This is Part 4 of a series of posts on being a decent person while costuming. The other posts in the Good Costume Manners series are Part 1: “It’s Not Necessary to Be Mean: Snark in the Costuming and Cosplay Community”, Part 2: “Good Intentions Don’t Excuse Bad Behavior” and Part 3: “Taking Control of Your Costuming Happiness.”
Originally for Part 4 I had been planning to write about how I’ve seen a rise in boorish behavior from people bored at home during quarantine. (Some have decided to play gatekeeper and criticize cosplayers and historical costumers about their weight, physical resemblance to a character they’re portraying, materials, etc.) Instead I feel like this is the time to discuss a much more toxic form of gatekeeping: racism, whether overt or subtle, purposeful or not. The past several weeks, as protests mounted about the deplorable way Black people are treated, I’ve seen members of the costume community respond in a myriad of ways that range from helpful activism, to shrugging it off as not their problem, to racist acts or comments of their own about the Black Lives Matter movement.
If you are reading this, chances are high that you are interested in cosplay, historical costuming, re-enactment, and/or vintage fashion. Chances are also high that your hobby has a disproportionately low number of BIPOC (especially Black and Brown) individuals compared to their presence in the general population and you’ve wondered why. Perhaps your local club or area is diverse but on a national level the hobbies are not. The reasons for this are too numerous and complex for a blog post but some of them are:
- BIPOC don’t feel welcome. (This, and what you can do about it, is going to be the focus of this post).
- Some hobbies are expensive and individuals from marginalized communities may have difficulty meeting the financial bar to purchase the costumes, materials, membership fees, or con badges.
- Some BIPOC fear that their friends and family will think they are being frivolous or “acting white.”
You, as an individual, may not have any control over the cultural and social constructs that have led to #2 and #3, but you can do something about #1.
BIPOC are not stupid. You don’t have to be overt and put up a Confederate flag on the lawn to drive people away from your hobby. BIPOC look for little clues like how many other POC are in a club, what kind of “jokes” are shared and tolerated by the membership, or if an organization has any policies on discrimination.
I’m not saying you, Reader, are a bad person. But perhaps you have tolerated some bad behavior, that behavior gets seen, and those micro-aggressions are little drops that grow into a trickle that becomes a river that POC might look at and say, “You know what, I don’t have the energy to wade through that just to play a game.”
I’d like you to consider if you have done the following things:
- Your friend says something racist at an event but you don’t want to “kill the vibe” by calling him out because you’re afraid it’ll make everyone uncomfortable.
- When your Black friend asks for cosplay suggestions you only suggest characters like Black Panther, Blade, and Storm.
- There’s that one guy at your Civil War reenactment or Viking camp out who’s a little too aggressively interested in “heritage” and has some weird rants about minorities, but you decide he’s just really serious about his hobbies and keep inviting him back.
- Your family member comments on your Facebook album of con pics, “Hey it’s Black Batman” or “Mexican Wonder Woman” and you don’t say “No, it’s just Batman and Wonder Woman” because you figure why bother correcting him?
- You see an Asian person wearing a costume you don’t recognize but automatically assume it’s a geisha or anime character.
- You state “I’m not into politics” because you’re afraid of alienating your sponsors or fan base.
- Some of your fans compliment you with “It’s great to see an actual white person do this character because so many people doing it just don’t look right!” and you simply say thanks.
- When asked what your stance is on civil rights issues you give a vague, non-committal answer about how you think everyone is important.
- You justify following a popular costumer on Instagram or Youtube despite a history of terrible behavior because you “just like their pictures” or “I’m a fan of the work and not the person.”
I’m not saying you’re an awful person if you did those. It’s natural to want to avoid conflict and sometimes you’re not in a situation where it is safe to confront someone in person. Perhaps you have a business contract you can’t get out of. However, those actions or inactions are seen and heard, and interpreted by people who might have otherwise been interested in joining up as a NOT WELCOME sign if they see it enough times.
What can you do?
- If you see someone saying something racist, call them out. If they seem misguided, educate them. Maybe you can’t change their mind but someone else might see what you’re doing and know you’re not being complicit.
- If someone makes an inappropriate joke tell them it’s not funny. If they insist, make them explain why it’s funny.
- If a POC tries to join your club or reenactment don’t automatically try to steer them towards an ethnic character or persona because you think it’s “historically accurate.” Give them a chance to decide what they want to do.
- If a POC does want to portray an ethnic character don’t assume they’re “trying to make a statement” or “want to be special.”
- Speech, objects, and traditions that may have been accepted or tolerated in the past may be considered harmful in the present. Be aware that historical does not mean appropriate.
- Google things on your own before asking your BIPOC friend to explain it; they’ve probably done it a lot and are tired of answering basic questions.
- If you make a mistake, apologize. If someone tells you that your post is hurtful or has negative connotations, don’t double down and say “That’s not what I meant” or “That’s not how I’m using it.”
- Familiarize yourself with the terms “performative activism,” “virtue signaling,” and “gaslighting” and why those actions make others uncomfortable.
- Don’t pretend that because you are religious, have a history of charity work, or “don’t see race” you’re exempt from wrongdoing or criticism.
- Also remember that people can change. Someone that made some mistakes in the past and thoroughly disavowed their former selves can be congratulated instead of continually dragged through the mud. There’s no incentive to change if you are still vilified after changing. Of course, this only applies to specific, genuine apologies and not “sorry you were offended” non-apologies. This also does not mean that as an ally you should expect your BIPOC friends to applaud every little thing you do; that would be exhausting.
Being excluded from a hobby is trivial in comparison to some of the other awful things happening in the world at the moment, and I am not a scholar or expert on race matters. I’m just a costumer that’s seen some things and want to stick to speaking about what I know. However, the point remains: Treat others as human. Don’t be an ass. Listen to your friends when they say they are hurt. Don’t talk over marginalized people with your own irrelevant anecdotes. Sharing a hashtag doesn’t absolve you of responsibility.
As an Asian American and a resident of a diverse area I tend to experience micro-aggressions because of my skin color (mainly online or when I travel), but I do not experience some of the particular and horrifying things Black costumers and reenactors encounter. I am definitely not as eloquent and informed about this subject as I’d like to be and would prefer to defer to other more appropriate voices. For more information about the Black experience in America and discussion of problematic behavior: Cheyney McKnight of Not Your Momma’s History is a wonderful historical interpreter and educator who has a website, Instagram, Youtube, and Patreon. Please feel free to suggest other POC costumers who strive to educate others in comments below. Thank you for reading!
(This post was originally written at the beginning of June, but I didn’t feel it was the right time to share then, when so many Black voices were struggling to be heard. I hope this is the right time now, not because the struggle is over, but because I’ve been seeing non-BIPOC individuals asking what immediate, relatable, and specific actions they can start taking now in their lives among the people they encounter and to make their hobbies more welcoming).
Thank you for reading Cindy!
This was well written, concise, and informative. Thank you for standing up and making your voice heard.
Thank you so much for reading Sharon!
Thank you so much for putting together such a thoughtful blog. It should be required reading for every hobby
You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it so much!
Well put; thank you.
Jasmine Mitchell has a website (anti-racist.fyi) for people who want to know what anti-racist things they can do. It doesn’t address the costuming/cosplay/reenactment community, but it’s so wide-ranging that just about everyone should be able to find at least one or two things they can do.
Thank you for the suggestion!
I think you are far more eloquent than you give yourself credit for. Thank you for the insight and direction. I hope your post is widely read and taken deeply into peoples’ hearts.
Thank you for reading and your kind thoughts!
There are also some time periods that are problematic like the 1860’s as they have been co-opted by the far right.
Love my cage crinolines but feel really self-conscious wearing it due to the focus on the American civil war and it’s very obviously racial elements, even though most of European culture were wearing crinolines at the time and I live in England.
I know a lot of people (including myself) who refuse to do Civil War reenactment for the same reason, but will still dress up in the clothes of the era. We are just selective that the theme is “Victorian dance” instead of “Confederate ball,” etc.
Thank you so much for this post and your series. My main focus is Early Medieval Germanic costuming and culture. I have really been struggling for weeks now about gatekeeping within this historical interest and reenactment community- particularly when people decide that being interested in something as beautiful as Beowulf can only be justified by genetic ancestry. I’ve realized that for many people, interest in the Middle Ages or the Early Middle Ages is for them a way to supposedly escape “modern” difficulties of race, sexuality and cruelty. The truth, of course is that no time period is free of these injustices. And gatekeeping explotation of the past is just assisting the overall climate that perpetuates the injustices. Seeing you and others who so generously share your talents and thoughts about the work you do make time and space to promote others who need to be uplifted and truly listened to right now is inspiring. Thank you for encouraging those of us who are working hard to do better to stay in the game even though we feel like we shouldn’t.
Hi Sid, thank you so much for reading and your thoughtful comments! I do agree that for some people hobbies are meant to escape modern issues, but we cannot ignore that being able to escape is a luxury for some but not all. I am touched that you appreciate my work. Thank you!
You spoke of gate keeping and I see it showing up frequently. There’s pressure to keep hidden POC historically because if POC & White people mixed in the past, then racism today seems less established and therefore more of an ugly phase we can overcome. Didn’t know if you’ve seen these but you may be interested in some of this info on Germans & Vikings, though it’s from later: Vikings https://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/search/viking/page/3 AND https://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/search/viking/page/4 AND https://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/search/viking Germans https://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/search/soldiers/page/2 AND Landsknechte German-speaking mercenaries https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-black-landsknecht-and-bystanders-229611
Thanks! I’ve seen that Tumblr blog before!
Appreciate your speaking up! I have found Marvin-Alonzo Greer (@magthehistorian) on IG to be a good source to follow as well as Cheyney McKnight.
Thank you for the recommendations!
Thank you for your thoughtful, considered, and considerate comments. As other commenters have said, you’re more eloquent than you give yourself credit for.
I recently finished reading “England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society” by Onyeka Nubia. VERY thoroughly researched (the notes are almost as many pages as the text, and there’s a 62-page selected bibliography), it explores how Africans and English of African descent were regarded in Tudor society. It also shows that they were present in and part of Tudor society at a variety of social levels.
There’s also a FB group: Bridging the Gap: A look into African American Hair & Makeup for Theatre. While the creator focuses on hair & makeup design and techniques, she also brings in articles on things like lighting, nurturing young creatives, and more.
That’s a really interesting sounding book and I appreciate the recommendation! That FB group sounds like a great one!
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