Let me start out with that this is for those who genuinely want to understand why it’s offensive. If your mind is made up - that those who say brownface in cosplay is bad are just overly sensitive, whiney babies - then please, keep scrolling and go look at something else.
But if you are going to read this with an open heart and an open mind, then I promise you that you will walk out with a different perspective in your hands to consider.
First of all, cosplay is for fun, and anyone can cosplay who they want. But let’s not forget - there are competitive levels to this sort of fun activity. People want recognition for their work, especially when they go through all efforts to look and act like their character. In fact, cosplay is much like acting, because it’s a performance art. You get into character and bring a character you love to life.
So what’s wrong with a person tying their best to look like the character? Nothing. But when looking like the character becomes trying to imitate another type of race…that’s where it gets a bit tricky.
Well we all know that skin color is NOT the only defining factor in race. There’s bone structure, eye shape, hair types, etc. And skin colors can apply to several different races. However, skin color is the most basic feature we recognize. It is the first thing we see, and the easiest thing to change when it comes to cosplay.
Because a lot of peoples’ skin colors tend to change due to their exposure to the sun, whether it be due to work or for fashion, and because similar skin tones can be found within various races, we don’t always associate it with race. But that doesn’t change the fact that some people are born with certain skin tones due to their racial heritage.
Here’s the thing when it comes to cosplay: When a person cosplays a character that looks a certain way and has a certain skin tone due to their ethnicity, and a change in skin tone is needed for the cosplayer to look like that character, then what the cosplayer is doing doing is imitating race.
In some cases, changing skin tone for cosplay is acceptable. If it is a character that is of a different shade that is not associated with race, then the cosplayer is simply changing their skin color to reflect the character, and in that case it is okay.
I’ll provide some examples for further clarification:
Let’s take Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender. She is an amazing role model, she’s down to earth, strong, and compassionate. If you know the show, you will know that The Water Tribe from the Avatar universe is based off of Inuit culture. Katara is Inuit. She is indigenous. Therefore, she is going to have noticeably darker skin tones than those who are Caucasian with fairer skin. If a cosplayer changes their skin tone to look like Katara, they are imitating a skin tone that reflects on not only Inuit people, but a lot of other people of different races born with that skin tone.
Now let’s take Urd from Oh! My Goddess! She too, is tan, and might even have a similar skin tone to Katara’s. But in this case, Urd is a Japanese Goddess from a Japanese show. She is not darker in skin tone due to a race which exists in our reality, but hers is of a fictional race. Her mother is a demon, and as a result, Urd is half-demon, and inherited the same skin tone. If a cosplayer were to change their skin color to resemble Urd, they wouldn’t be imitating a racial feature that exists in our world. That would be comparable to imitating the blue skin tone found in the Na’vi race of James Cameron’s Avatar. And there is nothing wrong with that, because those are fictional races that don’t identify with an existing group of people in our reality.
So why is it okay for someone to change their skin tone for Naytiri or Urd, but NOT okay to change it for Katara? It’s still just a difference in skin tone.
Yes, that is true. But think of it this way: There are tons of people, in our world, who are born with skin tones like Katara’s due to their racial heritage. People identify with this skin tone as a part of who they are. It is unchangeable. People who identify with this racial feature are those who have been viewed differently by some, treated differently by some, and sometimes even discriminated against for their heritage.
For someone to put on makeup to imitate this racial feature is like making it out to be a costume piece that they can just take on and off.
The cosplayer is taking a sometimes defining part of who these people are - a specific part that gets them treated differently, viewed as an outsider, or sometimes even discriminated against - and reducing it to a costume piece to put on and take off at will, like it’s nothing.
That, is why it is offensive to some.
It simply does not have that same effect with a fictional race like a demon race or alien race. But when a person changes their skin tone to look like Katara, and thus, imitating a skin tone associated to so many peoples’ identity…well, think of how it might make some people feel.
And yes, not all people are offended by it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is still offensive to some.
Lastly, racism does not only apply to racist bigots who commit hate crimes.
And racism still exists. Anyone can do something that is racist and not know it. racism isn’t just intentional. Just because a person didn’t mean to be racist or didn’t know they were being racist doesn’t make them a bad person, and it doesn’t make them a racist person. Racism can be done, and felt by anyone.
Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, but learning and acknowledging that there are different levels of racism can help us understand and reduce the impact it has on society. I will define some basic definitions of racism for you all, but I highly suggest doing further research to get a better grasp on it.
- Cultural Racism - cultural racism can be defined as societal beliefs and customs that promote the assumption that the products of a given culture, including the language and traditions of that culture are superior to those of other cultures. Basically, what society itself teaches us about racism. Usually this sort of thing isn’t always something we are conscious of.
- Institutionalized Racism - Institutionalized racism refers to specific policies and/or procedures of institutions (i.e., government, business, schools, churches, etc) which consistently result in unequal treatment for particular groups. Policies which result in unequal outcomes for individuals of different races can also be considered a form of institutional racism. A good example of this would be the Jim Crow laws, or affirmative action.
- Interpersonal Racism - Interpersonal racism is a component of individual level racism and has been defined as “directly perceived discriminatory interactions between individuals whether in their institutional roles or as public and private individuals.” Interpersonal racism includes maltreatment that the targeted individual attributes, at least in part, to conscious or unconscious racial/ethnic bias on the part of the perpetrator of the maltreatment. This is the more common form of racism we are all familiar with, it is associated with racist bigots and hate crimes.
- Internalized Racism - Internalized racism is defined as “the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves.” Individuals may or may not be aware of their own acceptance of these negative beliefs. Internalized racism can also be expressed via a rejection of the cultural practices of one’s own ethnic or racial group. This is something that can take years for people to recognize and get over. It is usually the result of Cultural and/or Interpersonal racism.
(Source: http://www.health-psych.org/Levels.cfm )
Racism is a touchy subject, we all know that. No one is a bad person just because they unintentionally did something that comes off as racist to some. Brownface in cosplay is offensive, but a lot of us still need to understand why.
I strongly believe we all need to become more aware of this type of practice and why it can be offensive. I think it will help us move forward as society and become more aware of some of the ways that racism holds us back.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and sticking with me. You may still disagree, and that is fine. But you do have a new perspective in your hands to consider. You only need explore it.
This title needs to be changed to Brownface in Cosplay: Why it is offensive.
Not everyone experiences racism, white people don’t. Changing the skintone to play Urd is still Brownface.