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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!