I’m A Black Female Cosplayer…And Some People Hate It

By Guest Contributor Chaka Cumberbatch; originally published at XOJane

Sailor Venus cosplay. Via XOJane

Sailor Venus cosplay. Via XOJane

Once upon a time, I inadvertently started a cosplay race war on Tumblr. Whoops.

So, here’s the deal: I’m a cosplayer. If you don’t already know one of us in person, (and you probably do–we’re everywhere) you’ve probably seen people like me on the news–all dolled up in a rainbow of face paint and eye-popping wigs, 50 shades of spandex, and skyscraper shoes, for the sake of expressing love for and bringing our favorite characters to life at sci-fi, comic book, video game, and anime conventions.

Since I started cosplaying in 2008, I’ve traveled the country, hitting up as many cons as financially possible, all the while making incredible friends, unforgettable memories, and lugging hard-to-get-through-airport-security props along the way. (Have you ever tried to fly with a dress made out of plastic bubbles? Fun fact: you can’t. But you can ship it to your hotel!)

Here’s the second deal: I’m also black. Which is fine by most everyone…until I have the audacity to cosplay a character who isn’t.

After my pictures started making the rounds on deviantArt, Tumblr, and 4chan, it became pretty clear that my cosplay brings all the racists to the yard, and they’re, like, white cosplay is better than yours.

I got a crash course in this when in 2010, I cosplayed Sailor Venus, my favorite character from my favorite anime, Sailor Moon. I found a fellow cosplayer to commission it from (as I wasn’t able to sew at the time) and worked carefully with her to bring the costume to life. I then constructed all of my accessories (agonized over choosing a shade of blonde I thought would compliment me) and wore her to A-Kon 21, a yearly anime convention in Dallas.

One of the big draws for cosplayers at cons is going to the series-specific photoshoot, where you gather with other people doing characters from the same series and pose for pictures. While at the Sailor Moon shoot, I chatted up and befriended a photographer who took the now infamous picture of me that would eventually go on to accompany numerous blog and forum posts arguing about whether or not black people should cosplay outside of their race.

I thought I’d just post this picture on my Facebook and be done with it. Little did I know…

“For a black cosplayer (not to be racist) she did an amazing job!” the original Tumblr post read. It was later was edited to include “I love her skin tone”…after all hell broke loose.

Personally, I’ve always been stuck on those first few words: “for a black cosplayer.” As if the bar was set lower for us, as if we weren’t expected to perform on the same level as white cosplayers.

I lost track of how many times the post was liked, reblogged, linked to other websites–even now, nearly three years after the picture was taken, complete strangers will come up and reference it to me at cons, and it’s even come up in job interviews. My Venus became the unintentional face of the cosplay race debate online, an unwitting example of “Black cosplayers doing it right,” as if nine times out of ten, black cosplayers were doing it wrong by default.

What kills me is that, in person, nobody has the balls to say a word about whether or not they think darker-skinned people should cosplay lighter skinned characters–but online is a completely different animal. Online, I was “Nigger Venus,” and “Sailor Venus Williams” because I am black.

My nose was too wide, lips were too big; I had a “face like a gorilla” and wasn’t suited for such a cute character….because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was “ghetto” because I was making it “ghetto,” by being black and having it on my head.

And furthermore, if I was going to insist on “ruining characters,” I could have at least picked one with black hair so it looked more “natural.” I should have worn blue contacts–but if I had, it would have looked “ghetto.” Because I am black.

The depths that the insults sink to are enough to scare many interested cosplayers away from even trying. I had an Indian friend who refused to cosplay anything other than Indian characters after watching the way people tore into my costumes online.

Female Captain America did not come to the future to deal with your racist malarkey.

When called on it, most will say that it’s an “accuracy” thing, that in order to “look better” it’s best to stick to characters “in your range,” which is a popular rationalization for shutting down plus-size cosplayers as well.

Characters “in my range”? Comic book heroines and anime characters are typically about 6 feet tall, have basketballs for boobs, and probably weigh around 110 pounds. They’re not in anybody’s range. Let’s be real, here: we are grown men and women pouring all of our disposable income into dressing up as cartoon characters on the weekend. It is not that serious.

I’m aware that to actively engage yourself in such a visual hobby as cosplay, you have to have a thick skin–and I do. I’m cool with people criticizing my choice in fabrics, choice in wigs, choice of pose, whatever. But my skin color is something I can’t change…nor would I if I had the ability. I love the skin I was born in, and I won’t apologize, make excuses or work around it for anyone’s benefit beyond my own.

One of my good friends (and cosplay idols) does a killer Wonder Woman and Batgirl where she prominently features her natural hair almost as a centerpiece. Seriously, a Wonder Woman and a Batgirl rocking a full head of gorgeous, natural curls. Who could be mad at that?

More people than you’d think. The characters might not be real, but the racism is.

Princess Tiana Cosplay

This dress cost me three months and almost all of my sanity…but I got to be a Disney Princess!

I’m thankful that the black cosplay community has encouraging blogs like Cosplaying While Black and World of Black Heroes, so now anyone who might be curious about joining in won’t have to worry about feeling out-of-place and will also have a reference to see how certain colors, styles, and characters look when portrayed by someone who shares similar features.

We have celebrity support as well–Gail Simone, the current writer of DC’s Batgirl has given her stamp of approval to cosplayers of color time and time again–she even told me she liked my Batgirl on Halloween! (And if Gail Simone likes what you’re doing, then everyone else can take a step to the left because Gail Simone.)

And on the flip side, I have no problem with lighter-skinned people doing darker-skinned characters, either. One of the best Storm cosplayers I’ve seen was a white woman, and I referred to her costume on the regular when I was working on my own.

I think that at the very heart of cosplay is the love for a character, and the desire to bring that character to life. That’s what it should be about.

As female cosplayers, we have enough to deal with (like making sure that people know that our costumes aren’t a permission slip and being accused of being “fake geek girls”) without being divisive amongst ourselves, so can we stop being unnecessary and just encourage each other? And share tutorials?

Because I’m always looking for some good tutorials.

  • disqus_ynFXv0muUg

    they give her shit for being black and cosplaying, yet its alright for others to cosplay outside their race???? WTF. Who else sees what is wrong here???

  • Jim

    I think you look AMAZING…kawaii….B-baka!

  • http://www.facebook.com/elinsley Elizabeth Linsley

    Your Cosplay rocks. Not only are you beautiful but clearly intelligent. When the elitist geeks whip out stupid arguments remember not everyone feels that way. Keep doing what you do.

  • carla

    you look so happy cosplaying. you make me wanna do it myself and bring the wrath down on me. keep on having your fun and living your life! we must all do our thing as much as and as hard as we can in this our life on this planet.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    I LOVE your costumes and the love you put into them!
    Keep on keeping on and cosplay the characters you love! : )
    Disregard the ignorant and hateful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000266687773 Jim Wile

    Is it just my perspective, or has the racism gotten worse lately? I still remember going to TusCon back in the 80s. The winner for their trek outfit was a black female Spock. The young lady had put hours into the wig that she wore. Her eartips were perfectly blended into her own ears. We also had a white cross dresser in a later Con who did a very good Uhura. (He had a special chair to match hers – details!)

    Don’t let anyone get you down. Love the article and you look fantastic! It is obvious how much work you put into both outfits. Don’t these people understand what CosPlay is?

  • Facebook User

    Fantastic outfits! Don’t stop.

  • Robert Thompson

    Lots of small minds out there. You look fantastic. Keep it up. Don’t let the jerks (even the ‘unintentional’) drag you down. The best revenge: keep enjoying what you do.

  • http://madfishmarket.etsy.com Madfishmonger

    Well said, and your costumes are awesome. I’m glad the haters aren’t stopping you, and they shouldn’t. Keep being awesome :)

  • moonglaive

    It isn’t worse in the nerd/geek culture. It exists in the among nerds and geeks because it exists in the broader culture. If it seems worse that’s only because nerds and geeks are also considered undesirable in our culture and it’s easier to point to the nerds and geeks and say “look how racist (sexist, homophobic, ableist, etc.) they are!” instead of acknowledging the actual problem.

  • http://twitter.com/SamW812 SamW

    I love the Captain America costume especially. Soooo good. Few characters are mostly defined through their skin colour but through their personality and actions and the costumes you’ve posted here show fantastic attention to detail great craftsmanship. I hope you’re not letting these comments get to you and keep having fun.

  • ladyfresh

    You are fantastic!

  • disqus_qfQdHlJiNu

    You have your act together and that is great to read and witness.

  • http://twitter.com/NSResponder John C. Randolph

    This woman is rather shockingly attractive. I’m suddenly strongly inclined to resume attending science fiction conventions.

  • Dienna

    Thank you, Greg! He or she is lying to the world indeed, as well as trying to deflect the blame elsewhere. The fact that the person couldn’t come up with a user name to spew these skewed views shows that the point that he or she was making is pointless. I have no energy to cater to trolls and their tactics.

  • disqus_iq2RXd03DW

    There are racists misogynists, and homophobes in every walk of life, and plenty of people involved with “nerd/geek culture” who are none of these. Applying such a negative label to the entire “nerd/geek culture” is just as prejudicial as telling black people they can’t cosplay as Sailor Venus.

    • http://forums.rpgww.org/ Idran

      That’s not what it means, it’s verbal shorthand for “the average member of X is more Y than the average member of Z”. It’s like the statement “men tend to be taller than women”. No one would take that as meaning “every man is taller than every woman” or “there is no man shorter than a woman”. So why would you think the statement “Those who are involved in the nerd/geek culture tend to be the worst when it comes to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.” means “everyone involved in nerd/geek culture is worse in these respects than everyone that isn’t” or “there is no one involved in nerd/geek culture that doesn’t have these negative characteristics”?

  • Teresa Greer

    As a white woman, I just wanted to say my god, you’re beautiful. As a cosplayer and anime fan, I also want to say those are some fantastic outfits. Rock them like you can. And if you’re planning on AX this year, I promise to squee and take pictures.

  • Leah

    Good lord. When will this cr*p ever end? What does it matter? Is the cosplay well done? If yes, then it really doesn’t matter. Enjoy it. If no, then we get the joy of watching the person evolve and grow in their cosplay, and hopefully we can congratulate them when we see them next year and see how much they’ve improved. One of my favorite cosplays was The Avengers done by a group of black women. As black women. It was excellently done!

  • http://twitter.com/totallygeneric Jennifer Hutcheson

    Yep, pretty much retarded. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m not a cosplayer but I love your gear.

  • linkgx1

    Okay, then what the hell are we supposed to do? Just be limited to black characters? Oh wait….but then they get mad when black characters are made….or if a “traditionally white character is turned black [Heimdall]“. Like wtf, seriously. THEY ARE FANTASY CHARACTERS.

  • Rachel

    I think this it is hilarious to bring race into cosplaying…mostly, because, if we’re just sticking to anime and manga even, most of those characters would technically be Asian…so most everyone cosplaying those characters are reaching “out of their range.”

    For what it’s worth, you are an amazing cosplayer. I have so much respect for anyone who can take their passions and bring them to life, regardless of what those passions may be. Kudos, Madam.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000190348073 Bonnie Thuy Zabytko

    Don’t care what your skin color is.. Those costumes are awesome and you look great!!!

  • http://twitter.com/Lecil Jenni K

    Wait…people think your skin color is wrong to play A FICTIONAL CHARACTER? The lengths some people will go to to justify hate!

  • http://twitter.com/ieatvideogames Lindy Kempe

    I don’t understand why it would be that much of an issue. You don’t hear people making a stink about white girls cosplaying as Japanese characters. (This is coming from a white girl, too).

    You look adorable in those costumes. Keep it up. You’ve got legs for days!

  • Lychee

    If haters are gonna hate, Sailor Venus is suppose to be Asian with blonde hair, so white cosplayers aren’t that “accurate”.

    Remember how everyone was hating at the hairy fat man that was cosplaying Sailor Moon. Something about not shaving his beard or legs….

  • Thom Wilson

    More like ‘Fine as Hell’ cosplayer! Fantastic job! <3

  • Kraas

    That’s good cosplay for *anybody*. Cosplay should be about the COSTUME and the PERSONA you project.

  • Josefin Johansson

    Yes and wow! The Sailor Moon is a bag of awesome! You look greatz

  • InyRules

    Your Venus is perfect. Haters gonna hate because that’s all they know how to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Richard.F.Paez Richard Paez

    So… white cosplayers dressing up like Japanese characters are somehow more authentic than a black cosplayer dressing up as a non-black character? /sigh. Even in the hyper-nerd culture, stupidity is rampant.

    Your costumes are great, you look great, you carry yourself well, you are well spoken, and I salute you as much as I pity those who have taken this stance against you. Take care and keep on rockin’

  • http://www.facebook.com/zara.glynn Zara Glynn

    I couldn’t stop looking at how amazing your legs were. Oh my god they’re brilliant!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Warren-Jr/100001250506448 Bill Warren Jr.

    Do what you want to do and tell the nay sayers to go fuck themselves.

  • http://twitter.com/alanapaints Alana Dill

    So, do these twits wig out when non-green women try to dress up as SheHulk? pfft. You’re gorgeous, keep having fun!

  • http://www.facebook.com/allan.layton.3 Allan Layton

    Hi, I would hope many who had a issue with your skin tone were picky as much as if you had a purple sailormoon costume rather than the white one. I have seen many people apply makeup to their entire exposed skin to “look the part”. I myself used a red body paint for a Devil costume…was pink for the next 2 days!!
    It is all about the details for many and some will deliberatly try and pick appart any flaw they can find rather than complament what you did do well.
    Then there are people that are just mean hearted…nothing much can be done about them except stand your ground and enjoy what you do.
    I had a simular issue with the actor picked to play Fisk in Daredevil. He was a muscular colored man rather than a masively fat white man. He did play his part very well but it still was not Fisk that was in the comic book. I hope people understand it was the details nothing more. I would had the same level of anoyance if it was a white muscular man with hair. In both cases it would be 2 points that were different than the comic.
    I would hope that you continue to pick whatever role pleases you.
    Allan
    …heh I bet people will pick this post appart too!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/carver.washington.18 Carver Washington

    You rock girl. Racists are stupid but I can see how people don’t know how to handle people outside of their expectations and world view. When the movie Thor came out, there was a minor uproar over one of the Norse gods being played by a Black guy. Same thing happened when the Hunger Games movie had a White character played by a Black actress. I guess it would help to see it from the flip side as if you were a Black person who learns that one of your favorite Black characters was going to be played by a White person. But it is ridiculous to care what race someone is when wearing a costume. Should we get upset when a White boy is wearing a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant jersey? Of course not. I think as more Blacks get involved with the Cosplay scene, this will be a non-issue. Did I mention how gorgeous you are? Keep doing your thing. http://blackneks.wordpress.com

  • Eric Baker

    The racists’ ship is sinking. People scream when their ship goes down. It’s a lot of noise.

    Do your thing, be proud, and don’t worry about the idiots. They choose to isolate themselves in a circle of stupidity.

  • William Wright

    Sounds like they are jealous of you, don’t let the haters bring you down.

  • Allan Orr

    A pity, you did an amazing job. And sadly there are neither a lot of black characters, nor female black characters especially in a lot of anime. My recollection of Venus’ build actually puts you as more accurate to her than 99% of the SM cosplayers I’ve met. Ah well, no accounting for stupidity. :-(

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    @Chaka

    Screw these haters—I find the issues about you dressing up as Sailor Moon hilarious,especially because when my younger sister was a teen, she was into anime and drew Salior Moon pics all the time, and she’s black biracial,BTW. You look great in the first two pics–mainly because the outfits look better–the middle one in particular. Just keep doing you (which you obviously are) and ignore these racist fools who act like everything popular culture-related must be a world exclusive to white people only,as if everything has to ALWAYS be about them and them alone.. They need to wake the hell up,and realize that this is the 21st century,and stop acting like people of color are trying to invade their so-called spaces. I’ve seen this same kind of s**** on the IMDB board for SKYFALL, where you have fools on there posting that Bond has to stay a white character because: 1. He’s always been that way;it wouldn’t look right, and all other kinds of stupid excuses about why the next Bond shouldn’t be black,blah,blah,blah, even if either Idris Elba or Chiwetal Ejiofor (my choices, both of whom would be perfect for the part) plays him. Just shows you how white folks have been brainwashed to believe everything has to stay white by default, no matter that it shouldn’t even matter. A lot of people apparently aren’t as “color-blind” as they would like to have you believe.

  • http://twitter.com/dragon_gurl Kristina Luethge

    I think your Sailor Venus costume is just awesome. Your Captain America is SUPER awesome!! I am not sure why people make race an issue. How many white kids show up to conventions wearing an asian cosplay? Nobody says anything about that. Keep doing what you are doing. I am not naturally purple but I will still show up as a WOW Night Elf.

  • http://kingderella.tumblr.com/ kingderella

    just keep on rocking those gorgeous looks! i particularly love the captain america look. fuck racists.

    i was kinda wondering, tho. im asian, but sometimes people mistake me for native american. would it be racist of me to take advantage of that and dress up as a native american character, like dani moonstar? its a hypothetical question, because i dont coseplay. but i was just wondering. it would kinda feel racist to me, so it probably is, but why?

  • Jo

    You win the internets, hon.

  • creativemetaphor

    I know it won’t erase the hurtful comments, but I think you’re absolutely gorgeous and you absolutely do those costumes justice! I only wish I looked half so good! :)

  • Temperance

    Actually, FWIW, there are folks into cosplaying who do say just that. They’re stupid, as is anyone who could criticize Chaka.

  • SuperHyugaYoshichan

    Your cosplay is awesome! :D

  • http://twitter.com/lifepostepic Cade DeBois

    I’m not into cosplay, but I am into gaming, especially open world gaming and I am frequently appalled by the racism–casual and agressive–that I come across as a white woman in gaming communties. There really is this persumption by many gamers that people who game are white, and if there are going to be characters of color in their games they need to fit a narrow mold or be “fetishizable” (I’m calling it “white gaze”), or it’s “OMFG what were the game designers thinking??? Did some XYZ activist group make them do that?!” (You get the same ol’ crap from the sexists and homophobes too).

    It gets pretty gross and I do my best to call it out, but you know what? Even when I call it out, the people doing it so often don’t get it. They are so oblivious about their own behavior and their own words that it doesn’t click that I’m criticizing *them* unless I get into a flame war with someone specific and risk myself getting banned. All I can say is we just have to keep on giving them the stick eye and making it known we’re here and we’re not cool with that, and if they push it, we’re gonna rage on them. Hopefully they’ll either learn to shut up or get a clue.

    BTW, I too love your outfits. And gail Simone–how awesome for you. Also I would absolutely love to see a Wonder Woman/Batgirl with natural hair, like your friend does. That would be righteous.

  • http://twitter.com/cupcakecore cupcakecore

    Dang girl you are the bishoujo-est senshi of them all! Seriously, I’m a
    huge Sailor Moon fan and your Venus is perfect. I don’t cosplay at all
    but the community drives me bonkers for these very reasons. This is a great essay, I’m so happy you shared it!

  • Dienna

    I’m another one who’s not into the cosplay thing, but those are adorable costumes! Impressive.

    Those who are involved in the nerd/geek culture tend to be the worst when it comes to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. As much as they tend to be ostracized for being different, they are doing the exact same thing to others with their -ism garbage.

    • disqus_iq2RXd03DW

      Way to generalize against a whole group of people in an article about how much it suck to generalize against a whole group of people.

  • muga

    god these cosplays are absolutely beautiful. don’t let racists bring you down ever!

  • http://twitter.com/AveryOslo Avery Oslo

    You’re doing it exactly right. Racists aren’t welcome anywhere, and together cosplayers need to make that perfectly clear to one another, IRL as well as online.

  • KonekoN1nj4

    Excellent post! It’s much better to accept everyone who wants to cosplay instead of dismissing someone’s efforts, especially because of racism. Because racism=one of the worst possible reasons for anything.

    By the by, that Cap costume you were rocking? Totally fantastically awesome! And I must say, as an avid Sailor Moon fan, that Venus costume is spot on perfect. Where did you even find shoes that match so well?

  • Taryne

    Thank you for sharing this piece. As someone outside the cosplay and gaming communities, I appreciate learning what goes on, particularly when it comes to race.