What should steampunks do if their art or fiction or role-playing hurts others? Stop and abandon something that’s been part of the steampunk culture for years? Or ignore the feelings of others and have “fun”?
It’s a relevant question because the Victorian era had a lot of problems, several of which have found their way into steampunk even if we’re not always aware of it.
Racism is an obvious one. It was prevalent during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century in Western countries. It’s present today. Artworks, costumes and stories that invoke themes of colonialism or involve racial stereotypes may offend others even if the average steampunk enthusiast sees no harm in them. After all, we’re not racists. It’s all in good fun!
Sure, but some people will be offended. My question is not if they should be. My question is if someone’s feelings or perceptions matter when we ask ourselves if we should pursue an idea or storyline?
I don’t think so. To explain why, it may be useful to set racism aside for a moment and consider something that’s less controversial: queer steampunk fiction.
We know there are people who object to overt displays of homosexuality in art or fiction. Some of them may be homophobes, others ignorant, others yet uncomfortable discussing homosexuality for whatever reason. They will be offended when they see homosexuality inserted in an aesthetic or genre they otherwise enjoy. Probably they shouldn’t be, but it’s not at all unrealistic to assume that there will be people who are.
Is that a reason to stop writing queer steampunk fiction? Is it a reason to pretend there aren’t gay people in the steampunk community? Certainly not!
The issue is the same: some people are offended or hurt, but steampunks don’t let it affect their behavior. Maybe they simply don’t care, because the people who don’t want homosexuality in steampunk are wrong.
So we make a distinction. One person’s hurt feelings matter more than another’s. If you’re a likable steampunk, we’ll care about your feelings. If you’re a bigot, we won’t.
Back to racism. If a person of color says she is offended by something in steampunk, we should listen up. But we shouldn’t shut up.
Hurt feelings aren’t a good reason to stop doing what we’re doing. It means we should more carefully examine what steampunk is about. It means we should be critical of our behavior, exchange ideas and discuss. It means we should ask ourselves if recreating racial stereotypes is acceptable or not. But let’s have that discussion, not shut down the debate with feelings.