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).