A Diverse Dilemma? – A Guest Post By Stephen Palmer
A few years ago, the well known scientist Tim Hunt caused a media storm by suggesting that women scientists in laboratories were distractingly sexy and prone to fits of tears. He was rightly lambasted and mocked for having such an old-fashioned attitude. This incident caused a particularly interesting tea break conversation in the staff room of the college where I used to work, between myself, two sociology teachers (for whom racism and much else is on the curriculum), a biology teacher and a psychology teacher. We covered sexism, racism, the youth of today – ie our students – and a few other related topics, and the conversation really made me think afterwards, not least about the use of offensive words in literature.
In 2014, Keith Brooke at Infinity Plus Books published my surreal, alternate-history fantasy Hairy London, a novel not to be taken seriously, but which has a couple of really serious themes – the nature of love, and the treatment afforded by white men of what used to be called the Establishment to non-British people, the “lower” classes and women. As somebody who is appalled by racism and sexism, and who has happily used a full human range of characters in his novels, I wanted to make use of some of the excesses of times gone past in order to allow two of my main characters – both of them men from wealthy English families – to learn from their experiences. To do this, I used the term darkie. I used it for no other reason than to make the point that the racism of the time was shameful and inhumane. I felt my use was appropriate.
This use of the word was noted in one of the novel’s reviews: … there is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF in the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language…
So, I asked myself: is it ever acceptable to use this term? And if so, what about the N-word?
In 2016, the first volume of my ‘Factory Girl’ trilogy, The Girl With Two Souls, whose main character Kora is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent, was published. Technically, Kora is a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato, meaning mule (the offspring of a donkey and a horse, ie mixed heritage). Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.
You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with crude inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.
Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.
Recently I finished reading Discoveries, Nicholas Thomas’ excellent survey of Captain Cook’s three voyages of discovery in the late 1700s. What was particularly interesting was the attitude of the British sailors to various Polynesian races. In fact, at this very early stage, Cook at least was comparatively enlightened, though in a particular way; he had a concept of peaceful interaction with “natives,” though only for the purpose of trade. And he used his own metaphor to describe them, not the Polynesians’ metaphors. He and other officers also used the difference in status of women to judge Polynesian societies, assuming that polygamy was primitive and monogamy the norm, ie the Christian norm. And of course Cook and others distinguished between the “European” straighter hair of the Australian Aborigines and the “woolly” hair of what they called Negroes, presuming that “woolly” hair was like animal hair. In this manner, and in others, they were able to present themselves with justifications for slavery.
I suppose we’re all guilty of making unthinking mistakes though, mistakes based in the norms of our own culture. The tea break conversation mentioned above turned to the use of the word ethnic, which I’ve regularly used as an umbrella word – for example to describe my collection of musical instruments – to mean non-British. The sociology teacher pointed out to me that the word was meaningless, since everybody has an ethnicity, a point which had escaped me, even though I’m of Welsh extraction and have received anti-Welsh mockery (from an Indian – oh, the irony). Ethnic… it shows how we accidentally slip into unhelpful terminology sometimes when describing the wider world.
The sociology teacher went on to explain that the acronym BME is used by British police and other organisations to cover black and minority ethnicities, thereby collecting everyone under one label. But it is a meaningless label, and hardly helpful, not least when for example non-British refugees (eg from Somalia) are all housed together when they are from groups who in Somalia are at one another’s throats.
One other issue we have is of making blanket identities, for example that of “African.” In my novel Muezzinland I wanted to write about the intricate and sophisticated cultures of Western and Northern Africa, which I did via folklore. It was a novel with racism as a theme – eg that of people from Northern Africa upon Western Africans – which did not mention race.
As an interesting addendum, none other than President Obama used the N-word during a podcast on 21 June 2015, showing that, in some circumstances, and from some people, there is a place for it.
And in a thought-provoking piece in today’s Independent, Ben Elton describes what he learned, much later, from his use of the epithet “spasmo” in 1982 in ‘The Young Ones,’ which went on to become a playground taunt. He regrets it deeply now, and has greatly contributed to disabled charities such as Scope, but the fact remains: the word was of its time. We can see that it’s wrong, but we have to use that word now in order to examine the sociological context of 37 years ago.
It turns out we are all human, with individual circumstances of gender, race, culture, background etc. I think it would be good if our society reflected that fact.
Many thanks for this thought provoking guest post Stephen. You can find Stephen’s blog here:
And the first book in his Factory Girl series here:
Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back to the parlour, pull up a lemonade crate and make yourself at home. I’m afraid you find us in a contemplative and, some might even say, philosophical mood this morning… so if the idea of a contemplative and philosophical octopus will put you off your tea, you may wish to call back another day when we have sobered up a little…
Staying? Oh marvellous, well then… a-hem… this is what we were discussing…
If steampunk sits, eyeing us all seductively across the poker table, shuffling the cards of re-imagined realities , be they past, present or future, then surely He / She / They or indeed It is well placed to grind one sneering scarlet stiletto boot heel into the face of the spluttering, over indulged prejudices and misconceptions that have thwarted the progress of humanity throughout history?
And it is our own, humble, modest and most tentatively proffered opinion, that anyone who is inclined to be a part of that boot, or the alluringly unshaven leg within it, or even to cheer from the side lines and pour the next round of absinthe laced tea, should be encouraged to do so.
You know the Age Of Steam has always been my Least favourite in history; so much of it makes my blood boil, and no less in your own dimension than here in Ire. Granted we don’t have the issues of colonialism or empire building that you have had, but if you think that means our world is free from oppression and bigotry then you really haven’t been paying attention.
Everyone hates the Wizards and the Tea Time Lords because they control everything, everyone hates the Witches because the Wizards tell us to, everyone hates the Tinkers because they can do things that most of us can’t , but everyone wants the Tinkers to do things for them, everyone hates the Land Pirates, the Tea Smugglers and the Tiffin Madams because they succeed in living outside the law, and everyone would love to live outside the law, but everyone wants the things these outcasts have to trade, and few want to examine the turbulent history that has lead them to their current mode of existence.
And of course everyone hates the Skyway Men because… well, have you ever met one? I rest my case.
Hm? Oh, Max says that “everyone hates the Skyway Men because they are a small group of Tinkers who have broken away from their allotted niche at the bottom of society and formed an aristocracy of their own built on oppressing those they deem beneath them, much in the same way that the royal family and its social entourage have done for centuries, and nobody likes it when the tables are turned or when an upstart minority group rebels against its allotted station in Iife.”
Well possibly, Max ,possibly, all I know is, last time I was in Annwn they called me a dribbling cephalopod and threatened to blow our brains out. Hm? I don’t care if it was a hand made lace tablecloth Max, I just don’t care, offence has been taken and that is that. And will you please stop interrupting!
Now then, the reason I love Steampunk is that it provides a splendid, hand crafted, gleaming brass, steam powered, time travelling, dimension hopping vehicle into which we can jump (teapot in one hand and energy-ray-blunderbuss-of-idiocy-thwartation in the other) and re-write the wrongs of the past, not to somehow exonerate or brush under the carpet our embarrassing ancestors (and lets face it, we all have a few of those – Max particularly…) but to create new narratives that grab these perpetrators of injustice by the shirt collar, tie them to a small rickety wooden chair in the basement of an abandoned mansion house, shine a spot light in their face and pelt them with a relentless barrage of witty abuse, whilst posing about in front of them wearing smug faces and fabulous amounts of bombazine…
Hm? No! It is merely a sartorial preference, Max, not a fetish. Honestly, for a Very Quite Gentleman you do an awful amount of interrupting.
… Far from allowing us to then traverse the murky rivers of the past with impunity, pith helmets on crying “Oh it’s alright, we’re not like that any more see?!” these new narratives help inform the development of the future, both real and imagined. By not only slaying the beasts of the past but paving the road forwards with their carcasses, we create a poignant ‘bone road’ for those who follow in our adventurous footsteps.
But are we obliged to do this? Is it possible that all this talk of ethics, equality, diversity and inclusivity should not cross the boundary from the real world into the imagined? Can’t we just romp around in whatever costumes we like and write or ridicule whatever we fancy because, at the end of the day, it’s just a bit of fun and nobody means any harm and we don’t want the fun taken out of the thing now do we? Leave politics for the pub and steampunk for the cons? Hm? Does it matter if we create an accidentally segregated situation in which certain groups of society do not feel welcome in our ranks or are offended or hurt by our actions or unable to join in the fun because they cannot gain access to it?
Probably everyone’s opinion will be different, we can only offer our own…
Speaking candidly, as folk who are usually in the minority wherever we go (there not being many people in the world-above-waves who sport such fetching tentacles as myself and my Vary Quiet Gentleman Friend), Max and I think these things do matter and that in the Steampunk arena, as in every other area of life, everyone has a duty to follow the wise words of that hypocritical oath that so many doctors swear by…
Hm? Hypo what? Oh Hippocratic is it? So sorry I thought it said ‘first do no harm’ … oh it does say that does it? I’m sorry your human world is so very confusing.
But all this waffling is only the humble opinion of one tea-sotted octopus, over the next few weeks we will be talking to some seriously salt-worthy Steampunks who are passionate about the issues of inclusivity and diversity.
As I said earlier, I believe that anyone who is keen to jump into their space-time-dimension vehicle and begin wreaking restorational havoc upon the past, present or future should be encouraged to do so… but anyone who has encountered our own dear Gail Force will know that such well meant endeavours can occasionally blow up in one’s face, so I will also be getting some first class advice on how not to end up causing more harm than good.
Max and I encountered an irate individual the other day who, rudely but quite rightly, said that we shouldn’t go through life terrified of offending others. This is true and we would like to place it now upon the record that, as creatures with many tentacles, we do not wish anyone to be terrified of the ramifications of treading upon one of those limbs. Accidents happen all the time and any reasonable creature will understand that. (An Elder God may not, but they are thankfully few and far between).
We would however like to help create a world where everyone is aware that creatures with tentacles exist and where, just as we try to be polite and courteous and not to trip anyone up or dribble over your best lace table cloths (be quiet Max!), others try to be polite and courteous to us and not trample on us in their eagerness to get to the free biscuits.
More tea? No? Five cups is your limit is it? Ah well, thankyou for staying and enduring the ramblings of a tea-sotted octopus and the embarrassing ejaculations of his Very Quiet Gentleman friend, we hope you will join us again next week for more marvellous tea and excellent Steampunk fiction and of course tomorrow Mrs Baker will be talking to Nils Nisse Visser about his Steampunk book Amster Damned.
We wish you a very biscuit-full afternoon and, until we see you again,
please, be always
A small but unpleasant thing happened at a con recently which brought to my attention several issues that, in my naivety, reclusiveness and small-scale social paddling pool of carefully vetted beautiful-hearted human beings I had not been aware of.
But before I talk about the little incident and the road forward from there, I need to make it clear that I am speaking and writing and feeling from a situation of immense privilege. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I am half Rromani. Over the generations the parents and grandparents of my family have done all they could to merge with mainstream British culture to the point that all the children of my generation (and now my children’s generation) can live without the stigma associated with being labelled with the racist term ‘gypsy.’
That means they totally (publicly) abandoned their names, culture, religion, traditions, language, dress, beliefs… so that we could have full access to jobs, education, a social life and all the other aspects of life which they had been denied because of their ethnicity. Being Rromani was dangerous, it still is for many, and so my family hid – becoming invisible in plain sight.
Because of their sacrifice, I am able to choose to stand shoulder to shoulder with any other middle class British person, blissfully unaffected by racial issues of disadvantage or prejudice. So when I choose to reclaim, explore or celebrate aspects of my cultural heritage I am exercising that right from a position of safety and privilege ; I am able to choose to opt in or out, to reveal or to hide.
Often I choose to opt in because I feel that, if I don’t, all the beautiful and terrible things that are becoming lost will be lost forever. All the stories will pass away. I feel that the efforts of my elders will have been wasted if I don’t stand in the place their sacrifice has put me and wave their flag for them. Opre Roma? Well, here we are! And although I have endured the odd idiotic remark, that is by no means comparable to the atrocious suffering undergone by many Rromani people, both historically and today.
So when my husband and I Steampunk we always draw inspiration from Rromani history and culture (real Rromani history and culture, not this, frankly insulting, ‘steampunk gypsy’ aesthetic that can be seen wafting around the internet) and, probably because we always Steampunk small-scale with friends and family, this has never been an issue.
But this year we went to something big and I’m sad to say that we received some rather idiotic remarks from a few other Steampunks about our overtly Rromani costumes not being ‘Proper Steampunk.’ Thankfully our children didn’t hear and obviously we didn’t run off to blub in the toilets but just got on with the day and had a marvellous time. But it has lead my husband to say that perhaps we shouldn’t dress like that anymore (in case it happens again and the children do hear and get upset), that we should just wear top hats, goggles and lots of high tech gadgetry to try and fit in more rather than stand out as something outside the norm, perhaps we’re ruining it for the mainstream and they don’t want people to stray from the approved aesthetic? Or perhaps they just don’t understand and it’s not worth trying to educate them.
Well I thought about it long and hard – at first I have to say I was shell shocked because I’d always assumed that my small but very diverse circle of educated, enlightened, all-accepting and utterly beautiful friends was reflective of the entire Steampunk Community. I did some snooping, hoping to discover that my first impressions had been correct and that what we experienced was a one off… sadly I found lots of folks had had similar experiences … but happily I also found that lots of folks like us were trying to put their own cultural stamp on Steampunk and THAT I felt was something to dwell on, to pay attention to, to celebrate and to encourage.
I need to respond to what happened, because it left such a nasty taste in my mouth, and fortunately I am in a position that enables me to choose to respond by ignoring those trolls and instead drawing attention to as many fabulous folks as I can find who are doing good things and helping to make our community diverse, interesting, welcoming, representative, inclusive and fun for everyone who wants to be a part of it – because I think that for the most part it is!
So I stand very awkwardly, very humbly, and very nervously before you all today, in the shadow of those far better and wiser than me, on the shoulders of those far stronger and more deserving, hoping to spend some time celebrating the diversity that already exists within our wonderful Steampunk world by bringing together some fantastic writers, artists, musicians and creators who are actively shaping the genre into a really splendid scene to be a part of. (rather than an exclusive, fusty old gentleman’s club stuck up it’s own rear end).
So that is what will be happening here over the next few months ( I mean, hopefully it sort of inadvertently happens already!)
Nimue Brown spoke recently about creating types of sacred space, the more we all work together to try and create sacred spaces where we can celebrate and explore our own histories and cultures side by side through the medium of punk fiction, the more the trolls will be pushed to the sidelines where they belong.
(Thankyou for humouring me. Apologies for the interruption to the usual schedule of frivolity and mayhem, normal tea service will resume as soon as octopoidly possible…)
😉 – Penny