Race and Fandom Revisited

So, my cosplay post has mini-exploded a few times on the internet. The fat positivity portion of the post has been well-received, for which I am very thankful. It’s encouraging to know that this is an issue people are concerned about, and that people are being supportive of fat cosplayers.

Not so much with the other part of the post, the race part. What little response I’ve gotten about that part has been negative. Basically, I need to relax because we should be over this whole race thing. In short, these people seem to be subscribing to the view that being colorblind solves all problems, and probably that we live in a post-race society.

Now, maybe I wasn’t clear enough about what my original point was when I wrote the post. These responses only related to that particular Zoe cosplayer, not the issues raised by the article, or the fact that we in the geek community should actually think about racial issues for once. This suggests that I may have let my stunned response to that picture overshadow my overall point, which really isn’t about blackface itself.

Blackface isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of it. The fact that people refuse to see what might be wrong with this way of cosplaying reflects a wider problem about race, and the overall apathy (sometimes antipathy) felt towards talking about race in the geek community. In a post that has been viewed over 1000 times, the Racialicious article has been clicked on only 69 times. The fat positivity articles and sites have each been clicked on hundreds of times.

The thing is, if race didn’t matter, if we lived in this wonderful rainbow of a colorblind society, then the author of the Racialicious article wouldn’t be given shit for being a black woman cosplaying as a white character. You can’t defend the rights of white people to paint their skin to look like black people, if you’re also ignoring the rights of black people to cosplay as white characters without receiving rude comments. That’s not being colorblind, that’s using the myth of colorblindness to absolve yourself of any responsibility to think or care about racial issues. (Which, admittedly, is the only point of the colorblind myth anyway.)

But Joanna, you might be saying, a black man is president of the United States! Surely we live in a post-racial society! Would that that were true, dear reader. Yes, we in the US elected a black man as president. This man has then received demands to prove his citizenship, which you can’t really believe has nothing to do with race.

Also, black people in the US are disproportionately impoverished, incarcerated, and affected by NYC’s “stop and frisk.” The struggles and poverty of the Asian community are often ignored in favor of the “model minority” myth. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by alcoholism. The fact that, for some, this nonsense about Gabby Douglas’ hair overshadowed her incredible athletic accomplishments. Just this week, a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh temple, and major news outlets responded by explaining that people can’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims, implying that murdering Muslims is expected and, consequently, less horrible.

In case that’s too “real world” for you, and you’d like examples related to the geek community and fandom (other than, you know, the original article in my original post), this report on the Racebending panel at SDCC should give you some ideas of how race still affects the geek community. Some choice points: “Marjorie Liu talked about being told that she should change her name, and related a story of a friend who was told that her Asian name was ‘ethnically tainted’ leading to the friend changing her name for her professional work… David Gaiden… brought up a truly disturbing fact, that the most popular mod [in Dragon Age] allows the player to change the race of the game’s one black female to a white, blonde… Brandon Thomas shared a story about his mother, when he was writing for a website that asked for him to include a picture with his posts, his mother asked, ‘Do you really want to let everyone know you’re black?’ ‘And she was right’ he followed up with.”

And how about all the racism that popped up on Twitter after black characters in the Hunger Games were played by black actors? Speaking of movies, how many times have you gone to see a Hollywood blockbuster that starred a person of color who wasn’t Will Smith, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman, or Denzel Washington? And there’s the fact that in two seasons of The Walking Dead (set in Georgia, whose population according to the 2010 Census is 30% Black or African American) there have been 2? 3? black characters. Latinos on the show are virtually non-existent, and Glenn functions as Token Asian.

But none of that is a problem, because white people. Or something.

I get it. Race is an uncomfortable subject. Life is much easier for white people when they ignore racism. But life isn’t easier for anyone else in the myth of colorblindness. And suggesting we live in a post-race society is about as absurd as claiming we’re living in a post-gender society. While race and gender may not be quite as oppressive as they used to be, that doesn’t mean that we’re done thinking about these constructs. Just because black people are no longer property and women can vote, doesn’t mean race and gender have no negative effects on people’s lives.

I’d like to reiterate: I didn’t bring up Kendra James’ article solely to condemn blackface cosplay. I brought it up because fandom and the geek community generally aren’t all that interested in discussing race issues. The community is guilty of trying to take the easy way out, instead of facing the harsh realities. And now that we’re talking more and more about gender in gaming, but also geekdom generally, it’s time we had similar discussions about race.

I’m not trying to strip white people of the right to paint their skin to look like Zoe Washburn. I’m trying to foster intelligent, engaged discussion about the place of race in fandom, in terms of both its people and the shows/movies/games/books they love.

I leave you with this relevant video:

(Transcript and background on La Jolla Playhouse can be found here.)

-Joanna

5 thoughts on “Race and Fandom Revisited

  1. I don’t know how long ago this was posted, but I really felt the need to say how much I love this article. I actually love it more than the original article this spurred off of. It is the only one on this topic that does not ‘blame’ either side of being wrong, which usually causes people to say stupid things to defend their opinion.

    As controversial as it is, I’m really for changing your skin tone for cosplay. To me, its the same as changing your gender/sex for cross playing. But I know that many people find it offensive and as much as I wish we lived in a society where people can race bend, it’s really not a good choice. I definitely would not do it, just to avoid the controversy. Race is a tough topic and even though I do feel awkward and ‘wrong’ voicing my opinion on race and cosplay, I feel like I should not feel this way. Nor should anyone.

    Life would be so much easier if people did not care that x-black chick is cosplaying y-white character or that x-fat person is cosplaying y-thin character. In my opinion, it’s a costume. You put time into it / purchase it, you make sure you look your best in it, and you have fun.

    We still don’t have all the problems above fixed, but how do we go about fixing them? That’s my question. I understand there are people like me who believe that race bending is cool, and I respect them. I understand that there are people who find it extremely distasteful, and I respect them. Each side has both valid and completely ridiculous points as to why they’re right. But we still find race this taboo of a topic and all conversations of this topic turn into “you’re being too sensitive” or “you’re all racist, misogynist jerkwads”

    How do we come to an understanding?

    (I’m sorry if this is written poorly/ cannot be understood well. I stink at writing.)

    • Replying to my own comment because I just finished reading the articles you linked that I have not already read, specifically the Avatar the Last Airbender movie one.

      That movie was atrocious in more ways than what was in that article, but the race thing was definitely one of the biggest ones.

      I genuinely do not understand this idea that if the main characters are not white, the show will not be good. Every time I see something like that, I am completely baffled.

      You’d think that in 2013, people would realize that skin colour does not measure your worth. Come on, society.

    • Thanks, not just for the praise, but for your thoughtful response! I really appreciate it when people genuinely interact with my blog posts, no matter how long ago they were written.

      As for your question, unfortunately that’s not one I know a satisfactory answer to. My attempts at coming to an understanding involve insisting on intelligent, informed, empathetic, and level-headed discussion. Often I read articles or hear people make arguments that seem to advocate for something I instinctively disagree with. Upon realizing that, I make sure to really analyze the argument, so I can tell whether or not my gut-reaction was fair or not. (Unless, of course, someone says something inane, like “women can’t be president because of their periods.”) For example, I’ve been reading a lot of different responses to Django Unchained to understand where I situate myself in relation to the movie as anything other than simply an entertaining piece of cinema.

      Of course, that sort of analysis is better suited for changing (or maintaining) my own opinion than to changing the opinions of others. Some people (especially on the internet) refuse to have level-headed discussion. The question of how we go about fixing these problems is a difficult one, and one that won’t be solved simply by people like me developing their opinions. Somewhere along the line, these opinions need to evolve into activism, even of a very small variety.

      Here’s a tiny little piece of activism that I wish more people would institute in their daily lives: instead of accusing a person of being racist/sexist/homophobic/etc, make it clear that it is the actions or comments made that are racist/etc. This way the conversation becomes about the systems of oppression rather than about the individual and his/her moral fiber or whatever. It also forces both parties to make more coherent arguments, rather than hitching on to straw men like “but his best friend is black!” or “she’s a terrible person who hates gay people!” It also helps to emphasize that there is a difference between saying something/someone is sexist/racist, and saying that someone/something helps to normalize sexism/racism or passively reflects the oppressive system of racism/sexism.

      I’m not really sure what to do to change everyone’s minds, other than by engaging everyone in this thoughtful discussion. If we keep talking and listening, perhaps more people will, at the very least, be more understanding of the opinions and situations of others. Ultimately, we come to an understanding by changing culture, and changing culture is a long, painful process.

      And, yes, the internet can definitely speed the process of changing culture, but I don’t think it can be done without promoting empathetic, thoughtful discussions. That might seem pretty weaksauce compared to the kind of shit that is discussed (and sounds like the equivalent of suggesting that the answer to racism is hugging it out), but it seems the most valuable answer I have at the moment.

      Anyway, giant ramble-response aside, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I try to be as fair as I can when writing about issues like this, and it’s nice to know that it’s appreciated!

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