Cosplaying while black: are we making our communities unsafe for nonwhite members?
It's all fun and games. Until it's not.
I've mentioned Marvel's race problem before, but the truth is the problem is everywhere. There are very few positive representations of people of color in the media today. Some of this is because those in charge of casting, writing, and producing the media we love are almost all white. There are about three nonwhite people in America for every nonwhite character we see on screen, and of those characters, how many of them get screentime or character arcs that don't pidgeonhole them in a stereotype?
If you don't think there's a problem, you might want to look again. These problems are psrt of fandom too. Since the media we're celebrating is flawed, it's extremely difficult for us to avoid internlizing the harmful messages that we consume. It's not somehing that can be done passively- it takes real work.
Chaka Cumberbatch has been a cosplayer for years, and has been the target of harassment because she cosplays as characters that aren't black like- she is. It's not like she has a lot of options- how many black female characters can you name off the top of your head? Storm, Princess Tiana- she's built some amazing costumes for these characters. But why should Hollywood's diversity problem be hers? The underlying message feels very much like: "This isn't for you, you're not welcome here". Why would anyone want to send that kind of message to a fellow fan? In an interview with HaveYouNerd, she mentioned that even people who didn't overtly exclude her could sometimes make her feel like she didn't belong:
"Sometimes, you’ll run into some tokenism, or people will start to get a little too comfortable with you – and it’s always painfully awkward because then it’s like you’re forced to walk this tightrope between sticking up for yourself and forcing the group to have an uncomfortable conversation about race, stereotypes, and why the things they’re saying are problematic. I’ve had times when I was hanging out with a group that was predominately male, that I was accused of “playing the race card,” “overreacting” or “taking things too seriously...” Fandom, we need to do better than this. We need to make our fellow fans of color feel like they're in a safe environment, where they can voice their discomfort and not have their feelings dismissed. Where they can come out and have fun and not worry about being tokenized or harassed. We get so enthusiastic over every new trailer release- why can't we show cosplayers of color the same enthusiasm? We freak out every time nerds are misrepresented in the media, but we can't be bothered to stand up for our fellows when they feel attacked or hurt?
And before you say that it's "just about hurt feelings" (like feelings don't matter!?), consider this... On September 10th, 2014, Darren Hunt was shot and killed by the police. While the initial report suggested he had been "lunging towards officers", witnesses and the autopsy confirmed that he had in fact been going in the opposite direction. He was shot in the back.
Furthermore,, he was still in costume from a character cosplay. He had a toy sword with him. The police shot an unarmed black man, and they blamed their mistake on his cosplay. Part of making our communities safer needs to include effort to make the WORLD we live in a safer place. It should never be acceptable for the police to recklessly commit homicide like this, but we've seen this story repeating over and over again. Darren Hunt was a fellow fan, but the silence from fan communities was deafening. We're fans. We love heroes in capes that swoop in to save the day when all hope is lost. It's an escape.
The thing about escaping into fantasies (like we do with films and comics and tv shows), is that all the problems of the real world follow us there. As nerds and as fans, we have no excuse when we ignore the very real problems our fellows face because of their race (or their gender, their sexuality, or the size of their bodies).
Silently ignoring the problem, or taking a "neutral" stance does nothing to help the people endangered by racism. All it does is give more power to those whose actions are deliberately harmful. We as fans need to do so much more to make our communities safer. We need to educate ourselves. We need to demand more diverse guests and panels at our conventions, vocalize your support for fans of color (not talking over them, but listening to their needs and adding your voice to theirs), support writers that are diversifying their work, and advocating for change when the systems that are supposed to be protecting us are applying uneven, brutal force against people of color. We need to listen.
If you're still scratching your head, just ask yourself: what would my favorite hero do?