Let's Talk Racism in Cosplay
Racism is prejudice plus power. What that means is that everyone is prejudiced, but not everyone has power. In America, white people have power because they create, control, provide access to the spaces where people are seen, and they create the rules and penalties that limit or deny people access to those spaces based on race. We see racism at the industry level and the individual level in cosplay and it affects everyone, but only certain people negatively. That would be Black people and people of color (POCs).
Industry level racism is the current playing field at conventions. Conventions cater to popular fandoms, and popular fandoms tend to be “industry” Here are some ways that racism exists in the comic industry:
1. Who is telling the story
There is a common misconception that white people should be the only storytellers. That they have the ability to discuss nuanced ideas and beliefs shared by cultures with which they have had little experience. It assumes that Black people and other POC are not capable of telling their own stories and erases them from there narratives, also known as whitewashing.
2. What stories get told
This is the classic “gatekeeper” issue. Who decides what stories should be told? Who decides what stories should be funded? Who decides where the stories should be shown? When you live in a society that tells you that your stories aren’t worth hearing or aren’t relatable enough, they aren’t shared. This leads to a lack of representation.
3. Character options
If Black stories aren’t relatable, are Black protagonists? Anyone Black interested in cosplay quickly learns that that are not a large number of Black popular characters available. In many instances, you’ll find more blue or green characters than Black ones. For a list of many Black heroes and villians, check out World of Black Heroes. It’s not just Marvel and DC.
This industry level racism directly feeds into the cosplay culture by setting the expectations of fans and character representation. People like to stay true to the source material. If all the source material is comprised of a certain body type, gender, skin color, physical capability, etc., it limits who fans expect or want to see. This results in excluding people who don’t’ embody that expectation. Fans feel justified excluding these people because they are respecting the creator with their loyalty to her/his work. It also promotes the idea that by not embodying that work is actually degrading the work in some way. So my brown skin and fat body in a Domino cosplay is somehow disrespectful to the artist because I’m not a good representation of the character. Here are some examples of environmental, individual level racism experienced by Black cosplayers:
1. “Oh you’re the Black *insert character name here*
Um, no. I’m just the character. Not the Black version. Just the character. Thanks.
2. “This shoot is for canon characters only.”
This response excludes people who don’t “look the part” from weight, height, ability to stand without aid, hair type…you name it. But, if you have brown skin, you know you’re out.
3. “We need a *insert name of Black character here* - Can you be her/him for us?”
People will ask you to cosplay Black characters to complete their team. This may be the only time you’ll be invited to a photoshoot with white people. People will also assume that you are only interested in costuming Black characters.
4. “Your costume would be PERFECT if your skin was lighter.”
Yes, people say this. It’s a horrible thing to say and these folks should lose speaking privileges.
And as painful and frustrating as those experiences are, they don’t quite hit the fuckery that is interpersonal racism that happens in mixed-race cosplay groups. This shit is super annoying because the groups are supposed to be a safe space where we can let our geek flag fly free, yet there inevitably is some racist shit that will go down, like a post condoning blackface or some outrage about a Black person being cast as a character who’s been white in the comics. I’ve personally experienced this in online groups that I had to leave, because fuck that noise. It’s exhausting.
That leaves the mixed-race cosplayers who you know socially.
How much racism you experience will depend on how often and how closely you associate with white cosplayers. It increases exponentially because each person is a wild card – you won’t know how racist they are until it happens and you see how they respond to it. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been blindsided by racism in this way. It’s not the strangers who surprise you. It’s the people who invite you into their homes and indicate a level of trust and respect that gets nullified by a simple conversation. Here are a LOT of examples of racism I’ve experienced:
- Being asked “if all Black people *insert mildly disapproved action*”
- Being asked “why do Black people *insert strongly disapproved action*”
- Asking you for the “Black perspective” like that’s a real thing
- Asking you how Black people do something, cuz we all do everything the same
- Casually defend other people’s racism and accuse YOU of being racist for pointing it out
- Calling you sensitive for calling out their fuckery
- Interracial couples that make denigrating jokes about their race and allow their white partners to do the same
- Point out that you’re Black, as if nobody can tell. They will do it in situations where it doesn’t matter at all
- Challenging your Blackness when you don’t conform to their stereotypes
- Asking you shitty, stupid questions as they attempt to shame you into being what they expect
- Exotifying your Blackness - they will find ways to make things seem “Blacker.” For example, they’ll try to use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to sound “Black” and thinks this somehow makes them cooler
- They will actively seek a “Black card” i.e. validation that they are accepted by Black people. Like that’s some kind of universal thing
- There will always be an unspoken expectation of violence from you. When you get really angry, they will be afraid
- They will blame victims of racial violence for their murders
- They will find every reason other than race for the racist shit that happens to you
- They will try to make you validate their racism by denying it. They will try to get you to lie because being thought racist hurt their feelings. They will try to make you console them for being racist
- And if they are actually honest about the reality of racism, they will demand that you educate them on what racism is and help them get better. And when you refuse to do the work for them, they’ll blame you for the problem
I am constantly amazed by the mental gymnastics white people will perform to avoid the truth about themselves.
This is the MOST consolation you need to give to ANY white person:
American society is 100% racist and has been since before it became "America". Racism is a part of EVERYTHING this country does and produces. White denial is the inability and in many cases refusal to see it. The inability is somewhat understandable, it’s all they’ve ever known. But once they see it, continuing to ignore it makes them a willing participant. They might be a casual racist, but still racist. When they actively deny it, they are actively oppressing people. They are an oppressor.
They also need to understand that the word “racist” is an adjective, like tall, short, pretty, ugly. Disliking the definition doesn’t make it less true and it doesn’t describe everything about that person. But that racism is a part of them and everything they do and they need to do better.
Racism is such a part of American culture that even those being oppressed will support white supremacy and racist ideology. I’ve done it. It‘s hard to shake off everything we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves and recognize the anti-Blackness in our words and actions. But know, when we don’t speak up in the face of oppression, when we don’t push back, we are supporting it. And when we deny racism, we are feeding it.
For the record, I don’t judge Black people harshly for not pushing back. If there is one thing we’ve learned is that it is DANGEROUS for us to speak up. It can impact our livelihood and put our lives at risk. It is not always safe to be who you are and that is a shitty way to have to live. So I get it. I do it, too and it sucks. Now, Black people who actively attack other Black people for pointing out racist shit, and who work to undermine my experience? Yeah, fuck y’all. We’re gonna have a talk about that shit because something is wrong with you and I’m tired of being part of some bullshit that I know is wrong.
The thing is, these systems, these relationships, these individual acts are tools used to strip Black people of their power. They are used to undermine our self-worth, our self-respect, and the worth and respect we have for people who look like us. And it works, even when we don’t realize it. Even when we don’t want it to work, it does. Hell, it’s working now.
I can’t tell you how to manage yourself in these situations. Each one is unique to the individuals participating. While I’d love to tell my boss that she/he is being a manipulative bigot, it’s not always realistic. I can’t always walk out when my team is making decisions based on old information and white supremacist rhetoric. But I can try to discuss WHY this isn’t taking racism into consideration.
If I’m in a bar or restaurant and someone is being racist, I have to assess the situation. If I’m being ignored by a server, I call attention to it. If I’m overhearing an offensive conversation, I will probably just leave. Confronting strangers is hard and potentially life threatening. I don’t recommend it.
The one area I have any illusion of control is my personal relationships. I don’t remain friends with people who actively try to project their racist assumptions onto me. I don’t hang with people who try to capitalize on my Blackness. I don’t allow people to use me as social currency and I sure as hell don’t co-sign on people’s racist beliefs. People who expect this of me are not my friends.
You have that power in your relationships too. Does that mean that you may lose some friendships? Well, if they are trying to silence you and ignore or disregard your experiences, they kinda aren’t your friends already. Casual cosplay friends fall into that category.
You have the power to control your personal space and protect yourself from racism. Wield it.
I got your back.
NOTE: Geeks seem to love that Cards Against Humanity game. Avoid that shit like a klan rally. That game is shitty and will cause some issues. Or it’ll let you know who your friends aren’t, which may be a good thing. I still don’t recommend it.
Other articles on this topic
- 21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- The Doll Experiment (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- “That’s Racist Against White People!” A Discussion on Power and Privilege (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- The Rising Tide of Anti-Black Racism (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- The Face of Cosplay: Racism and Cosplayers of Color (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- Cosplayers Speak Out on Racism in the Fandom (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- Cultures Are Not Costumes (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)
- World of Black Heroes (Retrieved on March 4, 2016)