Halloween is right around the corner, so it’s that time of year again where we need to have a discussion about what is or isn’t appropriate to use as a costume. As with cosplay, costumes are a way to have fun and express yourself. However, some lines shouldn’t be crossed. This is not a post discouraging people from doing “sexy” costumes; I’m not one to slut-shame. No, I want to have a discussion about offensive costumes.
This has been a hot topic in the cosplay community recently. I’m sure many of you have seen the now (in)famous picture of a white cosplayer doing a version of Garnet from Steven Universe in which she employed brownface to get a desired “more accurate” version of the Crystal Gem. Although this makes me and others fairly uncomfortable (as did the ensuing non-apology), I’m not here to start a dogpile on someone—different cultures have different understandings of race relations. I’m much more invested in discussing why the action, not the person, is racist and problematic.
To put it bluntly, by painting your skin the color of an existing race, you’re treating that skin color as a costume. Speaking from my own feelings, this act makes me feel as though my skin color is just an aesthetic accessory to be used when it is convenient, then discarded when it isn’t fun anymore. For us who are discriminated against, we don’t have the luxury to remove that stigma at will—it’s part of who we are. Although you may mean it as an homage to a character, that’s not part of their costume; that’s part of who they are. That’s part of us. If you change your skin color to mirror a character, you’re othering them by
thinking of that as an aesthetic trait.
Another problem with painting your skin or appropriating certain items in the name of accuracy is that it is implicitly disparaging everyone else who doesn’t take those steps. For all other light-skinned cosplayers that don’t employ brownface, they’re “not as accurate”. For all dark-skinned cosplayers who would have a more difficult time lightening their skin (or who, like, know better) are “not as accurate”. For example, if you must do yellowface to be a good Mulan, my version of Link where I keep my natural skin color is, by proxy, “less good”. But anyone who is active in the cosplay community knows that this is simply not true. There are amazing cosplayers who choose characters of other skin colors that do just fine! Despite what some dissenters like to say, there isn’t any large outcry from people of color when white fans portray characters of color with their own skin. That’s not whitewashing, and would be very hypocritical to boot. (The same cannot be said for fanart, though, but that’s a topic for another day.)
As a quick aside, a person painting their skin a non-human color doesn’t fall into these categories. Homestuck trolls, Pokemon, and various Adventure Time characters are all non-humans who may have some additional coloring. The difference here is that no one could ever actually be grey, green, or pink; a real person’s identity isn’t being used as a tool here. Admittedly, the jury is still out on “shadow” characters such as Dark Link, Anti-Sora, and Peter Pan’s shadow. These characters are supposed to be literal absences of light, so their “blackness” is not related to any actual human identity. But again, this is tricky territory.
This doesn’t even cover less specific racial costumes that tend to be popular at colleges with fraternities and sororities. To put it bluntly, it is never okay to dress up as a race of people for any reason. Several groups have had Black/Mexican/Asian/random group of color parties that are patently offensive. That’s literally their point, as all the aesthetic comes in overtly stereotypical portrayals. Whether it’s Blackface, cheap afro wigs and gold chains, or sombreros and ponchos, these parties boil down to a central “joke”: Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if we were actually like this, or, can you believe this is someone’s culture? This extends to various sacred garb from cultures such as Native American headdresses, bindis, and turbans. These items carry significance to the culture that you most likely have not studied and earned. While they are visually interesting, they aren’t yours to wear as a joke.
Overall, I simply want to keep the conversation going. Cosplay is a growing hobby, and costuming for Halloween is a fun pastime that both children and adults can enjoy. And as such, there are going to be more and more people both participating in at and seeing it. We need to stay aware of not only what is unacceptable or offensive, but also why it bothers people. If we understand why people are uncomfortable, we can empathize with their issue, rather than throw anger back and forth. Again: costumes and cosplay are fun; we should do our best to keep it that way for everyone.