I’m a cosplayer of color (as you can see in the photo below) who attends quite a few cons every season. Over the years, I’ve developed somewhat of a thick skin when running into people who do any of the following, but it still takes away from the overall positivity of the con experience.
Last year, I offered five tips for interacting with POC cosplayers. While I received a handful of snarky rebuttals, from what I could tell, the general reaction was largely positive. With the 20th-anniversary edition of CONvergence underway—and the recent release of some great content featuring nonwhite, non-cis-het-male characters to add to our cosplay plans—I thought this would be the perfect time to add to the list. In the continued interest of a good con for all, here are five more things not to do when you meet a cosplayer of color.
1. Don’t Sealion
Everyone makes mistakes, but how you react when someone points out a mistake is important.
Sealioning is a type of harassment in which someone obstinately demands persistent evidence and/or repeatedly questions critique when called out for offensive behaviors, actions, or speech. If you’re corrected on a misstep that has caused offense to someone, accept the insights. Don’t passive-aggressively try to defend your actions or speech through a barrage of insincere questions. For example, if you’re a white guy cosplaying Maui who decides to use spray tanner to darken your skin, and you’re called out for race-facing, no amount of devil’s advocacy is going to excuse your choice. The correct course of action is to apologize for the offense, rectify the issue, and—most importantly—refrain from repeating the same error. Imposing your privilege on someone through a false desire for “intellectual discourse” or “rational proof” doesn’t make you a mature, thoughtful seeker of fact. It makes you a sanctimonious bag of feces.
Takeaway: Don’t be a sanctimonious bag of feces.
2. Don’t Be a Pushy Proxy
In my experience, the overwhelmingly vast majority of con-goers are on the level and genuinely work towards fostering a community of inclusivity and diversity. However, even those good intentions can be taken too far. Calling out the ignorant and/or offensive behavior of others is a welcome form of defense: Some jerk make a sexist joke? Call that out! Someone deadnaming a celeb on a panel? Call that out! But if you find yourself on an all-white panel discussing POCI issues—or maybe you’re having a smoke outside chatting with friends when you see someone doing one of the other things on this list to a person of color, and you jump in before the person has a chance to react—you may want to take a step or two back and reassess yourself. See, when someone makes rude comments or is wildly uncouth, it offends us, sure, but we’re not damsels in distress. In many cases, we don’t need (or want) you to be our proxy. Swooping in to save the day may feel like you’re doing a good deed, but really you’re taking away our agency. And when you take away someone’s agency, you’re dehumanizing them much in the same way as someone who is excluding or disrespecting. By speaking over the voices of cosplayers of color (or cosplayers who are female, disabled, queer, or part of another marginalized group), you’re in essence saying that the views and feelings of the community minority are of lesser value than your own—whether or not you mean to. We might need help, and by all means, defend what needs defending when necessary. Just make sure when calling out racism (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism) and fighting the good fight, you’re standing with us, not on us. You’re not the Mario Brothers, and we’re not a pixelated princess. We’re people.
Takeaway: Don’t be the Mario Brothers.
3. Don’t Be the Sphinx
Remember reading about Oedipus back in high school? It’s been a while, so let me catch you up. According to the story, the Sphinx, the part-lion, part-eagle monster with a human head, was said to guard the entrance to Thebes, only allowing travelers to pass if they correctly answered a riddle. Well, some con-goers seem to erroneously, offensively believe that when they encounter a cosplayer of color (or, also frequently, a cosplayer who presents as female), it is their duty to guard entrance to their fandoms by peppering that cosplayer with question after question as if the “true” enjoyment of a series, film, book, game, and so on, were wholly dependent upon the depth of a person’s trivial knowledge about said series, film, book, or game. That’s complete garbage. If you dig what you dig, it doesn’t matter how much minutiae you remember. All that matters is that you dig it.
You might be wondering how this is any different from old-fashioned geeky gatekeeping. Well, what makes sphinxing unique (and really suck) is that it always seems to be the same perpetrators “testing” the same type of victims. You never seem to hear about the kid who went to a Steven Universe panel and a bunch of black queer women kicked him out because he didn’t know enough about the show. Nor do you seem to hear of a white guy getting called a “fake geek” because he was wearing a Batman hat with his Spider-Man costume. Instead, it’s used against fans of color (or really any variant that isn’t cisgender, straight white male). I just recently watched Game of Thrones, and I love Cersei. I haven’t read the book series, and I don’t care about the fan theories and nuance. I just love a bad-ass, slightly sociopathic Lena Headey wrecking shop to get done what she needs to get done while pitying exactly zero fools and giving exactly zero effs, all while keeping her wine chalice full. Does that make me any less of a fan than the walking Game of Thrones wiki warrior, with the screen- and book-accurate costume? Not even a little bit. Fans are fans. Wikis are wikis.
Takeaway: Don’t be a wiki warrior.
4. Don’t Make Us Involuntary Ambassadors
I love that most cons (and especially my friend group) look like a 90-pound bag of Skittles exploded across the room. Diversifying isn’t just for stock portfolios, after all. But on occasion, even someone who’s otherwise all the way hip can fall into this particular entry. Involuntary ambassadorship is when you look to a member of your group (whether it’s friends, classmates, colleagues, newly acquired con buddies passing a flask, etc.) and ask them to speak on behalf of all other people like them. I hate to break it you, but there aren’t any secret Black People meetings—and I know, you’re like, “How can I trust you to tell me? If it’s a secret meeting, then wouldn’t you be keeping it secret?” No. Maybe in the ’80s we could’ve kept it under wraps, but with the Internet and smartphones, if there was a meeting that every black person in the country attended, you would’ve heard of it by now.
But seriously, I can’t tell you what all Black people think about whatever; I can only tell you what one Black person (me) thinks. I can’t explain or condemn or condone anything on behalf of an entire demographic of humans any more than I could touch all the drops of water in the Pacific. What you’re doing when you place the burden of being a demographic spokesperson on someone is saying, “I’m looking to create a stereotype, and I want you to help.” Similarly, the only woman on the dais in that cool panel? She can’t give you the universal “feminine” perspective. She can give you hers. That person who identified themselves as ace can’t tell you what asexuals think, only what they think. Respecting the person—all people—as one of many in a multifaceted, intersectional group is the best way to go about . . . well, everything. This isn’t the Hunger Games. You don’t need a rep, so stop asking for one.
Takeaway: We’re not Katniss. Don’t volunteer us as tribute.
5. Don’t Fetishize Us
This is sort of a piggyback off #4 and a close partner to #2. Fetishizing in this case isn’t about sexual attraction, but rather putting people of color on a pedestal simply because they’re people of color. Look, I dig any kind of accolade or admiration, but if I’m being invited to your party-room afterparty solely because you want to look like you’ve got a Black friend, that’s a hard pass—and honestly, it’s no different than if you were to not invite me to your party-room afterparty solely because I’m Black. The worst examples of this happen when pressure is put on POC to make something “cool,” “hip,” or “more interesting.” And while I sympathize (just a tiny bit) with those who don’t want to drown in a sea of homogeny, there needs to be more interest than just wanting a person of color in the mix to “spice things up” or thinking your party would be cooler party with a black person there.
Takeaway: POC are not bacon. We’re not here to add flavor.
As I mentioned in last year’s list, cosplayers of color are just like any other cosplayers. We watch, read, listen to, and play the same stuff. And we want to have a good a time just like everyone else. So once again, this con season, leave the gatekeeping to Heimdall (and the sphinxing to the Sphinx!) and remember that we are all geeks here.