by Rio Small
From Volume 2 of The Cosplay Journal
When it comes to such a creative hobby as cosplay, one would assume something like race or ethnicity doesn’t matter. This hobby brings in people from all walks of life, countries and backgrounds, uniting them together. It’s about bringing a character to life in your own way. However, being on the scene for quite a few years made it evident it wasn’t always that simple. For those who are POC (people of colour) there are times when the community can be a pretty hostile, dare I say, dangerous place. Though I will emphasise that this hostile environment tends to stick more to those of darker skin i.e. those from South Asia or those who are black, but I’ll get into that later.
Geek culture as a whole has always had an emphasis on whiteness whether people realise it or not, this isn’t something that is reserved just for cosplay. In recent years it has begun diversifying due to demand which in itself is a problem since it shouldn’t have had to be demanded, it should have been there from the get go. Being a POC in the geek world, and more specifically cosplay world, comes with a price.
To be frank, there are a lot of racist people in what should be a more accepting community, be it intentionally or otherwise. “Blackfacing” and “Brownfacing” (or “Raceface” as a general term) have been a hot topic for a number of years now within the community; the “art” of switching your race for a character to be “accurate” and “respectful” is an incredibly numbing subject for me. Comparing painting yourself blue or adding prosthetics such as elf ears to real living people dealing with real problems due to their race and appearance grates my existence. To wear something that affects some people’s lives in such a negative way as a costume you can just take off, I question where people find the respect in that? It’s still dehumanising to this day when the race of people you are dressing up as aren’t treated as your equal in everyday life.
I emphasised earlier that those with darker skin tend to get the worst end of the stick. When you look at the range of characters to choose from in comics, video games, movies, television series, etc. you will see the overwhelming majority of characters are of a lighter complexion. This had never really fazed me much as a cosplayer as I cosplay characters I love regardless of whether they resemble me closely or not, however the reaction from other people has not always been so welcoming.
Cosplayers with darker skin get made to feel inadequate about their appearance on a daily basis when it comes to their character choices. Being called the “black version” of a character, using racial slurs with the name of the character, telling those with darker skin they should lighten their skin for their cosplays or only suggesting characters that resemble them is inherently racist. You are sending a message that these people aren’t good enough as they are to be the character they love for something as trivial as melanin production or even specific facial features.
The abuse those with darker skin receive online is a whole other battlefield. From being called the N-word version of characters to death threats being sent online because you’ve “ruined” a character for someone, shows we have a long way to go. We haven’t changed the character, the character you love is still the same in the video game you love, so why the abuse?
To give you some personal examples, I absolutely love the Devil May Cry series and Dante is my favourite character, so I decided to cosplay him. It’s very obvious I’m not male, I do not have white hair and I’m not fully white, but this did not matter to me. As soon as pictures were live on social media comments such as, “Dante looks burnt,” and, “Rihanna should stick to music,” among others, began to arise. This is also just one example I’ve personally experienced. I am someone who can take these comments on the chin and not take them seriously. However, for someone with low self-esteem just wanting to enter a creative community, make new friends and simply have fun…It’s incredibly alienating.
A lot of POC can already feel alienated in many other walks of life, I am tired of this community contributing to that experience. I want more people, especially white people, just to listen to our experiences, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. The uncomfortable moment you feel is a mere shred of what the person sharing their story is feeling. Stop treating those with negative experiences as hypersensitive. Barriers need to be broken down if we want change to happen and this is more than possible if people start acknowledging their privileges rather than turning a blind eye. It takes one small act of kindness to make someone’s experience in this community a wonderful thing, be that person and take a step. Hold out your hand and show your support.