I've been cosplaying for close to 12 years now, and I must say with the latest initiatives like #29daysofblackcosplays and photographers taking an active role in showcasing black cosplayers has definitely helped in giving black cosplayers a chance to shine. For many years it was if this group was a subculture within a subculture, and in many ways it still is to this day. When I hear about some of the vitriol people get for simply dressing up as characters they like it just boggles my mind, but it is also a sobering reminder that there are close-minded people everywhere and that geekiness does not cancel out racism.
I consider myself very lucky to be part of my cosplay community. Over the many years I have been cosplaying within Southern Ontario and Western Quebec in Canada, I have yet to face any overt discrimination within the community. If it happened, it certainly was not to my face. Online, I have also been fortunate that I can only think of one instance that people needlessly brought up my skin colour when it came to costume choice. Ironically enough, someone thought I was too pale to be Korra. Although, "lucky" and "fortunate" may not really be the right words to describe it. I realize that I am a light-skinned person of colour and often times people cannot guess what my ethnic background is (half black, half white if you haven't guessed yet). Also, my lighter skin tone means the range available characters with a similar tone is much wider (although in general very limited compared to the amount of white/pale-skinned characters out there) than say someone several shades darker. From what I gather from fellow POC cosplayers, the darker you are the more of uphill battle you have against haters.
When I first started posting cosplays online, I would often get people inquiring about my ethnic background and it would irk me. I know people were just curious, but I found that it was an irrelevant question to work I was putting out there. Back then, about 7 or so years ago, it was so difficult for me to find other people of colour or dark-skinned cosplayers online. It was like a wasteland, and whenever I would find anyone it would always be the same 3 costumes - Yoruichi from Bleach, Storm from X-Men, and Anthy from Utena. Why those costumes? My best guess is that these were the only ones that were from popular enough series that they would be praised for wearing because they looked the part.
Although I have made 2/3 of those characters' costumes, I still find it important to cosplay what you want. Nothing has brought me more joy than when someone messages me to tell me that they didn't know that black people can cosplay outside their race so now they will do it or that seeing my work inspired them to give it try.
The State Today
I feel that many things have changed for the better in the last few years, thanks to these kind of initiatives. Black cosplayers are stepping out of the background and getting to stand alongside everyone else. But that is not to say that there is not progress to be made.
Here are some issues that I have experienced that could still be worked on as a community. I know for a fact, that if I cosplay a character with a different skintone than mine, it has less impact online. Less likes, comments, shares, less everything. At conventions, it has a lighter impact, but mostly results in less photos and interactions with congoers.
Often times I'll cosplay a character and it doesn't matter what I'm wearing I'll be asked "You're cosplaying Storm, right?" As if that is the only black woman in fandom that exist and that I couldn't be cosplaying from anything else because of my skintone -_-. As a general rule, and most cosplayers will agree with me here, if you are not sure of the costume just ask instead of guessing. just like everyone else, POC cosplayers are a varied bunch that cosplay a wide range of characters.
If you ever want to find out about all the obscure POC characters in geekdom, just ask a POC cosplayers for an open call for costume suggestions. Whenever I make a call to followers to make costume suggestions I get this nice long list of dark-skinned characters, and what boggles my mind is that it is rare for anyone to suggest anything else. A year or two ago I asked which League characters people would suggest and lo and behold it was all the dark skinned characters even though the game has full body paint characters and monsters which I can also portray. Luckily, my friend VickyBunnyAngel threw in some other suggestions that helped me keep my cool that day.
It is just strange since anyone follows my work knows that skintone doesn't dictate my costume choices. However, I will admit I still think twice about doing any popular light-skinned characters because I know the reception will be lukewarm at best. I have to think about whether am I ready for whatever the internet has to dish out if I do this. Which is sad when you think about it. If I like the costume and the character I just go ahead and do it anyways. And that's what I tell anyone who is uncertain about cosplaying outside their race, shape or whetever. Just do it! Your happiness outweighs whatever a random person on the internet has to say.
So let wrap up with a little story from my childhood. When I was growing up I loved the Spice Girls. I used to sing all their song and collected stickers and albums. When it came time to play pretend, guess which spice I always ended up being with my full head of curly hair. Scary Spice EVERY.DAMN.TIME. even though Baby Spice was my favourite. And that is what it feels like when you are wearing a costume outside of your race. You can have to most well constructed outfit an be 100% accurate but there will still be someone there saying you would make a much better Scary Spice. To put is simply, it's exhausting. It's not fun being typecast so I ask that when you are looking at cosplayers at an event or online to truly appreciate what that person is bringing to the community especially considering how much crap they may be going through just because of the colour of their skin.
I don't want to end on a sad note but here's a reason why these initiatives are important and needed. I am fairly certain that the very act of writing this blog and posting it is going to mean I will lose some followers. Ain't that a hoot.
Keep being awesome black cosplayers. I'm proud of all of you. Cheers to another year of celebrating your talents and let's keep the ball rolling year-round.
MeltingMirror's Cosplay Blog
Learn more about my experiences in the cosplay world, from conventions to photoshoots and everything in between.