Shannon I., 23, didn’t want to leave her Baltimore hotel room. For months, she had been looking forward to Otakon, Baltimore’s annual anime convention, and especially to cosplaying Takumi from Fire Emblem Fates. Trimmed in fur, embellished with red string and topped with a white wig, Shannon’s cosplay was impeccable. She had been striving for exactly that effect over course of five days, “waking up and doing nothing else but sewing,” she told me at Otakon last weekend. When I found her, she was with her little sister Kimberly, curled up in a far-flung corner away from the crowds.
“This morning, I didn’t want to put this costume on,” Shannon said. “Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me, but this is not a black character.”
Shannon, like her sister and other black cosplayers interviewed at Otakon, cited her race as a barrier to entry into the cosplay community. It’s not that the cosplay community isn’t welcoming to people of color—it’s one of the most liberal subsets of the anime and video game communities, a place where all enthusiasm is warmly celebrated. Rather, self-doubt—the internalized fear that, when you put on the skin of your favorite character, your own skin will breach the aesthetic fantasy—can prevent black cosplayers from feeling at ease in cosplay.
Otakon drew over 20,000 anime and video game fans Baltimore, a city that’s two-thirds black, 50% higher than the national average. There, visibility for people of color in the so-called nerd community is strong. But despite the city’s racial makeup, and Otakon’s relatively strong turnout for people of color, black cosplayers interviewed still felt the psychological pressure of marginalization within the nerd community.
“It’s a lot of internal back and forth,” Kimberly, 20, told me. She was dressed as Rinkah from Fire Emblem Fates, red-eyed with fur cuffs. A chieftain’s daughter, Rinkah is a proud, fierce fighter, qualities that appealed to Kimberly, who appeared more quiet. For the last six years she’d been cosplaying, Kimberly chose characters whose outfits were more concealing, like Candela from Pokemon’s Team Valor and Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Rinkah, however, wears a cropped tube top, showing off her canonically pale stomach and arms.
“I can look good,” Kimberly said, “but I won’t look as good as someone with a lighter skin tone cosplaying this character.” Cosplayers who enjoy having their picture taken—frankly, most of them—can feel like their crafting efforts were for naught if con attendees don’t recognize who they are, or appreciate the aesthetic similarities.
Full-body cosplay allows Marcus C., 26, to stay recognizable. Marcus is a remarkably talented cosplayer who crafted an entire Monster Hunter armor set for Otakon, the culmination of his 7 years of experience. During our conversation, at least three onlookers took him aside to photograph his eggplant-colored armor set, which included a helmet.
“Any character who wears masks or full armor, I can get away with,” he told me. When asked whether that’s a function of race, he added, “It’s definitely a hang-up, I’m not gonna lie. I tend to not make things about race, but sometimes, I’m considering a costume, but then it hits me that it might not be received right.” He doesn’t blame onlookers for failing to register his character, thrown-off by differences in race, but accounts for that possibility by drawing attention to his outfit.
Marcus, like Kimberly and Shannon, cosplays more characters from video games than anime, citing the Japanese cartoons’ dearth of people of color (notable ones including Anthy from Revolutionary Girl Utena, Michiko from Michiko to Hatchin, Afro from Afro Samurai, Mila Rose from Bleach, Geretta from Hunger X Hunter and Karui from Naruto). As kids, many of us grew up with Dragon Ball Z’s Mr. Popo, a dark-skinned slave with puffy red lips; despite the fact that he was not intended to be African-American, he was recolored blue for American television, indicating his potentially offensive reception.
Japan’s population includes fewer than 1% minorities, so the visibility of people of color in anime is contending against some harsh demographic realities. The popularity of American television abroad could help boost black representation in anime (and has, to some degree). But Juan R. 22, a black cosplayer, explained that American media making its way over to Japan doesn’t always portray people of color in the best light:
“The issue is how Japan sees American culture,” he explained. “Even in American shows, people of color aren’t main characters a lot of the time. And if you’re in Japan and you’re just going by American television, you’re going to assume there aren’t a lot of minorities in America.”
I was wandering around the food area, munching on some stale “Tokyo fried chicken,” when I ran into Sola-Heike, 19, cosplaying Dva from Overwatch, a South Korean competitive StarCraft player. She wore a full-body Dva suit, complete with hand-painted armor around her neck and arms, as well as a pink gun and headset. Her eyeshadow even matched her gun. When we sat down outside a cafe, she was sweating from having her picture taken in Baltimore’s sweltering heat. I asked her about history cosplaying.
“I’ve been doing a lot of video game characters recently,” she said. “Once, I was Judal from [the anime] Magi, whose skin is pale. I thought I was doing a really good job, but someone on Tumblr said, ‘Oh, Judal’s been out in the sun too long and ate too many apples.’”
Sola-Heika says she tries to brush off self-doubt, but explained that anxiety about her race has been reflected strongly in her character choices. Over the last 6 years, she’s gravitated toward darker-skinned video game characters, like Aveline from Assassin’s Creed or Red from Transistor, but says that the options are woefully limited. Lately, when she chooses white or Asian-reading characters, she feels the need to go all out with costume design to make up for the racial differences:
“I’ve been worried I don’t look like the people I was cosplaying, so I had to be 20 times better at craftsmanship. I think that’s how a lot of black cosplayers feel,” Sola-Heika said. When she cosplayed Transistor’s Red, she made the costume sparkly to better compete with cosplayers who look more like the white, blue-eyed video game character. That way, Transistor fans would acknowledge her hard work. Often, though, she’d been overlooked, despite her painstaking effort. It’s fine, she reasons. She’s just in it for the fun.
For Shannon’s part, the fear of her achievements going unsung mired her to her hotel room Saturday morning of Otakon. “I was like, ‘I don’t think I should wear this,’” she told me. “I wanted people to acknowledge the work I put into this character. I just want people to look at me and think, ‘She did a good job,’ and not, ‘The person wearing that is the wrong skin color for that character.’” When no one says anything to her when she’s cosplaying, anxiety takes over. I knew it. I shouldn’t have done anything at all.
Visibility for black cosplayers will help battle these apprehensions, her sister Kimberly said. Including black cosplayers in cons’ advertisements and social media posts will draw in more people of color who don’t see themselves reflected in their favorite anime and video game characters, or in the so-called nerd community. Having a role model, Kimberly added, also can help assuage black cosplayers’ misgivings about cosplaying lighter-skinned characters, especially from anime.
“If Shannon hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have been as inclined to come to Otakon,” Kimberly said. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if we’d be going to any conventions at all.”