Some thoughts on the cosplay racial controversy

This is not a post written with the purpose of supporting one side or the other. These are just my thoughts on an issue that has gotten a fair amount of attention recently. I’m not looking to persuade anyone or change someone’s mind, I’m just thinking out loud.
You’re more than welcome to comment with your own thoughts on the matter, but please do keep it civilised. I myself don’t cosplay, not even for Character Creator. Character creator is aimed to create looks inspired by a character as opposed to recreating the exact likeness of a character.

For someone who isn’t a part of the cosplay community there broadly seems to be two types of cosplayers. The ones who play dress up and the ones who are into costuming. The first category seem to be the ones who throw on a fez and a bow tie and that’s their 11 outfit. Then there’s the people who spend weeks or months creating their costume, who are borderline professional craftsmen and seek to completely transform themselves to a character.
Of course people do exist on a spectrum, even cosplayers. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s stick to those two broad categories.

If you belong to the first category, the people who just do a casual costume for fun, then stay away from transformative makeup altogether. Do not be the person who paints their face black quickly to portray a night elf. Or a person of a different ethnical background. Never ever parody race. This is the kind of mockery that is outright blackface. Just stick to the simple parts of the costume if you don’t intend a full transformation.

When it comes to the other category, I see it as being more of a grey area. I remember a recent controversy that involved a youtuber who had time and time again transformed herself into different characters with the purpose of seeking complete likeness to that character. She happened to be white and one of the many characters she chose to depict happened to be black. Here’s where I’m on the fence. One one hand, it does carry similarities to blackface in that it is a white person darkening their skin to resemble someone of a different race. So why do I think it might not necessarily be the same thing? Two main reasons.
Firstly, as someone who runs a blog that mainly focuses on makeup and style with a side of geek, I try to keep in mind that I don’t know the ethnic background of my readers. That’s one of the reasons why I sometimes bring up things like “this product isn’t available in darker shades” or “I think I’m too light for these shadows but I think they’d look great on someone with darker skin than mine”. I don’t want someone to look at my blog and think “clearly this is only for white people”. The thing is, I don’t do cosplay. If I were doing cosplay and had the approach that only characters with the same ethnicity as me could be featured on that blog/channel/whatever, I would automatically exclude readers/viewers with a different ethnicity than mine from using the looks I created on that blog/channel. If I wanted readers from all ethnic backgrounds to be able to recreate the looks themselves, then I’d need to have a broad range of looks and characters featured. The question is how you do that in the best way. Do you automatically whitewash a character if you seek to recreate their exact look but a white version of it aka use your regular makeup to do that? Or is it automatically blackface if you 100% try to recreate the character? Should you skip the makeup and just do the costume and give up on really recreating the look?
It seems you either have to exclude characters and by an extension readers of colour or be labelled a racist. It’s a catch 22. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m not sure what the best way to create an inclusive environment is, but it seems a difficult balance to find.

Secondly, the issue of characters with ambiguous racial features or of a different species.
Final Fantasy characters are incredibly popular among cosplayers. It’s also rather difficult to establish the ethnicity of some of the characters. They often seem to have primarily asian features but often with typically white skin tones. Look at Tidus for example, it’s really difficult to tell exactly what ethnicity he’s meant to be. One one hand, he looks like a tanned white guy with bleached hair. On the other, his bone structure looks more asian than caucasian. If a white person cosplays as Tidus, Yuna, Wakka, or Lulu, does that mean they’ve ended up with accidental yellow face? Are these characters meant to be biracial? Multiracial? Of ethnicities that are not based on the ones we have here in the real world?
That brings me to characters that look mainly human but aren’t. Elves, viera, some aliens. If you wish to portray a nightelf, you’re going to have to darken your skin in order to differentiate yourself from other kinds of elves. My recommendation for anyone who wishes to do that is to use dark greys rather than just paint your face black (more realistic and differentiates the look from blackface). In the Dragon Age universe, most elves seem to be white, but then there’s characters like Zevran who look more mediterranean or hispanic in terms of skin tone. If you’re looking to cosplay as Zevran, is there a limit to the amount of bronzer you’re allowed to use?
When it comes to viera, we’re told that they are different from humans and they have a similar but different physique to humans. They’re essentially tanned/brown with rabbit ears, unusual height, and differently shaped feet. Would a person getting a slightly darker than usual spray tan for the specific purpose of dressing up as a viera be crossing the line?
My point is that it’s not always easy to determine what ethnicity a character actually is. When it comes to fantasy races or characters from different worlds, do the same rules apply as they do with human characters from earth?

I’m not sure what’s right or wrong when it comes to cosplay or stage makeup. There seems to be a lot of “where do you draw the line?” issues that are being debated at the moment and I sadly don’t have the answers. I just wish we could have a sensible debate about the issue without the yelling, insults, and accusations from both sides.

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