I’m sorry senpai
or: How I was accused of it
It was yesterday when I wanted to post the first make-up test for my upcoming cosplay of Carlos from Night Vale. I put a lot of work in the make-up, painting on tiny freckles, changing the shape of my face to have it look broader and manlier, painted laugh-lines and broader eyebrows. I thought it was a fairly good job at looking like a middle-aged, charming scientist and I posted some of the pictures here.
It did not take long before I was called out for ‘blackfacing’. I thought the message was a joke at first, a troll or one of my olde haters from the German cosplay scene that took one of those social justice terms out of context to (excuse my words) piss me off.
I had indeed darker skin than I have now without make-up as I used the make-up I had bought in a summer where I had been on the beach and got a tan. Never had I thought something so basic would lead to people accusing me of something as cruel and complex as racism! But I definitely was wrong, since minutes later, my dashboard was crawling with messages, sometimes incredibly hateful ones, on how I insulted people of color and their family. People that lived miles away from me and that I would never get to see in my entire life!
So much for my little story and why I am writing this little essay of which I have the high hopes it makes people reconsider their position.
First off, I know of cases where this has happened and they have been atrocious to hear about. I heard of Assassin’s Creed’s famed Rick Boer (he himself is from the Netherlands) whose family has been threatened because people accused him and even his wife of blackfacing. Which in itself is ridiculous, since his wife is a person of color!
The thing is, and this is important: Blackfacing is a US-American concept.
If you accuse any cosplayer of blackfacing, you are putting the standards of your country to him, you are accusing them for a concept that does not even exist (or at least not in such a persisting form) in their country of birth!
In other countries, there are not the same constellations of ethnicities. In other countries, there are not the same racial segregations you imply.
For example, I am from Germany. A country, where racism led to horrid atrocities everyone here is taught in school and everyone remembers. The concept of ‘race’ is something most people here would not want to touch with a stick. Discrimination, based on ethnicity and race is strongly rejected by society and racist implications in the media usually cause an uproar (see, for example, the newspaper TAZ asking ministre Rösler about his Asian roots). I will not say we live in a country where discrimination does not exist, it is just strongly dissapproved by society.
Furthermore, we do not aim to segregate our society in different races with different cultural backgrounds, as huge parts of the population have lived here since ages. We are no immigrants with roots on another continent that have a certain heritage, culture or ethnicity we brought with us and were inherently protective of. Therefore we do not segregate as strongly. Our borders are open accross Europe and, following the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, our nation invited many workers from other countries to come and help us. People from Southern Europe are usual for us, they sometimes brought their families and stayed here. They were and are still very much valued for their contribution to our economy. Why am I telling you this now?
Because it is important. It is context. And without context, some things are hard to understand.
In this context, you might understand why the racial/ethnical (<— it is hard for me to keep those words apart, in German, we have one word for both, so please excuse if I might have misused the term) view we have differs strongly from that in the US. We do not say “white”, “hispanic”, “black” and “asian”. If we are indeed forced to make an assumption about various races, it is most likely “caucasian”, “mongoloid” and “negroid”. “Hispanic” is not even a thing here and especially not something we would strongly connect with the color of skin because we have a huge variety of looks, many mixed individuals and some who are indeed unsure of their ethnicity. I am one of the latter since in WW2, many family trees were faked to portray perfectly Aryan heritage and get you a better position/ not have you brought to concentration camp.
This is why brownfacing does in fact, not make much sense to us. Also, because most Germans desire a healthy, tan look and most wear make-up that is darker than their own skintone (eugh).
We are coming closer and closer to a conclusion and now should target blackfacing itself. I know, it has been done to ridicule people of color and it therefore is an immense and barbaric act of discrimination. I can understand the anger it evokes in people when they have to re-think that episode of their history and how horrible and cruel people of color have been suppressed.
The fact is, that this blackfacing is not a European concept and rarely, if not at all occured here. The first time I heard of blackfacing was half a year ago I think, when the whole thing with Rick Boer happened!
Blackfacing is not a part of our history.
And therefore people do not even know what you want of them, when you suddenly accuse a very liberal, tolerant and open-minded European cosplayer of racism. It hurts, it makes them angry and the situation escalates to a horrible mess of insults from both sides.
The thing is that if you enforce your countries’ concepts and your countries’ ethical principles upon as, you are being incredibly chauvinistic. It implies that your countries’ history is more important than ours, that we shall stop something that is hardly a valid point over here because people from your country made mistakes in the past that still insult you.
I understand you feel angered if you think we were culturally appropriating (an act that is almost always racist) but skincolor is no equivalent for culture. And in my case, where Carlos is only described as dark, assuming a culture from his name only might be an act of subtle, yet benevolent racism as well.
I understand that culture is not a costume but our aim as cosplayers is never to make fun of a culture, nor to portray a culture in itself.
We want to portray characters. And their ethnical background is just a very very very small facette of a character but the color of skin is often an important, visual element. We do not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings if we chose a darker color of skin. We do not want to make fun of people’s ethnicity, it is the least thing we want to achieve.
Cosplay is never something you do out of hate or of spite or to mock someone, cosplay is always out of love. You love a character so much, you want to become them for a day. Or you love the design, or the medium the character is from, that’s only fair as well. But noone wants to harm others through it.
"You can not wash off your skin-color like paint" was one of the better arguments I got and I respect it that it might feel bad if people take the benefits of looking the part and then wash off the paint and keep on living a life free of discrimination owed by the color of skin. However, said discrimination does not apply to all places in the world. Where I live, especially people with tanned skin are not discriminated against for their skincolor. I can only repeat: Hispanic is not even a real thing here and racism and discrimination are generally regarded as outdated and bad by wide parts of society. Outright racist statements are extremely frowned upon. We are far away from the perfect society, especially with growing Islamophobia in this country, but what is left of racist beliefs and concepts can hardly be brought down to skin-color.
The discussion stopped for me at a point where I posted pictures of me in summertime when my skin is tan and I look dark and it does not differ strongly from the color I used for my Carlos-make-up. However, it irks me to know that other people with the same cultural context as me get harrassed for ‘blackfacing’ still because they are of fairer complexion. I know, racism is not a game where you can simply turn the tables and ignore all the years of oppression people of color have had to face, however, it seems horrible to me that it has come down to my color of skin in this.
We should be beyond the concept of ‘race’.
Then again, I am one to talk from my privileged position, right?
Fact is, that with globalization, the internet and our possibilities to share data an thoughts within seconds, there will always be cultural misunderstandings we have to face. It is of no help to get angry at people and to accuse them of racism and treat them disrespectful because
a) They might not know
b) You might enforce a foreign concept onto them
c) being aggressive never helps your position.
We have to seek discussion, we have to see each other’s standpoint. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be respected and noone wants to be shamed for the thing they love. We are from different cultures and we should respect that. We should see things in context and we should not always see malevolent actions in everything.
We have to discuss and to talk, to try and understand. In the end, we might have our differences and that is perfectly okay.
I do not ask from anyone that they like what I do/did or that they understand me completely, I ask respect, tolerance and that they listen or just leave the matter be.
I wish we could all respect each other on a level where we do not try to enforce our culture and standards upon others’. Only like this we will be able to get along, long term.