Blacked Out: Discussing cosplay and ‘blackface’

cosplay garnet german kou

By Matthew “Maguma” Lewis

In the cosplay community, there have been many issues of controversy that have been discussed. Some of them are ethical in how a cosplayer conducts their business (selling prints, having tables, being judges/participants in cosplay events). Some of them are moral (Is it okay to do this in cosplay? Say that in cosplay? Behave inappropriately because of my cosplay). A topic that keeps coming back, sadly, is an idea of execution for the sake of accuracy. Specifically, using makeup to portray a character who is of a different race than the person cosplaying them. Before I even begin to dive into this swelling abyss of opinions, anger, and emotions, I’m going to preface this article with a few things: I do my best to listen to both sides, but I am a firm believer of my opinion. I ask that as you read this, try and be open-minded and objective about the ideas and content of this article. I am not here to tell you your opinion is wrong, but I am here to say that you could look at this whole situation in a completely different way. Thank you in advance and let’s all get knee deep in crazy together!

So let me introduce myself! I’ve got a cute little “Hello my name is _____” tag on. My name is Matthew “Maguma” Lewis. I’m 25 years old and live in Granada Hills, located in Sunny San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California. I’ve been cosplaying since 2005, being an active participant in the cosplay community and convention culture since 2007 and a con staffer for Anime Los Angeles since 2008. In my time as a cosplayer, I’ve seen many, many, things. I’ve been both sides of the salty stick when it comes to being upset about something, I’ve witnessed the best and the worst of people in the community, and at times, I myself have seen the best and worst of myself. No one is perfect, and that’s okay. Oh and the most important thing. I’m a POC. If for some reason you have not heard of this term, it means “Person of Color.” And for the sake of this article, I will use this term. Otherwise, I’m just a mixed black guy (Creole black, Native American, Ukrainian, Israeli. In case you’re curious).

jessie pridemore lionboody
 Anthy cosplayer/Photo by Lionboogy

Now let’s talk about this controversy! The name of the game is “Blackface” and it’s what we’re all chittering and chattering about. The first time this issue was brought to my attention was back in 2012. A personal friend cosplayed Anthy from Utena. She is white and had used stage makeup to darken her skin to match the characters. The results were really good! I even saw it first hand the first time she did it for a photoshoot and she looked great! Shortly after, I would turn corners and people would come up to me going “Matt, you’re black, doesn’t this offend you?” And my first issue with this whole thing was born. Due to me being a person of color, clearly my opinion mattered, and assumingly I must be offended by this white person “committing” blackface. I would awkwardly and confusingly tell people that I didn’t care about that and I was actually really impressed with her work. Some people I even told of how I was physically 10 ft away as the photo they showed me was being taken. The biggest and most ridiculous approach I received was from a cosplayer who went through my girlfriend at the time, calling her to ask me if I was “offended by [her] thoughtless actions.” I was baffled at how people were finding this and viewing it as blackface. More so, I was baffled that people were coming to me, the token black guy, and checking to see if their opinion was valid or if what was taking place was actually offending people. It made me think, “Do these people not know what blackface is…?”

As I write this, I’ve witnessed at least 4 different instances where cosplayers have chosen this route with their cosplay and the backlash that comes from it. Every time a Facebook debate pops up or more cosplay articles are written, without fail I see people shouting out “That’s blackface and it’s wrong! My race isn’t a costume! Ya just don’t do it, it’s not okay!” And every time, I realize that these people either don’t know what they’re talking about or their definition of blackface has been severely skewed. Even worse, there are people who don’t or cannot justify their opinion. If you’ve ever opened a history book, we’ve all been taught that blackface came from the old minstrel shows. This was back in the 19th century when white actors would use charcoal or shoe polish to cover their faces and hands, leaving big rings open around their lips in order to look like blacks. It was all done to mock black behavior and culture. It really was a mean-spirited way to boast pro-slavery ideals and classist culture. Blackface was done with an intent in mind. It had a reason, it had a purpose. With that, the idea of using makeup to change your skin to represent someone of African heritage was stigmatized forever. This is where the line has become blurred. It’s become so blurred to a point that I’m scared we’ll never be able to define it, yet I’m still willing to try.

When people in the cosplay community make claim that someone is doing blackface, the VERY FIRST thing I think in my mind is the old minstrelsy description: black (not brown) makeup on the face, big ring around the lips or big red paint around the lips, followed by stereotypical racist behavior or mannerisms for the intent of insulting a race of people. This is how I define blackface and how I view it. I feel that by defining blackface in this manner, I can cover a few angles in which people might try to sneak racism under the guise of something else. When I finish thinking about how I define blackface, I look at the victim of accusation and see someone who’s just darkened the skin via tanner, makeup, or otherwise to represent some character from a manga, game, or anime. I don’t have a problem with this at all. The reason being is that I’m not seeing my race being portrayed, I’m seeing a character. Is their race a part of that character? Of course. This doesn’t mean that my race is being put on display as a commodity, and I don’t feel that a cosplayer has to be concerned about their actions inadvertently doing so without their knowledge or intention. Intention is the ultimate key in the race game. Innocent things can easily be misinterpreted all the time, where someone doesn’t realize what they’re doing is offensive. But as it stands now that magical line I mentioned has become so blurred where we can’t figure out where having fun begins, and where being insulting and offensive ends.

As I keep having and seeing these discussions of race and representation, I’m also met with people picking and choosing what they think is offensive and what they think isn’t. If anything actually makes me mad about this topic, it would be this. I have recently begun using the coined term “Pick-and-Choose racism.” P&C Racism is what I define as looking at something and claiming it to be racist by one person’s standards but when something else is pointed out, that action or situation is not classified as racist because it doesn’t meet said standards.

garnet cosplay
Photo from kou

In a heated argument, I had with some cosplayers, the most recent German Garnet cosplayer, kou, was being discussed. A girl claimed that it’s racist to make your skin someone else’s race and that it’s offensive to black people. Portraying someone’s race was offensive. My response was “So how do you feel about people who wear gold chains, pants half-way down their asses, throwing up gang signs, talking about carrying tools and gats. These are people doing this for the sake of the “look”. These people also happen to not be black.” Their response was that those things didn’t matter. Well, of course, they matter because that’s a behavior that’s been defined as something “blacks would do,” and now someone who’s not black is trying to “be black.” The only thing this person is missing is painting their skin darker. So, is that the difference? Is the pigment of my skin (a pigment that I could share with South Americans, Indians, Native Americans, Africans, or a Caucasian who predominantly spends their time working in the sun) the definitive line of what makes something racist towards blacks? There are thousands of arguments out there that can counter thousands of claims, but it doesn’t end without taking our time to decide and agree as, a people, what is and what isn’t offensive and why it is or isn’t offensive. Is representing a character who is a POC automatically considered a representation of that person’s entire race? Does your skin tone automatically define what race you are, especially if you share the same skin tone as at least a handful of other races? It’s a good question to really think about, and it’s entirely possible that you didn’t think about it before.

Not only does this kind of issue become more problematic the less people are informed or the more inclined folks are to pick and choose what’s allowed, but the biggest multiplier is when others make accusations and problems towards people who are P.o.C. yet their lifestyle or genetics make them lighter than the “typical” pigment of their skin. (You would think that by now we’d know you can look stark white and still be Latino/Latina. Oh well.) About a year or so ago, a cosplayer from the group Aicosu was accosted for her cosplay of Korra and using a darker foundation to look more like Korra. This cosplayer is Latina and is a person of color, but due to her not being out in the sun as much, she was a bit paler and her usual foundation contrasted more against her skin than it would have otherwise. Again, the outcries came pouring in about how this “white cosplayer” was performing blackface. Even after folks were TOLD that she was a person of color, that only fell onto deaf ears and the argument just continued without the current example of Aicosu “committing a crime”. To review, a lighter skin person of color, used makeup to make themselves look a little darker and not only was their race ignored, it was assumed and they were subsequently attacked for it.

For me, I am a believer of intention and execution. I mentioned before that intention is the deciding line between me being offended vs me appreciating or sympathizing with someone else for their attempts at using makeup to represent a CHARACTER in cosplay. Execution is making sure you do a good job. Do you want to cosplay Sazh from FF13? Go right ahead. You’re white, Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and want to darken your skin some more? SURE! But take some extra time to apply your makeup well to make it look good! That’s all I’d ask. For the record, I’ve seen someone who has done Sazh this way, and for 48 hours people thought he was black! Literally fooled people for hours on end. And no one called him a racist for it after finding out.

Ultimately, when you choose to involve yourself in this tightrope act of “Is this okay to do? Should I try it?” You gotta remember and realize that there will be people out there who don’t agree with what you’re doing. There are people out there who will worry for your safety of falling to your doom because you chose this art form. There are folks who will actively want to see you fall and get hurt, but there are folks who want to see you succeed too. But being aware and knowing about all of it is the safest thing. Having respect, appreciation for the craft, and for others around you is the safest way to go about it, and only you should be the one who decides if you’re going to go through with it or not. Push an envelope, make a statement, and maybe we can all move forward a bit more and put our past behind us. We’re not here to forget that blackface existed, but it’s about time we start putting some of those old problems on the shelf and leave em there. Learn from them, but leave them where they need to belong.

Wall-E cosplay photo (top) by akumanokeki

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