Digital Changeling

January 16, 2012

Racism, Costuming, and Our History of Oppression Means I Can’t Cosplay Who I Want

Filed under: Costuming — Eva @ 1:13 am

One of my hobbies, albiet not one I talk about a lot on this blog, is costuming. I sometimes dress up as existing characters from shows, games, or movies at conventions. There are a lot of characters I love who I’d love to dress as. Sometimes those characters are very different from me.

It’s acknowledged in the costuming community that people don’t need to be exactly the same as the characters they dress as. You don’t need colored contacts to perfectly match eye colors and it’s ok to dress as characters with body shapes or even genders that are different than your own. There are a lot of tricks the community accepts to make these costumes flattering: padding, control undergarments like corsets, chest binding, makeup, etc.

The one think you can’t do is paint your skin darker to portray a dark skinned person.

I can’t say that I instinctively understood why this is hurtful. I understood why it could hurt someone in theory, because there is such an enormous history of white people in dark makeup mocking dark skinned people. That was more than enough to stop me from doing it, even before I saw some of the really horrifying Victorian costuming magazines with “Negro” costume suggestions for the kids.*

For a long time there weren’t a whole lot of dark skinned characters that I wanted to dress as. I think this had less to do with my taste and more to do with the deplorable state of media in general. But in the last 5 years, I’ve started to see characters like Katara and Kyra. I started to want to cosplay as them.

The previous “no skin darkening” rule stopped me, but I was more confused and unsure about cosplaying without makeup. It wasn’t until more recently when a friend linked to this article that talks about Paizo’s race and gender sexualizing choices that I started to realize there was another issue, that was more than just a second issue.

There’s a history in the USA and in Hollywood of whitewashing characters. This came up when Avatar: the Last Airbender was made into a movie. I was not so thrilled about it at the time, because Katara was cast as a skinny blond girl, nothing like her original design. It seemed very unnecessary, just excluding for the sake of excluding.

When I read the post about Paizo and saw the part about the costume contest advertising using a white woman dressed as one of their darker characters, it clicked for me. Even though I can’t change my race, if I dress as a character who normally has dark skin, there are going to be people out there who don’t see a white woman who loves a dark skinned character, they’ll see the character being whitewashed.

This is worse, because I can’t paint my skin darker to portray the character more accurately without some people seeing it as mocking. There’s no way for me to express my love for Katara or Kyra through costuming without hurting someone.

I can’t tell the rest of fandom how much I want more characters like Katara by representing her at a con and that makes me really sad. If the world wasn’t full of systemic racism against non-white people, I might be able to, but the world is broken. It would be stupid to get mad at other people for being hurt by a broken world, so instead I’m going to be mad at the broken world for denying me what I want and hurting everyone.

I hope that people who can portray these characters without hurting others do. I want to see more Kataras and Kyras, and any number of other characters who aren’t white. I¬†desperately¬†want the costuming community to do them justice.

I wish there was more I could do to help.



* I need to scan these at some point so you get the full horror of them. The Victorians stop being so romantic and quaint when you remember how nauseatingly racist they were.


  1. If you’re just wearing their costume, you’re not white-washing them. Because you can’t change who you are. But you can promote who they were, their achievements.

    It’s touchy ground… You don’t want to go around carrying someone’s sacred objects if you can help it, of course. But a character from a fictional world that isn’t carrying real-world stereotypes on them isn’t going to be white-washed.

    …And I didn’t understand why they bleach-blonded Katara’s hair. Made the whole scene in the Northern city all the more confusing.

    Comment by Crissa — May 18, 2012 @ 4:16 am

  2. The problem is that even though I wouldn’t be an “official” representation of the character and my intentions would be to honor (rather than harm), intentions aren’t what count; the effect of your actions is what counts. I’m pretty sure the effect of my actions would be at best meaningless (I wouldn’t be able to convey the character I love well at all) and at worst be hurtful (because it’s easily misinterpreted as my appropriating a character and purposefully whitewashing her so I can have what I want). :(

    Comment by Eva — May 18, 2012 @ 9:50 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress