ETA: In case the credit doesn’t show: Photo by Raquel the Photographer (Facebook.com/RaquelThePhotographer)
A few days ago on Twitter, I liked and retweeted a girl debuting her first cosplay. She was dressed as Nezuko from Demon Slayer and although I haven’t watched it yet (I know, I know-what am I waiting for), I knew who she was and remember thinking it was really well done. I was happy to see another black person stepping into the cosplay scene. I was proud of her.
As a 30-year-old nerd, I’m an ancient in the community. When I discovered conventions I saw no black people in cosplay for years and the concept of an entire black nerd community was non-existent. I knew one or two kids who were into the same stuff I was but we always felt like the exception. If you told us there were millions out there like us I don’t know that we would have believed you. The recent boom of the black nerd community has been a beautiful, uplifting, and validating thing to witness. Being black comes with such a heavy weight of assumptions from birth. For some reason our human suit comes with a completely arbitrary and restrictive set of rules. We get put in boxes we didn’t ask for that people refuse to believe we can burst out of and that they don’t want us to see past. As black nerds, we challenge preconceptions of what our people are “supposed” to enjoy within and outside of our community. The rise of the black nerd community created a space where we could assure each other that we are not alone, that the weight we carry is real, and that we are doing nothing wrong by expressing who we are. How sad it is that innocuous things like playing video games and watching anime should be considered so uncharacteristic of an entire race of people? How many black kids stifle genuine interests because the world tells them what they like should be only “for white kids”?
Like the internet does, it felt the need to tell the amazing Nezuko cosplayer her costume was not only inaccurate, but that because of her skin color she is unable to portray that character at all or any other character with light skin. This “cosplay accuracy” conversation never extends to the droves of white nerds who portray characters of Asian (usually Japanese) descent and its never brought up to discuss the fact that none of us are 2-D cartoons. It only arises to police black nerd behavior: either to deny us access to a character entirely or to shout down complaints about someone putting themselves in blackface in the year of our Shenron’s 2019. This brand-new cosplayer clearly loves anime and Nezuko so much she wanted to embody and celebrate her. You tell me what part of that deserves to be attacked or criticized. I’ll wait. So many black nerds are hesitant to put on cosplay for this very reason. Over and over we see each other name-called, harassed, and driven offline simply for putting on a costume. Why should we be afraid to express ourselves when everyone else gets to and is left alone?
Black nerds are not a niche. We are not only meant to dress up as brown-skinned characters. We are not meant to only interact with and boost up each other. To assume that is lazy, insulting, and further proves that society views black people as a separate brand of human. Why can’t people put themselves in our shoes just because our feet don’t happen to be the same color? Because blackness is something that non-black society will never be able to fully understand or relate to, some people are resentful and hostile towards it. They are angry with our blackness because it is something they cannot have access to. They try to diminish it, duplicate it, and destroy it but they’ll never be able to own it, understand it, or take it away from us. And that just grinds their Senzu beans.
Racism in the cosplay community, just like everywhere else, is not new. Nothing I have to say is brand new information- in fact, we are all tired of having to explain it as if it is. Black nerds are the only ones upset about it, calling for change, and demanding better from the community. We have shouted our frustrations from the rooftops and whispered it down the alleys but have discovered we are the only ones listening. Every time an incident like this blows up, question comes of why well-known, non-black cosplayers do not speak out and show their support. Complacency in the name of self-preservation is also nothing new. Popular cosplayers wrap themselves in a blanket of blind contentment- they don’t have to speak out about problems in the community that don’t directly impact their popularity. Speaking out against racism might put a dent in their fanbase so they ignore the subject entirely. (My question to them is: why do they *want* to keep a racist fanbase?) Every so often I will see a popular white cosplayer share one or two black cosplayers (usually in February) in an attempt to say “look, guys! I know black nerds exist!“. They make blanket statements about how racism is bad but do not call out specific incidents or elaborate. Its not enough to acknowledge that we exist without standing up for our right to. It was never enough and it really isn’t now. The quickness with which the black nerd community rallied around this new cosplay baby highlights our shared struggle of trying to enjoy being part of a community that is hell-bent on keeping us in a very specific corner. The best way to combat being told we do not belong is to take up even more space and to be hella black and hella thriving while doing so.
I took a long break from cosplay (and from writing) but in 2020 I am returning for myself, my community, for that one black kid who might see me and become inspired to try it, and for those who are now too afraid to put themselves out there because they see what happens to nerds who look like us that dare to exist online. Growing up seeing black cosplayers would have been so important to me and I want the young black nerds coming up to see that we are not running scared from what internet edge-lords and ass-hats have to say behind anime avatars. In 2020, I urge any black nerd thinking about cosplaying but worried about backlash or who left the scene and is not sure if they want to come back, to return and return with full force if you can. In 2020, I urge white nerds, white cosplayers, white photographers, white convention owners to pay attention to what your feed looks like. If you notice a lack of brown-skinned cosplayers, ask yourself why that is. Because its not that we aren’t there. In 2020, if you see a black cosplayer on the internet or at a convention minding their own business and you feel a way about that, I urge you to use the zero dollars and negative sense that it costs to shut the entire fuck up and let them live. In 2020, we are going to finally let black cosplayers breathe.
P.S.- To that badass Nezuko cosplayer: we see you, we are so proud of you, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.