Last year, a hashtag surfaced throughout social media that showed the majesty that is the black cosplayer. Every day, all throughout the month of February—completely intentional month choice, by the way—#28DaysOfBlackCosplay soared through the skies to proudly display cosplayers of color. Many people took part, and it received all sorts of coverage, but to me the best part about the movement was the number of black cosplayers who hadn’t stepped out before finally throwing on that costume and wearing it without fear of someone giving them a hard time over the color of their skin.
Last year, I wrote an article about the importance of #28DaysOfBlackCosplay after someone on my page decided to ask a question that I saw coming from a mile away: “What about 28 Days of White Cosplay?” As a person of color and frequent social media user, I knew it was only a matter of time before such a question was posed to me. (I believe it only took an hour.) And it’s kind of sad, really, that cosplayers of color like myself expect such disdain over a movement that’s all about encouragement and fun. Since I already tackled the reasoning behind the hashtag and the bitter truth-pill of the way black cosplayers are sometimes treated in last year’s article, I decided that for this year, I’d take a different approach to the question, “Why is this movement so important?”
After all, this year, we have an extra day. Thanks, leap year!
Not Realizing You Want Something Until You See It
I grew up in a time where anime was scarce and video games were slowly starting to build momentum. Comic-book movies weren’t nearly as huge as they are now, and no one could imagine that dressing up as a fictional character would be such a common practice that there are documentaries and reality shows dedicated to it. That being said, I floundered my way into nerddom by accident. I discovered the wonders of Nintendo when I was six years old when we got one in our house, and I heard the whispers of anime when I was ten. Somewhere in between I got hooked on action-packed cartoons like Thundercats, He-Man, and the ’90s classics of Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men.
Let’s talk about X-Men for a moment.
The year was 1992. I was nine years old and had an all-pink bedroom with a Mickey Mouse phone. I turned on the television to see the group of mutants and was immediately intrigued. After all, the theme song has been proven to make you want to punch a bear. As the first episode played, I saw a black woman walking through the mall, doing some shopping with a friend. I assumed she was a background character, someone who would either leave when trouble started or be rescued when the heroes showed up. People of color weren’t usually the leads in heroic stories, especially if they were women.
As I watched, a Sentinel broke into the mall, but that wasn’t the shocking part. The shocking part, to me, was that black woman with the white hair and red jacket transforming into Storm, Mistress of the Elements. I stared at the screen as she manipulated the weather with just the palm of her hand. I watched as she flew through the air and spoke with the grace of a goddess while being treated as a valuable, necessary member of the team. I had never, up to that point, seen a black woman take command in any sort of geek property.
I wanted more. I wanted more of her. I wanted more characters like her. I hadn’t even realized I wanted it, needed it so much until it was presented in front of me, on the screen. I also hadn’t realized, in my nine years of living at the time, how sad it was that I didn’t have many examples to look at in the first place. That realization hit much later when I damn near cried at the sight of Princess Tiana in 2009.
Being the Lone Black Geek
There’s this not-so-secret thought process of what it means to be black. There are these expectations—no one in particular laid them out, but they’re there, and people expect us to follow them. Growing up, none of those assumptions included being a geek. In the eyes of people with those expectations, I was odd for playing video games. I wasn’t “really black” because I would record Toonami on my VCR if I couldn’t make it home from school in time. I was trying to “act white” for seeing Mortal Kombat in theaters on opening weekend. No one knew what fanfiction was. No one listened to random Japanese music. No one spent their high-school job money on uncut Dragonball Z VHS tapes or worshipped their dad for finding Goku and Piccolo walkie-talkies. (I still have them, by the way. Chris Sabat signed my Piccolo.)
It shouldn’t have to be said that black people are a gloriously diverse bunch who all have different personalities, likes, and dislikes. While many black people are aware of the stereotypes according to the white gaze, it’s a bit jarring when you’re made to feel inferior by others with your same skin color. It’s not as damaging as flat-out n-word mantras or being followed around in a department store, but it feels odd to be considered “not black” because you just so happen to like magical Japanese girls who save the world. I had a cousin once tell me that I was more Japanese than black because of my love for anime. It was, and still is, one of the most bizarre things someone has ever told me.
Beyond that, it can be a bit lonely when you’re the only one who’s looking forward to seeing more of Wing Zero flying through space. I did have friends who accepted my geekiness, but they weren’t into it themselves. We’d find other things to bond over, but when you watch that final “bang” from Spike Spiegel, you really want to talk about it with someone.
Being the Lone Black Person
My personal geek space significantly increased when I went off to college. I met my partner, who introduced me to anime conventions, which is where I discovered cosplay. A friend of mine in college even started a cosplay club, and I have memories of an anime club somewhere in the mix as well. While I enjoyed meeting many, many others who knew the wonders of anime, video games, fanfiction, and shipping, that loneliness crept back in because I was the only black person there. To be fair, I went to a predominantly white college (Iowa State University), but even at the conventions I’d go to, most of the cosplayers I saw were white. On top of the lack of black characters in popular media, now there was a lack of black cosplayers and geeks.
Was I really allowed to be a part of all of this?
Yes, it seemed, but only if I followed a set of specific rules—which were unintentional, but still troublesome. In some groups, when you’re the lone black person, you’re expected to be “the black one” instead of simply being yourself. This can range from the cosplay expectation of being the black character (if you’re doing an X-Men group, for example, everyone thinks you’d be the perfect Storm) to being the one who is into all things black (surely you like this character, show, song, because black, right?) to social issues on which you suddenly represent all black people. Period. As if we have a hive mind and no differing opinions.
It’s as if I were their gatekeeper. It was my responsibility to be the black character of the cosplay group. It was my duty to explain to them why certain social issues were problematic to “my kind.” These friends certainly didn’t mean to make me feel like this; in fact, they’d think they were helping. They’d tag me on a post or a comment thread, post a link on my Facebook wall, or send a message to discuss things and/or be educated on topics they may have little knowledge on. And I’m all for discussion—really, I am—but there are some days where I’d wonder, “Can’t you figure this out on your own? We’re friends, you already know what I think. Why do you need my validation?” Then I’d quietly wonder even further, “Am I being rude for thinking that? Shouldn’t I be happy that they wanted to learn?”
But the truth of the matter is that, sometimes, being the lone black voice is exhausting. It’s exhausting because there’s so much weight behind it. It’s exhausting because you worry how some people will use your words, because those people aren’t going to delve any deeper than your opinion. To those people we become a crutch, the necessary black token who makes their group complete. Yet, by trying to include me in this way, they were actually alienating me more than ever.
The Joy of Seeing Others Who Are Just Like You
When it comes to the geek community, there really is no better feeling than realizing that there are others who are just as nerdy as you. For the reasons I went into above, this is especially true for black cosplayers. It’s nice to not be the only one, for once. That’s not to say that every black cosplayer out there was the lone geek or the lone black kid in general, but that was my personal experience. Whenever I see cosplay, I get excited because it’s this creative force of expressing yourself, showing your love for a character you enjoy, and connecting with other people.
But when I see black cosplay? You can hear me squeeing from the far reaches of outer space.
I should be a touch bit more specific. I’m overjoyed when I see black cosplay in a positive light. Sadly, I’m used to seeing it in an “I need to defend myself” kind of way. I say that because a lot of the black cosplayers I follow are ones I’ve found through reading an article written about racism in the community, seeing them brilliantly defend themselves from negative comments, or watching supposedly funny memes being shared that reduces their cosplay to tacky black stereotypes because—ha ha, a group of black people must be up to ghetto shenanigans, right? Don’t get me wrong: it’s good to see black cosplayers discuss the issues they deal with. The articles. The posts. The documentaries. The encouragement to go out there and be your wonderful, magical self despite the hate. All of that is amazing, and absolutely necessary. But just like being the lone black voice gets exhausting, it also gets exhausting to see black cosplay highlighted in defense.
That’s not what we came here for.
Just like every other cosplayer out there, we’re here for the fun of it all. We want to run around conventions dressed as the characters we love. We want to pose for pictures, hang out with friends, go to panels, meet guests—we want the full convention-going experience that everyone else gets. And while it’s important to have these diversity talks, it’s a bummer to discover an amazing cosplayer only because someone decided to call them the n-word.
That’s the beauty of #29DaysOfBlackCosplay.
For the entire month of February, black cosplayers are being promoted just ’cause. There’s no mockery. There’s no lack of visibility. It’s just black cosplay. The end.
Well, sort of. I say “sort of” because I know there are people who have an issue with it. I know there’s the crowd who will ask for “29 Days of White Cosplay,” and I know there’s the crowd who will assume that highlighting a specific group is, somehow, dividing the cosplay community. I know that, no matter how many times we try and explain how having a positive movement is important, they won’t get it.
But that’s okay, because this isn’t for them. This month it’s for the lone black cosplayer, the solitary black geek who thinks that they can’t possibly be a part of this world without fitting into some racially approved package. It’s for the black people who don’t like who they see in the mirror because someone said something to them that’s been dulling the shine in their smile. It’s for the black geeks who assume that cosplay is a white hobby because they never see others like them. These naysayers will never understand that, and you know what? That’s fine.
#29DaysOfBlackCosplay isn’t for them. It’s for me. It’s for you.
It’s for us.
And you’ll be surprised how many people support the hashtag and, more importantly, support you.
To keep up with the conversation, follow and tag #29DaysOfBlackCosplay on Twitter.