventure in investigating the past and present culture(s) behind both. Neither the dance nor the henna can be claimed by a single culture. What are/were these cultures like, and what are the differences in the arts between individual cultures? The more I learn, the more I want to learn. Over the past several years, I have discovered that I am not the only person with such inclinations.

    I dance and wear my henna art proudly… mindful of those who I have borrowed them from and grateful for the opportunity to make them a part of my world. For me… participating in these arts is meant to say to the people of the cultures they came from, “I appreciate you.” So far, the people of those cultures I have encountered have been supportive of me and the arts have opened the doors to many an interesting conversation with people who might not have even approached me otherwise.

    In the same way, while the term “orient” has indeed done plenty of damage, I feel that it has also done some good. How many Europeans found themselves attracted to that area of the world because of orientalism and found themselves diving into the local culture with open-minded enthusiasm? Some of these Europeans loved their adopted cultures so much that they became more local than the locals. Many of those who “went native” (as they called it in the day) defended their adopted cultures from those who would arrogantly force a European lifestyle on people in other lands.

    The Europeans colonized because there was money to be made, not because they considered lands in Asia and the Middle East exotic. Orientalism is a two-edged sword. It caused plenty of harm, but without orientalism, there may have been no serious study or appreciation of those cultures that were colonized. The invading Europeans could conceivably have done to the colonized cultures what they did to the Native Americans.

  10. Dylan Fox:

    You are right. One can’t “apply the opinion of a few individuals to an entire continent of peoples.” This is why I am challenging Jha’s statement that the use of Victorientalism/Orientalism perpetuates the racism that was so rampant back in the day. I am not disputing that her arguments have merit.

    I find myself in an odd position. I have quite a few people who are ok with the term (or seem to be) and one person who is not ok with the term. Since none of them can speak for entire culture, who do I side with? Again, I am an outsider looking in… I am taking my cues from the people on the inside.

    The word “nigger” is not such a term. Although it may be used amongst some black people within their own group, I’ve never heard it used when referring to themselves with someone who is not black. Many, many black persons have publicly stated that the word is offensive. So be it. Many of those on the inside find the term offensive, therefore I don’t use it.

    I expect that much information will be coming my way as this discussion progresses. I will be perusing it all. If I find that Jha is only one of many who find the term in dispute offensive, I will cease to use it and will gently correct others who do.

    Victorientalism is not a term I tend to use. It is really too nebulous for my taste, but I understand what is meant by the term and do not see a problem if others use it. Obviously, there are those who do not share my opinion and I am willing to consider the alternative.

    So far, I have one person who has stated the term is offensive and several people who have stated that if the term is offensive it should not be used, but they have not stated whether they consider the term offensive themselves. Many words have baggage attached to them (“Hillbilly” to describe the inhabitants of Appalachia pops immediately to mind). We don’t condemn the use of a word because one or two people don’t like it. There are those in Appalachia who don’t like the term, but the term is still in acceptable use.

    Perhaps I am sensitive on this matter. I see it as akin to banning books from libraries if a particular individual finds them offensive. I too may find them offensive, but I do not feel that they should be made unavailable to the rest of the world. Who is it who said, “I will defend to the death your right to disagree with me”?

    Unfortunately, we humans like to have verbal pigeonholes in which to place our concepts. If the term “Victorientalism” is to die, we need to come up with an alternative and be consistant in its use. As I interpret it, “Steampunk” means the world of the Victorian era regardless of culture as imagined by the present. Again, this is a very nebulous term as the world is a huge place and so, people tend to narrow it down to only Europe. Jha has suggested “Asian Steampunk”… should we therefore designate “English Steampunk” or “American Steampunk” or “Middle Eastern Steampunk or “Russian Steampunk”? Does the term “Asian Steampunk” incorportate India or does it mean China and Japan only?

    If the one term is not acceptable, let us decide on a new one that is and use it.

  11. To be fair, I don’t feel as though I have much right to come stamping in here with my white privilege and start going on about how I find the term ‘Victorientalism’ offensive. It isn’t something that is targeted at me, and isn’t something that is meant to be offensive to me.

    However, if the people who are on the receiving end start telling me that it is offensive then I would feel pretty much obliged to agree with them.

    Either way, it isn’t my decision to make.

  12. @ Allegra
    Does the term “white privilege” apply to the citizens of the Eastern Europe (for example Ukrainians with GDP per capita 2,829, Albanians with 3,256), or only to Americans (45,301), Norwegians (79,153), Swiss (66,127) or Germans (39,649)?

    Shell we use the term “oriental privilage” to describe the Asians from Japan (GDP pc 39,573), Singapore (34,346) or Hong Kong (29,559), who are ten times reacher than white people from the Eastern Europe?

    The world is much bigger and much more complicated than seen from the Northern America, I’m afraid.

  13. I like the way that you automatically assumed that I’m from North America. Way to go on the cultural sensitivity there.

    As it happens, I’m not.

  14. Also, the relative wealth of a country and its people has NOTHING to do with racial privilege. Just because someone draws certain benefits from being part of the dominant race, doesn’t mean that they can’t be impoverished or discriminated against in any of a myriad other of ways.

    The two things are completely different issues.

  15. You haven’t answered my question.

  16. USA (46,443), UK (35,728) – what’s the difference?
    🙂

  17. 10,715.

    Since you asked.

  18. Deirdre,

    I think the problem of “what to call it” is aggrivated by the fact that, frankly, Steampunk has jack-all to do with the Victorian Era or the history, culture, traditions and aesthetics of European, Euro-American and Euro-Canadian societies. As it stands it’s already a weird sort of unfunny parody of 19th century European cultures before we even start talking about how it proceeds to make use of images that marginalize people of non-European backgrounds. I don’t even think Steampunk is “white”: it’s just a flavourless, generic mush of Cyberpunk and Rivethead fashion in sepia tone, where the goggles are brass instead of chrome and gears have replaced circuitboards as symbolic icon.

    I’m ever-increasingly for the use of the specific, actual terminology. When I speak of Orientalism, I am refering specifically to the 19th century European artistic and academic movement essentially beginning with the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt… “The Orient” signifies a European construction with a cultural history all its own, separate from the actual goings on of Asia, India and the Middle East. When I’m speaking of, say, 19th century Japanese history I will refer to the Late Edo and the Meiji periods. If I want to talk about Western reception of Japanese art and culture during the 19th century, I refer to the Japonisme movement. And when talking about Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I call their works Scientific Romances.

    Since no one has mentioned it specifically, I would recommend you read Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”. It is a fantastic study of what it is and how it has been used, by a late Palestinian author.

  19. To add an extra spanner in the works. As someone who is not a steampunk but interested in history and engineering, I object to the assumption that “steampunk” must be based on the Victorian era. For the purposes of writing this bit, we’ll assume I’m rabidly oppose to it ;). So:

    1. The first machine that could be termed a steam-engine was invented (or at least designed) by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. Although the basics of how it works were, if I remember correctly, mentioned at least once prior by an earlier “Greek”. The technology was not developed on either occasion due to the ready availability of slaves.

    2. Similarly “impractical” designs were developed in Medieval Europe and a few actually got made. These were designed for their rotary action, I beleive.

    3. The first modern steam-engine was Thomas Savery’s engine at the end of the 17th Century. This is the beginning of the steam age although it took some time to make efficent, locomotive engines.

    4. Most modern, electricity producing turbines are actually “steam-powered”. The only difference between them and what we ordinarilty think of as steam-engines is the fuel source, e.g. coal-fired, diesel-fired, wood-fired, etc. And there are steam locomotives in the world made to modern designs. They are diesel-fired.

    Each of these 4 points allows a point of divurgance that could lead to Steampunk. The only advantage that the Victorian era has is that extremely precise measurements and engineering are possible without having divolved into the “soulless mass-production” of later years. Check out the WIkipedia entry on Steam Engine history (which may not be 100% precise):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_steam_engine

    Steam-engines work on the principle of differences in air pressure, particular with a rapid change of temperature from hot to cold. The basics of this have been used to power fountains for a long time by using a black painted box to heat up water and make it spurt through holes. I beleive Versaille made much use of the idea. Basic solar passive heating panels can be made to perform the same task.

    One day, I’ll persuade everyone that the Three Musketeers are Steampunk heroes!

  20. A dominant race? In what terms – economical or cultural? Economically I don’t feel privileged being relatively poor Eastern European.

  21. As far as I’m aware, the conversation that we’re having here is about cultural rather than economic or fiscal dominance and privilege.

  22. Try to imagine Art Nouveau without Orientalism.

  23. Allegra, you still avoid to answer my question. Do you believe that white Albanians/Romanians are privileged in any sense – economical OR cultural?

  24. I believe that anyone who is part of the dominant race has privilege above those who are not. Or are the People of Colour in Romania and Albania treated as complete equals to everybody else?

  25. The question is: are Romanians and Albanians treated as equal in the countries where they emigrate to? They are white “people of colour” in the Western Europe.

  26. That may be your question, but it’s certainly not the question.

    I’m not saying that Romanians and Albanians are treated as equals when they come to the UK, or the US, or anywhere else. Hell, the English aren’t even capable of treating the Scottish, the Irish or the Welsh as equals, for Christ’s sake.

    However, within their own country white Romanians or Albanians do have privilege over and above the Peoples of Colour who live there. And that is exactly the point that I am making.

  27. Do Allegra’s views on the economic and/or cultural privilege of Albanians/Romanians have a bearing on the idea of Steampunk’s relationship with the Oriental and it’s packaging n the term Victorientalism?

    I ask because the connection isn’t obvious to me and I wouldn’t want the discussion to be side-tracked…

  28. Allegra – (except that there are probably no people of colour in Romania and Albania) that was exactly what I wanted to hear. In their own country, Japanese (Orientals) are probably privileged over Europeans. And that is exactly the point that I am making. Everything is relative, it depends on where you’re looking from.

  29. Please tell me that you are not telling me that there is no racism in Romania or Albania. Let’s please not talk about the way the Roma are treated, for example.

    Also, to bring things slightly back towards the actual topic of discussion, I can’t help but notice that a lot of your frustration seems to stem from being generalised and lumped in with a group of people (those with white privilege) that you don’t feel as though you belong to. Accepting that, how is it fair to throw together everyone from Mongolia to Japan under the banner of ‘Orientalism’ whether they like it or not?

  30. Cory Gross:

    I think you hit the nail on the head. The appeal (at least for me) of Steampunk is the freedom to define it as I wish. That very freedom means that it is extremely non-specific and the historian in me doesn’t like that.

    If I’m going to play in the genre, I want to know what the persona’s cultural background is. What have been the influences on her, etc? Such a persona could come from anywhere in the world and not have to be 100% historically accurate. For example, the woman could be from 1890s Ottoman Iraq, but due to family connections have had some contact with… oh, China for instance. The woman could dress in Persian fashion that had Chinese touches to it. What would such a person be like? What was happening in her culture at this time and what might happen if this or that earlier event had turned out differently. This is the sort of thing I like to see in Steampunk.

    I do like your terminology and thank you for the book recommendation. I will see if my local library has a copy.

  31. I don’t have problems with comparing my privilages to yours. I just don’t think that every white can be called “privileged” JUST because he/she is white. The true conotation of the word “privilege” is “guilt”. I don’t have a guilt complex because I’m white and I can’t see the reason why anyone should feel guilty because of his origin.

  32. I would absolutely and completely refute that privilege is about guilt. It’s not about guilt, it’s about recognition and respect. It’s about recognising that I am privy to certain opportunities and benefits on account of my race that I wouldn’t be if I was not, and respecting the experiences of people who do not have those same benefits and opportunities that I do because of it.

    The second that I say or do something that is offensive and racist (and I may well do, I’m pretty much as ignorant as the next person and as prone to fucking up) then I will feel guilty about it and feel as though I need to apologise. In the meantime, I do not feel guilty OR feel the need to apologise. What I do feel, however, if that a member of a specific culture, race or group tells me that they are offended by a term that is used by the dominant culture to describe them, then I am going to listen, and I am going to respect that.

  33. “Japanese (Orientals) are probably privileged over Europeans. And that is exactly the point that I am making. Everything is relative, it depends on where you’re looking from.”

    This is how I see the difference:

    I can choose to go and live in Japan. I can choose to watch anime and eat noodles. I can choose to live in a part of my country where there are lots of Japanese people with their own community. I can choose to watch Japanese horror films.

    I could choose not to do any of those things.

    If I lived in Japan, could I choose to live somewhere where I could ignore Western culture? Where there wasn’t a Starbucks on the street corner or a Hollywood movie in the DVD shop? Could I choose to watch a TV station where at least some of the programs being shown weren’t made with the idea of selling them to the US? Could I watch a Western film, and expect to see my culture accurately represented? Could I expect that the latest home-grown blockbuster wouldn’t be remade for a Western audience? Could I hear about the latest Hollywood movie, and think, ‘you know what? I’ll just wait for the Japanese remake to come out’.?

    In Japan, I’m sure, the Japanese are privileged over white people. Here, in the UK, I don’t have to pay a blind bit of notice to the Japanese if I don’t want to. The Japanese, in contrast, tend not to have that choice.

  34. “As someone who is not a steampunk but interested in history and engineering, I object to the assumption that “steampunk” must be based on the Victorian era.”

    Hm, now there’s an interesting idea. By coupling together the idea of Victorians and steam power, are we dismissing the innovation and invention of the people who had known about steam power for centuries before the Victorians? And are we willfully blinding ourselves to the face that our society is still steam-driven? Is this another case of privileged Westerners coming along and claiming credit for something we stole from somewhere else, and trying to justify ourselves by primitivising the original inventors?

    I think we should maybe put the Musketeers on a Chinese spaceship to rescue the King of France from the Martians… while the British look on and fuss about the Spinning Jenny 😀

    (Yeah, I can be a willful trouble-maker too sometimes…)

  35. The difference is, Dylan: with you, it’s a hobby. For me, it’s a career path 🙂

  36. Is it less condemnable when the members of the “suppressed culture” offend “dominant culture” then when the members of the “dominant culture” offend “suppressed culture”? Or are these actions equally condemnable?

  37. Piechur – I quote you – “I just don’t think that every white can be called “privileged” JUST because he/she is white. The true conotation of the word “privilege” is “guilt”. I don’t have a guilt complex because I’m white and I can’t see the reason why anyone should feel guilty because of his origin.”

    I’m sure it’s wonderful that you have no guilt complex, after all why should you, if you don’t want to feel guilty the dominant culture of your society says you don’t have to. If you wish to ignore those people in the non-dominant culture pointing out the imbalances, misconceptions, misappropriations, etc that they are subject to then you can without it affecting how you live in any way shape or form.

    How nice for you to be able to dismiss the debate entirely by refusing to look at the matter dispassionately and without prejudice and accept that it is *possible* that the person putting forward the point of view knows what they are talking about and is talking from a position of experience and knowledge.

  38. Well said, Cal! Thank you.

  39. Dylan, westernisation was chosen by Japanese in the Meiji period. Arabs have chosen differently and they don’t give a damn about Hollywood.

  40. Perhaps the modern Westernisation of Japan also has something to do with the occupation by American forces after the Second World War, too. I’m not sure they ‘chose’ that…

  41. Also, there are ten Starbucks in Dubai alone, according to Starbucks’ website. I’m not saying it’s definitive proof of anything, but it’s an interesting straw poll.

  42. Cal, why do you suggest that lack o guilt complex = ignoring “those people”?

    Dylan, have Americans forced Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor?

  43. Piechur – I’m sorry, I was prepared to answer your ‘question’ to me, but given your subsequent question to Dylan I refuse to engage with you at all.

  44. “Dylan, have Americans forced Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor?”

    From a point of view, yeah they did. History’s like that, though: All opinions and points of view. Should the Japanese have just waited until the Americans decided to attack them first? It’s a complex question that doesn’t lend itself well to scoring points in an online debate about race and cultural privilege.

    The trouble with cultural privilege is that it’s a very, very complex issue. A third-world nation wants to feed it’s people, so it goes after the money. The money is held by Western organisations. They say, ‘sure, we’ll give you the money, but here’s a bunch of rules you’ve got to follow to get it’–the IMF is perhaps more guilty of cultural imperialism than Starbucks and Shell Oil. And why does the West have all the money? Because at least a good five-hundred years, we went over to those now third-world nations, stole all their mineral wealth and turned their citizens into slaves.

    Do I feel guilty that my great-great-great-great grandfather was party to that? Kind of, yeah. Distantly. Do I feel that I should return some of what was stolen? Well, that would only be fair. Would I feel guilty doing something that’s unfair? Sure I would, I’m a normal human being. So, by holding onto my privilege, that my great-great-great-great grandfather stole from someone weaker than him, do I feel guilty? Well, I guess I wouldn’t be a normal human being if I didn’t.

  45. Actually, Adbusters had an article about the influence of Americans in “infantilizing” Japan (https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/84/soul-japan.html) that in turn provoked interesting responses and fact-based comments (http://meta.neojaponisme.com/2009/08/12/on-the-soul-of-japan/).

    In short…

    “If I lived in Japan, could I choose to live somewhere where I could ignore Western culture?”

    Yes. Western culture is pretty nominal outside the major centres and, even in the major centres, is easily swamped by Japanese culture.

    “Where there wasn’t a Starbucks on the street corner or a Hollywood movie in the DVD shop?”

    I don’t remember seeing any Starbuckses in either Tokyo or Kyoto while I was there. I did see one Denny’s (which served Japanese-style food) and no MacDonalds. I also went to see a movie and saw no Hollywood movies being shown. So the answer is yes you can.

    “Could I choose to watch a TV station where at least some of the programs being shown weren’t made with the idea of selling them to the US?”

    NHK. Fuji TV. I realize that you’re trying to describe the horrors of Western cultural imperialism, but it’s still a Eurocentric attitude. The lives of Japanese people don’t revolve around Westerners. They really don’t.

    “Could I watch a Western film, and expect to see my culture accurately represented?”

    Have you ever seen a Japanese movie try to accurately represent Western culture? While in Japan I picked up a video game (Sakura Taisen) that is so super-uber Japanese that it was never released in North America. But right at the end it decided to throw Satan, Michael and God into the mix and, to my complete shock, actually got it pretty much right. Usually Christianity, when it’s chucked into an anime, is some whacked-out messed-up interpretation of it that is obviously for its exotic, Occidental aesthetic allure. That’s to be expected when less than 3% of your population is Christian.

    Point is, cultures misrepresenting each other in their media works both ways.

    “Could I expect that the latest home-grown blockbuster wouldn’t be remade for a Western audience?”

    Pursuant to the above, yes you can. Very few Japanese films are actually imported, let alone remade. A brief horror fad does not a mass of Western privilege make.

    “Could I hear about the latest Hollywood movie, and think, ‘you know what? I’ll just wait for the Japanese remake to come out’.?”

    Probably not, but I’m exactly sure what this has to do with the issue either.

    About the closest I got to experiencing any kind of privilege in Japan was the number of people who knew English, which I suspect has mostly to do with English being the primary language of the Internet. Japan, however, is notoriously harsh on immigrants to the point of valid condemnations of systemic racism (they’re also harsh on their own indigenous populations). Yes Japan has had a tense relationship with the West that has involved multiple periods of occupation, but it is far more complicated than them just being victims and it does them a disservice to cast them purely as victims.

    Like that Adbusters article, what victimizing Japanese people does is make them once more a foil for Westerners. Only this time it is the foil for the narrative of Western liberal guilt. It’s not about us. They do consume our media the same way we consume theirs, and Americans did occupy Japan like Japan occupied Manchuria (actually Americans were nicer about it that the Japanese were), but they have a fully-functioning society all their own with their own culture and values and priorities.

  46. Dylan:

    The problem with feeling guilty for what your many-times-great-grandfather may have done is that you had no control over it. You were not responsible for the action nor could you prevent the action. Can you say that the action was wrong? Yes, you can… and you can take steps to make sure that such a thing never happens again. Feel guilty about it? No reason to.

    If everyone carries around guilt or places blame on others for what their ancestors did, the world will never progress. Go back thru time far enough and everyone has stuck it to everyone else. Africans were enslaving other Africans long before the arrival of the Europeans. When the Europeans arrived they were just the latest customers for the African slavers. In the first half of the 20th century, it was Japan who invaded China and mistreated the Chinese. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the English were doing their best to quash the native Scots and Irish culture. In the 10th century, the Norse were raiding and pillaging the British Isles. The Arabs had slaves at one point in time. The Aztecs fell because they had dominated and mistreated the neighboring tribes and the neighboring tribes decided to throw their lot in with the Spanish. The Mongols tried to conquer the world at one time and were reasonably successful. No group of people is blameless. The only way to get on with things is to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and to not repeat them.

  47. Dylan:

    “By coupling together the idea of Victorians and steam power, are we dismissing the innovation and invention of the people who had known about steam power for centuries before the Victorians?”

    and

    “Because at least a good five-hundred years, we went over to those now third-world nations, stole all their mineral wealth and turned their citizens into slaves. ”

    The point about a wider base-period being available is that Victorian attitudes are built for starting this guilt-ridden debate 🙂 By identifying with the Victorian era, a lot of people are setting themselves up for being on the worse side. Victorians were (or are considered to be, in this age of enlightenment) white, christian supremecists who called themselves the saviors of the world. They were the “Do as I say, not as I do” generations. They were, off course, built upon the foundation of preceding generations who were as guilty of assuming themselves superior but hadn’t quite got the uniform, overwhelming Empire.

    To generalise wildly, one might consider the early steam age as sitting in an attitude of blissful ignorance with a will to explore (We think we’re right but we haven’t seen what everyone else is doing). The Victorian era was much more conceited and sure of itself (we know what everyone else is doing and our way, our science, our religion, our laws are better therefore everyone else should use them). Very over-simplified as there was no sudden step from one point of view to the other and the majority attitude isn’t always an overwhelming majority.

    But, basically, late twentieth century / early twenty-first century period people consider British, Victorian era attitudes something to be wondered at if not out-right ashamed of, although it was also a period of national prosperity (though individuals had it bad) and opportunity. So it always makes me wonder _why_ people have so identified with it when there are also other possibilities. 🙂

    Not that steampunked Roman Empire would be much better.

  48. PS

    “Do I feel guilty that my great-great-great-great grandfather was party to that? Kind of, yeah. Distantly. Do I feel that I should return some of what was stolen? Well, that would only be fair. Would I feel guilty doing something that’s unfair? Sure I would, I’m a normal human being. So, by holding onto my privilege, that my great-great-great-great grandfather stole from someone weaker than him, do I feel guilty? Well, I guess I wouldn’t be a normal human being if I didn’t.”

    About 24 (ish) out of 32 of my great-great-great-great grandfathers were down mines in bloody horrible conditions. Those above ground were agricultural labourers on very poor wages. I doubt any of them personally did anything to suppress anyone else 🙂 But I agree, I am ashamed of that facet of our shared history. Ignoring modern day right and wrongs, what bothers me is the hypocracy as many richer people who made money (directly or indirectly) out of the slave trade would make, and believe, comments to the effect of “All men are created equal”. Then they would find ways of explaining why someone of another class or colour wasn’t a man and therefore couldn’t be equal.

    This is without adding gender inequality and my great-great-great-great grandmothers who scratched out livings to support their families, too!

  49. OMG PIECHUR! MY FAVOURITE TROLL! It’s so good to see you alive and kicking. <3

    Diedre: It is very true that many people from formerly colonized regions use the term "Oriental" to describe themselves. Even in Malaysia, where I am from, there is a huge degree of self-exoticism, as well as exoticising other Asian cultures. It is an attitude we have internalized after being colonized for so long.

    Nonetheless, living in a white-dominant culture, I find that the terms are so loaded with "Other-ness" that it is unfair to other visible minorities living here to use them. The link I posted earlier discusses this in comments, and I synthesized it a bit here.

    Whether the colonizers have benefitted the colonised or not is another difficult question. For starters, the colonizers did bring the idea of progress, and tried to install systems of bureaucracy in their new colonies. However, very often, they have done this at the cost of taking away the sovereignty of these countries. This was done under the idea that the Asian countries could not develop themselves (yet again, another stereotype perpetuated by Orientalist constructs). It was also quite arrogant to assume that any country that did not industrialize the same way was inferior, and we continue to set the standard for national development today.

    I understand that sometimes we feel the best way to appreciate another culture is to take something of theirs as your own. I, too, am fond of henna. However, you must consider your own context: are you white? If you are, then you are in a position to strip away or change the meaning of what it is you are using. You have that power that a marginalized person does not.

    Certainly, cultural borrowing occurs between peoples. But it also depends on the parties involved – if one culture is stronger than the other, it is more questionable than say two cultures who have equal power on the global scene. It’s going to be different in Scandinavia, and in Africa, and in China. We negotiate things differently, because by circumstance, they’re different.

    The key thing is, does it do harm? Does it do harm to render a group harmless and toothless because, “look at all their cool stuff!” even as they already face prejudice elsewhere?

    I’ve got no answers for you. I do know that I’ll respect your right to disagree until your disagreement feeds into memes which hurt me and mine. Fortunately, for us in this age of teh Interwebz, we have resources to find discussions where we can negotiate such answers.

    Cory: Why can’t more people be reasonably accurate like you?

  50. “However, very often, they have done this at the cost of taking away the sovereignty of these countries. This was done under the idea that the Asian countries could not develop themselves (yet again, another stereotype perpetuated by Orientalist constructs). It was also quite arrogant to assume that any country that did not industrialize the same way was inferior, and we continue to set the standard for national development today. ”

    I agree with you on this one. When the U.S. government was saying “Good for us! We brought democracy to Iraq” I was saying “Sure, democracy is good, but what if they don’t want it?” I annoyed a lot of people with that one. Don’t know whether the White House was annoyed as I didn’t get a response from my email about it.

    Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t cornered the market on such arrogance. The Chinese are trying to do something similar with Taiwan and Tibet. I’d write to the Chinese government, but I have a feeling they’d just use the letter as toilet paper.

    “If you are, then you are in a position to strip away or change the meaning of what it is you are using. You have that power that a marginalized person does not.”

    Here I must disagree with you. While henna can mean something else to me, I can’t change what henna means to someone else or take that away from them without their permission. I can’t strip the cultural meaning from something by using it. The only way that can happen is if the people of that culture relinquish their beliefs, or I am in a position to forbid them to use henna (which I am not). I can certainly prove I am a total know-nothing and dolt about a culture if I use it incorrectly, but that does not invalidate the meaning of the thing to the culture it comes from.

    No one culture holds ownership of henna use just as no one culture holds ownership of the wearing of blue jeans or the playing of bagpipes. Henna has been used over the centuries by Arabs, Indians, Jews, Christians, and there is even evidence that it was used by the ancient Greeks. All five cultures are distinct. Which of the five stripped the away the meaning of henna from which?

    Here is food for thought. The henna growing business in Pakistan and India is booming. The governments are encouraging farmers to plant henna because it is a great cash crop that is drought resistant. It can provide an income for a farm family when all other crops fail. Why? Because henna was introduced to the rest of the world. Worldwide demand for henna is booming. Has all this non-traditional henna use changed the meaning of henna for those in India and Pakistan? No, it has not. Henna use in those cultures is stronger than ever and is used there for the same reasons as it always has been. The farmers use their traditional farming, harvesting, and processing methods. When it comes to the henna trade, the farmers hold all the cards.

    The other thing to think about… When one culture adopts an aspect of another culture, the awareness of that other culture increases. People of the borrowing culture learn about the other and the other becomes more of an equal than an other. Awareness of the other culture in today’s world generally means more acceptance of the other culture.

    I do not see where borrowing a group’s “cool stuff” renders them toothless or harmless. It would seem to me that the more people who appreciate that “cool stuff”, the more allies the culture will have.

    I truly love this sort of discussion. To be able to “speak” (so to speak) to someone half a world away and exchange thoughts so quickly is still a wonder to me. it makes me realize just how small the world has become and how much people are alike no matter where they live.

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

  51. Jha:

    Thank you for the link. I think this summed it up for me, “The problem doesn’t really stem from other people using our stuff. It stems from a dominant group forcing us to efface our heritage, so that we will be acceptable, while they swipe stuff from our heritage for their own uses. ”

    I do see your point and I agree that I would be defensive too. There will always be those to whom the non-dominant group is not acceptable, no matter what the non-dominant group does. If the non-dominant group gives in to them, they will lose. As difficult as it is, if the non-dominant culture is to survive, they must stand fast.

    The solution seems to me to be to hold on to your cultural heritage and share that culture with as many other people as possible. yes, you will face disapproval and castigation from some. Yes, there will be those who take that culture and make fun of it, but there will be others who embrace that culture and become your friends and allies.

    The Irish managed to do it. In the mid-19th century, they were considered the lowest of the low in America. Blacks were considered “better” than the Irish. The Irish managed to hold on to their heritage while welcoming anyone who wanted to experience Irish culture. It wasn’t easy, but Irish culture survived and thrived in America.

    You may not be able to change the attitudes of an entire group in one go, but you can change the attitudes of individuals within that group. Eventually, those individuals add up to the entire group.

  52. “Exactly why would anybody want to limit steampunk, which is, after all, yet another avenue to exercise the imagination?”

    Why indeed? And yet you seem bent on it. If someone wants to create an outfit that is, as the gatehouse gazette has it “recreate[d from] the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it.” then that is their prerogative – it is a viable viewpoint for someone creating an outfit of a person who lives in 19th century London or Paris. Is it a correct view of China, India, Japan or Algeria? No, but it is a legitimate costume choice given the history of the time.

    There is great a danger in completely expunging the bad without explanation or analysis – would you have us abandon or edit all books from history that use the term orient? Whether one feels there is a stigma to the extent you argue on that word currently or not, to erase it would not only increase its allure, but also run the risk of repeating it.

  53. Cory and Jo: Much food for thought. Much food.

    By setting ourselves up as the people trying to make good the perceived wrongs of the Victorian era, are we putting ourselves in a position of effective self-flagellation and making our own strawman of other cultures so we can encourage them to relieve us of our sense of guilt?

    And Cory, thank you for the response and link.
    “Only this time it is the foil for the narrative of Western liberal guilt.”
    That’s a sentence that it’s going to take a lot of thinking about to digest.

    My great-great-great-great grandparents may or may not have had a hand in the oppression. I don’t know enough about my family to say. However, I still benefit from that oppression. Our public infrastructure, our political infrastructure, our commercial infrastructure… all these things which make my comfortable life possible were built with the money from the oppression and exploitation. The Empire made Britain very rich, and that money was used to make modern Britain. I’m not saying I weep every time I get on a train or anything like that and I know it’s not a simple black-and-white case. The infrastructure was there before and it’s been improved on since. But the money from the Empire is a significant ingredient in the mix.

  54. Although, having said all that… how much am I a beneficiary of the systems the Empire helped to create, and how much am I a victim? I mean, in order for the elite to maintain their status and money in our society, I’m required to fulfill a certain role, and it’s a role I’m trained since birth to fill (the loyal employee and consumer). I’m not saying my position is comparable to those of the people the Empire left behind or those without the privilege I have in my society, but maybe I have more in common with the exploited than the exploiters, the same way my great-great-great–great grandfather had more in common with the slaves than the mine owners. If nothing else, then in order for the system to work, we’ve all got to hate each other, we’ve got to buy into the, ‘you’re special, at least you’re better than them idea’.

  55. Dylan: bingo! Everyone is a human being and as equally deserving of your time and consideration. Alternatively: “I’m not racist! I hate everyone!”

  56. I can’t find my previous post, so I’ll try to repeat it.

    I’m white, but my country (Poland) was colonized by Russians and Germans throughout the entire 19th century. Does it make me a member of the “dominate” culture, or do I represent colonized/Oriental culture?

    On the other hand, Japan – being a part of Orient – has a long tradition of aggressive, colonial politics, aimed especially against China and Korea.

    To sum up – Jha, you’re trying to draw the line between People of Colour and People of No Colour. But things are not so simple.

  57. “If someone wants to create an outfit that is, as the gatehouse gazette has it “recreate[d from] the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it.” then that is their prerogative – it is a viable viewpoint for someone creating an outfit of a person who lives in 19th century London or Paris. Is it a correct view of China, India, Japan or Algeria? No, but it is a legitimate costume choice given the history of the time.”

    Just because the Victorians were racist doesn’t mean we can copy them and write it off as being some form of authentic. I mean, no, we shouldn’t chuck everything out without analysis, but that’s what the blog post is about… analyzing the term.

  58. Why, it’s too bad we couldn’t get this into the Gazette in time. It would have provided a decent counter-perspective to our, admittedly, enthusiastic recreation of nineteenth century Orientalism.

    I’m no fan of Said and I think he’s too biased and too judgmental about the Orientalist tradition. The best author I’ve read on the subject is Mr Robert Irwin. His book, “For Lust of Knowing,” provided a far more balanced and fair evaluation of Orientalism, and has the advantage of being far more historically accurate.

    I agree with some of the thing that have been said here though I haven’t had time to read all of the comments yet—steampunk doesn’t adopt Victorian values and stereotypes without criticism. We’re well aware of the racist and imperialist attitudes that shaped the era’s perception of the East and of Easterners. But shouldn’t we be able to “reinvent” those very attitudes, in a comical way? No one in their right mind would think of Eastern people as constituting much of a Yellow Peril anymore. No one in their right mind would believe that Westerners are racially superior anymore. We know that’s not true. And that’s part of the reason why I think we can safely revive stereotypes in fiction, because everyone understands they’re not supposed to be serious.

    You can argue that a sense of “otherness” is still embedded in our perceptions of the East. You can even argue that it is impossible for a Westerner to truly understand the East—though I believe that would be the more racist attitude, as though we’re two fundamentally different people that can’t for the life of them comprehend each other. Besides, it would invalidate every study, be it historical, social or economic of past and present Eastern states. But we should be able to separate that discussion from steampunk. Steampunk doesn’t faithfully reconstruct the past. Indeed, it’s very premise is that it doesn’t.

  59. Ottens:

    Thank you! The book you mentioned will also go on my reading list.

    Your post brings to mind the old “Hogan’s Heroes” show. It was a marvelous bit of social satire. The Germans in the show were all German Jews and LeBeau was also played by a Jew. To get the world to laugh at the oppressors seems to me to be the ultimate revenge.

    Jha, your position has been noted and is appreciated. You are the first person who has adequately explained to me the reason why some people are so defensive about their cultural objects. To date, for those I know who have been confronted about it the only reason that they ever get is that “You’re white and this is MY culture you’re stealing!” It makes the confronter look like a racist kook. I will pass on your links to those who tell me they’ve been confronted in such a manner so that they can better understand the situation.

    None of my acquaintances would ever suggest that someone give up their cultural icons to be more acceptable (If I ever find out that they’ve done so, I will have nothing more to do with them… I’ve dropped a few people as friends over the years who displayed such ignorant behavior and I told them why before telling them to get lost.)

    The block where my home was/is has many ethnicities: Chaldean, Jamacian, Muslim Arab, Russian Jewish (I remember their grandmother fondly. Her grandkids and every kid on the block called her “Babushka” and she doted on all of us even though she spoke only a couple words of English.), African-American, and Asian families in just the one block. All of them put up with my father and his bagpipe playing. None of them insisted that my father stop playing the pipes to be more acceptable, and we never insisted that anyone else give up anything to be more acceptable. The kids mixed freely, and we all borrowed cultural bits from one another willy nilly. I still live in the same house and the mix of neighbors is about the same, but this is why I have found it confusing when I hear of people getting defensive about their various cultural items.

    As far as offensive terms… The objection has been noted and the Steampunk community (or at least followers of this website) has been informed. However, the SP community is a very small part of the world. If any term a culture finds offensive is to be made unacceptable to the rest of the world, the culture needs to abandon it itself.

    Assume the offensive term is a type of shoe… outdated, uncomfortable, outlandish, and decidedly below par. Now assume the culture in question is a family. The family has been wearing this type of shoe for generations. They started wearing it because it’s what was made available to them. The family decides that it does not want to wear this type of shoe anymore. “People don’t take us seriously and look down on us because of these shoes.” If the family continues to wear that type of shoe because it is what they are used to or because they want to make a buck from outsiders, the outsiders will look at it and say “They must like the shoes. Let’s give them more.”

    To get what they want, the family must refuse to wear the offensive shoes. If outsiders say, “Why aren’t you wearing your shoes?”, the family tells the outsiders “We don’t like the shoes, we want this other type of shoe (and state the other type).” If the outsiders insist that the family wear the offending shoes, the family needs to stick to their guns and insist on not wearing them.

    For whatever reason, if a culture uses an offensive (to them) term when dealing with outsiders they are as guilty of perpetuating the term as any outsider that uses it. If the culture stops using the term, the rest of the world will too although it will take time for it to die out.

  60. Luke: I am not saying that people should limit their imaginations. As I’ve mentioned to Diedre, what a person does is up to them, but they need to be mindful of the context within which they are using something which is not of their culture.

    Is it great to open up steampunk to include other regions? Sure it is. Is it great when it means re-hashing old stereotypes, fantasies and imagery that contributed greatly to the dehumanization of minority groups within white-dominant spaces?

    I said we should resign the term. Not erase it entirely. It’s not useful nor accurate to describe what we are doing today. Not only that, but complete erasure is tantamount to ignoring history.

    Diedre: I mistrust that kind of “share it and it will work out okay!” attitude. It’s not the sharing I object to. It’s the fact that other people not from my culture are profiting from my cultural artifacts at my expense. (OK, this actually isn’t even about me, but it’s a hella lot easier to parse grammatically.)

    There is a huge tension in many anti-racist circles about allies. We would rather deal with someone who’s outright racist, than wonder about someone who claims to be anti-racist, yet says or does things we object to, but they find perfectly harmless.

    Piechur: You missed the part where I was talking about context, right? It’s okay, the comments are pretty long.

    In your case, you would be part of the colonizer’s culture on a global scale. Within that smaller context though, not really, no.

    That’s why I shift between using PoC and “visible minority”. Occasionally, I just say “minority groups”.

    In the contexts I refer to, though? I’m talking about the context where white folks are recognizably more powerful than non-whites. Do I like this dichotomy? No. Before coming to North America, did I even recognize it? No. But the anti-racist debate is framed in this way, in this context.

    And, omg! Groups within white regions oppress each other! And omg! PoC groups also oppress each other! Shock and awe! …. Yeah, okay, surprise over, carry on.

    Ottens:
    And that’s part of the reason why I think we can safely revive stereotypes in fiction, because everyone understands they’re not supposed to be serious.

    NO.

    NO.

    NO.

    This is the kind of dunderheaded nonsense that creates a collective HEADDESK across the board.

    We are not past the stage when these stereotypes are harmful to us. We are not past the stage where only a certain group controls the media and white-wash us out of our own stories. We are not in the least bit past dealing with racism in daily life. If we – minority we here – were well and truly equal, capable of controlling media narratives about ourselves, sure, go ahead and mess with the stereotypes all you like, we’ll just laugh, because positing the East as some backward high-adventure, great romantic place that the West is not, is ridiculous to start with. But we are not laughing, because that shit is not funny. It ignores the very real discrimination we face on a very goddamn regular basis because of the insistence to use stereotypes that Other-ize and exoticise us.

    …. I have more to say but then it becomes its own blog post.

  61. Jha: Thank you so much for this article!

    Deirdre: “While henna can mean something else to me, I can’t change what henna means to someone else or take that away from them without their permission.”

    Um, actually you can. Not all by yourself, sure, but if a whole lot of people are using henna just for the pretty, without any sensitivity to context, it does minimize and push aside ritual/celebratory/sacred uses.

    Also re: your post on offensive terms, it’s always easier to argue that people “should” take the activist route regardless of consequences when one is in a position of power/safety oneself. You’re also not taking into account how deeply the racism and self-hatred is ingrained in POC; when we’re taught all our lives that we’re inferior, y’know, it’s that much harder to argue for being treated with respect.

    Ottens: Did you notice that you find the non-white guy too biased (and you don’t like his tone), and the white guy unbiased? That might be true, but your post is consistent with a *huge* trend of people in a privilege group finding their own group’s version of other cultures more palatable than culture-internal versions. So you know.

  62. Jha:

    “We would rather deal with someone who’s outright racist, than wonder about someone who claims to be anti-racist, yet says or does things we object to, but they find perfectly harmless.”

    I understand the preference to deal with the “devil you know rather than the devil you don’t”. The “anti-racist” who says or does things you object to, but they find perfectly harmless is one of two things. 1) They are indeed racist and refuse to see it. OR 2) They are not racist, but are uninformed. If they are of the latter category and you refuse to deal with them, then you are missing a golden opportunity to enlighten them. If they are of the former category but treat them as if they were of the latter category, their true color will show very quickly (they won’t change their ways) and you will know when they say, “I am not racist” that they are lying through their teeth… and because you have taken the time to educate them, they know it too.

    It is so difficult to speak that “This culture does this and that culture does that” because a culture is made up of individuals with different experiences. For example, my own hate of intolerence came very young. My second grade class was reading a history chapter on the Holocaust. There were no graphic descriptions or pictures (it actually was a very dry account), but I was horrified. I had nightmares for days after that human beings could be so inhumane, and I vowed then and there that I would never support such intolerence and injustice. I have tried to live my life in accordance with that vow. Is this the same attitude that all other Americans share? Unfortunately, no.

    “It’s the fact that other people not from my culture are profiting from my cultural artifacts at my expense. (OK, this actually isn’t even about me, but it’s a hella lot easier to parse grammatically.)”

    Understood, but here are my thoughts to you… Discrimination and intolerence stems from ignorance. The “other” is seen as different and unknown and therefore bad. Even greedy people who maliciously exploit intolerence count on the fact that the rest of the dominant culture is ignorant of the target culture. The thing that the warmongers and purveyors of hatred fear the most is that we may look into the face of the “other” and see there a reflection of ourselves.

    If you (again, speaking of your culture, not you personally) want to be accepted as you are, then you need to become known and familiar. This takes education and sharing. If you restrict your cultural artifacts (not talking about the looting and trafficking in antiquities here) from the dominant culture because members of that culture are profiting from them, they will never become known or familar. They will remain exotic curiosities.

    By sharing those artifacts and explaining the significance of them at the same time, those artifacts become known and familiar… therefore acceptable… by the dominant culture. Accptance does not happen overnight… it takes time, sometimes lots of time… but it will happen, especially as the younger generation grows up knowing about your culture and seeing it as “normal.”

    You will always have some people who are not ignorant but choose to be intolerent anyway or choose to seek personal gain from the minority, but these people are not the majority of society (although it may seem otherwise). The more your culture is viewed as familiar by the dominant society the less chance these troublemakers have of spreading their lies and hatred.

    Things to think about anyway. While I can tell you how I perceive things, I can’t dictate to anyone else how they perceive things. The only thing I can do is to listen to with an open mind and hope the other person does the same. Perhaps, sometimes, we may meet in the middle.

    Jha, I would love to meet you in person some time.

    Shweta:

    “You’re also not taking into account how deeply the racism and self-hatred is ingrained in POC; when we’re taught all our lives that we’re inferior, y’know, it’s that much harder to argue for being treated with respect.”

    This I must disagree with. You are selling PoCs short. Do you truly believe that you are inferior? If you do then that is your choice. No person can force another person to think something or believe something if the other person refuses to do so. You are the sole commander of your mind. Someone else may force physical compliance with something, but they can’t force mental compliance without the other person’s cooperation.

    A victim has no power. If you accept the mantle of victimhood, you relenquish your power. This is why I admire Ghandi so much. He basically said to India, “We are not victims. We are not powerless against the British.” The odds against him were overwhelming and yet he did not hesitate to take them on.

    Don’t assume that I’ve never experienced discrimination or intolerence. I am a first generation American. My parents were both immigrants. They, and I, have experienced discrimination. I have been treated rudely by some people because I was ‘different.” Guess what? My attitude that I was just as good as anyone else and was just as worthy of respect never changed.

    “Did you notice that you find the non-white guy too biased (and you don’t like his tone), and the white guy unbiased? That might be true, but your post is consistent with a *huge* trend of people in a privilege group finding their own group’s version of other cultures more palatable than culture-internal versions. ”

    I have yet to read either book. Have you? If you have not, why do you assume that Ottens thought the white author was unbiased because the white author is of his own group? Why do you automatically assume that the white author is the biased one?

    To look at a white person and automatically assume they are biased is itself a biased attitude. You are making assumptions based on the color, or perceived color, of the person’s skin. Bias is not the sole property of whites. One of the most recent examples I have encountered was an anti-gay article by a African-American author. His whole view was that gays were out to destroy America, and he was pretty nasty about it too. Some of his other works were of a similar tone targeting feminists and the United Nations… all “out to destroy American culture.” I don’t know whether he had ever personally encountered any feminists or people from the U.N., but I could tell that he had never personally met any gay people. I have several friends who are gay, and the claims the author was making were so far out in left field that it was almost funny… would have been funny if he hadn’t been so serious about it.

    I will be reading both books with an open mind. I will also be checking out other works by the two authors. If there is a bias on the part of either author, it will become apparent. I will not assume one way or the other before then.

  63. “No person can force another person to think something or believe something if the other person refuses to do so.”

    I have to disagree with this.

    The architecture which our psyche runs on is largely invisible. The core beliefs about ourselves which dictate the way we interact with the world and how we see ourselves are buried very, very deep down and the majority of people seem to go throughout their entire lives being unaware of them.

    If people–people of colour, of minority, anyone–are born and raised in an atmosphere where certain beliefs about them are endemic in the society around them, they will pick up those beliefs and those beliefs will form part of their psyche’s invisible architecture. Those beliefs of their own supposed inferiority will dictate how they see themselves and the world, and they won’t even be aware it’s going on inside their heads. It’s not a case of people willfully believing themselves to be inferior or hating themselves, but of them being programmed to do it and not even realising it’s going on. And, when you do realise it’s going on, it is very, very hard to stop.

    I didn’t grow up as part of a minority and I’m not part of one now (well… not really), so I can’t presume to speak for everyone. All of the above has certainly been true in my own experience, though.

  64. Deirdre,

    I have been reading over your reply again and again, trying to figure out the best way to express to you how I REALLY feel (and believe me, it is NOT nice).

    Now, I understand you are trying to hand me an olive branch to show that you mean well. Essentially, what you are trying to say to me, from what I understand is, “please be patient! Please be kind and share! Please understand that other people are ignorant and you must teach us! And most of all, please understand, other people are different!”

    DO you honestly believe that I do not work from this position, everytime I engage in discussions like this? Do you honestly think I don’t understand that people are ignorant, are greedy, or simply do not understand? Do you really think I am not trying my damnedest to be patient with people like you, who masquerade as an ally, as someone who understands my position, yet cannot manage to just shut up and listen and insist on relaying their own opinions as if that would reconcile all of us?

    Because I do, so your post is insulting as all get-out. I AM taking the time to educate you. I AM taking the time to be extremely patient, crafting my responses the best I can without blowing my fucking brains out in frustration. I AM trying to share with you, but on MY own terms, because I, and many others, have deemed the terms of the dominant group unacceptable.

    You can hawk your mission of peace all you like – at the end of the day, I, and those like me, will still have to face the hordes of ignorant masses trolling our ass for refusing to placate the status quo. I’m the one who will be denigrated because I refuse to commodify pieces of my culture for the edumacational benefit of folks not from it.

    I’m not the one who needs talking to here. I derive no comfort from your understanding, and frankly, your post sounds like you’re just trying to make yourself feel better about having learned something. Which is great, mind you, I’m glad you’re learning something new here, tiny drop in the ocean and all, but it’s not really helping me.

    Also, what Dylan Fox said.

  65. “The Irish managed to do it. In the mid-19th century, they were considered the lowest of the low in America. Blacks were considered “better” than the Irish. The Irish managed to hold on to their heritage while welcoming anyone who wanted to experience Irish culture. It wasn’t easy, but Irish culture survived and thrived in America.”

    I don’t know what you’ve been reading or your family’s experience, but to my knowledge, the only reasons black people might have been considered “better” than the Irish included the fact that white people had significant control over black people AND, during the slave era, rich white folks had paid money for their black slaves, while the Irish were cheap immigrant labor that could be thrown away into the bayous and railroads and everywhere else for free.

    Most of the Irish families I know of that came into the US pre-Civil War expunged their familial culture and assimilated into the mainstream, which they could do because they WERE white people. By erasing their language, accent, and cultural practices, they became part of the white culture. Irish assimilation is an example of white privilege, btw.

  66. Jha,

    I am truly sorry if I offended you or came across as preachy. That was not my intention. When engaging in discussions of this sort I do tend to get wordy because I am trying to convey my thoughts clearly (I much prefer face-to-face conversation), and especially so if I feel strongly about something. Again, my most sincere apologies to you and anyone else if I have come off as insulting.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insight with me.

  67. @Deidre –

    Educating is a tiring thing because Jha has heard the exact same arguments in this thread probably a hundred times at least, and this is the experience of a lot of minority members who try to educate. They’re human, they’re going to get frustrated and angry – not at your in particular, but at inequality in general and the fact that they have to educate. There is no good choice, it’s either educate everyone you run into and exhausting your energy levels or put up with ignorance that maintains a racist status quo. And when their patience runs out and they choose the latter people will accuse them of not doing right thing by not educating!

    Understand that your post comes off as entitled (or shall we say privileged?) to education. By existing in the dominant culture, minorities already know what (not) to say, and how (not) to offend. And now on top of experiencing *-ism, they have to take on this extra burden of education when all they want is to live their lives with *-ism?

    It is an unfair situation, but I think most people accept the need to educate as a reality. But you lecturing people on how they may not be doing enough or they are somehow taking on the mantle of victimhood by NOT educating is really quite insulting.

    RE: Bias
    Everyone is biased full stop. An individual act of bias is not really important, but systematic bias/racism/sexism/*-ism is made up of individual acts, and therefore no individual act works in a vacuum. I think this is what Jha was trying to point out to Ottens – that his individual belief may be indicative or contribute to systematic racism. Unfortunately these beliefs are so ingrained that often we don’t see them for what they are – myself included. Right now there is a huge white-bias in my cultural consumption and that’s something that I have to come to terms with and constantly question.

  68. Deirdre: no, of course I don’t think I’m inferior. But you clearly don’t understand what I mean if that’s what you think I’m saying.

    I’m saying that every day of my life, I get dozens if not hundreds of messages telling me that I am inferior, that there are people and there are incidental dark-skinned people like myself, that I am at best interesting/exotic to the People, that I shouldn’t upset them, or expect anyone to see from my point of view but rather that I should learn to see from People’s point of view, that I should hide my upset because it might upset them, that if I cause trouble I should just go back to where I came from, that I am not beautiful, that clothes are not made for me, that my name is “so pretty” which means “so foreign and we can’t pronounce it but we are polite about that”, that protagonists in books can’t look like me unless the book is a heavyhanded white-feminist-message about the misogyny people like me just accept, that my English is so good (as though this is surprising or exceptional), that my people aren’t really civilized.

    I am Othered. So are most people of color in this world, and if you think that it’s as simple to get out of the insidious presuppositions that instills in us, well. I envy you your privilege, cause wow, it’s showing.

  69. Deirdre: Also, well, if your reading comprehension doesn’t extend to seeing the difference between “You might be right but what you said is consistent with a whole bunch of ingrained unconscious racism” and “YOU’RE BIASED ZOMG” then I’m afraid I’ve been wasting both our time trying to communicate.

  70. Thank you, everyone for your comments and criticism. Again, I apologize to anyone I may have offended. It truly was not my intention.

    Success to you in all your endeavors and peace to all.

  71. Deirdre: I suspected as much that that was the case. I don’t like being mean, either. I do hope what’s been said here helps you in your process of self-examination and self-education. It’s a big Internet out there (and I’ll be helping Allegra compile links), so information shouldn’t be too hard to find. Good luck.

  72. […] Goh makes a good point when she determines that Orientalism is “really about what Europe thinks about the East,” which means; […]

  73. Dear Jha,

    We’ve been reading the recent conversations regarding Orientalism in steampunk with great interest. As upper middle class WASPs, we tend to be hesitant to weigh in too heavily on debates over racialized perception; but did want to bring one article to your attention, along with some thoughts which it inspired.

    The article, “Preface for a post-postcolonial criticism” is by Erin O’Connor and can be found in volume 45, issue 2 (Autmn 2003) of Victorian Studies. In the research for your editorial you probably already came across this; but if not, we believe it is the origin of the term Victorientalism (or at least one origin, it is entirely possible that it arose de novo later and elsewhere) and has some interesting points to make regarding your concerns. To summarize, O’Connor argues that there is a tendency within the scholarly community to look for – and thus, to find – examples of fetishism of the “Orient” within the literary works of the 19th century in order to establish that this literature was not just created within an Imperialist culture, but was Imperialist literature, per se. She argues that this aggressive campaign has been so successful largely because of a desire to find the exotic other within the Victorian canon – and that this results in a fixed obsession on perceived Eastern influences. It is this – the fetishizing not of the Orient by Victorians, but of the Orient within Victorian literature by scholars of Victorian literature – which she names as “Victorientalism.” If you have not read the piece it deserves your attention, but here is one paragraph which nicely reiterates one of her conclusions.

    “The rote character of this branch of Victorian studies might be read as an analytical type of the leveling that has been seen to accompany the colonialist spread of Western mass culture, the devastating loss of tradition, ritual, and belief that has become one of the principal preoccupations of postcolonial writing. Cultural imperialism may even be said to find its interpretive analogue in the critical imperialism of postcolonial literary studies, whose profitable investments in the Victorian novel may be read as a textual instance of reverse colonization. As such, the sheer uniformity of this work should alert us to the possibility that something akin to Said’s Orientalism is at work here. Call it Victorientalism-the mining of a distant, exotic, threatening but fascinating literature to produce and establish a singularly self-serving body of knowledge elsewhere, a body of knowledge that ultimately has more to tell us about the needs of its producers than about its ostensible subject matter.” (O’Connor 2003)

    Given her neologism’s adoption within the “steampunk community,” we felt that this parallel bears further discussion. In particular, we would argue that many, although certainly not all, of the commodities which are construed as ‘fetishizing’ the Orient within steampunk (e.g., kimonos, belly-dancing, kohl, chopsticks; but should we add porcelain, silk, tea?) have, through a long (a millennium, in some cases) and multifaceted process of globalization, become elements of “World Culture” with no more substantial signification of “Eastern” than the ubiquitous “von” in steampunk aliases is of the “Germanic.” Thus, our discovery of a racist/imperialist agenda with the use of these objects might be construed as a function of our own desire to discover them. In short, it may be those looking for Orientalism within Steampunk who are in fact the Victorientalists.

    Subsequent academic analysis of O’Connor’s argument raised an issue with which we agree, in this context and in that of steampunk – namely, that the reprehensible theoretical predilections of literary critics don’t change the sociopolitical reality of 19th century British and European Imperialism. The “post-postcolonial criticism’ called for by O’Connor is subject to the obligations of politically responsible academic discourse. Luckily, steampunk as a literary genre and a form of grassroots amateur theatre performance is situated firmly within such postcolonial discourses. Whether by our continued love of the deft social criticism inextricably soldered among the pistons and clackery of works by Gibson and Sterling, Stephenson or Powers, or by the fact that we are cognizant inhabitants of a globalizing era participating in an ironic pageant of our own culture’s historically insinuated hegemony, we remain conscious of the social issues naturalized by the social institutions (imperial armies, totalitarian regimes, medical bureaucracies) we pantomime.

    At least that’s one thought. We look forward to reading more of your commentaries and following your thoughts on silver goggles.

    Best,

    Parliament & Wake

  74. I’ve read both this and In Defense of Victorientalism, and I don’t think the defense that the Victorians who were into chinoiserie and whatnot weren’t bad guys makes any sense, or that steampunk is fiction. We don’t exist in a fictional world; we know that Asia is real and we include Asians; my closest Japanese friend gets really uncomfortable when she sees Buddhas used as ornamentation. I hope members of the steampunk community will remember that they don’t exist in a vacuum of pure art or play. I’d really like those who’ve forgotten that to think about the fact that Asia, specific and widely varied Asian cultures, and Asian religions are not fantastic symbols to manipulate but continuously existing parts of our world, and that Asians, to whom all of this may be much more immediate and meaningful, are part of our steampunk community, regardless of whether any people of obvious Asian origins attend a specific reader’s picnic or club. I urge people to take a breath and think about this rather than getting their backs up about being told what not to do.

  75. Steampunk and neo-Victorianism aren’t historical Victorianism. They are fictional, romanticised views of the British Victorian era through the lens of Jules Verne and HG Wells. It’s about fashion and style, manners and technology that never really existed in the mainstream.

    The true Victorian mindset was racist and also extremely prudish and sexist. But we ignore those elements because it’s not the mindset we’re after. So don’t stop others from revisiting the styles, manners and other likable elements of the Victorian era just because there are some you don’t like.

  76. I want to raise awareness about the spector of racismalizing. It’s plain to see in this article, by every right thinking citizen of the world, that racializingism is the real threat.

    Yes, we can use the language of semiotics and structuralist and post-structuralist anthropology to make racingitismation seem “cool” (excuse the jargon, that’s a “beatnik” word for “interesting” or “laudable” and I hope they will forgive me for using it here) but it’s not cool. It’s unfriendly. It’s sour. it’s not hakuna matata (I got that term from a Disney movie, so I’m pretty sure it’s safe to use).

    Reading what Jha has written, which is certainly well meaning and intended to be constructive, I think about the depradations that I must suffer as a man (I was born male and I have male ancestors going back at least 200 years) every day when I read women authors who try to “imagine” my “culture.” My culture has been misunderstood and ridiculed by women since they first invented culture and told my ancestors what it was. I usually suffer in silence, but if it’s okay to complain, then I want to complain that steampunk involves references to technology and practices that were almost exclusively male created (Mary Shelly was the first and most famous interloper). What are ladies doing commenting on it? Mind your own whalebone corsets!

    And I am also the heir of past imperialists. Everyone dumps on the imperialists, but if we were so powerful, how come we all lost our empires? Stop picking on us, you post-aboriginal-post-colonial-posties. Let us have our memories of having oppressed your forefathers. You don’t know, maybe they liked it. You weren’t there.

    But I *don’t* complain, I’m not complaining, about that. Life is tragic. To be understood is not a civil right. We all must bear the pluralists burden.

    Racialisationizism I define as the process of trademarking a set of symbols and patterns as a proxy for a past grievance on the part of one self-declared cultural group toward another. And to that I say, it’s just a subtle form of bullying. Everybody wants power. But do you have to picket and police our very fantasies?

    I could understand if the Victoribilentialism meme involved actual slavely or genocide. But does it really? No. You’re stretching. You’re streeeeeetching to find something to gripe about.

    Please stop the racimizizingalism. It does not become you.

  77. James, I have absolutely no idea whether you are being serious or not.

    If you are, you’re kinda scaring me.

  78. I’m curious how the double standards around this topic are going to be justifed. Jha you seem to be quite OK with the word “steampunk” and that it stereotypical images it conjures up of 19th century European culture, yet “Victorientalism” or even Oriental itself is offensive because it conjures up stereotypical archtypes?

    The White Privilege is another good one. Which white are we talking about? The Irish? The Welsh? The Polish, Greek or Romanian who were subjugated by other nationalities? And which Asians? Mongolian? Japanese? Pakistani? Indian?

    Steampunk has more in common with Mary Poppins than it does with actual 19th century history and probably about as accurate on the accents as everything else. That historical racist practices and misconceptions existed I don’t think you’ll get any disagreement on, but we’re not talking about historical Orientalism, we’re discussing a newly made up term that takes part of that and remakes it. Sort of like steampunk.

    That you’re OK with essentially fictitious generalisations of Western Culture, but go nuts if someone suggested something like this ( http://www.seanpaune.com/2007/03/13/umwow/ ) is OK strikes me as a very large double standard.

  79. The difference, Baralier, is that the Victorians are in the past. They are dead and gone, and it doesn’t really matter what the hell we say about them (although you know what? I do get pissed off when people misrepresent the Victorian era without really understanding anything about it. In all of this, educating yourself is the key).

    On the other hand, the word ‘Victorientalism’ effects the perceptions that potentially an entire community has against a WHOLE LOAD of people who are very, very real and very much alive. And these people aren’t just some kind of invisible force outside out community that never have anything to do with us and that we cannot do any damage to. They are involved in our community and care about it as much as we do, and we cannot just start misrepresenting them and their culture because we think it looks cool.

    I see what you’re saying, increasingly I also feel as though steampunk is a form of exotification and fetishisation of the past. The difference is that by doing that to the Victorian era, we’re not actually really hurting people. When we start treating real, living people like that, the goalposts have changed.

    Regarding white privilege, I’d suggest reading up through the other comments that have been made as this has already been discussed.

  80. Your post has been added to a Linkspam roundup.

  81. Yeah, I get pissed off with a lot of the representations of the Victorian past we see. Do people in other countries actually believe it was all people in top hats talking in stupid accents? That’s my cultural history you’re butchering there, you know. As Allegra says, it’s not doing any harm to living people, but it’s sure as hell annoying.

    Mind you, it would be nice if I could watch a Hollywood film where the British guy wasn’t some form of a useless Hugh Grant fop, deeply sinsiter and morally corrupt Hannibal Lecter, or morally corrupt and cowardly Gaius Baltar…

  82. […] SteamPunk Magazine » Countering Victorientalism There is a fairly recent term that has sprung in the annals of steampunk: Victorientalism. It is used to refer to steampunk that is inspired by the Orient, the vague, large region that was strange and new to Western explorers back in the day when there was no Internet and travelling took many months of dangerous journeying. […]

  83. Baralier, you probably missed that Steampunk is done by whites, rendering your entire argument moot.
    But then, reading comprehension or rational thought doesn’t seem to be things you go by…

  84. OMG James, are you for real? There’s so much race and class and gender fail in your comment I don’t even know how to begin how to dissect it, so I’m just not going to engage.

    Baralier, UM WOW LOL WHUT at the link.

    Let me just say that 19th century Europe is pretty default. We learn European and American history, even all the way in piddly “Third World” countries. Even with the stereotypes, it is not hard to recognize the Victorian standard as being normal and default in steampunk, just like the white male experience is normal and default in American culture (and if you don’t feel the same way, well, clearly you ain’t paying enough attention to your own mass media).

    To be frank, I’m not fond of stereotypical Victorianism either. However, it is fairly easy to divide the stereotypes from the true lives of the people involved. Orientalism doesn’t do that. It banks on the stereotypes, and the power imbalance involved doesn’t give voice to the actual people to express their true lives. Moreover, stuff like this alienates minorities from wanting to participate, which skewers the power imbalance even more.

    I don’t know what YOU think steampunk is like, but I have seen MANY opinions on what it is, and I can tell you and I have vastly different opinions on what the point of the exercise is.

  85. Just wanted to say how much I appreciated reading the dialogue going on here; I have a lot to mull over.

  86. Damn! Honestly, how many of you detractors & derailers have actually read or even paid attention to Jha’s article. I keep reading over it and unless you’re bringing the straw & bs, her article already [calmly] spells everything out for you and answers some of your questions.

    -Ani8

  87. Excellent piece. The comments made me run for some anaesthetic liquor but the OP was wonderful.

  88. Great bit of dialogue going on here.

    I understand what Jha is saying with regards to steampunk, but having traveled extensively in Asia, living in China (Beijing) and Japan (Asahikawa), I can say that what she describes goes on there much more there – much more common, and to a greater degree (bear with me for a moment…)

    In the Asian countries I lived and visited, racism (and fetishism of Western cultural artefacts) is on a level matched by the Victorians. I was stared at in public places. Some shopkeepers and waitstaff refused to serve me because of my race. Others were continuously amazed that I could use chopsticks. My Chinese is decent (spoken, anyway) and my written and spoken Japanese is pretty fluent, but people would not accept that I could speak anything but English. Also, everybody automatically assume that I’m American because I’m white. People buy ‘large nose’ masks for parties. The list goes on. I can’t help but notice similarities (however cursory) to PoC finding themselves in Western societies a century ago.

    Everyone will have unfortunately encountered racism of some form or another in North America. My Asian-American friends have told me about their experiences in daily life there, and the racism is somewhat more subdued given the laws against racism due to the civil rights movement. I can’t imagine what pain they would feel if they were asked continually if they could speak English, or if people expressed amazement that they could use a knife and fork. Or refused service because of their race. Yet this sort of thing is done in Asia to Caucasians (not just Europeans/North Americans – consider the treatment of Japanese to Ainu; Han Chinese to Uighurs and other non-Han peoples). It goes both ways, often simultaneously, depending on the setting (another example: the shabby treatment of atheists in the US and other countries with religious majorities).

    This is why I question the use of the term racism in this context. I would say what Jha describes is culturalism, or cultural imperialism (in this case: theft of cultural artefacts or ideas without attribution). Orientalism cannot be attacked without also attacking (or at least acknowledging) what I would call Occidentalism. It goes beyond race to culture. Calling it racism waters down the term, and unfortunately reduces its effect.

    What I have written here is not meant to dismiss or marginalise Jha’s excellent arguments in any way. It is simply a point to consider. Commodification of culture occurs by dominant groups everywhere. Ownership of cultural artefacts can only be attributed through education – once something is shared, it is no longer really owned (as such – it is in the public domain and others are able to adopt it). I would agree that the attitudes behind “Victorientalism” have to go – the blind adoption of things foreign-looking for the sake of foreign-ness, without any sort of attribution nor knowledge of its source nor significance in the original culture.

    In academia, one understands and acknowledges (enforced through citation and peer review) the source of ideas. As a person who has lived in many places, I strive for knowledge behind everything I see and use. If I adopt something, I want to know its origins. And if someone asks, I tell them (heck, I usually tell them, even if they don’t ask!). However, the danger in branding such things as racist is that people like me get branded as racists because I am white and have or use something that is originally from a “non-white” culture.

    So if the intent of fetishism behind Victorientalism is no longer there (through knowledge and acknowledgment of source), is it Victorientalism anymore? Is that when it becomes Asian-inspired steampunk? (Can you clarify, Jha?)

    If we’re going to point some fingers, mine is pointed squarely at capitalism and greed. But those aren’t going away anytime soon!

    (my, that was long. It could be its own post!)

  89. Hey, I just read the article and discussion (was linked from a LJ post of a friend)… very interesting food for thought.

    Jha – Are you Jha’Meia? From ShinraOnline? If so, small internet. I recognized your eloquent writing. 🙂

  90. Please be aware that as the debate on this article has rumbled on for a LONG time now, and the arguments in the comments is now growing increasingly circular and flame-like, we have decided to comments-lock this post.

    Anyone who is interested in further discussion should keep an eye out for an announcement regarding a debate involving the whole steampunk community (on this matter and others) which will be taking place in the coming months.

  91. […] claim draw some fierce reactions, from Jaymee Goh for instance who opined that the very term Victorientalism is a racist one that “maintains the East-West dichotomous […]

  92. […] i transferred. it was obvious when i began reading more about postcolonialism, white privilege, the Orient as a purely Western construct (and here i’d been referring to myself as an Oriental! oh all the novels with their […]

  93. […] one example (and the implications of that issue has already been discussed at length by myself and several steampunk sites and observers). G.D. Falksen’s article on Tor.com “The World is Not […]

  94. […] one example (and the implications of that issue has already been discussed at length by myself and several steampunk sites and observers). G.D. Falksen’s article on Tor.com “The World is Not […]

  95. […] “Countering Victorientalism”, Steampunk Magazine, 2010, disponible online aquí. […]