reappropriate

Monday, September 18, 2006

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. Bared. 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.

15 Comments:

Anonymous gatamala said...

I thought I was being hypersensitive about my hatred of that TIRED ASS pimp costume and fake Afros.

9/18/2006 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger Filby said...

I've been a fan of D&D since the 7th grade, and while I would like to defend my chosen pasttime, I do really see your point and it's made me look at the matter critically.

Regarding "dark elves" I think that there's more culpability on the part of the writers/game designers than other fantastical species, since unlike trolls and talking lizards and the like, as far as morphology goes dark elves are just black-skinned humans with pointy ears. Thus the fact that they have dark skin is rather more egregious than more obviously non-human creatures. It's worth noting that in their first appearances, dark elves actually had dark brown skin, which was only changed to jet-black/dark gray a few years later.

I'm not scholar of Norse myth, but I do know that the basis for dark elves in D&D ("dockalfar" or "svartalfar") were not dark-skinned at all. The "dark" part of their name referred solely to their demeanor, not their appearance. Likewise, they were not evil so much as very tricky.

And besides that, wouldn't a species adapted to life underground have unnaturally white skin?

It's worth noting that dark elves in D&D aren't really inherently evil, but rather controlled by a demon-worshipping clergy. However, this opens up another can of worms -- the arrogant conceit that all non-Christian deities are synonymous with Satan, which was used as a rationale for the forced conversion and persecution of so many indigenous peoples.

9/18/2006 03:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Mac said...

1st of all, love the new site design Jenn.

I don't like to say people are hypersensitive about issues that I particularly don't find offensive. We all have that line that when crossed pisses us off.

I'm not a real sensitive about race unless it's something blatant.

9/18/2006 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi,

Chris/yeloson here- those aren't my photos, though I linked them from flickr, because I knew someone, somewhere, had to have taken photos.

What has struck me most in the post-GenCon discussion of this, hasn't been the people who go, "Oh, it's just elves" (which I expected), but rather the aggressively defensive folks who go, "How DARE you be upset about this!?!?"
... of course, ignoring the fact that intentional blackface still goes on today.

The analogy I like to give is that if you were a Buddhist in Germany, openly displaying the swastika (in good faith, it is a buddhist symbol, after all), they'd still make you stop, because it is historically loaded and hurtful to the people there.

Of course, part of privilege is not caring who you hurt along the way...

9/18/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Anonymous J said...

This is great - totally made sense when I went to the store with my 4 y.o. daughter. I had gotten the inherent sexism but completely missed the racism. Damn.

Ended up deciding not to buy anything, left in disgust.

I didn't get the Rogue reference, though - could you maybe illuminate that a little further for me? I'm clearly missing something there...and I'd love to know what I didn't catch.

9/18/2006 06:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL @ cosplayers. It's fun to do once in a while, but when you make it your life and transform into a hardcore Asiaphile otaku.....not so much.

I say all minorities dress up like rich white trash honkeys on All Hallow's Eve. You know, trash like K Fed, Paris Hilton, Lindsay HOhan, and the like. Or better yet, the cast of any "Real OC" so-called reality shows. XD And for an extra touch, all women dressed like rich white trash can clip a plushie crab near their crotches!!

9/18/2006 08:43:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

"I say all minorities dress up like rich white trash honkeys on All Hallow's Eve. You know, trash like K Fed, Paris Hilton, Lindsay HOhan, and the like. Or better yet, the cast of any "Real OC" so-called reality shows. XD And for an extra touch, all women dressed like rich white trash can clip a plushie crab near their crotches!!" - Anon

Heh heh heh. Love the sarcasm, but we already have this. It's called the BET Awards.

9/18/2006 10:29:00 PM  
Blogger solitaire said...

Love the new site design sis!!

How have you been? How's James? No updates from him in a bit!

9/19/2006 01:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh heh heh. Love the sarcasm, but we already have this. It's called the BET Awards. - James

Oh snap! How could I have missed that! >_< I stopped watching the BET awards after it started becoming a free-for-all brawl that one year.

Jenn, how do you feel about white folk cosplaying Japanese anime? And with that in mind, check out http://fuku.catsonmars.com and click on forum. The folks at Fuckin' Otaku make fun of the whole cosplay concept and how people sometimes take it too far.....

9/20/2006 09:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Fire Fly said...

Heh. More and more I want to go out in whiteface and play up a white stereotype. Possibly in drag, too.

9/21/2006 12:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Lyonside said...

The gamer world (and sci-fi/fantasy in general) is overwhelmingly white, so I'm not surprised at the lack of a clue.

I wonder, sometimes, about what qualifies as "blackface" - does black skin makeup alone mean blackface, or does it have to include red, often exaggerated, lips and/or white-outlined eyes to fall in line with the "traditional" blackface used in the US?

To my eyes, the initial picture of a solo black-makeup elf-costume wasn't racist, but seeing 2 scantily-clad white women attack her WAS. Maybe context really is everything...

9/26/2006 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Jeff Rients said...

Filby wrote:

"And besides that, wouldn't a species adapted to life underground have unnaturally white skin?"

In the D&D setting Mystara the so-called "Shadow Elves" are the local equivalent of the drow, and they are all pasty white from life underground.

I've seen a couple of depictions from early in the hobby of blueish or purplish drow. I generally prefer those versions. The xvarts, another D&D monster based upon the mythical svartalfs, are also blue. Of course without the drow many D&D campaigns would have no people of color whatsoever, unless you want to talk about how orcs often serve as the Other. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

9/27/2006 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger Filby said...

In the D&D setting Mystara the so-called "Shadow Elves" are the local equivalent of the drow, and they are all pasty white from life underground.

Oh yeah, I remember them. They were less two-dimensionally evil, too.

I've seen a couple of depictions from early in the hobby of blueish or purplish drow.

I've noticed that lately, too, they've been depicting drow with a blue or purple undertone. Maybe they're wising up.

Of course without the drow many D&D campaigns would have no people of color whatsoever, unless you want to talk about how orcs often serve as the Other.

In the current edition, D&D seems to be making an effort towards depicting more non-white humans in their products (see here, here), but yeah, since the majority of geeks (myself included) are white and it's mostly based on European fantasy, I guess it's kinda inevitable that people of color will be rare in actual play.

Regarding orcs, I'd consider them exempt, since they're completely nonhuman-looking and have a wholly unnatural skin tone anyway.

9/27/2006 05:23:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I think the Neverwinter Nights videogames are based on DnD, and in it, there were a few avatar pictures that depicted people of colour. However, the fact that we can count the instances in which diversity is addressed means that not enough is being done.

9/28/2006 12:52:00 AM  
Blogger Hale of Angelthorne said...

Ah, Halloween, where once again I get to watch my kids watch other kids dressed up in "warbonnets," loincloths and "war paint" and making "wah wah wah" noises by hitting their mouths with the palms of their hands.
I'm just waiting for one of my kids, who are both way too smart for their own good, charge up to some "savage warrior" or "Indian princess" at a school party and tell him or her, "We don't dress like that, you know." I can see the trip to the principal's office, already.

9/28/2006 01:26:00 AM  

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