RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH! Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in Steampunk
In 2013, at Dragon*Con, I had the pleasure of being a panelist on the Around the World in 80 Minutes: Steampunk Multiculturalism panel, moderated brilliantly by Diana Pho, founding editor of Beyond Victoriana. My esteemed (eSTEAMed?) co-panelists were Cherie Priest, bestselling author of the Clockwork Century Series, which includes the wildly popular Steampunk novel, Boneshaker; Marina Gurland, Kimono historian and collector and Steampunk afficianado; and Kathryn Hinds, Steampunk, Fantasy and YA novelist, poet, editor, author of over fifty nonfiction books for adults and children and teacher of Middle Eastern Dance.
The conversation was powerful, engaging and interactive and had the feel of a bunch of highly intelligent, well-informed, but really cool and down-to-earth- people getting together to discuss – and find solutions to – some serious issues.
The theme of the day? Research!
Eventually, the conversation got around to cultural appropriation – a topic discussed often amongst Steampunks, as it happens often.
This is a deep issue and had to be addressed. I won’t tell you what the other panelists said, as Diana Pho has sworn us to secrecy in that regard – there will be a video of it released soon, as Alan Braden, known amongst Steampunks as Professor Upsidasium, recorded it and awaits the green light from Ms. Pho – however, I will share my take on the matter.
A working definition of “cultural appropriation” for me is the taking of some aspect, artifact or stereotype of a particular culture – usually something we consider cool – and using it as you please without an understanding and / or respect for what you have taken.
If you wear a Yoruba crown because you think it fits your Steampunk persona of Sir Richard Asshat, the Great White Leopard Hunter, but you know nothing of Yoruba culture (in fact, you probably pronounce it yoh-ROO-bah, when it is YOH-roo-BAH) or the fact that wearing a crown when you are not a chief or oba (“king”) is a capital offense in Yorubaland (even wearing a crown above or below your station is an offense), then you have committed cultural appropriation.
I am a master instructor of Yoruba, Mandinka and Wolof martial arts, an awo – or, initiate (“priest”) – of Ifa, Egbe and Obatala and War Chief (“Balogun”) in the Yoruba traditional culture. I live as a Yoruba, am well-versed in Yoruba history, sociology, psychology and cosmology and have respect and reverence for the traditional culture and for my teachers. I am also highly knowledgeable of Akan and Fon culture and sociology, thus I would cosplay an Akan, a Yoruba or a Fon.
I would not, however, cosplay as a Zulu. Though I am a man of African descent, Africa is not a country and African people are not homogenous. I know a bit about the Zulu and respect their culture, but I do not have a deep enough understanding of the culture to cosplay as Shaka Zulu’s right hand man, ‘Bandelezi, the Steam-Bearer,’ without committing cultural appropriation.
Am I being overly sensitive? Nope. Turning someone’s cultural identity into a caricature should be avoided, so the issue of cultural appropriation warrants caution and examination and deserves, well, sensitivity.
Everyday experiences of identity reflect people’s creativity in the way they express themselves as individuals. Stereotypes erase (“white-out?”) the personal experiences of identity and replace them with generalizations.
And cultural appropriation is not simply a “little mistake” or a “victimless crime”. The visceral reaction to having an identity that one associates with as an experience, yet disassociates with as a stereotype, is felt in the body and in the mind as an ache; a sickness. As Kristina Bui, a columnist for the Arizona Daily Wildcat says, “It’s a feeling I’ve always struggled to articulate –a discomfort that sort of just sits in the place between your heart and your stomach, quietly nagging.”
Cultural appropriation, at its root, is about power – power to name; power to define; power to appropriate someone’s cultural identity; and power to dictate how painful the resulting stereotype perpetuated by that appropriation should be.
Cosplaying a character from another culture without understanding of that culture and without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by that culture is ignorant, at best; racist, at worst; and an act of privilege.
However, Steampunk is about changing, or, at least, twisting history right? It is about “how the Age of Steam should have been”, correct? Then it is necessary that we know history; that we understand how the Age of Steam was, so that we can determine how it should have been. If we cosplay a “Steampunk Squaw”, we should research how First Nation women lived during the Age of Steam; we should study First Nation cultures and choose in which we are going to gain historical and sociological expertise; we should research the word “squaw”, understand it is an offensive term to First Nation women and change the name…if you give a damn. If you don’t, you are a racist. Just own up to it and move on.
“Well, I cosplay as an Egyptian Princess of Icelandic descent because I want to show the absurdities of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Egyptian,” you say. Well, unless your costume includes a billboard that reads “I am cosplaying as an Egyptian Princess of Icelandic descent because I want to show the absurdities of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Egyptian,” strangers will have no clue of your intentions and your costume will be just as hurtful.
The “punk” in Steampunk enjoins us to challenge the status quo. Please, let’s do so and be more thoughtful, knowledgeable and sensitive in our cosplay.
Research equals giving a shit; so, do it.