When I was six years old, I had a religious experience; I saw anime for the first time. It was a world so unlike the world of animation I saw day to day and in that moment I sold my soul and pledged my life to glorious Nihon. That was over 20 years ago. Since then I have cosplayed for over 10 years and been a fan for the full 20, at least 10 of those years being a more critical fan and using my fancy book learning skills from college to discuss anime and fan culture at conventions all across my great state.
But after 20 years of fandom, I wanted to talk about some of the growing pains that come with being black and being an Otaku and cosplayer.
First and foremostly, the racism. The hecking racism. You have no idea how many times I deal with the dreaded qualified compliments like “You’re such a great black version of INSERT CHARACTER NAME HERE.” or “Wow, you did a great job for someone of color!” just know any time you say that to me or a cosplayer of color, I hope that a bird poops on your car. It’s annoying. Cosplayers put so much work into costumes. I put at least a few weeks worth of effort into every outfit and I’m not even good. There is no reason on Earth for you to say such a thing to a cosplayer of any color online, in person or ever. You may take such hateful comments, speak them into a bag and then release that bag into the cold and unfeeling void.
Which leads us to the straight up hateful comments black cosplayers receive. Gosh hecking darnit, is it sad to have your photos ruined by someone calling you something unspeakable. And they aren’t even always super hateful, it’s just the incessant need to call out black cosplayers for cosplaying characters that may be rooted in Japanese media or may be white in canon. I have no need to be reminded that I am black and that the character I am cosplaying is white or Asian. I don’t need you to tell me. I don’t need to be corrected. Neither does any cosplayer of color. If you want speak such things, you may also say such things into a bag and release it into the cold and unfeeling void.
That brings us to the often comment that “There are plenty of black characters elsewhere!” you know what? Sure. There is a canon version of Iron Man that is a sassy black woman. But you know what? I want to be Tony Stark. I bound for that. I made an ARC REACTOR out of LED lights and my hopes and dreams. I want to be Tony Stark because I relate to him and his journey of drinking to run away from the pain of loss. I don’t care that he’s a white man, I relate to him. And no, we still have plenty of issues with representation in American media. Japanese media? Well…Japan is one of the least ethnically diverse places on Earth. There are black characters in anime and…well, let’s just say the media hasn’t progressed much in the last few decades. It’s always a super Western and super objectified character and I just don’t have time for that anymore. I’m harsh on Western media there is no excuse to not reflect real life which includes black people. I am not going to demand on Japan to have more black people because there simply are none there natively. It’s disappointing, sure but I have never needed a character to look just like me to love them, to relate to them and want to dress up as them.
As far as white cosplayers who still think blackface is okay? Well, listen. It’s bad. It’s always bad. If you are white and the character you are cosplaying is of a color that isn’t yours and isn’t unnatural: DON’T. JUST. DON’T. I can’t lighten my skin legally or safely and I wouldn’t to match a white presenting character. Even if it’s just putting on too much bronzer to match a tan or brown skin tone and you are not naturally of that color it is offensive, wrong and don’t do it. If you think such a thing is appropriate, know that you are in the wrong and I am personally disappointed with you.
Are you a white cosplayer and want to know how to help our your brothers and sisters in craft and of color? Be a true ally. Denounce other cosplayers who say racist things. Don’t qualify comments or compliments. Don’t make it a big deal if you “choose” to not augment your skin tone for a costume, you are not brave for doing so. Join the conversation and elevate the voices of cosplayers of color, don’t drown them out. Let us speak for ourselves. We have plenty of things to say and plenty of talent and experience to talk about this topic.
Are you of color and want to start cosplaying? Nothing on Earth is stopping you. Don’t worry that the character is white or not your biological sex or anything. If it makes you happy and you can, you should do it. And if anyone says anything to discourage you, let me be your strength and your voice. You can do it and I can’t wait to see all the great things you will do. Choose a character you like and know that being of color does make some things a little difficult to do but don’t let it stop you. There is the Internet available now and there are plenty of tutorials available just for cosplayers of color on the best makeup and products to use.
I chose anime and comic books because of the story-telling, the art and the designs. I chose this world because of the community and I am so proud of each and every single cosplayer that I meet and I am especially proud of all my brothers and sister in melanin who do their best. We are a brave community and we will continue to do great things together.
Happy Black History Month, everyone.