How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
Once upon a time, I inadvertently started a cosplay race war on Tumblr. Whoops.
So, here's the deal: I'm a cosplayer. If you don't already know one of us in person, (and you probably do) (WE'RE EVERYWHERE) you've probably seen people like me on the news -- all dolled up in a rainbow of face paint and eye popping wigs, 50 shades of spandex and skyscraper shoes, for the sake of expressing love for and bringing our favorite characters to life at sci-fi, comic book, video game and anime conventions.
Since I started cosplaying in 2008, I've traveled the country, hitting up as many cons as financially possible. all the while making incredible friends, unforgettable memories and lugging hard-to-get-through-airport-security props along the way. (Have you ever tried to fly with a dress made out of plastic bubbles? Fun fact -- YOU CAN'T. But you can ship it to your hotel!)
Here's the second deal: I'm also black. Which is fine by most everyone, until I have the audacity to cosplay a character who isn't.
After my pictures started making the rounds on deviantArt, tumblr and 4chan, it became pretty clear that my cosplay brings all the racists to the yard, and they're like…white cosplay is better than yours.
I got a crash course in this when in 2010, I cosplayed Sailor Venus, my favorite character from my favorite anime, Sailor Moon. I found a fellow cosplayer to commission it from, as I wasn't able to sew at the time, and worked carefully with her to bring the costume to life. I then constructed all of my accessories, agonized over choosing a shade of blonde I thought would compliment me, and wore her to A-Kon 21, a yearly anime convention in Dallas.
One of the big draws for cosplayers at cons is going to the series-specific photoshoot, where you gather with other people doing characters from the same series and pose for pictures. While at the Sailor Moon shoot, I chatted up and befriended a photographer who took the now infamous picture of me that would eventually go on to accompany numerous blog and forum posts arguing about whether or not black people should cosplay outside of their race.
"For a black cosplayer (not to be racist) she did an amazing job!" the original Tumblr post read. It was later was edited to include "I love her skin tone" after all hell broke loose.
Personally, I've always been stuck on those first few words: "for a black cosplayer." As if the bar was set lower for us, as if we weren't expected to perform on the same level as white cosplayers.
I lost track of how many times the post was liked, reblogged, linked to other websites -- even now, nearly three years after the picture was taken, complete strangers will come up and reference it to me at cons, and it's even come up in job interviews. My Venus became the unintentional face of the cosplay race debate online, an unwitting example of "Black cosplayers doing it right," as if 9 times out of 10, black cosplayers were doing it wrong by default.
What kills me is that in person, nobody has the balls to say a word about whether or not they think darker-skinned people should cosplay lighter skinned characters -- but online is a completely different animal. Online, I was "Nigger Venus," and "Sailor Venus Williams" because I am black.
My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a "face like a gorilla" and wasn't suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn't blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.
And furthermore, if I was going to insist on "ruining characters," I could have at least picked one with black hair so it looked more "natural." I should have worn blue contacts -- but if I had, it would have looked ghetto. Because I am black.
The depths that the insults sink to are enough to scare many interested cosplayers away from even trying. I had an indian friend who refused to cosplay anything other than Indian characters after watching the way people tore into my costumes online.
When called on it, most will say that it's an "accuracy" thing, that in order to "look better" it's best to stick to characters "in your range," which is a popular rationalization for shutting down plus-size cosplayers as well.
Characters in my range? Comic book heroines and anime characters are typically about 6 feet tall, have basketballs for boobs and probably weigh around 110 pounds. They're not in anybody's range. Let's be real, here -- we are grown men and women pouring all of our disposable income into dressing up as cartoon characters on the weekend. It is not that serious.
I'm aware that to actively engage yourself in such a visual hobby as cosplay, you have to have a thick skin -- and I do. I'm cool with people criticizing my choice in fabrics, choice in wigs, choice of pose, whatever. But my skin color is something I can't change, nor would I if I had the ability. I love the skin I was born in, and I won't apologize, make excuses or work around it for anyone's benefit beyond my own.
One of my good friends (and cosplay idols) does a killer Wonder Woman and Batgirl where she prominently features her natural hair almost as a centerpiece. Seriously, a Wonder Woman and a Batgirl rocking a full head of gorgeous, natural curls. Who could be mad at that?
More people than you'd think. The characters might not be real, but the racism is.
I'm thankful that the black cosplay community has encouraging blogs like Cosplaying While Black and World of Black Heroes, so now anyone who might be curious about joining in won't have to worry about feeling out of place, and will also have a reference to see how certain colors, styles and characters look when portrayed by someone who shares similar features.
We have celebrity support as well -- Gail Simone, the current writer of DC's Batgirl has given her stamp of approval to cosplayers of color time and time again -- she even told me she liked my Batgirl on Halloween! (And if Gail Simone likes what you're doing, then everyone else can take a step to the left because GAIL SIMONE.)
And on the flip side, I have no problem with lighter-skinned people doing darker-skinned characters, either. One of the best Storm cosplayers I've seen was a white woman, and I referred to her costume on the regular when I was working on my own.
I think that at the very heart of cosplay is the love for a character, and the desire to bring that character to life. That's what it should be about.
As female cosplayers, we have enough to deal with (like making sure that people know that our costumes aren't a permission slip and being accused of being "fake geek girls") without being divisive amongst ourselves, so can we stop being unnecessary and just encourage each other? And share tutorials?
Because I'm always looking for some good tutorials.