This article has been previously published on Free the Princess and in Doctor Fantastique’s Show of Wonders, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission
Part 1 Multiculturalism: One compass, many directions
When one thinks of the words “steampunk” and “multicultural,” there’s a moment of head-scratching. Since steampunk has existed as an aesthetic style, first identified as a form of British Victorian aesthetic expression, the word conjures up images of stuffy, pale-skinned aristocrats donning goggles on their top hats while flying about in their dirigibles. “Multicultural” sounds too modern, too varied, too irrelevant to associate itself with the likes of what is steampunk, standards that are quickly-becoming formalized as the subculture becomes exposed to the mainstream and examples of the subgenre’s style become more pop-culture friendly (when Lady Gaga dons goggles and twisty pipes on her head, you know it’s a sign that people are Getting It). Multicultural steampunk, however, is not only another variant of steampunk, but, in my opinion, is intrinsic to the definition of steampunk as it exists as a form of creative expressive subversion. Thus, the average steampunk engages in more aspects of multicultural steampunk than one would assume; while likewise, multicultural steampunk is a prime example of how someone can grasp the “punk” banner by the handle and wave it for themselves.
Unlike the term steampunk, multiculturalism can be very simple to define–here’s the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:
Main Entry: mul·ti·cul·tur·al
Pronunciation: \ˌməl-tē-ˈkəlch-rəl, -ˌtī-, -ˈkəl-chə-\
: of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
Like steampunk, however, the concept and application of multiculturalism is ever-evolving. In addition, unlike its common mainstream perception, multicultural isn’t always about race and non-European cultures. Multiculturalism, in fact, is a constructed concept created to counter another constructed concept: that of the “dominant culture,” the one that the majority of people are told they identify with. In the case of North America and Western Europe, the “dominant culture” is that which caters to the perspective of the white, middle-class, CIS-gendered, straight, able-bodied, Christian male. Already, we can call the dominant culture a bunch of bull, because a majority of us do not identify with what is considered the “dominant perspective.” We are women, of color, of different faiths (or atheist or agnostic), of various sexual and gender orientations and economic backgrounds and with different physical capabilities. One can see how there are many aspects of our lives that exist outside of the dominant framework and that in itself reveals the relevance of multiculturalism to many people. I’ll get back to this point later.
But for the sake of this post, I’ll be talking about multiculturalism primarily in relation to race and non-Western cultures, and in relation to an Anglo, Western-European dominant culture. A large majority of steampunk subculture exists in areas where this is the dominant culture; furthermore, as one speaking from an observational standpoint in a larger community, it’s also the dominant culture I’ve grown up in. Besides, I certainly don’t possess the life experiences and educational background to speak about the steampunk community as it functions in, say, Japan or southeast Asia or even Eastern Europe.
First of all, in order to define the importance of multiculturalism and its impact on steampunk (in ways which may surprise you), let’s go back to how multiculturalism has developed and its largest impact upon society: as an educational method in reaction to modes of Western education created during the nineteenth-century.
Part 2 The Learning Factory: the Development of Mass Education in the Victorian Era
Modern English education reform began in the nineteenth century after the Industrial Revolution came in full swing. Previously, the most common form of public education were in parishes where children were taught to read (in order to learn the Bible) and usually very little else. Further vocational education came in the form of compulsory apprenticeships to learn a trade skill. The upper classes, of course, had the opportunity to send their children to be educated at the oldest universities or sent them overseas to France or Germany. Ideas about education, though, began to change in the 1800s. The promotion of technological growth, however, did not come hand-in-hand with the idea of secular, compulsory education. In fact, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution was well underway, most children growing up in rural and urban areas remained on the farm in or factories. It was more practical to have children earning money for their families than the costs of extensive education. Furthermore, the aristocratic classes did not see any usefulness in educating the masses and it was hard to rally support for public education in the realms of the law.
Measures were taken to increase education of the poor majority of English society, starting with Robert Raikes’ Sunday School Movement which began in 1780 and by 1814, had taught 1.25 million children. Throughout the 1830s other law measures put public education to the forefront, building schools for the poor, and establishing non-denominational schools. In 1840, the Grammar School Act expanding the school curriculum to include not only basic maths and reading, but science and literature too. The English government, however, became more concerned about educational reform because of increasing social unrest. Know Britain gives a thorough outline about the development of education and points out that,
“In the second half of the 19th-century crime and pauperism increased, so did riots strikes and social unrest. The commercial and manufacturing supremacy of Britain was in decline and this was seen to be mostly due to the fact that other European countries had a more developed technical education system. Political stability and economic prosperity now seemed to be associated with the education of the people.”
A formal educational system was established in 1870 with the passing of the Forster Act, which established a system of boarding schools for English children. The creation of the modern textbook was also a Victorian innovation. Though textbooks have existed as early as the ancient Greeks, with the rise of compulsory education, the need for standardized educational materials became more important. Textbooks became standardized not only in England but throughout the Western world around the same time; in England and the British Empire during the nineteenth century were a number of classical textbooks written by Dr. John William Donaldson; in America the McGuffey Readers became popular. France, Germany, and other countries also developed their own formal modes of education, though in the Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden and central European countries like Germany and Prussia had started more modernizing reforms slightly earlier than England.
Mass education, of course, played a major role in colonial territories, primarily as a system where the native population can be subordinated and assimilated as part of the colonialist government and strengthening imperialist rule, both for practical economic and political reasons.
This education model has spread throughout with world through British colonialism and has had great impact on the development of educational curriculum in other English-speaking nations (ex. United States, America & Australia). Many European models also developed their own systems of education, and, for those that held colonial territories, those educational systems all had something in common with the British system. Among other things is that the way they, too, were replicated in their colonial territories and used as part of a system to 1) manage the native population into alliance with their colonial rulers and 2) contributed to idealizing Western canon in the humanities and social sciences and Western innovations in the maths and sciences over any native-born contributions or non-Western alternatives.
For example, in the case of the British Raj, one historical study commented that:
“The vacillating expansion of British-style education in the Central Provinces over six decades provided a small Indian elite with education, though British administrators had intended, in the early 1860’s, for education to produce far greater direct and Indirect changes among the population. As noted earlier, education was intended to achieve three objectives: first, to instruct an ‘agricultural middle class;’ second, these in turn would serve as a “lever” to raise the lower classes; and third, to train some Indians (especially those classified as Maratha Brahmins) for subordinate administrative posts.”
The idea that the natives at best would only be fit to run as minor cogs in a greater colonial system also goes along with the idea of Social Darwinism that was also popular in the nineteenth century. The effect of colonial education in the non-West had been long-lasting, especially as formerly colonized countries mentally, as well as socially and politically, untangle themselves from the legacy of imperialist bias. As Kenyan theorist and academic Ngugi Wa Thiong’o states in Decolonising the Mind, such an education: “…annihilates a peoples belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves”.
Part 3 Stirring up the Melting Pot: From Assimilation to Multiculturalism
In the case of the US and Canada, the issue of mass education in a society inhabited by multiple immigrant groups came to the forefront, and like their European powers, they stressed the theory of assimilation into the dominant culture. In the United States in particular, that idea was conceptualized as the “melting pot”–the idea that all cultures and peoples could be rendered into one harmonious stew of American nationality. The term was first coined in 1915 in a popular play of the same title by Israel Zangwill, where the protagonist David, a Russian Jew, declares:
“America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all the race of Europe are melting and reforming! Here you stand good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to–there are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchman, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians–into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American!”
The reality of the “melting pot” of course, has been proven to be severely flawed and resulted in the emphasis on the Anglo-European upon North American society as opposed to all groups showing their own contributions. This idea has also been shown as flawed in light of the fact that during the heralding of the “melting pot” during the same time, many quotas against the immigration of certain ethnic groups (like the Chinese) or the use of this idea to advocate Anglo-superiority (like the “English Only” movement). Even in the original text, emphasis is placed upon the formation of a stronger, American identity from Judeo-Christian European types, making no mention of other people of color or faiths.
In a book addressing multicultural educational policy, Critical Multiculturalism: Rethinking Multicultural and Antiracist Education, educational theorists Mary Kalantis and Bill Cope point out in their article “Multicultural Education: Transforming the Mainstream,” that assimilation policy overall was ineffective partly because of racism: “The name of the game, at least in part, was a structural racism designed to keep difference the way it was, rather than that more honest project of socio-economic assimilation that would have attempted to provide equitable access for all immigrants, and, in the New World, for indigenous peoples as well.”
The idea of multicultural education was the first step in a new way of rethinking diversity in education. Started in the 1960s as part of the civil rights movement in the US, the policy of multiculturalism was based on the ideal of expanding education beyond its Western Eurocentric focus (and here is a brief history for the curious). Versions of multicultural educational reform have also sprung up in other Western nations. In Canada, the government enacted an official government policy of multiculturalism; it is the only Western nation to possess one.
The results of the multiculturalism educational policy in the West, however, have been mixed. In terms of application, the policy has faced flaws in its implementation; Kalantis and Cope explain how many acts to implement multicultural initiatives in the mid-1960s and 1970s, were often underfunded or deemed as separate, supplementary educational initiatives that became the first to be cut during budget squeezes. They mention that many multicultural initiatives are often programs were ones made for communities of color with little resources or guidance, and not integrated into the general curriculum that would be beneficial for all students to know, especially the white majority. As a result, Kalantis and Cope explain that previous standards of Western-European hegemony in education remained unquestioned:
“[Multiculturalism] does not mean that educational authorities have to rethink they way mainstream public institutions or school curricula operate. It can construct the ‘ethnic’ or traditional ‘other’ as exotic in order to marginalize it, or, returning to the Greek roots of the word exotic as connecting the outside, in order to keep that other out.”
Only in the late 1980s has multicultural educational theory shifted again, to emphasize multicultural education that both solidified students’ ethnic identities while also helping out the community socially. Multiculturalism projects became community-based with a focus on how cultures intersect with daily life. This combination of grass roots social justice and education is far from being implemented as of today’s educational standards.
In terms of multicultural education in Western nations, however, the best sum-up has been made by Britologywatch in a discussion about multiculturalism in reference to Britain: “This involves saying that people of non-indigenous cultures are free to continue expressing their original cultural identities but must subordinate the beliefs, values and behaviours characteristic of these cultures to an overarching acceptance of, and submission to, ‘British values’ and British norms.” Multicultural policy in many Western nations has also faced scrutiny, and there have been recently flare-ups about its relevance to education, or fears that a multicultural education would mean the destruction of a cohesive national identity.
With so many hurdles multicultural initiatives had to go through in order to be implemented, how effective has it been since the ideas had been first advocated fifty years ago? As the anti-racist blog Restructure points out, multicultural policy as it is today has been used to treat communities of color in a paternalistic manner where they are only confined to talk political issues in terms of cultural initiatives. Discussion about other issues that are connected to systematic racism–such as poverty, job discrimination, criminal profiling, unaddressed concerns about violence against women and children of color, and hate crimes — and not encouraged in any other political sphere, because “multiculturalism masks them, it glosses them over, and it has become a policy of governing and managing communities of colour, so that those politics only get articulated in the name of culture, and culture is defined in highly patriarchal terms.”
Thus, multiculturalism has been identified as a progressive stance, but the results of implementing such a stance can be very different when it is not fully embraced.
Part 4 Steampunk Subculture & Modern Education: Teaching Yesterday’s History Today
What does all this educational theory have to do with the steampunk community? How does modern education become relevant to someone’s garage hobby of wielding together sonic rifle blasters or going around wearing a pith helmet praising tea? Why am I bringing a modern, everyday issue like education–something that usually comes up in politician’s election speeches or on public broadcast television marathons–into steampunk? Steampunk is just a hobby for most, a style for others, and a lifestyle for a handful, usually those who protest most standards of modern society anyways. How does education relate to the evolution of a subculture?
In a word: everything.
What we learn correlates with how we act. What we consider important and valued and what we do not–these are things we choose on our own, but also, is influenced by what others and society teaches us.
In the development of steampunk as a popular interest and as a subculture, many people profess they “stumbled upon” the word steampunk and then realize how that had defined their interests beforehand. One wonders how so many people from various walks of life so readily grasp onto the term “steampunk” to describe what they like. One consideration for steampunk’s popularity that seems too obvious (or, perhaps, too discomforting) to consider is this: because steampunk caters to the Western-European cultural hegemony.
Steampunk is nostalgic because it appeals to the dominant histories that many participants had been taught when they were children, through Western school systems or Western-inspired schooling systems.
Steampunk appeals because it plays into the educational structure which had been created to support the Western-European ideal.
And for people who realize that their interests are in-line with what is considered “steampunk”– from European history to Regency fashion to model trains and pocket watches and penny dreadfuls — more likely than not, their interests were fostered in environments that favor the Western-European hegemony. Many people have been taught only the Western Canon, the “classics” the literature and arts and histories of the West over the non-West. And the lingering effects of Western imperialism are connected to one’s interest in steampunk.
Yes, there are exceptions and arguments against this idea. For those living in Britain or other Western nations, there is the legitimate appeal of being interested in steampunk aspects rooted in where one is raised. Moreover, not all people in Western societies are into steampunk after all; if this cultural hegemony has had such as impact, wouldn’t everyone be “brainwashed” into liking only Western-European things? People from the West are interested in things from the non-West and vice versa.
I also want to note that there is nothing judgmental meant by recognizing steampunk as part of a Western-European cultural hegemony, though I suspect people may be offended. What people would get offensive about is “an accusation” that their personal freedom to like or dislike something had been manipulated in a “conspiracy theory” argument about societal machinations. That is not the purpose of this observation. The greater point is that what people like and what people don’t like does not bloom from nowhere. It is linked directly to what they are exposed to, particularly so during the impressionable ages of youth. If people only have a vague conception of what non-Western, non-Eurocentric histories, arts, inventions, etc are, then it’s not very likely at all that they would find a deep fascination with them, unlike that same connection that they get towards things from the West.
Thus, what cannot be dismissed is the way we were educated and raised by society has had an effect upon what we are interested in and how we choose to engage in that interest. And, for a majority of us steampunks, we all went through Western or Western-imposed modes of education. Modes of education that has had limited levels of reform since the end of the age of Western Imperialism, and have had limited success in reforming away from Western Canon.
For steampunks from former colonized countries, it means being taught the value of the Western and the Eurocentric before the native, and how the West holds the key values that need to be emulated for global success. In a comment that echoes Thiong’o’s earlier statement, Jha Goh says in her essay on The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: “I sometimes feel my ‘Western’ sensibilities are after-effects of British colonialism, or Western imperialism in general – it would explain my disdain for Malaysian culture when growing up, the admiration for Westerners who seemed so individualistic, who had all those bright ideas, who wrote such interesting stories that even a person on the other side of the world felt transported by them.”
For steampunks that identify as being part of the marginalized in Western nations, it means having your personal histories being erased, oppressed, or distorted to be in favor toward the dominant culture. It means when making a choice whether to assimilate or how much to assimilate, many marginalized people will make the painful choice of denying, hiding or masking their cultural and racial identities in order to “blend in” rather than “stick out”–while nevertheless always being recognized and treated as the outsider by the dominant culture.
For steampunks who identify with the dominant culture in Western nations, it means a gap in your own knowledge towards the rest of the world. It means hiding, denying, or masking other aspects that you know are outside the dominant culture (for example, being female or an atheist or queer) because you assume that, as part of “the majority,” you have to “fit in” as much as possible in order to succeed socially. And it is these gaps in knowledge and the limiting social-political standards created by the Western-European hegemony that contribute to the “-isms” of oppression that you may be unknowingly participating in. We are all cogs involved in this machine, even you, even me, even those grouped into the dominant culture who are fighting it (for to fight against something is to already recognize one’s relationship to it).
Part 5 Cracks in the Blackboard–Where the Universal is Personal
Though the concept of multicultural education has been around for fifty years, the influence of Western Canon and the support of a Western ideal still runs strong. To take an example from personal experience, even one generation ago — 25 years ago — US schools were immersed in facts that supported cultural hegemony of the West. There is, of course, a political factor to this: the year was 1985, the Cold War was seen as something never-ending. Rhetoric about the West versus the “second world” of the Soviets fighting power squabbles in the “third world” still had a great impact upon the global structure. But even when the Berlin Wall fell and the world political structure changed, the textbooks weren’t reprinted overnight. Moreover, on a local level and a national level, the realities of school funding, available resources, and state-wide testing also play a part into what children learn and what they don’t learn. And the reality of what should be taught versus what was actually taught still created lingering holes of knowledge that I am still remedying in myself.
I am a young adult who is part of the current “Generation Y” (also known as the “MTV generation”). I was raised in a moderate-liberal part of New England and went to a well-funded public school in a middle-class, white-majority community. Throughout my twelve years of public education, all of my teachers have been white, middle-class, and mostly Christian (I had one Jewish teacher in high school). I learned in grade school and high school about how Christopher Columbus “discovered America” in 1492 but not the resulting native bloodshed, about the role of “white man’s burden” in colonizing the world, and how the global threat of Communism aka the “domino theory” had justified proxy wars overseas. The only Asian-American author I read for school was Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings in eighth grade. The first black novelist I read for school wasn’t until high school with Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God my freshman year; I can only count two other black authors in my high school experience (The Invisible Man and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). I learned about colonial American history and the Revolutionary War during three different years in grade school. I learned about the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I knew all of Shakespeare’s plays and Charles Dickens. I read about colonialism in vague terms as something that the Europeans did during the “Age of Discovery” and in the 1800s. I never learned about the Trail of Tears or the Chinese Exclusion Act (I only heard of them because I skimmed chapters my teacher had skipped). I knew about the Holocaust as atrocity that persecuted only Jews (and not the gypsies or anti-Nazi Christians or homosexuals too), and all I knew about Japanese internment came from one student’s class final presentation (who also admitted that whatever America did to them was never really bad, in retrospect). My senior year high school history curriculum concluded with the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War (and I was in an AP-level class–classes designed to teach at college-level for advanced students).
In high school, I was never formally taught the past 40 years of history, the period that, as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, had impacted my life the most. I read about America’s guilt over the Vietnam War on my own time. And even those books contained gaps that I saw in my life. My father is South Vietnamese war veteran and my family had southern government ties on both sides, but if you read US history textbooks, the complexity the Vietnamese faced in fighting in their own civil war is only given cursory acknowledgment. In most war literature and histories available to the general public (that is, outside of university academic libraries), the Vietnamese only exist as the ruthless VC, the poor boat people in need of paternalistic US asylum or a faceless, pleading mass swarming US Embassy headquarters in 1975 á la Miss Saigon. My family’s story is rendered as a political mistake that resulted in the deaths of poor American boys. My parents fought for and lost a country, but records of their sacrifice are left in the wayside in my classroom histories. At the same time, I am American too, but I am treated like a foreigner in the only country I’ve ever known.
I was part of the first high school class that was required to pass a state-wise standardized test in history, literature, math and science in order to receive a high school diploma. While the intentions of state-wide testing are meant to ensure that everyone received the same quality education, the result was the cut-and-paste technique of teaching for a test. A systematic ruler was placed over our teachers’ blackboards, and we learned what we needed to know in order to pass. And what we needed to know had been determined not by our own curiosity or our teacher’s intentions, but by the silent yardstick of the government. Even today, education is still used as a tool to promote biased views in favor of the dominant culture, such as Arizona’s law banning the teaching of Latino-American history to Latino-Americans in school, or Japanese textbooks downplaying their WWII atrocities like the Rape of Nanking.
Learning is an aspect that that is considered key to steampunk subculture. Steampunks speak about their love of learning, the sharing of information, a community rooted in knowledge of the old and the obscure unearthed for today’s appreciation. But how much of that unearthed knowledge conforms to the political-geographical areas we had been taught to appreciate, compared with what we hadn’t been exposed to at all? Nostalgia for the culture of the past has also contributes to the rise in interest in steampunk over the last few years. In particular, people fall back upon nostalgia–to what they learned, to what they were taught, what had previously been considered as “the norm”–during times of hardship: economic worry, political worry, social worry. And what have we been taught growing up–that is, throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st? The value and triumph of Western-European hegemony against the non-West, whether it is in the form of Manifest Destiny, the fight against Communism, or the War on Terror.
Education, nevertheless, can be the method in which steampunk’s subversiveness can come to the forefront. The anecdote above is deeply personal to me, but I’m sure many people can identify with the realization that certain things they had known as children, what various adults and society had told them, was not always the entire truth. Only when one recognizes the unspoken power in which social systems work –both intentionally and unintentionally– can one start educating themselves about the true gaps in their knowledge. Not only knowledge like the beard styles men wore in the 1840s or the various evolutions of the steam engine, but also the history of African kingdoms pre-European contact or 19th century literature from the Middle East. This is why I believe that multiculturalism — a force that subverts the wrecks of history upon the mind — is integral to the evolution of steampunk’s social definition.
Part 6 Intersection of Steampunk & the Non-West: Endorsing the Hegemony or Rebelling with a Cause?
Until educational reforms promoting a more diverse curriculum comes into full fruition, however, the effects of the Western-European cultural hegemony in education creates challenges when steampunks engage with non-Western and multicultural alternatives to steampunk. From my observations, the intersection of steampunk and multiculturalism largely play out in two different ways:
1) In how marginalized people are perceived and treated in the community as an addition to the subculture rather than a previously existing group in the subculture;
2) In how white participants engage in non-Western, non-Eurocentric steampunk: ranging in a spectrum from co-opting imagery to promote a “rebellious” subversion to nostalgic objectification to a complete dismissal of it from steampunk whatsoever. In all instances, the non-Western is seen as additional, as supplementary, as compartmentalized, and as excluded from a more centered West in all forms of dialogue.
In terms of involvement of steampunks of color, I already commented upon the lack of visual attendance in my assessment of the Steampunk World’s Fair and at other conventions. Yet there are steampunk sites and groups run by people of color, some with a non-Western focus: Edwardian Promenade, Silver-Goggles, Afro-Steampunk in Black Science Fiction Ning community, Moorwing Archive on the Steampunk Empire, and Steampunk Nusentara are only a few examples. This imbalance between what I read online and what I see in person makes me wonder about how welcomed steampunks of color feel in physical spaces where their minority status is immediately identifiable, compared with their online personas.
In addition, a common defense against observation of a white-dominant steampunk representation is how “we can’t force people of color to like our stuff” and cries against having “quotas” in the steampunk community. Both are derailing tactics that ignores the honest examination of why peoples of color and from non-Western cultures may not be attracted to steampunk or may hesitate in revealing their racial or cultural difference in steampunk communities. One reason I had pointed out above — that steampunk as it is now caters to the Western-European hegemony — adds another implication: that the impression non-Westerners and people of color receive about steampunk is that it (at least unintentionally if not blatantly) would favor a white, Eurocentric audience.
Thus, another argument about marginalized peoples’ involvement that has been previously overlooked is the possibility that people of color and non-Westerners are very much interested in steampunk, but choose *not* to engage in the community because they do not consider the community a safe space for them. The most obvious example is the co-opting of steampunk by various conservative, right-wing and white supremacist groups, such as those seen on the white supremacist forums of Stormfront. Less obvious but still significant is the conversations sci-fi fans of color have about steampunk outside of steampunk community spaces. Garland Grey in her essay “Cause I’m Nerdcore like that: Towards a Subversive Geek Identity” notes that marginalized peoples are still aware of their outsider status in “nerd spaces,” even as they embrace these spaces that are supposedly accepting of mainstream outsiders: “Every time we enter nerd communities, we do so knowing that we may be shouted down and dismissed, bored to tears by useless pissing contests, have our legitimacy or motives questioned, or just be completely ignored.” In a more steampunk-specific example, naraht writes about the discomfort felt about the prospect of entering the steampunk community as a person of color: “Not that putting brass cases around iPods must inherently be ideological, but the glorification of explorers and adventurers in the late nineteenth century mould isn’t something that can be viewed in isolation. Deep down, or perhaps not so deep down, there’s a sense in steampunk that having an empire must after all have been rather fun. Perhaps for a few it was. And somehow people are still being persuaded to join in the fantasy that they would have been one of the privileged few.” And, as many people from marginalized backgrounds know, pretending to be “one of the few” can feel even more disingenuous when you are definitely *not* treated as one of the privileged few outside of fandom spaces.
Indeed, as outside observers of steampunk question whether the style chooses to romanticize an Anglo-centric Empire, current discussions about steampunk justify these questions. For instance, the argument that steampunk only takes place in Victorian England is one example. This definition is quickly being knocked down in steampunk dialogues, for it excludes many literary works that are considered steampunk, like Boneshaker, Leviathan, Girl Genius, Clockwork Heart and Alchemy of Stone. On the other hand, what also correlates with critics who state the “only Victorian England defense,” is the assumed whiteness of Victorian English society and then superiority of that whiteness in England’s massive hierarchy of empire. Although other nations engaged in imperialism and colonialism, no empire was ever as great as Britain’s. Coupled with that fact is the knowledge that many of these other nations (including European ones) had more visibly diverse populations (or non-white ones, as it is the case with Japan). Of course, the idea that there were no people of color living in Victorian England is not true, but their visibility in British Victorian society is not as widely acknowledged as it is in other societies. Therefore, when one argues for “Victorian Britain” as the sole location for steampunk, they are also indirectly associating the idea of a more visible Anglo-whiteness in empire-building and role of that whiteness with what is considered steampunk.
Intrinsic double standards also exist in how steampunk celebrates optimistic and fun creativity by imitating Victorian “stereotypes.” In the well-known “What Is Your Steampunk Style?” online quiz featured on steamfashion, for example, the creators point out how Victorian types play a significant role in subculture creativity and acceptance: “Most of these outfits are inspired by certain characters or images from Victorian history or steampunk fiction, and these break down into a collection of styles that share certain features in common.” The results of this quiz emphasize how white, European Victorian types are playful, interesting, and exciting: the Aristocrat, the Scientist, the Officer, the Explorer. On the flip side, representations that do not conform to the Western-European aesthetic are not featured, and the reason why they are omitted is obvious. This is because while Eurocentric Victorian types in steampunk fiction are depicted as positive and enjoyable, non-European Victorian types live on as today’s damaging stereotypes: The Dragon Lady & China Doll/Geisha Girl, The Savage, The Deceptive Mystic, The Manservant, The Ursurer, The Indian Princess. Since steampunk style has considerable pulp fiction/Victorian fiction elements, the creation of non-stereotypes for steampunk isn’t even considered. This oversight is not seen as problematic, though, as long as participants stick with a Eurocentric result. Thus, steampunk encourages the promotion of Western-European tropes as desirable while at the same time ignoring any possibility of creating similar positive non-Western models for creative play.
The most encouraged method for non-Westerners and people of color to engage in steampunk then, is by adapting the roles of the conqueror for their own use, by “assimilating” into the Western-European hegemony. This assimilation can be re-purposed into a rebellious act against mainstream society (as with the work of anachronaut) or seen as a celebration of steampunk’s minority inclusiveness. However, the act of assimilation also has uncomfortable echoes of reenacting the historical instances of assimilation that society had imposed upon marginalized peoples. In this case then, steampunk isn’t rebelling against the dominant culture’s standards of conformity, but imitates it in its own microcosm. The “melting pot” theory is played out once again, now in spaces of play as it had in society as a whole.
What can save steampunk into turning into another example of Western-European cultural hegemony is steampunk participants’ cheeky self-reflexive attitude towards history and their interpretation of it. A poster created by Brute Force highlights this awareness in the most sardonic (but quite insightful) way possible:
This ironic awareness of empire’s devastations in history is one way that differentiates steampunk from an unexamined interpretation of Neo-Victorianism.
In fact, steampunk aesthetics are continually evolving outside of London, as steampunk scholar Mike Perschon points out in his essay Leaving London, Arriving in Albion:
“Does it matter if steampunk leaves London? Absolutely. If the success of open-sourcing has taught us anything, it is that a proprietary grip in the information age results in the death of a technology. For steampunk to thrive, it needs to be free to be applied wherever people have an interest in gears and gadgets, in the tenuous spaces between memory and history, wherever dreams of traveling in an airship ignore the failure of the Graf Zeppelins. This freedom does not imply it ought to be frivolous or foolish. Good steampunk can blend high adventure with questions about identity, war, nationality, and technology….Further, steampunk’s emancipation from the corseted constrictions of Victorian society permit it to playfully examine what may end up being an endless array of worlds, times, and themes.”
While Perschon’s assessment is very progressive-thinking and optimistic, the means which steampunk employs to diversify its definition can be problematic. While views of cultural equality are encouraged, the message becomes less encouraging when promoted through vehicles that still endorse the concept of white supremacy in the community. The Gatehouse‘s editorial remarks denying racism’s relevance in its Victorientalism issue is 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 Enough…but it is Such a Perfect Place to Start” is an informative basic primer on non-Western steampunk possibilities, but the article’s title and authorship allude to a imperialistic relationship between the West and the non-West in the steampunk community by having a white male speak for people of color and their histories (of course, this perspective is countered by Jha Goh’s own work on Tor.com). The treatment of multicultural aspects, then, typically exists as a supplement to Western history controlled by white authorities. Extending this observation, then, one can argue that in steampunk, the non-West does not matter unless it has a Western association. In many historical-based steampunk narratives, the non-Western world exists in conjunction (if not subjugation) to the West as opposed to being independent from it or treated with equal respect.
The use of multicultural steampunk also risks the encouragement of cultural appropriation, especially as white steampunks are “inspired” by non-Western styles. Cultural appropriation is a complex subject, and as steampunks engage in steampunk belly-dancing (which I also discuss in-depth) and other forms of non-Western steampunk, results have been varied. As Canadian artist Richard Fung pointed out in his theory of cultural appropriation, interest in non-Western lands was spurred in part by the economic and political benefits they possessed for the colonizing nation/people:
“Foods, religions, languages and clothes all betray contacts with a larger world, which includes our closest neighbours, as well as distant imperial centres. There are no clear boundaries where one culture ends and another begins. But while some of this fusion may be celebrated as exchange, a larger proportion is the result of domination. The task of establishing cultural hegemony in the colonial context, for instance, entails the supplanting or harnessing of the social, economic and cultural systems of the subjugated, by those of the dominant power. For Native people in Canada, this has meant an often violent process of assimilation, coupled with the marketing of superficial difference either for profit (the tourism industry), or political gain (official multiculturalism)…..
Colonialism operated differently in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and varied also according to the colonizing power concerned. To enslave and uproot the population, it was convenient that Africa be represented as a place without a culture or a history of its own—requiring, of course, the excision of Egypt from that continent. On the other hand, the aesthetic contributions of India, China, and Japan had long been valorized in Europe, and it is the products of their culture and agriculture that motivated and justified colonialism in those parts.”
In steampunk, while there are sites and publications that focus on appreciating non-Western culture and histories in itself, much of non-Western cultural representation has also resulted in the commoditization of non-Western culture as steampunk accessory items (on Etsy you can find hundreds of Eastern, African, and Native examples of this). While the appreciation of the non-Western in steampunk can be positive, the relationship between this appreciation and consumerism reduces cultures into trinkets that can be made and bought by anyone.
Yet Perschon’s optimism about the use of multicultural steampunk cannot be completely dismissed, and I agree. Already I mentioned several sites that are actively contributing non-Western perspectives. As steampunk becomes a narrative vehicle used to question and reevaluate the oppressions of the past, standout examples of multicultural steampunk are popping up more frequently. Steampunk stories such as Joyce Chng’s “Moon Maiden’s Mirror,” Maurice Broaddus’s “Pimp my Airship,” Stephanie Lai’s “The Last Rickshaw,” Dazjae Zoem’s self-published Wonderdark and Jon Munger and Krista Brennan’s webcomic Virtuoso are all works that center around non-Western experiences that exists independently of the West. Jha Goh’s “Between Islands” tells a tale of politics on the high seas (and high skies) where several actors across several non-Western cultures stop the seed of British imperialism from ever sprouting in their land. Carolina Free State re-imagines a Native American world developing after expelling European colonists from their shores. Moreover, with steampunk subculture’s tendency to include non-steampunk artists into the fold, works that subvert European norms in order to create a voice for the subaltern, such as that of Nigerian-Brit Yinka Shonibare MBE and Native artist Kent Monkman, are also considered quite steampunk.
Conclusion: Why Multiculturalism is Steampunk
Overall, despite current flaws in its implementation, multiculturalism in steampunk is a welcome development in the subculture. Not only that, its promotion within the subculture fits a subversive premise that many already associate with steampunk. In rebellion against many oppressive Victorian ideas, steampunk’s use of multiculturalism can act contrary to the imperialist leanings in education. Moreover, the connection between steampunk interest and imperialist influences in education proves that the steampunk community cannot be enshrined on an imaginative pedestal, untouched by real life. Yet what does multiculturalism mean for the steampunk community now and in the future?
To steampunk hobbyists who don’t care about mixing politics with creative interests: this argument was not written to spoil your fun or to make you feel guilty. But an undeniable fact is this: you cannot deny that you are –all of us are– part of a greater cultural machine that had been constructed generations ago, a cultural system which impacted how we think and how we connect with others. To deny the political factor will always put you at risk in perpetuating socio-cultural machines of oppression whenever you engage in anything multicultural–that is, anything outside your own experience and upbringing. This applies not only to steampunks who identify with the dominant culture, but also to minorities outside of this culture.
The option of “being apolitical” limits people to two options: only to do “what they know”–Anglo-whites only doing British steampunk, Asians/Asian-descents only doing Eastern, etc–or using steampunk to perpetuate all the “‘-isms” that reduce them into imperialists supporters who choose to support all the problematic issues that occurred during the nineteenth century. If these options appear extreme, it is because they are. Most steampunks, whether consciously or not, act within a socio-political range. Even simple choices like whether or not to act racist/sexist/classist, to use slurs in-character, to play up stereotypes, or even to believe whether “racism exists” are all political decisions. Steampunks in general, for the sake of well-meaning civility, are steering themselves toward a progressive political mindset, even if they do not consciously realize it.
To the steampunk hobbyist who rejects an “apolitical” stance, remember that when you live in a multicultural world—in today’s world, in our world—to disregard hurtful messages or representations for the sake of art or play alone, is to miss the entire point of creativity: as a means of expression. And what do you want steampunk to express about yourself? And how does that expression affect others? The answers to these questions are not simple, but the journey taken to solve them is what matters.
To the self-proclaimed punks of steampunk: Multiculturalism is a vehicle of rebellion against those systematic oppressions in ways just as engaging and productive to “steampunk lifestylers” as D.I.Y.ing your wardrobe, supporting environmental causes, or advocating against centralized authority. You are fighting for freedom, and what greater freedom can there be than fighting for a world more acceptingly diverse than the one we had grown up in?
And a final word: we are all multiculturalists. At the beginning of my essay, I pointed out that the definition of multiculturalism includes more than race and culture. We are not carbon-copy human beings. We come from different backgrounds, across a spectrum of gender, class, race, abilities, ages, and cultures. Diversity is increasing both because of globalization and localization: the barriers of the world are falling away because of massive migration and de-segregation of society, and on the local level, people are choosing to keep and promote their individual cultures as opposed to assimilate. And as the world globalizes, customs and habits that had been previously viewed as different and foreign are now becoming familiar. Our awareness of the world is turning more cosmopolitan; our engagement with it, more global with the Internet.
All this emphasis on globalization and increasing role of technology sounds quite cyberpunk, doesn’t it? Add in overarching systems of control, larger paradigms impacting everyday relations, mass technology perpetuating our interconnected lifestyles and transmitting our ideas in a heartbeat: in terms of subculture development, steampunk fantasy is being created through a cyberpunk reality. Not that this is the hypocritical fulcrum within steampunk, or an “unsteampunk” blasphemy, but a social evolutionary signpost. You want your sepia-toned, sunny steampunk dreams? Now is the chance to mold one before it becomes choked with the chains of the past, by using the mindset and technology of the present.
Thus, multiculturalism captures that common sentiment expressed in so many steampunk online communities, websites, articles, interviews, documentaries and fan magazines. We’re creating yesterday’s future today. We’re picking apart the old to engage with the new. We’re rebuilding the past to construct a better future.
The steampunk era can be one for me and for you and for that person on the other side of the aethernets and halfway across the globe.
And it is happening now.
Note: Special thanks go to the following people—
To Matt Delman for contacting me with the offer of writing for Free the Princess, as well as for hosting the essay there as well as at Doc Fantastique’s Show of Wonders. This wouldn’t have happened without your prompting.
To C. Allegra Hawksmoor, Jha Goh, and Mike Perschon for your helpful feedback during the writing process.
Banks, James A. and Cherry A. McGee Banks, eds. Multicultural Education: Issues & Perspectives. Hoboken: Wiley & Sons, 2007.
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Goh, Jha. “The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective.” Silver Goggles. http://silver-goggles.blogspot.com/2009/10/intersection-of-race-and-steampunk.html#more
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“Multiculturalism in Canada.” Mount Allison University. http://www.mta.ca/about_canada/multi/#policy
Perschon, Mike. “Leaving London, Arriving in Albion: The Future of Steampunk” Exhibition Hall, Issue 6. http://efanzines.com/JourneyPlanet/JourneyPlanet06.pdf.
Restructure. “Multiculturalism displaces anti-racism, upholds white supremacy” Restructure! http://restructure.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/canadian-multiculturalism-displaces-antiracism-upholds-white-supremacy/.
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Author’s Bio: Ay-leen the Peacemaker is the founding editor of Beyond Victoriana (beyondvictoriana.com), a blog about multicultural steampunk and retrofuturism. For the past couple of years, Ay-leen has been involved with the steampunk communities in the New York metro area and New England as a convention speaker and general rabble-rouser. Her upcoming published work will be included in the fashion anthology Fashion Talks from SUNY Press this fall. She has also been interviewed about steampunk and its evolving subculture for Tor.com and for the Fall 2010 upcoming books The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image) and Steampunk: Reloaded (Tachyon Publications). She currently lives and works in New York City. You can reach her via email at attic [dot[ hermit [at] gmail [dot] com.