If I wrote something glorifying a society which had committed multiple atrocities

…including but not limited to active disenfranchisement, displacement of indigenous populations, causing a preventable famine, covering up death tolls, etc, you’d think I was insane, delusional, or simply a horribly socially inappropriate, reactionary type of person.

And yet a subgenre has risen up around a culture which systematically, over the course of hundreds of years, helped drive multiple indigenous cultures to the verge of extinction, perpetrated massacres against the natives of various territories, and whose effects have directly contributed to conflicts continuing within those formerly invaded territories to this day. (And, yes, those things above, too.)

I’m talking, of course, about steampunk.

I feel a little bad saying this, because I do enjoy the aesthetic (gears! buttons! flounces!), but it’s not okay.

Rewriting the narrative so that everyone is empowered and the minorities aren’t treated like third-class citizens in their own country is about as useful as whitewashing a rotten wall. Sure, you might be able to sell the house now, but it’s still a shitty, rotten house. You should expose it for what it is, and then tear it down and build a new one.

And this wouldn’t be even close to okay if we were discussing the Nazi regime (I keep wanting to add other genocides here, but the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys was recently denied status as a genocide, so how many of those other incidents are really known? Armenia, Cambodia, various Latin American regimes, various incidents in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan…for a good overview of genocide and the man who helped push the term into the UN’s official lexicon, see ‘A Problem From Hell,’ aka light reading per my AP US teacher.)

So why is it okay to paint over the egregiously mercantilist, self-aggrandizing policies of Victorian Britain, and a society that was both internally and externally repressive?

It seems to me there are two reasons regarding the latter.

a) America doesn’t do a particularly good job of teaching how devastating the impact of colonialism was – after all, this is the country which fought off the British (never mind that the people fighting happened to have helped eradicate the original inhabitants) – and frankly, a lot of the real human impact from that era still isn’t out in the open, because it was underreported by the entities in power during that era. (You could make a case for the fact that native collusion undermines the purely negative impact of colonialism, but I would point out that’s only at the outset, and does nothing to change the fact that the society itself was extremely biased. Rudyard Kipling, anyone?)

Since Americans dominate the English-speaking market, we have to be a major focus of change.

b) The countries in which these events occurred are still, by and large, still marginalized. I mean, the last time I recall a strong discussion of post-colonial impact was when the events of the Rwandan massacre were coming into full light – in, what, 2004, ten years after they had actually happened. (Yes, I’m aware that was Belgium, not Britain.) Anyway, we just don’t have it pushed in our face the way the Holocaust was and is – which isn’t to say there should be less of the Holocaust but rather more of everything else.

And there’s no reason that everyone who was affected by it should move to the Western world and enter Western industries to make a point.

They shouldn’t have to.

It is important to own a legacy.

Trying to reinvent a time period which was certainly not pro-woman or pro-minority is not owning that legacy.

(As far as glossing over the internal repression goes…that seems an attempt, albeit one which also does the disservice of failing to explore how strong women during that time period really found power, to criticize reality.)

If we aren’t willing to take an honest look at an era, then why is that era in the picture at all? I understand taking elements from things that exist – I do it myself; who wouldn’t – but not attempting to grab all the trappings of an oppressive time period and treat them as something wonderful, when that society’s rigid morals and classism influenced those trappings, too. I’m not sure anyone would take seriously a setting which looked exactly like ancient Athens and then try to set it up to have equally empowered citizens who only entered age-appropriate dalliances while still writing homilies to the lovely shape in the sand when a boy sits down and where the wealthy women remained inside the house – and even layers and layers of clothing. (Aristophanes’ ‘Frogs,’ I think, unless it’s ‘Clouds.’)

Social history is not independent of politics. Writers should not treat it as such.

In which a vocal minority ruins it for the rest of us, and nothing changes anyway

I would be okay with every movie featuring non-white stars turning out like Harold and Kumar.

At times I think I should drop the whole ‘stop calling me a “person of color” I am not my skin’ thing…after all, the sudden pervasiveness of that term, and a demand for characters and authors who fit that term (well, except whites, sorry I guess you’re not a color anymore) in publishing is more a result of outside pressure than some weird new cult of exoticism. Continue reading

Lessons from Bollywood: why censorship is bad

(Disclaimer: it’s technically not Bollywood, at least not the whole Mumbai giant machine industry, but eh. Sounded good in the title.) Continue reading

“Person of color”…really? You couldn’t think of a better way to say that?

(NOTE: they totally mentioned ‘person of color’ as potentially racist on ’30 Rock’—full disclosure, the context was ‘well when you say it like that…’ but anyway I feel slightly more vindicated.)

As a warning, this is prompted by the fact that I keep finding magazines looking for more submissions by “people of color.” I’m trying not to be ragey because I don’t think that’s a good way to stimulate a conversation we should have, but it does edge on a rant at points as this is one of the few things that gets under my skin.

I sat on this for a day, I hope that helped.

For those of you not in America, “colored people” is a pretty offensive term that’s a holdover from the times when there were services for white people and then separate, junkier toilets and special cars and all that other Jim Crow nonsense for “colored people.”

If, at this point, you’re wondering what the difference between “colored people” and “people of color” as terms is, I’m right there with you.

But anyway, what really gets me about it is this attempt to reduce a person with a complicated culture to something so mundane and foolish as skin color—especially when my skin color says nothing about whether I’m Greek, Latina, Middle Eastern, Native American, or Indian. (I’ve been asked if I were all of these, and more, at one point or another—which, by the way, I prefer strongly to a totally inaccurate assumption. Why would I be offended? I don’t know what culture you’re from, either.)

If you’re looking for minority representation, say so. If you really just want powerful poetry from people whose ancestors were African (and it seems like ‘black’ is the one color-based term that doesn’t punch someone’s culture in the face, I’ve not known any people who minded that so far), say so. Et cetera, et cetera.

I don’t really see how ‘person of color’ is any better than ‘non-white’ or, well, dancing around ‘colored person’ the same way we fumble with gender pronouns around a transsexual person until someone has the nerve to ask them what they prefer.

I know there are people who get so offended or angry about being a cultural or sexual minority in whatever country they’re in that it’s hard to open a dialogue, and that’s dumb: could you please stop ruining it for the rest of us, thank you. Can’t talk? Redirect people to links. Seriously, don’t stop a conversation that needs to happen.

Likewise, it’s not that this problem is limited to the Western World. Believe me, Americans are far more sensitive about these things than Indians.

But, from the perspective of writers, language is a weapon. A pretty powerful one, too, dating back to the times when Irish bards would threaten to write satires against rulers who refused to entertain them or otherwise offended them (main source for this is some of the legends of Dagda, fair warning).

So if you’re gonna try to promote words by running a magazine or an anthology, maybe you should think harder about your own rhetoric.

I don’t care if it’s borderline militant, but I don’t want to submit to magazines that make a special point of requesting work written by “persons of color.”* My skin tone and ancestry shouldn’t be the determining factor in making my work publishable.

 

*I’ve met some of the publishers who are all over this term and they’re all nice people trying to deal with the fact that this is what some people actually want to be called, so…I’ll not blame the messenger. It’s not like I have to take on the label myself.

Also, I like being in print. u: