It seems like every few months there is a new explosion of outrage as a cosplayer, usually a white one, is spotted at a convention in blackface. Loads of insults are thrown at the cosplayer, some people are shocked by their insensitivity while some fail to see what the big deal is. The latest offender is a woman who was spotted at San Diego Comic Con dressed as Guinan from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Before I go on, I would like to state for the record that wearing blackface is offensive to African Americans and quite likely to those with similar skin tones whether they reside in Africa, Jamaica or other parts of the world. Don’t do it. You may not think it’s a big deal. Don’t do it. The historical significance of blackface used in entertainment is a shameful part of our history and portrayed people of color in an insulting light. Don’t do it. No matter how much you think it might make you more “screen accurate,” it’s offensive. Don’t do it. Did I mention… don’t do it?
(Update: Yes, blackface in the entertainment industry in the past might refer to a specific, though insulting, form of entertainment, but the definition has expanded to include the practice of darkening one’s skin with makeup to portray a person of color, no matter the intent.)
People who wear blackface as part of their cosplay should be corrected. Of that there is no doubt. However, the manner in which some people “correct” people who put on blackface should be adjusted. Anger, insults and derision… are in most cases, not required.
I’m not saying that blackface isn’t something to be upset about. But I would like you to consider… is someone who wears blackface to portray Guinan or Michonne from the Walking Dead, Luke Cage, Geordi LaForge or Storm of the X-Men intending to insult the character? Are they meaning their portrayal to demean the character? I would have to conclude in most cases the answer would be “no.” This is a case of ignorance, not malice.
These people don’t know or understand what they are doing is offensive. You might say that they should… don’t they have any idea of the history of blackface? It saddens me to say it, but there are a lot of people who don’t. I’ve met people… adults… who apparently graduated at least high school… who couldn’t tell me which countries the United States and the Allies fought during World War II. Not even one of them. You expect these people to know about the historical significance of blackface when they think the Great Depression is what happens when someone breaks up with you?
These cosplayers who wear blackface are trying to honor these characters and don’t know what they are doing is very offensive. So educate them!
Yelling at them, insulting them or trying to publicly shame they is only going to make them get defensive. When someone is attacked, it’s natural to defend oneself. And when they get into this state, they aren’t exactly open to learning. Approach with anger and you’ll get anger.
Instead, if you see someone wearing blackface as part of their costume… approach them. Explain that you understand what they are trying to do by wearing blackface, but people will find it offensive. Explain that the historical use of blackface is insulting and suggest they remove the makeup. If you educate them in a kind way, they are more likely to apologize and remove the blackface.
People make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes cause offense. And yes, this might make you angry. Certainly you have a right to your feelings. It’s just my thought that you need to consider the reason this person is doing what they are doing. You want them to stop? Try asking. You might end up having a new friend who is grateful for your advice and information and not a bitter, angry person who doesn’t understand why people are upset that they are honoring a black character.
Oh, and if you want to cosplay a character with a different skin color than you have… go for it. Just don’t use blackface (or other makeup to make yourself look like a different ethnicity). I’ve seen plenty of white Michonnes, white Luke Cages, black Captain Americas, Latino Supermans and Asian Nightwings. You don’t need to change your skin tone to cosplay whomever you’d like.
(Update: Obviously you can color yourself green to be the Hulk, blue to be Yondu or Nebula, etc… it’s changing your skin color to portray a real ethnicity that is usually found offensive by those of that ethnicity. So until we meet blue or green skinned aliens, it’s generally acceptable to color yourself accordingly.)