So I stumbled upon a post on Tumblr that garnered a lot of negative attention recently in regards to blackface in cosplay, and it (understandably) sparked quite the argument.
Also, halloween is coming and so the controversial “we are a culture, not a costume” issue gets tossed about a lot as well. I wanted to talk about these issues in the most objective, straight-forward way possible.
Cosplay blackface and racist costumes are a big problem. Here’s why.
Tumblr is an interesting place because the community tends to react very passionately and strongly to things they find problematic. This in of itself becomes an issue, especially when it comes to individuals speaking FOR groups that they don’t necessarily belong to.
Because of this I think it’s generally unproductive when that the response is always “OMFG U RACIST GO FUK URSELF” instead of offering an explanation. Yes, you can argue that in this day and age people really ought to know better, and you’d be right. But the reality is they often don’t know better. Some people are raised in a bubble and privileged – even I, as a latina, was unaware of many of these issues growing up and even well into adulthood. I was thankfully educated (usually kindly) by my peers, but it wasn’t always an easy thing to deal with.
Now, you’d think something like the subject of racial appropriation (and especially black face) is obvious. But again, it’s not. There are still many people out there who don’t understand why.
So really, what is appropriation and why is it a problem?
Before we get to blackface, let’s start with appropriation. It is hard to define, but simplified it is when one privileged culture adopts or takes aspects of another underprivileged culture without proper context or sharing in the later culture’s burdens or history.
This is an issue because the cultures being “borrowed” from are also often the victims of cruelty, racism, oppression, and/or inherit biases that are maintained by the “ruling” culture or class. The privileged group can put on a “mask” or adopt a piece of another culture and make it acceptable or trendy or forgivable, but at any time take off that mask. But the actual people being taken from are often looked down upon, ridiculed, or thought lesser of for those very aspects that are being adopted. Further, appropriation is very often stereotyped, often perpetuating negative and at time damaging the people being mimicked. Not all appropriation is explicit or intentionally cruel, but it almost always is subtly damaging.
Let’s take for example urban black culture, arguably one of the most hated groups in the United States. Dozens of studies have been done that show how deeply rooted our biases against blacks in America is (and I’m sticking to the US here though this is often true internationally as well). Many aspects of black culture – the clothing, the music, the language – are heavily feared or resented by upper class white America. When teenage white girls date black boys, it’s a problem. When white kids listen to rap music, it’s a problem. When white kids want to piss off their parents, want to rebel against the status-quo, they look to black urban culture as a means to do so. This is perpetuating that idea that blacks and black culture are bad, less then, and dirty.
But when Miley Cyrus gets on stage and suddenly twerking is a thing, and now that white kids all over are doing it on vine, it’s cool, it’s funny, it’s part of pop culture. But twerking has been part of black urban entertainment for years, and before it was popularized by white pop stars, it was dirty.
Katy Perry can get on stage and dress up as a sexy geisha and nobody blinks an eye at the deep rooted and still pervasive hyper-sexualiztion and trafficking of Asian women.
A group of latin friends can speak Spanish to one another loudly on a train, and people see this as threatening or an unwillingness to assimilate.
And so on.
Where does blackface fit into all this? And what does it have to do with costumes and cosplay?
Blackface has a history that goes far beyond young cosplayers trying to look like an ethnic character. Back during America’s long history of anti-black rhetoric, white actors would often literally paint their faces black and purposefully make of blacks – it was a genre of entertainment known as minstrelsy. It was not only a major and popular thing to, it’s the literal origin of blackface that eventually lead to real black actors performing in a self-depreciating and stereotyped skits for white entertainment.
This history extends beyond blacks – many cultures such as the East Asias, Native Americans, and Latinos have had a long history of being appropriated and stereotyped by whites – and it’s still prevalent today.
When white people “dress up” in blackface or put on a sombrero for cinco de mayo or post videos of them twerking on youtube or put bindis all over their faces, they never have to suffer for it or even be asked to understand the origin of those practices. They don’t share the historical burden. When a white person darkens his or her skin for a costume, it’s a hugely ironic slap in the face for those of us with darker skin who are considered less beautiful because we don’t fit society’s Euro-centric ideal of beauty.
Bringing Cosplay into the mix – cosplay culture has a long history of being implicitly racist because likeness to a character is taken into account as part of the overall appeal of a costume. And since cosplay is deeply rooted in entertainment that features a very small selection of characters of color, darker skinned cosplayers (especially black) hardly ever win any contests or are often told they are “too dark” for the characters they are representing. White cosplayers get away with dressing up as Asian characters because Anime and Manga is so often drawn with features that are considered more Caucasian than Asian for visual appeal, leaving other ethnic groups out of the fray and further appropriating Asian characters as ” white by default”.
This is why it’s extremely insensitive to go the other way around, not even taking into account the aggressive history of black-face. A black or brown cosplayer will have a hard time getting away with putting on “white face”, and so to have a white cosplayer come along, darken their skin, and be celebrated for something that ACTUAL dark-skinned people suffer countless issues for is horrible.
Simply put, white people will never have to suffer the burden of being part of the cultures victimized in the past and stereotyped in the present, and those of us who are never get to take off those masks. We always have to work to simply be equal – we don’t want to be special or other or exotified or demonized. We just want to be ourselves and celebrate our differences without those differences causing a stir. And until that happens, it is not and will never be OK for white people to appropriate our skins or our cultures.
This is why racist costumes are bad. This is why black/brown/yellow/red face even in cosplay is bad. Cosplay who you want but don’t change your skin to do it.
So I hope this is a clearer, shorter explanation of the issues at hand to help people understand (without being yelled at) why blackface and costume appropriation is a bad idea and something that really needs to be avoided.
Updated on July 28, 2015 for clarification, sources, and accuracy adjustments.
Updated on Oct 19, 2017, comments closed because we can’t talk about issues without shitting on each other, apparently.