How To: Adding a Multicultural Touch to Steampunk Without Being an Insensitive Clod

Adding a Multicultural Touch to Steampunk Without Being an Insensitive Clod

Many people find Steampunk problematic for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the glorification of an era of Western history that featured institutionalized slavery, racism, sexism, elitism, and many more -isms.

Today, Steampunks frequently get accused of subtly or overtly condoning imperialism and colonialism, two -isms that have caused a lot of problems over the years. There's good reason for those accusations, because many things we take for granted as symbols of Steampunk, such as the pith helmet, are symbols of oppression to others.

To many white people, it can be very intimidating to sail the waters of multiculturalism when the fear of accidentally offending someone is always present. I've even heard (white) people say that it's worse for a white person to be accused of being racist than it is for a person of color (POC) to be subjected to actual racism.

Wow! Hard to respond to that one, isn't it?

The worst part is that some white people reading this may feel like that statement is entirely reasonable, which is a good indication that they should do some serious reading about racism!

Before I go any further, let me get something out of the way: I'm a white, American man. My family is Jewish, but that's the closest I get to being in a minority, unless you count being a nerd, which I don't. I try to be sensitive to the position of people of color by acknowledging and accepting my privilege, but I'm also aware that I'll never truly know what it's like to be underprivileged. If you're white and don't think you're privileged, you can start by reading this great article on privilege.

That said, I'd like to teach you how to navigate the sea of multiculturalism in Steampunk, or as you may like to call it, "how to be polite". After all, isn't that the goal of being polite? To avoid offending anyone? This article will be especially helpful for white folks like me, but it may also be of use to some people of color who want to costume from cultures they're not a part of.

Gotta Start Somewhere

In an effort to ameliorate the claims that Steampunk is racist, classist, sexist, etc., there's been a big push lately to include more multicultural elements in Steampunk. After all, the 19th century happened simultaneously all over the world, not just in England. It should stand to reason, then, that Steampunk could have happened all over the world, too, making every culture welcome in our Steampunk community.

So let's say that you want to incorporate multicultural elements into your Steampunk outfits. Maybe you really like a different culture, or maybe you just want to be a more cultured person. Either way, you can't just go buy a generic Indian outfit, for example, and Steampunk it.

When I said Indian just now, was I talking about a person from India, or a Native American? No one knows, which is sort of the point.

Generalizing about a culture will tend to upset people. How do you do it, then? How do you incorporate more diverse elements into your Steampunk outfits and props without coming across as an insensitive clod?

Glad you asked!

How to Not Come Off as an Insensitive Clod

Before I get into any specifics, let me teach you the single most important thing you can ever know about dealing with other people's cultures. If you're wearing something or you say something that someone finds offensive and they tell you, "Hey, that's racist and it offends me," there's only one acceptable way to respond.

"I'm sorry".

Unacceptable responses include "Well I don't think it's racist", "You shouldn't be offended", or the ever-classy "It's okay, my best friend is that culture".

Really, though, any response other than "I'm sorry" is just plain wrong. I don't care if you think the person is being totally ridiculous; you should apologize anyway. You can then go on to say things like, "I had no idea this was considered racist", "I really didn't mean to", or "I won't wear/say/do it again".

Do not ask them to "prove" to you why it's racist or offensive. Do not argue with them. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Just apologize.

It may not immediately make everything better, but it also won't make things worse for you.

On to the Costuming!

With that knowledge tucked under your belt, it's time to start making your outfit/prop/character/whatever.

The very first thing to do is to decide what culture you'd like to incorporate. Is it going to be a full-on representation of another culture, or will it be a blend of two or more cultures?

It was pretty common in the Victorian era for cultural artifacts to be blended together in an almost Steampunk-like fashion, so that should be open to you as an option as well. For example, when the Japanese first decided to emulate Western fashions, women would have beautiful Western dresses made out of kimono fabric. The dresses were gorgeous, and a true blending of the two cultures.

Once you decide which culture(s) you want to include, it's time for the first serious phase of design:

Research

Research is very, very important when it comes to using multicultural items because one of the most offensive things for people of other cultures to see is awful stereotypes paraded around in front of them.

<coughs>

It's somewhat akin to going to a country full of Asians who have a sports team called The Americans, with this guy as their mascot:

Everyone in that country will constantly ask to see your McDonald's tattoo, and ask why you aren't fat. That's kind of offensive, isn't it? That's more or less how Native Americans feel every day of their lives.

So out of respect, thoroughly research the culture you're going to imitate. When designing aesthetic elements, base them on real images of their people rather than on foreign stereotypes.

Here's a bit of a tip:

If a non-white outfit was in a movie prior to 1970, it's probably offensive.

They weren't so good about cultural sensitivity back then, hence:

That mostly ended in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, but still be careful. Racism in films continued unabated, albeit slightly more subtly.

Also bear in mind that you can't appropriate cultural items willy-nilly. Just because you've verified that an item is a real part of that culture, you have to determine the significance of that item in that culture.

For example, it can be considered extremely rude in America to wear medals awarded in combat when you never served in the military. Likewise, certain other objects or clothing items must be earned in order to be worn, and you should be careful of that.

Lastly, you may not want to try to incorporate elements belonging to a culture that your people once enslaved. No matter how well you do it, it's likely going to be offensive to someone. For example, white people probably should not try to wear things that are traditionally black. If you do want to do it, you should at least have a very specific reason for doing so.

No amount of research will ever make you "immune" to offending someone, or give you a "free pass" for upsetting someone, it will just make it much less likely to happen, and better prepare you to deal with it if it happens. Don't ever forget the "I'm sorry" rule.

With those caveats out of the way, let's look at some specific examples.

Specific Examples

This first example is one of my favorite pictures. While the source page calls it Steampunk, it's really more like cyberpunk, but that's sort of beside the point, because it's amazing.

While the model is a real Native American, this could still easily have looked like a mockery of their culture. Instead, it blends old and new in a respectful way that honors the original culture. A lot of research was done in order to see just how the chest pieces were made, how the headdress was worn and decorated, and even how paint was applied to the face. This costume is full of little nods that show how the designer understood the original contexts of these pieces.

EDIT: Ironically, the above photo was actually used as part of an offensive ad campaign in Australia for a company called "ColourChiefs", whose logo features a stylized, stereotypical Native American chief. This company essentially falls under the "Washington Redskins" example above, and makes pretty blatant use of stereotypes. Moral of the story? Don't name your company after someone else's culture, and then use their images to sell your products. That's generally considered tacky at best. However, I hope that the above image isn't too tainted by association, because it's really cool! This was brought to my attention by Ay-leen the Peacemaker. Thanks, Ay-leen!

Here's a less over-the-top example from Steampunk's own Monique Poirier:

She's a Native American who wanted to blend her own culture into that of Steampunk, so she combined a lot of elements from both American and Native American cultures. Note the top hat and boots, but also the feathers and animal skins. Her dress buttons like an American garment, but has Native American trims. I believe that this particular outfit was supposed to be a Steampunk Native American medicine woman, and I think that comes across pretty well. You can see the TARDIS hiding in the background, ready to snatch her off to who-knows-where.

Next we have the well-known Steampunk blogger/scholar, Ay-leen the Peacemaker:

As some may know, Ay-leen runs the Steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana which focuses almost entirely on multiculturalism in Steampunk.

As an Asian-American, she wanted to showcase her own cultural heritage in her Steampunk. You can clearly see in the above photo that practically every part of her outfit has Chinese details, from the dragons on her belt to the charm on the handle of her gun. This, too, however, is a cross between Chinese and British cultures. Note the blouse that has a Chinese-style collar and buttons being worn underneath a Western corset with boning. Note also the wide belt (or cincher, perhaps) being worn above a Western-style braided belt.

Next we have another familiar face in multicultural costuming, Jeni Hellum:

This Turkish Steampunk outfit doesn't incorporate many "Western" elements, though whether you consider Turkey Eastern or Western likely depends largely on what era you live in. Still, this is an excellent example of portraying a culture that you don't belong to.

Ms. Hellum is not Turkish, but she looks as though she might be a pale-skinned Turk. I don't know much about Turkish styles, but given how into multiculturalism Ms. Hellum is, I can only assume that she's done her research. Everything certainly looks authentic to my untrained eye, but no amount of research excuses someone from having to say "I'm sorry" if their outfit is offensive to someone else.

The most important thing to take away from this picture is how to choose an appropriate culture for yourself. As I said earlier, it's probably a good idea to shy away from white people imitating black cultures, and you should be especially careful when using aspects of German World War II culture. But there are hundreds of other countries out there, each with their own unique looks, customs, languages, and more.

America isn't alone in the world. We should celebrate the diversity of the world, and Steampunk is a great venue for that. Advances in travel during the Victorian era made the world much smaller and ignited the passion of the British for other cultures.

Let's honor that passion!

Un-attributed photos from 9gag, Womanizing, Trendhunter, Wikipedia, Netflix, and Wikimedia Commons.

20 Comments

Great article. It is a nice reminder to be sensitive to cultures not our own and that we may inadvertently offend regardless of our intentions.

Thanks! There's always room for more sensitivity, I think. =)

I've been doing a North African Bedouin outfit for a couple of years. Originally it was going to be more of a spoof than anything else, but after meeting Jeni Hellum, seeing her Nativepunk outfit, and talking with her I went with a more serious outlook.

I've heard that some people have issues about her Native American outfit, but I don't think anyone can deny that she's had a positive impact on multiculturalism in the Steampunk community.

I'm glad to hear that your outfits have evolved! That's what's so great about being part of a living, growing community. =)

A thoughtful essay and a very nice read. Thank you for your take on this challenging topic. Just FYI, Turkish is more of a national designation than an ethnic one, and Turkey or the Ottoman Empire, given that we're talking Steampunk, encompassed many ethnic groups of many different looks much like the United States. Pale skinned Turk just felt like a funny description given those facts.

Thanks for pointing that out! You're certainly right. As the Ottoman Empire encompassed parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the people tended to be darker-skinned than Jeni, though you're right to point out that that wasn't a requirement and there were probably plenty of lighter-skinned folks absorbed into the Empire.

I appreciate your feedback! =)

Very cool article. And I too thought the Native American Cyber-punk was awesome.

People give George grief all the time for wearing military medals, and he has to endlessly explain that he is in the military right now, and yes, he earned them. I just always found it funny that non-military people are the ones who speak up, nine times out of ten.

That is pretty funny, actually.

Though my understanding is that if you're a civilian, you can wear whatever medals you want, provided that you're not claiming you earned them. But if you're military or ex-military and you're wearing medals you didn't earn, that's a big no-no.

Do you know if that's true?

You can claim to earn them all you want now.

The Stolen Valor Act, passed in 2006, was designed to "protect the reputation" of military decorations, and could result in a conviction for anyone falsely claiming to have earned military awards. But, the bill was struck down last year by the Supreme Court for violating the First Amendment.

However, a few months ago both the House and Senate passed their own revised legislation that basically says it's fine for anyone to lie about earning military awards, but you cannot do so if it's for tangible gain or personal benefit.

Of course, anyone claiming to have earned awards not earned is going to look like a schmuck and will be forever hated by military personnel, veterans, and any soldier-loving individual.

As for military personnel wearing unearned awards, it is a big no-no. Current military soldiers can be punished under UCMJ for wearing unauthorized insignia, ribbons, awards, etc., resulting in a max penalty of a bad conduct discharge, forfeiture of pay/allowances, and 6 months confinement. Ex-military can probably also be penalized under UCMJ if they are retried and receiving retirement pay.

Wow! Thanks for sharing all that info, Robert!

I honestly had no idea that it was ever illegal, I thought that it was just gauche. Good to know!

Robert pretty much covered it, haha. And yes, it bothers George when he sees someone wearing an 'unearned' medal, because he knows what it really takes to get one of those! At the same time, he tends to just wear ones of his that look steampunkish. If he wore all of his, it would be a little overmuch. The closest he gets to an 'unearned' medal is that he likes the Dolphins (the submarine qualified medal) from other countries, like Australia and Japan. He is submarine qualified in the Navy, though, he just likes wearing the different versions besides his own.

Great article! I agree too, the Native American Cyberpunk picture is breathtaking. The way the outfit is balanced between old and new is amazing. I've also wondered too how best to balance cultural perceptions with my own love of costuming. My bigger question is, I'm currently developing a steampunk tabletop game with my friend and we're concerned about portraying different cultures in a positive light without offending anyone, yet still keeping tension and a multi-cultural divide intact? I think we're doing ok, but I want to be as PC as possible. Do you have any other suggestions for research? I already read Ay-Leen the Peacemaker's blog and have found it extremely helpful!

Hmm, maybe Balogun's blog, Chronicle of Harriet.

Beyond that, just base your characters and archetypes on real people and real history, rather than on stereotypes. If you do that, you should be fine.

If you want, you can message me on Facebook and I'll take a quick look at anything you think is objectionable. I can do a decent overview, at least, though if there's anything controversial you may want to ask someone more knowledgeable, like Ay-Leen.

Thank you for this article and all the comments. Tolerance for and sensitivity to cultural issues are important to me. I am pleased to see it discussed in a Steampunk forum.

I am currently designing / providing props for a new theatre production that combines Steampunk aesthetic and the experience of Native people being displayed in circus sideshows. Your article conveys your cultural sensitivity and respect, and encourages me that we are indeed making progress. Nya-Weh.

What a load of pretentious dreck. And here I thought steampunk was about individualism and creativity - not some sort of fear of racial conflict.

This desperate attempt to distance steampunk from racism devolved into a condescending lecture on political correctness and racism. You racism enablers don't even realize how your "sensitivity" backfires into the justification for the judging by skin color. You should be asking yourselves, "why should anyone walk around afraid to be accosted by anyone about anything?" - clothing or otherwise.

There are two sides of this "racism" coin - and it is the complainer who is the real racist in this scenario. The idea that "certain people" are forbidden to wear "certain things" because of their skin color and/or ethnicity is revolting and racist. Military uniforms and awards excepted, of course.

This subjective approach to "respect" and "sensitivity" is laughable. Somebody toils for hours and hours putting together their ensemble, and they are supposed to say "I'm sorry" if somebody else doesn't like it? What kind of backwards society is that? Where's the respect for the individual for showing an interest in whomever's heritage and incorporating it into their work? Why would you suppress the expression of creativity and artistry in some ill-conceived anticipation of a racist response? This is going back to the early 20th century racism - only the sides of the coin have switched.

So spare us the faux-sensitivity, which is just veiled form of attempted censorship. Those people who can only find insult in something that may have intended to honor them should be chastised, not vindicated. People who find "racism" in steampunk are the real jerks, and should be laughed out of the venue.

Great article. It encourages me to learn few important things about my thoughts.

This is getting so out of hand that it is funny. If a cosplay is well done we shouldn't be stopping to think oh no that is a white, black or any other color person as that isn't important and if you do stop and pick the cosplay apart because of the color of the cosplayer then you are the racist one not them.

As far as not cosplaying a character from a culture that you enslaved, then I guess a person of Italian decent is very limited as the Roman empire controlled and enslaved peoples from Britain to the Caspian sea. The North African Barbary empire enslaved over 1.5 million white Europeans from the 16th to 18th century so should no black person cosplay a white character?

Just to touch on the article you linked about white privilege, this term offends me and should be changed to majority privilege because most of the 50 items the report highlights are not based on color but on majority of the area. Over the past 20 years I have spent close to 12 of these years working aboard for my company. I have spent most of these 12 years in Saudi Arabia (7) and Nigeria (5) and when I answer the 50 questions listed in the article I guess I was being held back and endured racist on a daily bases. Did I feel that way? No, I was in an area where I was the minority so I didn't expect to be able to find my favourite foods, drinks etc. I expected to be the minority member of most teams, events, functions I took part in. Like I said it shouldn't be called white privilege it should be called majority privilege.

Thanks for the article! Studying design for performance arts we talk about these issues a lot. . .still, it's always a delicate issue for me when trying to design costumes for another culture in a production. I'm always terrified of stepping on someone's toes, so I appreciate your input on the topic.

As for steampunk/cosplay purposes, what is the general consensus about making/wearing "made up" medals for the purposes of a fictional character? I figure it's a better option than the obviously offensive wearing of unearned medals, but being non-military I'm not sure if that's still something that's generally insensitive.

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