Notes from a Con [Series Introduction – Race and Otakudom]

by Latoya Peterson

While Arturo was gearing up for Comic-Con, and Joe hung out at the Asian American Comic Con, I spent the weekend at Otakon.

Stepping off the bus near the Convention Center, I felt myself involuntarily break into a smile. Neko ears, Naruto headbands and wings galore. For three days, the Baltimore Harbor area transforms into planet anime, and you never really know what you’ll catch out of the corner of your eye.

The locals tend to be amused. As I was walking down the street, a woman rolled down her window and hollered at the boy in front of me. “Excuse me – what’s going on here? Is it a Harry Potter convention?”

“What? No!” he said with a pained voice, pulling his Ichigo Kurosaki costume tighter around his thin brown frame.

I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.

Otakon has changed a lot since I started going. This was my fifth year at the Con, and my crew’s 10th. I stopped counting other minorities in 2007. When I first arrived, in 2005, I counted the number of other black women at the convention (5), the number of black men I saw (around 30). While I did not count Asians or Latinos, their numbers have also steadily risen along with con membership. While it is still dwarfed by the comics industry (manga has about half of the market share that American comics enjoy), it is a growing subgenre.

Walking around the con this weekend, I enjoyed the sheer diversity of it all. Interracial couples were so common as to be unremarkable, the united colors of nerd-dom where out in full force and the kids who generally can’t catch a break in high school were allowed three glorious days to let their freak flags fly.

I wonder, if I had started attending conventions now, would I hold the same views that I have on the crushing whiteness of fandom?

I don’t know. My perception as a reformed Otaku is colored by those first few years. So, before I set foot in Baltimore, I had already half composed a few pieces on normative whiteness in fandom, cultural appropriation and otakudom, the racial politics of cosplay, and the idea of cultural others. But going to the Con this year reminded me of why I go in the first place.

At its worst, anime fandom becomes a cesspool of orientalist thinking and othering, yet another way to take from the bounty of the world and exploit it for profit. However, at its best, Otakudom shows the power in cultural connection, in exploring and understanding others, and in finding things to celebrate about everyone.

So, it will be with these two ideas I approach this series on Race and Otakudom.

Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. Articles are already planned on:

  • Why Anime characters look “white” (Short answer: They don’t.)
  • Wacky Japan and Profiting Off Stereotypes
  • Samurai Champloo and the Art of Cultural Remix
  • The Racial Politics of Cosplay
  • Is Otakudom a White Space?

(Image Credit: Afro-Samurai Cosplayer, Otakon 2007, snapped by Robert Barker)