Cosplay with Caution

With Halloween rolling around, I'm mentally steeling myself for the bombardment of nigh-racist masquerading that we'll see in the next few weeks. Every year, some Halloween company inevitably reinvents the wheel with yet another racist or Asiaphilic interpretation of the East and our people (this year, I've already seen a line of “geisha girl” dresses which, incidentally, are modelled after Chinese chi-pao).

People of colour are no less culpable; last year, I went to a Halloween party at a local night club and saw no less than four BM/WF interracial couples with the Black man dressed in an orange jumpsuit and the White woman dressed as the cop.

However, costuming occurs year-round at some other events, and as the summer wanes, we are coming to the end of a plethora of science-fiction/comic book conventions that took place around the country. One of the popular parts of these events are the fans who take great pains to create (or purchase through online vendors) replica costumes of their favourite characters.

And while it seems like all fun and games to dress up as Rogue from the X-men or that White Mage from the Final Fantasy game (the special costume in the third act for the second cut-scene, not her generic costume — get it right!), these costumes are not without its own level of racial fucked-up-edness.

Upon returning from this year's GenCon, Yeloson reported seeing not one but several instances of racially White fans donning blackface to emulate the Drow race of dark elves from the Dungeons and Dragons world. He managed to snap a picture of one of them find a picture of one of them online:

Upon seeing this image, I was reminded of the countless anime fans who lambasted me when I spoke out against Asiaphilia and the ninja/samurai fetish. By definition, these genres are worlds of fantasy, willingly divorced from reality, and as such, the fans of these genres seem to desperately protect the fantastical aspects of these worlds.

And yet, it is impossible to consider images such as the one above outside of reality. Conventions like GenCon do not take place in alternate universes where racism does not exist, and in this case, one cannot help but find the burnt cork tint of the woman's skin reminiscent of historical blackface. Yes, the woman imaged above was emulating a fantastical race, but it was nonetheless the use of makeup to emulate a race of darker skinned, inherently evil, beings. In this case, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.

And certainly not when the same woman is then seen cooperating with other convention attendees simulating a public lynching.

Update (9/18/06): Thanks, again, to Yeloson who commented on this post and directed our attention to this fabulous post by Bryan Thomas written six years ago about Halloween and White privilege insisting that racialized costumes be celebrated during this holiday. At a party, Thomas encountered a group of three White people who donned Black makeup and leather/animal skins to emulate what was later described to him as a “head-hunter”. One even wore a bone through her nose.

I enjoyed in particular Thomas' recounting of the “head hunter”'s initial reaction to being challenged on his costume.

So his smile vanishes.

He drops the innocent bit.

He's been messing with me.

Waiting for me to say something.

“Look, I'm not stupid,” he says. “I thought about this before I wore it out tonight. I don't see what the big deal is.”

Yeah the smile's gone, but the teeth are still there.


Angry teeth.

The audacity — the “head-hunter” was not repentent. He was not dismissive. He was angry.

From the description, his subsequent use of a reference to Al Jolson, this man knew what he was doing. This was no accident, no coincidence of racial mockery, no pretense at ignorance. This man had chosen this Halloween 2000 to make a blatant mockery of another race, and to dare others to call him out. This was his cry of rebellion against political correctness, his personal statement that his Whiteness should grant him the privilege to offend whomever he felt like.

With his statement that, “[l]ast year I went out for Halloween as a woman. Dressed as a woman! I didn't offend any women. You know who was the only woman who got offended? My wife! Cuz more guys were hitting on me than her…”, he even suggests that the reason Thomas is upset is that his caricatured makeup is more authentically Black than Thomas' actual racial identity, just as the head-hunter was “more womanly” than his wife in the previous year.

The parallels are obvious. Those in the racial majority are striking back against racial minorities. No longer just content to enjoy their privilege, they are actively pushing the boundaries, seeking to offend and get away with it, willfully refusing to consider the human story behind each bias-related incident. They can't (but more importantly, don't) imagine that every burnt cork applied to the skin, burns an emotional pain for people of colour.

Why should they care? After all, we're ruining their fun.

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