Perceiving A Book By Its Cover

Good morning, gentle readers.

I do trust that your winter, where-ever this season should find you, has begun in fun and adventure. And for those of you what celebrate Yule I hope ’tis a joyous one and promises you the next year will be one of wonderful things.

While I have been, at times, serious in my tone and my content I have also attempted to keep things light and friendly. I find humour is an excellent thing to keep the conversation enjoyable and the occasional chuckle makes discussion more vibrant. Today, though, I am going to write on a topic that has been making me increasingly angry. It is a topic I have touched upon before [please reference “Around the World in 80 Minutes” from September of 2011] and I’m afraid that this time I am going to be firm.

Please keep your misperceived white-guilt political correctness out of my Steampunk. Oh, dear reader, I shall freely admit to being strongly opinionated in many things but there is a certain oft presented point that truly stokes the furnaces of my ire. There are enough gender arguments, heated discussions of the socio-political Victorian influences in Steampunk, and other poorly stated comments to truly make a person wonder, at times, just why they may ever do more than just show up in appropriate dress, sit quietly with a tea in a corner, and go home after the poetry reading without ever speaking to another. And yes, things I’ve heard uttered in sincerity such as “Steampunk is where goth discovered brown” and “Steampunk is… well, have you seen ‘Wild Wild West’?” both get my dander up but this one topic truly makes me wonder.

It is something I have heard fair frequently and tonight it began with a gentleman stating: “It’s been my experience that us whites only understand cultural appropriation and could never grasp multiculturalism. (joking.. kinda)”

I call complete and utter PC bullshit on this, pardon my language, ladies.

Much like many of the other subcultures in North America and Europe the Steampunk community is, in the majority, Caucasian. I know a handful of folk from different ethnic backgrounds but it is, indeed, a group that is primarily what is called “White” [though in all honesty I am still sometimes confused by the term “White” and muchly prefer Caucasian, thank you very much]. This is true of the goth/industrial as it was and still is of the punk subcultures. It is true of the science fiction/fantasy fen and convention goers. Strangely, though perhaps not, I also find it true of the North American anime/manga subcultures though here my experience is only truly from a handful of cities and a couple of conventions. This is likely a geographically influenced occurrence as I have no doubt that the various subcultures in Japan, for example, are primarily populated by Asians.

So let us speak of cultural appropriation, shall we? And, as this deals with Steampunk, let us look at the Victorian era.

As has been pointed out to me by a very intelligent and learned young lady during my earlier writing there was a fascination among the Caucasians of this period with those things that belonged to other cultures. The Victorian era saw world travel and exploration as it had never been before. Dark areas on map were being explored and opened up. Adventure was available for those who could afford the time and money and it was written about to be shared with everyone who could read [or be read to]. It was a time of excitement. Archaeology was truly established during the reign of Queen Victoria and the fascination with history and past cultures was equaled by the fascination with current cultures that were not “our own.” And it was a two way street, ladies and gentlemen.

Trade flowed around the world and thus trinkets, keep-sakes, artwork, fabrics and materials danced between countries. Indian silk, Chinese fans, African carvings, Egyptian antiques, paintings of Indians [in talking with several who I count among my many friends I’ve discovered lately that most do not like the term “Native Americans” though I’ve yet to discuss the why of it] and many other interesting ‘foreign items’ poured into the heart of the British Empire through her vast trade networks. And things British flowed out.

The visiting Briton appeared often to the members of other countries as a very successful creature. He had tools of metal, clothing of strange fabrics and intricacies, amazing medicines, machines that performed astounding feats and created amazing things.

Take a few minutes and, rather than just relying on my words, do some research. Google is a good place to start though your local library is possibly better for it. Look for pictures from the Victorian era and focus on those photographed or painted in and from other countries. You will see many non-Caucasian peoples sporting top hats, waistcoats, morning coats, tailcoats and carrying walking sticks and parasols. They did this in imitation and in respect to the “powerful people of the mighty British Empire.” The thought was, and it is still true today, that to dress like a successful man was to become a successful man or to, at least, gain respect from other successful men. The British, during this period, were seen as the most successful, particularly by those who had less. The British Empire was powerful so it is not a surprise that others desired to be a part of that, to gain some of that power for themselves and to do so they imitated what they saw.

And yet by our own definition this was and is “cultural appropriation.”

Oh, indeed you will see pictures of British military wearing turbans and other ‘native’ headwear of different ethnicities, or sporting a very non-British outfit. In many cultures trading was a sign of friendship, of welcoming, with personal gifts being exchanged. The British caught on to this and headwear was oft traded with natives of other countries.

Who could resist a few mementos to bring home after a long military or trading tour? In our modern world it is often photographs or post-cards or little tourist-junk that is brought home from vacation as a reminder of the fun, the adventure. At the least during the Victorian era what was brought home wasn’t made in some factory by underpaid labourers.

Besides the exchange there were two other reasons for Caucasians of that period to ‘appropriate’ the ‘native appearance.’

The first was simple geography and, resulting from that, climate. Standard British wear during this period tended to be multiple layers and those layers were mostly either linen, cotton or, more popularly, wool. I have worn a British uniform on the kind of hot day one may experience in India, in southern Spain, in the middle Americas and it is not at all comfortable. The native fabrics and clothing styles took climate into account, naturally. I have worn a Victorian gentleman’s attire in 90 degree heat and it was not pleasant, and I found myself longing for the flowing, cooling robes of an Arabian.

The second was called “going native.” Again, I would recommend doing a little bit of Google research and you will find that though this is now perceived as not being common, it happened frequently enough to be, at times, a concern. While particularly an occurrence in North America it also happened in many other countries of the world including Russia, India, Egypt, Africa, and most of Asia. Going native was often voluntary in the case of adventurers or military who became either enamoured of the culture in which they were placed or who “deserted” their company for one reason or another. It also happened that, through some tragedy, a young Caucasian would be raised by native parents in some country and thus would grow up acclimated to that culture.

Is a Caucasian who joins a culture therefore guilty of appropriating the trappings of that culture?

It was more cultural exchange and less appropriation.

Let us see. Appropriation – ap·pro·pri·a·tion [/əˌprōprēˈāSHən/] Noun: The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

And if permission is tacitly given or understood through action? Who gives permission for an entire culture? With historic precedence set is there a need for permission?

As a closing note I have spoken with several people of non-Caucasian culture and ethnicity and they see nothing wrong with a Caucasian steampunk dressing up in a non-British period outfit or adding non-British touches as long as it is done tastefully and with respect. It seems an almost purely Caucasian thing to call someone out on “cultural appropriation” and it is, I feel, not our place to do so.

Finally, I am going to quote myself from that September writing: “However, I would note that if you do decide to add in some item or style belonging to another culture that you are aware of what it is you are wearing, the why of it, and how to explain it respectfully. There are those who get upset with past issues [even though there are enough current issues that they do not seem to care for so much] that in public one MAY be approached and called on the borrowed bits.
There is nothing wrong with exploring other options than the most often seen British/American characterizations from the Victorian period in your Steampunk wardrobe and presentation. Just remember it is to be both fun and respectful.”

Be well, good readers, and I hope that you enjoy a wonderful holiday season, a joyful Yule, a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a fantastic solstice or whatever it is that you celebrate at this time of year.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

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