Why Halloween Season Can Be a Downer for Black Cosplayers

Me as Wonder Woman at Anime Detour.

It’s almost Halloween! Every cosplayer’s favorite, or least favorite, season. We spend most of the year constructing costumes, but when it comes to preparing for the day where everyone wears a costume . . . sometimes we’re not quite sure what to do.

But this article isn’t about that. Honestly, it was going to be, but then a pattern started to develop.

Halloween—no, the entire month of October and even the months surrounding it—is becoming many black cosplayers’ most dreaded time of year. Not because of reconciling cosplaying and Halloween costumes, but because of what happens around this time of year, without fail. It’s getting to the point where the black cosplayers I talk to sit and wait for it to pop up, because it will, either in the cosplay community or social media in general, because someone thinks that certain black people are worth dressing up as. That in itself isn’t a problem—there are a lot of amazing black characters and celebrities who are so popular that their iconic wardrobes make great Halloween costumes.

I’m talking about painting your skin to portray a different race.

There’s a rise of cosplayers, and people in general, who think they’re being funny or “authentic” if they try to change the color of their skin to match the character they’re portraying. This ranges from cosplayers to celebrities and even people dressing up to portray tragic events. So instead of spending our time trying to come up with fun costumes to wear, we’re trying to explain, over and over again, why such an action can be considered hurtful. And time and time again, the message isn’t being heard, and we’re met with a wall of excuses. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. Maybe the person didn’t know any better. They’re from another country. It’s not blackface if it’s not done with racist intentions.
  2. But we paint our skin to be alien creatures—isn’t this the same? They’re just trying to show their appreciation for the character and be as accurate as possible.
  3. When black people cosplay outside their race, they get praise.
  4. Robert Downey Jr. did it. So did the Wayans Brothers.
  5. This one black person over here says it’s fine.
  6. But if I cosplay the character as myself, I’ll be called racist.

And thus, with these excuses, we’re told that we’re overreacting, that we’re looking for a reason to get mad, and, even worse, that we’re making everything about race, “pulling the race card,” are racist ourselves for bringing it up, and other such comments.  

I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: We don’t want to make everything about race. We wish we didn’t have to. But the fact of the matter is that things still happen on a daily basis that shine a negative light on our race. Black cosplayers are still called “monkeys” or the n-word, or have fried chicken jokes flung at them. Black children in the backgrounds of selfies are called “feral” and “slave” by white adults. There are still countless aggressions and tragedies occurring that people expect us to write off as nothing. We want to be at a point where our race doesn’t mean that we’re labelled as thugs, or threats, or ugly, or lesser-than—and no, I don’t mean being colorblind, because we don’t expect people to not see us as black. In fact, we’d be perfectly happy if people saw all of the colors around them and just respected them, okay? But until that happens, we have to keep having these talks.

So, let’s talk.

1. “It’s not blackface if it’s not done with racist intentions.”

Let’s say that a white person darkening their skin for a costume truly has no idea of the harm they’re doing. Maybe they really don’t get the racist implications, so their intentions aren’t negative. Maybe they’re from a different country, or a small town, or they read that textbook that called slavery “immigration” and slaves “workers.” Maybe they don’t know the history of blackface, and sure, maybe they don’t realize that just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean that it’s not an issue today.

A 1900 poster for a minstrel show featuring blackface. Library of Congress

A 1900 ad for a minstrel show featuring blackface. Library of Congress

People have good intentions that turn sour all the time. But that’s where learning and listening are key. If you do something wrong and someone (or, in this case, undoubtedly several someones) tells you why it’s wrong, the way you grow as a person is by listening, having a civil discussion, realizing what you did, apologizing, and moving on with a new perspective on a topic you didn’t understand.

But that’s not what’s happening in these situations.

The countless numbers of comments praising, and defending, these cosplayers who change the color of their skin aren’t helping. They’re not educating; they’re justifying. When people do come in and try to educate the person, they are silenced. Their feelings are not only cast aside, but trivialized and made to look invalid. This makes it difficult to even want to talk about racial issues in the community because (1) the backlash, and (2) is there really a point when it feels like nobody’s listening and they’re just going to keep this up?

The funny thing is that people do want black cosplayers’ opinions on this. They’ll share around pictures and tag us, or make comments if none of us speak up—but more on that later.

2. “But we paint our skin to be alien creatures—isn’t this the same?”

Maki Roll's Chop Shop cosplaying as Gamora. Photo by Morning Addict Photography.

Maki Roll’s Chop Shop as Gamora. Morning Addict Photography

It always amazes me how so many people are willing to lump black people in with alien creatures and other make-believe characters, all to justify painting their skin to look like someone from an actual, existing culture. Yet they aren’t willing to listen to the people who are actually part of that culture when they try to explain why this can be seen as an insult to them.

Let’s take a deeper look at this.

Black people are already exotified beyond belief. There are bits of our culture that people like to borrow, whether it’s hairstyles or dance moves or music; it’s a thing that happens a lot. However, when we do some of those same things, we’re looked down upon. If a black girl wears her hair a certain way, she “smells like patchouli oil and weed,” but if a white girl wears a similar style, she’s a risk taker, edgy, and sexy. 

This also happens with our skin. Black people with darker complexions are made to feel ugly and “too dark,” to the point that, even in the cosplay community, there are photographers who won’t work with black cosplayers because they’re “too hard to shoot” or even “not inspiring.” So when fair-skinned cosplayers slather on that paint and are praised, and encouraged, for doing these characters . . .

It says to us that everyone can be a black person . . . except a black person.

Everyone can weigh in on being a black person . . . except a black person.

And that’s pretty harmful right there, but I’m going to tell you something that feels even worse: realizing that people are okay with looking like you, but want nothing to do with actually defending you. When bad things happen in the black community, these same non-black people who wear cornrows and paint their skin in our lovely complexion are deadly silent. These cosplayers who paint their skin—and the people who defend them—are mostly fine with supporting black cosplay . . . but only to a certain extent. Where were these people when black cosplayers created #28DaysOfBlackCosplay? Where were these people when black cosplayers created a documentary about their experiences in the community and the backlash they’ve received for their cosplays? Where were these people for Darrien Hunt? Where was the coverage of the black geeks who got together donations for Baltimore after the riots?   

Why is it okay to be black part-time?

3. “When black people cosplay outside their race, they get praise.”

Where is this fantasy land you speak of? Have you not seen the black cosplay backlash? The black fanart backlash? And this is without skin-painting. This is all because we exist.

But it’s more than that. Even supportive movements like #28DaysOfBlackCosplay received backlash, because, “What about 28 Days of White Cosplay?” There’s this idea that by talking about race, we’re making things more racist, because it’s “creating a divide within the community.” There’s this idea that by talking about a specific group, we’re excluding everyone else and are, therefore, part of the problem. People don’t realize that we try to show positive representation because we normally see the negative, or are told to lighten up for the sake of a joke or to go back to where we came from if we can’t handle it—or to get off the Internet altogether.  

An Internet meme featuring a black Sailor Moon cosplayer, re-doing the Sailor Moon opening: "Eating chicken by moonlight / Stealing cars by daylight / Always getting in a gang fight / He is the one named N---A MOON"

Yeah, that sure seems like some sincere praise.

There’s also this idea that by talking about racism, we’re giving it power, and the way to stop racism is to not draw attention to it. To that, I say this: you’re not looking at the reason why we’re drawing attention to it. We’re drawing attention to it because we’re hurting. We’re drawing attention to it because it’s happening far too often. We’re drawing attention to it because we’re tired of being treated like garbage for the color of our skin. The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that we get the racism talk at a pretty young age; we’re told that there might be someone out there who doesn’t like us, not because we did anything wrong, but because of our skin. And we get that talk at such a young age because that negativity starts at a young age, from people we don’t even know and from people who are very much adults.

Do you realize how hurtful that is? To be told people in the world will probably hate you, before you even get a chance to learn how to be a part of it?

This is something out of our control. We’re not being called horrible names because we’ve hurt someone—we’re being called horrible names because . . . we’re here. We walk into a store and are followed around. We do our hair in a certain way and it’s ghetto. We dance and it’s trashy. We dress a certain way and we’re a threat or a whore. We talk a certain way and it’s uneducated, but when we talk properly it’s “you sound white” or “you talk so well.” We like anime or comics or video games and it’s “not like us.” We cosplay outside our race and hear, “That character isn’t black,” when there’s not many black characters for us to even latch onto. And even if the character we want to cosplay is black, there is still backlash: Sailor Pluto has dark skin in the Sailor Moon manga? That cosplayer is a monkey. Rue is described as black in The Hunger Games and portrayed as black in the movie? Apparently, this ruined the movie for some people. 

A manga image of the Outer Senshi from Sailor Moon

Despite Sailor Pluto being depicted with darker skin in the manga, in the documentary Shades of Cosplay, Samurai Pizza Kitchen Cosplay discusses being bullied for cosplaying Pluto because she’s black.

So, this universe where black cosplayers are praised . . . where is it, again?   

4. “Robert Downey Jr. did it. So did the Wayans Brothers.”

To be honest, the RDJ excuse is used the most because, well, he’s Iron Man, and we’re geeks, so he’s the go-to hall pass for blackface because, “Hey, even he did it one time!”

alg-robertdowneyjr-jpg

Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris in Tropic Thunder.

Except blackface, in the case of Tropic Thunder, was done to address an issue. It was done to show the ridiculous lengths people go to in order to land a role in a movie and, even worse, how black actors will get, and do get, ignored—even if the part was seemingly made for them. And it’s not just black actors: people of color are constantly being whitewashed in the industry, so much so that Tropic Thunder—that is, the fictional movie within the movie—has this white man painting his skin and getting the part of a black man instead of an actual black man.

So yes, RDJ did it, but no one likes to talk about why the director had him do it. He doesn’t get a pass just because he’s a popular actor. He gets a pass because that role calls attention to the lack of representation in the industry and how people of color are not only ignored for roles, but are ignored for roles that are meant for them—and I doubt that painting your skin black for cosplay is for the purpose of social commentary on how black cosplayers are treated.

Also, why do people think we’re okay with White Chicks?

Shawn and Marlon Wayans in "White Chicks."

Shawn and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks.

No one liked that movie. It’s got 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason. I know people like to assume that when black people paint their faces white we’re okay with it, but we’re not. To be honest, it’s hard enough liking ourselves in our own skin for reasons I’ve already discussed. There are black people—even at a young age—who want to be white because they think their own skin is ugly. The last thing we’d ever do is praise a movie for whiteface; we’re too busy trying to show our black brothers and sisters that they’re beautiful.  

Also, disclaimer: a black cosplayer dressing up as Harley Quinn is not doing whiteface. The character wears clown make-up. That is not the actual color of her skin. And yes, I do need to say that, because that’s an excuse people have actually used.

5. This one black person over here says it’s fine.

Remember up top when I said that people always wait for the black cosplayer response to potentially racist behavior? That’s partially true. It’s kind of a damned if we do, damned if we don’t situation. If we do speak up, we’re wrong, because of everything I’ve already discussed. However, if we don’t speak up, people assume we don’t care and don’t realize that maybe we’re not speaking up because we’re absolutely exhausted with this yearly conversation when Halloween comes around.

And then, there’s that one.

Inevitably, there is that one black person who disagrees with the critics, is completely fine with this behavior, and is quite vocal about it. Therefore, their voice becomes what people listen to, and not the voices of those who are commenting on why this is a bad idea. This is the person the blackface cosplayer and their supporters have been waiting for: the one who will justify the face painting, the use of the n-word, bash any progressive movements that revolve around race, crack racist jokes, and even applaud problematic actions. That one person becomes the voice for all of us, because, “See, they’re fine with it, so you obviously need to calm down.”

This is especially frustrating because people in general know that one person does not speak for everyone. In fact, people usually don’t like if a generalization is made about an entire group based on one person’s actions. And these feelings aren’t exclusive to minorities: not all men, not all white people, not all cops. The list goes on and on. We’re told to always understand that just because we were wronged by one person, that doesn’t mean we can use that person to define everyone in the group they belong to. So why do we never seem to get the same courtesy? If one black person steals something, we’re all thieves. If one black person is disruptive, we’re all disruptive. And if one black person excuses racist behavior, then that behavior is perfectly fine. The perspective of an entire community is always placed on one person’s shoulders, and it’s always the person that is either doing wrong, or is fine with the wrong doing.

But let’s go further. Let’s look at that word: disruptive. 

The other black person that gets latched onto is the really angry one, you know the one, the one who has had enough and proceeds to curse you out, maybe belittle or threaten you? That one gets latched onto because it keeps up the stereotype of “angry black person who can’t be reasoned with” and they’re made to be the bully in the situation. People fail to realize that that person has probably had enough. That person has probably been shut out several times, has been talked over and talked down to. That person has tried to be reasonable but was already painted as the villain from the start. That person has reached a boiling point. That person is angry for a reason, and no one is willing to figure out why and, instead, calls them savage. Remember that whole “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” tidbit? That especially applies here.

If we say something nicely, we’re bullies.

If we say something loudly, we’re bullies.

6. “But if I cosplay the character as myself, I’ll be called racist.”

10896837_597801543688242_7404444383784173851_n

Me as Princess Tiana. Nude Carbon Studios

I’m going to say something that’s going to sound terrible, but please, bear with me on this.

Yes, there are some people who are going to call you out for wanting to be Princess Tiana or Storm if you’re white. But here’s the thing: their feelings are speaking to a much larger issue, a very real one—the lack of representation for people of color in the media. And just like how black cosplayers get the Sailor Moon song redone with terrible lyrics, sometimes white cosplayers will be called names for cosplaying outside their race.

But if you decide that changing your skin is the way to do it, you’ll get called a different set of names by a much larger group of people.

When black people get called all of those “lovely” names for cosplaying outside of their race, it’s not because there’s a lack of white characters. Let’s be honest, if black cosplayers stuck with characters who look like them, they wouldn’t cosplay very much, especially ones like me: black, female, and fat. So we cosplay who we love—and yes, everyone should do that, including the little white girl who is a huge fan of Storm. To me, that shows that Storm has gone from being “the black one” to being so valuable that everyone appreciates her. People inside, and outside, the black community love her, and that’s important. It’s important to show people that black can be relatable, not just to black fans, but all fans. If everyone can see black as heroic, as important, as something that can be part of a team—and capable enough to lead that team. . . maybe they’ll put more people of color out there.

All you can really do, if you’re white and want to cosplay outside of your race, is the same thing black cosplayers do in this situation: explain that you love the character.

IMG_3797

Me as Storm with a young Storm cosplayer.

Will that be enough? In some cases, no, because the commentary in this case is speaking to years of hurt. It’s speaking to the fact that Disney princesses have existed since the late thirties and we got the first black one in 2009, so some people are extremely protective of her. I’m 32 as I’m writing this. I was 26 when The Princess and the Frog came out. For 26 years of my life, there was no black Disney princess. That’s an entire childhood, my teenage years, a college degree, and getting my own apartment. That’s a long time without any representation of who you are. So yes, some people—but not all people—will say no to you. That’s the truth of the situation, but know that the reasoning is bigger than you.

It’s not really about you. It’s about not seeing yourself in any of the things you love.

Not-So-Happy Halloween

I feel like we’re so open to talking about everything but racial issues. As a black, lesbian, plus-size cosplayer, I talk about a lot of different things. I talk a lot about body image because, honestly, that’s what I get hit with the most. I’ve been called more chubby animal names than I can count, and people think that McDonald’s is part of my balanced breakfast. When I talk about that stuff, or about my partner, I get support—and I do appreciate that support.

But for some reason, race is the taboo topic.

I’ve talked about race on my social media outlets and I’ve lost followers over it. I’ve seen friends lose followers, and even lose friends, because they post too much about “black stuff.” I’ve been told all of the things I’ve mentioned in this article and it’s upsetting to me because why can I only be open about certain aspects of my life? As much as the racial slurs hurt to hear, being told that your feelings are stupid, that you’re making something out of nothing, to be quiet—that is the worst feeling of all. Black cosplayers are fearful of taking part in the community not just because of the racial slurs they’ve heard all their lives, but because they’re worried that they’re going to be told to be quiet about the things that affect and hurt them.

I have been in panels where people have shown how open their minds can be. I’ve seen people not understand this issue, but be willing to listen and learn from it. I’ve seen people apologize. Here is a message that Maki Roll’s Chop Shop received from a fan about racial issues showing exactly what I mean:  

Hey Maki, I need to talk to you about something. Recently an article popped up on my news feed that had to deal with changing the color of your skin for cosplay (I will post the link below.) I remember talking about this topic with you on your page at the beginning of the year, and I wanted to both apologize and thank you. Apologize because at the time I thuoght there was nothing wrong with the way that the white cosplayers portrayed Michonne. After our chat on your page and reading your take on it I was able to see it from your point of view and it honestly changed me into a more empathetic/understanding person. I don't thank [sic] I have ever thanked you for that and it has been something that has been eating away at me for awhile. I am not a PoC and people who aren't cannot tell people who are what they shouldn't be offended about. Anyways thanks Maki and keep being Kickass.

A message Maki received that both apologizes for past opinions and thanks her.

Sometimes, I do need to remember to step back, because not everyone has lived through the same things I have. That being said, there needs to be an equal amount of give and take. If I’m willing to step back and listen to you, you also need to be willing to listen to me. That’s how we learn to understand each other. It shouldn’t be this scary to post about this issue in a community that’s supposed to be accepting of everyone. I shouldn’t be this worried about submitting this article for publication and already envisioning the negative comments and declines in likes.

But I am. And a lot of other black cosplayers are.

But we speak up anyway, because that’s the only way we’re going to make any kind of difference. The problem is, in order to make progress, it has to work both ways. We need people to listen. We need people to stop using the same excuses over and over again. We need people to support us, and not just when it’s convenient, not just when they want to paint their skin, or adopt our cool hairstyles, or say the n-word and have it be okay because it’s the one with the “a” at the end instead of the “er.”

If you’re still unsure—if you’re still thinking about investing in some brown makeup—here’s a final thought.

It is true that the cosplayers who do this generally aren’t slapping on shoe polish or anything that takes them to that offensive level, and they (and their supporters) are always quick to point that out. They’re quick to use words like appreciation, as in, they love and appreciate the character so much that they just want to do a good job representing them. They aren’t trying to mock them, but pay homage to them. They aren’t really doing blackface because they’re using proper makeup techniques and they don’t look like they’ve just dipped their faces in oil.

But here’s the thing. At the end of the day, those people? They can take the make-up off. They can stop being black.

We can’t.

Not only has our skin color been simplified to alien for the sake of cosplay, but our struggle has been completely removed. These cosplayers don’t have to deal with the N-word Moon or fried chicken or monkey or ghetto comments on a regular basis. They don’t have to deal with photographers telling them that they aren’t marketable, or inspirational. They don’t have to feel that punch to the gut when someone says they’re good for a black cosplayer. They don’t have to see the lack of representation of cosplayers, geeks, or people in general who are the same race they are when it comes to their favorite characters. They don’t have to deal with the sick feeling in the pit of their stomach as someone imitates their race and gets more praise than they’ve ever gotten for actually being that race. They don’t have to know what it feels like to be told to shut up, that they’re making things up, that they themselves are racist for talking about it, or lose friends because they post too much black stuff. They don’t get to see people rally behind every other cosplay struggle but theirs. They don’t get to see sites they once loved, cosplayers they once respected, rally behind the idea that painting skin black is the same as being a make-believe character.

They don’t get to know any of these feelings, because they will never happen to them. When the photo shoot is over, when the convention day is done, they can stop being black.

A poster campaign started by students at Ohio University.

A poster campaign started by students at Ohio University.

Happy Halloween? Maybe, someday, it will be.

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