I have been thinking a lot about the state of our historical costuming and cosplay communities lately. Specifically, I have been pondering the extent of racism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination. These thoughts were brought forth in part by my friends Christine and Samantha writing, late last year and early this year, about the racism they have experienced as historical costumers of Asian descent. As an Asian American costumer and cosplayer myself, I could relate to a lot of what they were saying. Then the whole Asian American community was thrown into turmoil over racism and attacks stemming from the coronavirus. In addition to being worried about getting sick, I was (and still am) scared of being harassed in public as some sort of foreign disease carrier only because my family was, multiple generations ago, from China. And then came the horrific murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police brutality and against the systemic racism that Black Americans face every day.
Cosplay and historical costuming are meant to be hobbies that allow us to be someone other than who we are in our non-costuming lives. By their nature, they should be inclusive and have no prerequisites in terms of a person’s appearance or background. They allow us to express our love for a character or for a period of fashion. However, that ideal is not equally available to everyone. The US power structure and the media that reflects it is very white, and largely Christian and straight. That fact permeates everything, including our hobbies. If you were to form an image in your head of a canonical historical costumer, chances are it would be a white woman. And that default creates conscious or unconscious biases, even for well-meaning cosplayers and costumers.
People who do not fit the standard mold are made to feel lesser, or are singled out as exotic, or or are just plain ignored. Several times at historical costuming events, I have had someone come up and start talking to me as if they had met me before or knew who I was, when I had not met them before. At some point in these conversations, it became clear to me that I had been mistaken for another Asian costumer. And I would wonder, “do we really all look alike to you?” Many other cosplayers and historical costumers have reported similar things happening, if not much, much worse. As a result of experiences like these, many people are discouraged from participating in cosplay or historical costuming, which then perpetuates a lack of diversity going forward. And the cycle continues.
A photo of me with (from left to right) Vivien, Christine, Bunny, and AJ. We have all been confused for one another at some point.
The question becomes, how can we stop this cycle? First, we must each consider whether we have biases that have caused us to act unwelcoming, or worse, bigoted. Some of these things may be unintentional, but still hurtful to others. Identifying these behaviors and making a conscious effort to change them is important. Second, we should increase the visibility of costumers and cosplayers that do not fit the standard mold. For people with large online followings, that means sharing other people’s work and collaborating with diverse creators. For cosplay photographers, that means working with models that are, to put it frankly, not only thin white women. Seeing a portfolio that only features that type of model is discouraging to cosplayers that look different from that, and makes them way less likely to hire or collaborate with you for shoots. I have definitely been turned off from some photographers when I see the lack of diversity on their Instagram feeds. For all members of the community, that means considering ways to foster diversity when doing things like organizing events, attending an event, or interacting online. Reach out and encourage new costumers who are different from you. You already share an interest in common, so that is a great place to start.
Remember, this process is a marathon, not a sprint. Every February, when 28 Days of Black Cosplay (or 29 Days of Black Cosplay for leap years) comes around, I have seen people worry that the shows of support are fleeting or just bandwagon participation for attention. To be blunt, when Black cosplayers see that others only post about them once a year, that behavior comes off as fake or crass. Other times POC costumers are disappointed when the only other people interacting with awareness campaigns are themselves POC. That does not widen the reach of the community. In February and May of this year, I did a series sharing Instagram accounts of Black historical costumers and Asian historical costumers, respectively. I was saddened to see that the vast majority of people engaging and sharing those posts at that time were other POC. It was not until this past couple weeks that I saw major support from white members of our community, sharing my posts and linking directly to POC and LGBTQ accounts. I fervently hope that current momentum will continue. Because if it does not, that is doubly discouraging to those who feel like they were taken advantage of for a fad.
When I first heard about 28 Days of Black Cosplay several years ago, it made me stop and consider what photos I was posting, particularly as a photographer. I saw that Mike and I were photographing some POC models besides me, but also that our work could still be more diverse. Since then, we have made a concerted effort to do better, both in terms of who we work with for pre-arranged photo shoots and who we photograph in hall shots. But we can still improve. Now, each year at the beginning of 28 Days of Black Cosplay, I use that time as an opportunity to take stock of whether we are maintaining our commitment to diversity, in terms of engaging with Black costumers, other POC, and other people from diverse backgrounds. It is a reminder to me that these issues are ones I need to think about year round.
14 thoughts on “Thoughts”
Really appreciate you sharing your thoughts, Gloria!
Thank you for reading,Taylor!
Thank you for sharing this! I often wonder how to encourage more poc to attend our historical events without being patronizing or tokenizing. It’s definitely a cycle.
Thank you for reading! Thinking about how to be inclusive is a very important way to start. I try to engage with someone about their costumes specifically. Is there something about their work that you admire and can talk about? If you make a genuine connection, then inviting them to an event is entirely natural.
HI Gloria, I’ve often admired your costumes, but I don’t think we’ve actually met. As for confusing you fabulous ladies for each other, I have to say I spent about half an hour talking to a tall blond woman at CoCo2019 before realizing she wasn’t who I thought she was. Costumes sometimes hide features that we normally use to identify people. But also, if a person has lived in a fairly racially homogeneous society their whole lives, studies have shown that it is more difficult for them to tell people apart who are not of the same ethnicity. I guess it’s a kind of blindness – and it is kind of racist, in that it comes from ignorance. I know I sometimes need to be more aware and think before speaking. Thanks for speaking up and reminding me to do better. (And thanks for including us curvier ladies in those needing more representation.)
Thank you for reading and thinking about how you can alter your own behaviors and biases! I agree that costumes can sometimes make it harder to recognize someone… but I have also had the being mistaken for someone thing happen when I am not wearing a costume, including just in my workplace. It’s a really common experience for Asian Americans, and then to have it also happen while doing what is supposed to be a fun hobby is doubly discouraging.
And I absolutely support increasing the representation of curvier costumers! In addition to photographing POC costumers, Mike and I have also been making an effort to work with costumers of all body types.
I grew up in the costuming community. Unfortunately, unless a person is part of some “in group” or one of the communities “celebrities” my experience has been over nearly 40 years, that the community at large is neither welcoming nor encouraging. I largely left historical costuming and living history two years ago because I was broken and exhausted from fighting to keep my head up and having been demoralized too many times. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it is for anyone who also has cultural and racial barriers. It has to be terrifying gor many. I have only my very best hopes that you might find a way to build a more compassionate, accepting, and less destructive community, it certainly needs a long hard look at how hurtful it can be.
I am so sorry to hear you have had to quit the hobby over demoralizing experiences. Historical costuming and cosplay definitely have a cruel side. I know I have been fortunate to find a welcoming group of friends in my local area, but I have seen some terrible behavior elsewhere. I try to stay optimistic, but sometimes I can’t.
Thanks for speaking up. I’m mostly silent right now because it’s time for people other than white women to speak up. And thank you for including cosplay. Color, gender and size should never impact the opportunity to represent a character or costume you love. I went to a Sailor Moon Day with my girls and saw sailor scouts of every color and shape including sailor scouts with beards. EVERYONE was welcome and encouraged in every group photo. And for a brief moment I saw good the world could be. We just have to keep trying.
Thank you for reading! I definitely felt it was important to include cosplay. In my local area, the cosplay community is more diverse than the historical costuming community, but I have also seen some of the most openly racist behavior directed at cosplayers. In response, awareness and celebration campaigns like 28 Days of Black Cosplay were started. The Sailor Scouts event you describe sounds awesome.
I’ve seen the same. Regularly. It’s not OK and I’m using my ‘cranky old white lady’ privilege to speak up when I can. Looks like you go to CoCo so I hope we can meet one year.
Thank you for speaking up! I have not been to CoCo for a couple years, but I expect I will return at some point. I hope we can meet there or at another event.
That blindness is an issue for all cultures. If you are not raised in a pretty integrated community you will prolly have trouble identifying people. My daughter attended elementary and middle school with mostly latino and black students. Never had trouble identifying her classmates. Went to a high school that was overwhelmingly Asian. Took her a year to begin to identify asian facial features. A teacher now, she still has to make a big effort at the beginning of the year to lock in her asian students faces and names. All the others she us able to do easily. Not racism in an ugly way. Just how our brains handle images.
Regardless of whether this mistaking of Asian people for one another is common, it is still racist. I have had it happen to me in many different circumstances: at my place of work (from coworkers, when I had been working there for over five years already), in my grade school (when I had been in the same school district since first grade), and at costuming events. Many other Asian Americans report the same thing, and it is hurtful. We are made to feel as if we do not belong. I did not list more examples of what you term “ugly” racist incidents that I’ve seen in historical costuming/cosplay, because I wanted to point out that simple, seemingly innocuous actions from white members of the community already feel exclusionary to POC. But examples of really disgusting behavior are easy to find. And all of it, from the seemingly small on up, needs to stop.