Cosplay is rooted in racist intellectual properties — and fans do everything they can to uphold this racism.
Two weeks before my annual cosplay extravaganza known as DragonCon, my Facebook notifications began blowing up. Within an hour, I had more than 40 notifications about an article published on Bleeding Cool about a popular cosplayer who’d marched with the white supremacists in the Charlottesville “heritage” protests. Curious, I read the article and then went back to my day, entirely unsurprised. Just like water is wet, white people are racist, and racism in cosplay culture has been normalized and capitalized on for years.
At least, this was my perspective. But the white and white-adjacent people on my friendlist were having fits, acting like this was an anomaly. They demanded people unfriend the white supremacist Supergirl or else. Suddenly — despite years of rarely if ever acknowledging, challenging, or confronting racism in the cosplay community — these people wouldn’t tolerate white supremacists.
Racism in cosplay culture has been normalized and capitalized on for years.
Meanwhile, me and other Black cosplayers wondered how this was going to affect our experience at the convention. We wondered if the woman who marched was going to go to DragonCon (she didn’t). We wondered if her defenders would say or do anything (some uncomfortable, and frankly, white sympathizing conversations ensued, but they were not enough to cause disruption).
Once again, we had to navigate an event openly hostile to our participation, and to seek out spaces that felt safe. Once again, we had to consider the reality that true safety in any fandom is a lie.
It is well-known that euro-centric media is anti-Black and white supremacist; that it is rooted in erasing Black people from history, literature, science, pretty much everything. So it shouldn’t be a shock that the fandoms built around these properties are racist, too.
Take, for example, comic books, the source of a huge portion of popular culture and fan events today. For a long time, they were only publicly written by white men, and in 1954, their racism was enshrined in the propaganda-laden Comics Code. The code didn’t specifically say that Black people couldn’t be included in comics, but it did require the exaltation of police, judges, government officials, and respected institutions, and condemned all criminal activity, which at the time included things like a Black person using a “whites only” water fountain. Comics were written during the Civil Rights Movement, a time when Black people were arrested for daring to seek equality in the eyes of the law, something many white people to this day are fighting against, as evidenced by the current white supremacist commander in chief.
Sixty-three years later, and Black people are still fighting for civil rights and representation in media. And, as part of this same racist ecosystem, we have racist fans fighting to keep their fandoms as white and male as possible.
There are countless examples of fans working to protect comics’ all-white-men legacy, from Trekkies threatening to boycott a new Star Trek series because the protagonist is a Black woman and the captain is an Asian woman, to people people pushing back against Tessa Thompson being cast as Valkyrie, or Idris Elba as Heimdall.
Quite simply, racism is built into cosplay because cosplay is rooted in racist intellectual properties. Everything from the lack of Black women characters to the criticisms and outright rejection Black people experience while trying to participate in fandom illuminates this issue. We watch shows about futures that have no Black people, and fantasize about alternative histories that somehow have no Black people. Worlds with dwarves, trolls, orcs, wizards, dragons, unicorns, and all types of mythical creatures and possibilities somehow still manage to have no Black people.
And then, in turn, this racist legacy is enshrined by fan culture, which tells us we don’t belong — on the ludicrous grounds of “reverse racism” — when we deign to include ourselves in these fantastical narratives meant to excite the imagination.
This is how the vicious cycle continues, and fictional realms remain firmly the domains of white people.
As a fat, Black cosplayer, I’m very much aware of the lack of characters who resemble me. I know that when I cosplay, it will be my version of that character, because there aren’t any characters who physically match my skin, my body type, my hair, me. Even when strides are ostensibly made, I am left out; when Valiant Comics released their fat woman superhero, for example, she was a white, blue-eyed blond.
Just as mass media is a product of the whiteness that’s had a stranglehold on America for hundreds of years, so is geek culture and everything spawned from it — conventions, watch parties, movie franchises, hobbies, fandoms.
And just as with everything else, the unbearable whiteness of fandom won’t change without tangible effort by white people committed to changing it. Racism is a conscious choice that’s become the white noise of American culture, and addressing it takes conscious effort to disrupt how white people see the world.
I’m not talking about performative shit — like what happened with Geek Girl Con, a supposedly inclusive organization that saw several members leave en masse when their white allyship was questioned, and they were asked to actually do anti-racism work. Actual change requires actual effort — the kind that hurts white feelings and triggers white guilt. Unless and until that happens, not only will we continue to be erased from our cultural contributions, we will continue to be erased from society.
The unbearable whiteness of fandom won’t change without tangible effort by white people committed to changing it.
The reaction to the cosplayer who marched in Charlottesville indicated some change is happening on this front. But while white people seem ready to discuss the topic of white supremacy, which they skirted in the past, this isn’t enough. The same people who publicly expressed outrage over the racist cosplayer, after all, have by and large failed to question their own racism.
I want to participate more frequently in different fandoms, but I’m finding it harder and harder to ignore the misogynoir in most media content. I am tired of either not seeing Black women, or seeing them abused and hypersexualized. I’m tired of only being seen when some white character needs a sacrifice so they can find their shitty humanity. And I sure as hell don’t want to be surrounded by folks too willfully ignorant to even recognize what’s going on, who are tired of hearing about inclusion and diversity because, like, can’t we just enjoy shit anymore?
It’s never just a show, or comic book, or a game. Someone wrote that shit. Someone else edited it. Someone else reviewed it. Still more people offered criticism and finally approved it. Then the director and producer reviewed it and made more adjustments. So, by the time something reaches the masses, many people have contributed to that final product — and when that product is racist as hell, maybe fan culture shouldn’t work to vehemently defend and uphold its racism.
Fighting white supremacy in fandom, in culture, in society, in politics, in everything is hard, and it takes commitment from white people to reflect on their privilege. It takes the effort of addressing and analyzing how that privilege impacts everything they think and know. It means making intention efforts to include Black and NBPOC voices in decision-making, if not outright having them be the decision-makers. It requires the willingness of white people to be wrong, especially when working with Black people. To improve quality of life for everyone, you must listen to the voices of those who historically haven’t been heard. And you need to be willing to step back and let go.
Always strive to be better than you have been and make this world a better place for everyone.
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