The Controversy of Skin Color in Cosplay: Racism or Not?

By Hsing Tseng on December 10, 2012

Cosplay - the intricate art of costuming and performing as a character - has long been a way for enthusiasts to show their love for video games, TV shows, and more by bringing their favorite characters to life through detailed researching, planning, crafting and acting. Cosplayers are judged on their accuracy to the character's appearance and mannerisms - the more detail-oriented the cosplayer, i.e. with sewing, coloring and styling hair, or wearing contact lenses,  the more kudos they receive, both in cosplay contests and from other fans online and at conventions. Some cosplayers even go as far as changing their skin color to an unnatural green or red to more accurately portray characters. However, recently, cosplayers have been berated online and in real life, accused of engaging in racist "blackfacing" and "brownfacing."

The distinction should be made that cosplaying isn't like Halloween. Cosplays are generally handmade, imbued with blood, sweat and tears. Cosplayers do what they do out of intense love, and spend weeks, months even dedicated to researching a character's background, making sure to get every detail and stitch as accurate to their beloved character as possible. They find great courage and put on their cosplays, all the while worrying, "what if my cosplay isn't accurate enough? What if other fans hate me?" Now cosplayers have to wonder, "What if I'm being racist?"

Rick Boer and his wife at F.A.C.T.S. Con 2012 in Belgium, cosplaying Aveline and Connor. Image via RBF-productions on DeviantArt

Rick Boer and his wife at F.A.C.T.S. Con 2012 in Belgium, cosplaying Aveline and Connor. Image via RBF-productions on DeviantArt

What is "colorfacing"? It refers to a very real practice dating back to the 1930's where white actors put on makeup and costumes to dress up as people from other cultures, to parody and undermine those cultures by perpetuating offensive racist stereotypes.  It happens quite often on a wide scale, both at costume parties and on the silver screen.

Claims have been made against Rick Boer and wife Dominique Boer, cosplayers who were officially hired by Ubisoft to portray Assassin's Creed III's Aveline de Grandpre and Ratohnhaké:ton (Connor Kenway), for what some claimed was a racist act of brownfacing. Accusations of racism resulted in them taking down pictures of their cosplays, which were later reuploaded to DeviantArt.

Mr. Boer himself is Caucasian, and Mrs. Boer African-American. Connor is of half-Native American, half-British heritage, Aveline of half French, half-African. Mr. Boer handmade the costumes, and in preparation for their debut at the ACIII release party, the cosplayers applied several layers of foundation and shading to give their faces and hands definition as seen in the video game.

Stop Whitewashing, a blog dedicated to bringing whitewashing to attention in the Tumblr community, had this to say about the Boers' cosplay: "Brown skin is not an accessory; it is not a removable or add-on thing...We cannot remove brown skin like the make up that white Cosplayers cover themselves in."

Contrary to Stop Whitewashing's claim, cosplayers do not apply "brown skin" as an accessory, but as a touch of honor, paying homage to the fact that their character is a Person of Color. They do not slap colored paint on their faces and sling racial slurs. A cosplayer possesses deep respect for their character's heritage as an integral part of who that character is. Yet even just by using several layers of foundation similar to their skin tones, Boer and his wife have come under harsh attack from internet bloggers for being racist.

Cosplayer Courtney as Korra. Image via CourtoonXIII on DeviantArt

Cosplayer Courtney as Korra. Image via CourtoonXIII on DeviantArt

On the flip side, some cosplayers, such as Courtney, pictured here as Korra from the The Legend of Korra, a character from a culture based on the Inuits, have faced intense criticism for "whitewashing," the also real, hurtful practice of making characters more appealing to audiences by making them whiter than intended or casting white actors. Courtney's skin tone here is from a natural tan; that didn't stop bloggers from criticizing her as portraying Korra as white, though they passed over her cosplays where she lightened her skin for an anime cosplay.

The question currently facing the cosplaying community is, "how far is too far?" My best friend, a Caucasian artist dedicated to diversity issues, recently mentioned to me her fear of being cosplaying an Inuit character without "whitewashing" and disrespecting the character. Similarly, I once considered a Korra cosplay when my skin was tanner due to martial arts training, but questioned whether I would've been charged with brownfacing.

Were these characters extremely racist portrayals of their heritage cultures, the question would be easier to judge. However, cosplayers choose characters who are strong portrayals of their culture, characters that are well loved by all who recognize them, and don't make racist comments while in costume. If anything, because of their love for characters, cosplayers are more cognizant of the possibilities of offending others while in costume. Most importantly, while cosplayers try to put themselves fully in a character's shoes, they do not presume that they can "become" a character's race.

With this, my personal opinion is that cosplayers should be free to their cosplay culture. While I don't think cosplayers should be forced to change their skin colors, I don't believe that cosplayers should be reprimanded for applying foundation or tanning for a cosplay in order to honor their character's heritage. Racism is defined at Merriam-Webster as "racial prejudice or discrimination." I would challenge blogs such as "Damn, Lay Off the Bleach," another Tumblr dedicated to featuring fanart and cosplays that whitewash or colorface, to find how these cosplayers, who clearly adore their characters, are prejudiced towards People of Color by honoring them with their hours of research and crafting.

For this, and all the reasons above, I conclude: cosplayers are not racist.They're just futilely trying to appease an unappeasable audience.

A second-year at the University of Denver, Hsing is part of the National Columnist team with Uloop. She loves covering the nerd culture and technology beat and aspires to work for Kotaku or IGN. You can find her gaming, watching anime, or blogging away madly. (Good luck finding her Tumblr, though.) She is super involved at DU, and wouldn't have it any other way.

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