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Real Talk on Blackface and Cosplay

Another recent incident that’s cropped up, yet another cosplayer in a foreign country in the name of ‘art’ has decided that they wanted to paint their skin emulating a black person for a cosplay that he wanted to do, because he wanted to be ‘accurate’.

His site, and the conversation that stemmed from it, followed the same pattern that it always does: the cosplayer trying to explain that they are an artist and wanted to be authentic by paying homage to the character. Black people; and even a few white people, Asians etc., chimed in to tell him exactly, in painful detail, why what he did was offensive. There were quite a few people coming to his defense, stating that ‘people should stop being so sensitive’.  The cosplayer being tone deaf to all of the people telling him why what he is doing is seen as offensive and of course, the inevitable conclusion of people, along with the cosplayer, saying that ‘racism in my country isn’t all that bad and I put my time, money, and energy into this, why should I stop?’

White people, let’s come an understanding on this. A person’s skin color, especially one of a minority, is not your costume.  Our skin is not a disposable commodity that can be tossed aside at a whim.  It’s not just the literal skin, it’s all of the issues, problems, joy, love, traditions, and baggage that comes with being who we are.

If you, as a non POC, are having a hard time grasping this concept, and refuse to accept what we have to say on this issue, then please stop right here.

If you are still here, this is what’s happening.  Always during the conversation regarding blackface and cosplay, there are always a few tropes and questions that arise that we are going to answer because this topic is tiresome and exhausting. It can be that way because let’s be brutally honest, some white people will not accept ‘no’ for an answer,  no matter who gets affected by their damaging behavior.

If someone (and in cases like these a lot of ‘someones’) is telling you that what you are doing is hurting them and they tell you why, not to mention it’s been told and explained several times repeatedly, then why would you not only continue the hurtful behavior, ignoring what’s being told to you, but then also try to justify it? It’s mindblowing that many white people would actually willfully want to die on this hill over something that they have to be constantly told is hurtful behavior.

It’s like if you are walking along and you step on someone’s foot. Are you going to continually mash on it until you cripple them or are you going to say “Sorry, I didn’t realize I hurt you” and then stop.

Blackface is like sexual assault: If we tell you that’s NOT ok, why still do it? Why still try to explain and defend that hurtful behavior when clearly many of us don’t like it and told you point blank that we don’t?  If you wouldn’t want the same thing to happen to you or a loved one then the same rules apply:  NO MEANS NO.

Chiming in with me on this, are Briana L., and Corey M. and we are going to attempt to answer some of the questions that always seems to come up when covering this controversial topic.

Why is it ok if Black people do it but not for White people?

Aitch: Ok, seriously, there are not a lot of people of color (POCs) running around coloring their skin to look white.  Very rarely will you see a POC cosplayer who purposefully changes their skin color. If anything, many of us already limit our cosplay to the costume itself.  If the cosplay itself is on point, then why go the extra step of changing our skin color? No, we aren’t trying to be the “Black version” of a character and some people will have to learn to let that go and respect what we do with our cosplay as well. A lot of our work is just as good as, if not better than, some of our non POC counterparts.

But why is it ok to paint your skin red, blue, purple, or green?

Briana:  It always amazes me how so many people are willing to lump black people in with alien creatures and other make-believe characters, all to justify painting their skin to look like someone from an actual, existing culture. Yet they aren’t willing to listen to the people who are actually part of that culture when they try to explain why this can be seen as an insult to them.

This skin color doesn't exist on earth, therefore this is fine.

This skin color doesn’t exist on earth, therefore this is fine.

Let’s take a deeper look at this.

Black people are already “exotified” beyond belief. There are bits of our culture that people like to borrow, whether it’s a hairstyle or dance moves or music; cultural appropriation is a thing that happens a lot. However, when we do some of those same things, we’re looked down upon. If a black girl wears her hair a certain way, she “smells like patchouli oil and weed,” but if a white girl wears a similar style, she’s a risk taker, edgy, and sexy.

What if I am not racist?

Corey: Not being racist isn’t a green light and a blank check to participate in racist activities.  It’s not enough to simply say that “I have black friends, so its ok.”  There should also be an understanding of what it means to be racist and a desire to not do those things that fall under that label.

If you are indeed not a racist, then you shouldn’t even be interested in engaging in an activity that could be considered racist, like blackfacing yourself.   If you are not racist, then the practice of blackfacing itself, should disgust you enough that you’d never consider doing it.

 Briana: This may sound like a tricky question, but honestly, it has a very simple answer: you can have the best intentions, but still harm someone with those intentions. You can be against racism, but still unintentionally do something that comes off as racist. While it feels impossible to not realize, at this point, that blackface is going to upset someone.  Let’s say, in the case of this question, you don’t know how hurtful blackface is. You’re a good person, at heart. You have a diverse set of friends and loved ones and you genuinely do enjoy black culture. So you know you’re not racist. Racism is horrible and you hate blatantly racist people who use the n-word to describe black people.

But then you make a misstep. You do something that upsets the very group of people you claim to have love for. What matters now is how you respond. If you do something that hurts an entire community of people and apologize, really apologize, that group of people will respect you more. As a woman of color, I know that not everyone shares my experience. I actually have a white partner, and the two of us have had very different upbringings and experiences. She’s heard about racism while I’ve lived through it. There are things that she didn’t understand were a big deal that have greatly affected me. But what mattered were her actions afterwards. Instead of trying to convince me that my feelings were invalid because she knew deep down she wasn’t racist, she listened to me, and learned, and apologized for any missteps.

Now what if you make a misstep and decide to not listen? That’s when people are going to question your motives. If you argue with the group you’re hurting, tell them they’re wrong and, even worse, accuse them of being racist because they’re expressing their feeling, which is what makes people angry. We don’t expect people to walk around on eggshells. We don’t expect people to be perfect. What we do expect, and appreciate, are people who can say six simple words: I was wrong. I am sorry.

Think of it like this. You order food and the waiter brings the wrong dish to the table. You tell them that they’re wrong, that you actually ordered steak instead of chicken. In this scenario, you’d want the waiter to apologize, take the chicken back, and bring you a steak. It may be annoying that a mistake was made, but in the end, you’re going to get your steak, and that’s all that matters. However, if the waiter stands there and tells you that the chicken is good, you should be fine with the chicken, the chef worked really hard to make it… you’d be upset.

And you’d be even more upset if the people in the restaurant started to side with the waiter.

If you were sitting at that table, trying to voice out your concerns, and an entire restaurant of people chimed in and started to tell you how you should be reacting, you’d be upset. “Just eat the chicken,” one man says. “It’s delicious,” says a woman from the back of the restaurant. “Meat is meat,” “Stop making a fuss,” “Just be happy you’re eating to begin with.”   That’s exactly how it works, and trust me, it’s much easier to go back and get that steak than it is to defend the chicken.

What if I do it respectfully?

Corey:  Blackfacing is in and of itself, disrespectful.  The practice itself, is ground in racism and stems from a history of a society that insisted on not only refusing to allow black people to perform on stage and film, but at the same time, portraying black people on stage and film in the most stereotypical degrading and racist ways possible in order to continue to foster the image of black people as ugly big lipped, nappy haired, lazy, unintelligent and unproductive. With that said, the most “respectful” way to pay homage to, or otherwise address blackfacing, would be to not do it at all.

This is how you do Storm respectfully.

This is how you do Storm respectfully.

Aitch: To add to Corey’s point, many people who try to defend this don’t realize that due to centuries of being programmed by non POCs to hate one’s skin, there are people worldwide who have self-esteem issues. There are people in many countries (many who are of different cultures by the way) that because their skin is dark, spend millions on skin lightening creams because they have been conditioned to believe that lighter skinned people are more successful.  Even in Asia, skin bleaching is a phenomenon that has far reaching effects. Therefore yes, many people will get upset when people use our skin color as something that can be cast off on a whim without ever understanding what it’s like being this daily. 


But what about movies like White Chicks?  RDJ did it in Tropic Thunder, and what about Dave Chapelle?


It amazing when people bring these examples up because it shows how little work many have done to understand why these things exist, so let’s break each example down.

  • The Wayans did whiteface in White Chicks, so it’s ok right??   <<that movie insulted everyone and is a perfect example of just because you can do a certain thing doesn’t not mean you SHOULD. **. Also there is a reason why Rotten Tomatoes  rating of it is so low. Don’t get it twisted, there are a LOT of Black people that are NOT behind that movie at all.
  • And Nick Cannon did it to sell records   <<see above and how well did that album do?  Exactly. ** Oh yeah remember that question above about Black people whitefacing and it was ok? Nick Cannon got booed.


  • But, Eddie Murphy and David Chapelle did whiteface, why wasn’t that considered insulting to white people? <<There is a fine line in my opinion when there is such a thing as satire and social commentary and something that is meant to be hurtful. (Don’t worry I am getting to RDJ in a minute!!) If you go back and watch actually clips of what they did, Eddie Murphy’s especially, even 30 years ago, it was a testament to what defined ‘white privilege’ was and how it defined America. Again make sure before you point these examples out, WATCH them, understand them and not just blurt them out. Watch the clip and pay close attention to the satire.
  • But what about RDJ in Tropic Thunder. That was black face. <<Yes it was…it surely was and maybe somewhere along the line you would have seen the movie mock mentally handicapped people, foreign people, gay people as well as people dealing with addictions…but nobody remembers that. All they remember is RDJ’s black face. Which was an actor who was mocking an actor who was attempting to be an method actors.  Kind of meta, huh? And few will say how it was stinging, biting satire on Hollywood’s whitewashing of movies as a whole and how it still has not changed in decades  (Gods of Egypt, Ghost in the Shell, or Exodus, anyone?) when it comes to casting people of ethnicity. But it still doesn’t beat Bamboozled. Yes…I said that.
  • And we aren’t even going to bring up Beyonce. But I will say it again, even if a Black person does it, it’s still not going to play well with a vast majority of people.

If this is still not sinking in, the Eddie Murphy, Dave Chapelle, and RDJ examples are satire.

These portrayals served a PURPOSE of highlighting the ills of our society giving a message that things need to change and were not done just for the sake of doing. Please again, make a note of that before randomly tossing out these examples in conversation especially if you are unaware of their context.


Clearly, he is Blade

Clearly, he is Blade

But they aren’t from the US, why are we imposing our issues on them?

Aitch: That’s the problem with this statement. It’s not just “our issue”. It’s everyone’s issue. There are people who are being treated negatively because they have a different skin tone then the person next to them. Do not let them fool you. The US does not have a corner on racist behavior. From Nazi skinheads in Russia to police chiefs telling their cops to target minorities, this is happening everywhere whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. This is a problem that has cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. Please don’t fool yourself in thinking that just because someone is in a different country, that they would have no issues with racism. Blatant ignorance and disregarding the truth is feeding this problem and making it stronger. It is up to us, all of us, to recognize these problems and end them. Besides, the world is a much smaller place now with the internet being what it is, so it’s nearly impossible for someone who is able to post on a social media site to say, “Oh, I didn’t know this happened elsewhere.”  So no, living in a different part of the world does not get you a pass.

In case you were wondering, here is a great example of Michonne, sans blackface.

In case you were wondering, here is a great example of Michonne, sans blackface.

The bottom line is that any time you decide you want to color your skin a skin color to imitate someone that exists; you will catch flak for it. There WILL be people who will be offended by it and will have no problem telling you so.  If your costume (meaning the actual clothing that you wear on your body) is on point, then there is no need to go the extra step for ‘authenticity’.  You don’t see POCs doing it so why should you?  Blackfacing is very hurtful, it still is a very sore point with many people. It’s a form of mental abuse that will never heal so why do it?  Even when people try to use examples to defend it, it really goes to show that they don’t understand why those examples exist in the first place.   The bottom line is, be creative and have fun but be respectful.  If you decide that you want to cross that line, by all means, that is your RIGHT, but you are ultimately RESPONSIBLE in how you deal with the entire backlash that comes from doing something so inappropriate.

We cannot say it enough: Blackfacing is inappropriate, it is offensive, it is stereotypical and it is degrading. It is NOT ACCEPTABLE among a wide majority of Black people. If you consider yourself not to be racist, please DO NOT do this. We cannot say it enough, if your costume is on point, no matter what the level, then there is never a need to change your skin color and be offensive.

Simply put, it’s a NO. Just don’t do it. There are so many other characters of other races that non-POCs can do that we don’t need you imitating our skin!!

If you THINK your costuming choices will raise a racial issue, think it though before you follow through.

Lastly, consider that if you ever want to side with someone that is being accused of blackfacing, put your self in that situation. As yourself if you are willing to paint yourself the same color of a person of color. Ask yourself if you are brave enough to attend a comic convention looking like that. Most importantly, are you willing to put up with the negative reactions that you will get from con-goers because of what you are doing? Are you willing to explain your choices? If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t cosign with anyone engaging in this hurtful behavior.

About Armand (1275 Articles)
Armand is a husband, father, and life long comics fan. A devoted fan of Batman and the Valiant Universe he loves writing for PCU, when he's not running his mouth on the PCU podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @armandmhill
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