Holly Rose Swinyard, editor of The Cosplay Journal, examines an unpleasant aspect of the cosplay scene – and what can be done to tackle racism in the community…
With thanks for contributions from cosplayers Andrien Gbinigie and Isa.
Racism is probably one of the biggest issues in the cosplay community. You’d think with a community that claims to be open, liberal and supportive that this wouldn’t be the case, but here we are.
I’m not going to sugar coat this. This isn’t a “tinge of racism” or a “dusting” of it – the cosplay community, and geek culture at large, has some serious racism embedded in it and is full of racist people. That’s just the case. It is happening. Everywhere.
Slurs are commonplace. I can’t count the amount of times I have seen the N-word and other racially abusive language, being thrown around by white cosplayers and geeks at anyone with dark skin. It seems to happen every week, if not every day. And it’s not just language or slurs that are commonplace; there are so many people who think that making your skin colour darker/giving yourself more ethnic features (making your eyes look more Asian, making prosthetics to mimic black features etc) is the same as painting yourself blue or green or adding elf ears. The idea that you are “appreciating” the character by cosplaying them “accurately” is not in fact raceface – except it is.
Those who do this claim that what they are doing is not blackface or raceface, since, in their minds, what they are doing isn’t mocking people of colour, and yet they are being told over and over again that it is hugely disrespectful to use someone’s race as part of a costume.
Race facing has a history of dehumanising and violence that is still alive today, of white people painting themselves brown or black to taunt and abuse people of colour.
Racism is not a thing of the past, it is well and truly present.
Blackface is part of a history of dehumanisation, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilised blackface (and the resulting dehumanisation) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes…the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.
David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, from his Huffington Post essay, “Just Say No To blackface: Neo Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize“
To argue that this is something that is only relevant in America is naïve. We live in a global community, and we are more connected than we have ever been and no one can say that they live in somewhere that has “different” views on racism or has cultural differences that mean that these things don’t apply to them. Look at the very current and systematic persecution of the Roma people in much of Europe, with Roma communities in the UK also fearing deportation post-Brexit, or the treatment of Muslims in China by putting them in camps for daring to be themselves – or any of the other racist atrocities that happen every day.
Cosplay and geek culture does not exist in a bubble outside of these things. Just because it is your hobby does not mean you should not think harder about what you are doing. (Also, everyone who has ever cosplayed as Esmerelda or other Roma characters should go and research into the tragic fate of the Roma people, just so you know.)
Colourism and racism can be seen in every culture across the world, there is more than enough evidence of that, there is no leg to stand on in these arguments.
Even those of us who are trying our level best to not benefit from the racism that is buried deep in the community, the same is in any other walk of life. Pretty, fair skinned cosplayers will almost always do better in the competition that is social media than black cosplayers, they are more likely to be asked to photoshoots by photographers, more likely to be invited as guests to cons (and not just to fill the diversity quota or to be on a diversity panel).
White cosplayers, including myself, need to stop and take a stand against this with those who are suffering this abuse. So many people aren’t listening to non-white, mostly black, cosplayers when they say what is happening to them, and that is not ok. We need to better.
What follows have been written by cosplayers of colour who have dealt with racism and colourism first-hand, not only in the community but on a daily basis.
Nerds of colour face a lot of challenges within the cosplay community, much of which is centred around racism. When you look at comic books, which make up a large part of where cosplay draws inspiration from (after anime/ manga), a lot of those characters aren’t Black or POC. As a result of this, there tends to be a lot of pigeonholing of black and POC cosplayers, knowingly and sometimes otherwise, by parts of the community.
To put it another way, if you are a white cosplayer, you have a wealth of options available to you by default. If you happen to be Black or a POC, then sections of the community expect you to cosplay as characters who share your skin tone in the source material. If you decide to step out of this box that they try and place you in, the feedback is often loud and incredibly disgusting in response.
I did a photo shoot as Superman, albeit the New 52, black suit version of him. Some of the comments I received were downright nasty. Despite the fact that in the DC Multiverse, there are two different canon versions of Superman that are Black. Not that it should matter anyway.
The sad reality is that racism in cosplay culture has long been normalized, and in some cases, capitalised upon. And a lot of “fans” do all they can to uphold this status quo. Be it actively supporting white cosplayers who engage in “Racefacing”, or repeated cries of “reverse racism” when Black and POC cosplayers band together to form inclusive communities and support groups that cater to our unique lived experiences and challenges we face.
Tackling this problem would require high profile cosplayers to lend their voices in support of Black and POC cosplayers who face abuse, discrimination and harassment online, as well as amplifying their voices when they speak out against the issues faced in the community. I understand that for a lot of them, there is a real fear of upsetting the apple cart and alienating some of the very people who claim to be their fans and supporters. But I also strongly believe that in such cases, silence is complicity. The undesirable parts of the community are far less likely to engage in toxic behaviour if they are called out by the bigger names they support in the first place.
– Andrien, Cosplayer and Product Marketing Manager for Ubisoft, Twitter – @EscoBlades
Since their inception, photography, cinematography, and therefore the lighting and make-up in them, have favoured white skin as the default canvas. From Kodak’s early Shirley cards, setting white skin as the standard for calibrating colours, light and shadows during photo printing, to video games not including darker skinned NPCs because players supposedly wouldn’t be able to see them in all those grim and gritty environments. This is, of course, nonsense. It’s perfectly possible to artistically light and showcase all sorts of skin tones in all sorts of settings and conditions.
But it seems like white skin is still the standard to many photographers. I’m mixed race and have a lighter skin tone than many other POC, so I fully acknowledge my relative privilege in comparison to other POC cosplayers. Especially in regard to being photographed at conventions and how I’m treated online. However, even I have faced many a disappointing moment upon receiving convention photos only to find my natural skin colour lightened, bleached out, leaving me not looking like myself.
When POC cosplayers – particularly darker skinned POC – often struggle to find photographers who will work with them and know how to photograph their skin tone, and are seldom featured in articles or shared by accounts with the same frequency as white cosplayers are, it creates the false impression that cosplay is an almost exclusively white world.
Even more hurtful is the prominence of raceface in cosplay. It is deeply troubling that many cosplayers see blackface and brownface as a non-issue – that they perceive themselves as innocent of any harm caused because they were just “accurately” portraying a POC character. That they don’t seem to know, understand or care about the long and painful history behind this act. That they actively benefit from it. White cosplayers in raceface are praised for their efforts, defended from criticism by their fans, and are often shared by big accounts when actual POC cosplayers often aren’t.
For example, just a few months ago, a Sombra cosplayer in brownface make-up was shared by the official Overwatch account – far from a first occurrence in that community. When POC Overwatch fans and cosplayers voiced their concern, they were harshly shot down, spoken over, handwaved away.
It feels like every month or so, the cosplay community erupts into a Discourse about raceface for cosplay. Yet still, many white cosplayers seem to be under the impression that cosplay is somehow exempt from the oppressive weight and history of black and brownface.
But the cosplay community doesn’t exist in a vacuum separate from the culture at large; it’s a part of it. An ever-growing, ever more visible part of culture that needs to address the racism and colourism that takes place within it.
Some even claim that it’s no different from painting oneself green or blue to cosplay alien characters like Gamora and Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy. This is a total false equivalence. Yes, Gamora and Storm are both fictional characters, but green aliens don’t exist (as far as we know), while black and brown people do. And those real people suffer the effects of racism which are perpetuated by acts such as blacking and browning up. If you black up to cosplay Storm, you participate in the long history of raceface, even if you think you’re just showing your love for that character.
If one day we find out that green aliens do exist and they’re discriminated against for being green aliens, then maybe we can have a conversation about painting oneself green, but until then this comparison is totally irrelevant and does nothing but derail important conversations. If you’re white and want to cosplay a POC character, by all means, do so, but darkening your skin with make-up is both completely unnecessary to portray that character and actively harmful to the POC in this community.
I would ask white cosplayers to avoid becoming defensive and listen to POC on these issues when we try to educate them. I would also ask them to research the history of black and brownface in folk and religious festivals, theatre, film and television. To understand just how damaging it was and still is even to this day. Still, we contend with religious festivals across Europe where blacking up to portray Moorish people is the norm. With huge budget films claiming they can’t find enough brown extras to populate a film set in the Middle East and resorting to browning up white performers. With white actors being cast to portray characters who were depicted as POC in the source material.
The list goes on, and it pains me that we can still count cosplayers racefaceing in a community that doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid to it – and sometimes actively encourages it – as a part of that list.
– Isa, Cosplayer and costume/set designer, Twitter @evilcleverdog
What has been said here should not have to be said, and POC should not have to be educating people who are abusing them. If we are going to continue to call the cosplay community a liberal, open, inclusive space, then we need to be fixing this. White people need to be fixing it. We need to call it out, we need to share the experiences of non-white cosplayers, and we need to believe them when they say something isn’t ok because they are the ones who are going to know.
We can’t keep hiding because racism makes us uncomfortable and not want to address our own internal prejudices and the privilege that having white skin automatically gives us. It’s hard to be called out, but it’s harder to be non-white so let’s stop thinking about ourselves and start dealing with the problems.
Holly Rose Swinyard
Holly Rose Swinyard was once described as a 21st Century Marlene Dietrich… But if that film icon was British and a cosplay geek. A self-proclaimed fashion experimentalist and long-time cosplayer, Holly writes about their experiences working their through these two very eccentric worlds, and how they have found themselves through creating, crafting and cravats.
• Holly is also the Editor of The Cosplay Journal, a new coffee table magazine which focuses on the diversity and craftspersonship of the UK cosplay community. You can check it out at www.thecosplayjournal.com
Articles on colourism and racism
• Huffington Post: Just Say No to Blackface: Neo-Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize – article by Dr. David J. Leonard