Whitewashing vs. racebending and the politics of race and cosplay

I had the pleasure of going to Long Beach Comic Convention 2015 where there were tons of booths, laser tag, and of course, cosplayers. Cosplays are so magical, it’s unfiltered fan love. Cosplays allow the breathless joy of make-believe to come alive, even if it’s only for a day or two at a con.

I saw Captain Americas, Batmen and Batgirls, dinosaurs, Disney princesses, Gems, Starlords, Power Rangers, Groots, Jem from Jem and the Holograms, Jokers, the Doctors, cosplays from Animes I’d never seen or heard of before, and the list could go on, and on, and on.
And there she was.

Image Source: Nick.com

Korra! From Legend of Korra!

This super badass woman warrior from the Southern Water Tribe takes no garbage from anyone, and is also queer

Except… she was white.

In all my excitement, I didn’t realize was that White!Korra might make an appearance at this con too. She walked around with a White!Mako, a White!Bolin, and a White!Tenzin.

First thing I thought was, Wow. Their cosplay is really good.

Then, a wave of confusion, uneasiness, and discomfort washed over me as White!Team Avatar walked away. Why should I care if a couple of white kids dress up as some fictional characters of color? After all, it isn’t nearly as heinous or cringe-worthy as Katy Perry’s AMA performance  two years ago:


Image Source: New York Daily News

Or as awful as white people in cornrows:


Image Source: Dailymail.co.uk

It could have been a lot worse, right? These people could have painted their skin brown (Brownface), or donned more eyeliner to look as though they have a monolid (Yellowface). If you’re curious as to why that is a terrible idea, feel free to click here or here.

Image Sources: TruthRevolt.com and NY Daily News

Somehow, no matter the time period, the style, the costume, or even the intent, there is a part of me that will always be revulsed when I see white people imitate people of color in any way - even if it is a really well done cosplay from a fan with the best of intentions.

The problem with white cosplayers taking on characters of color is that even though the characters we all love live in a world separate from ours, we don’t. We as fans of all races still have to live with long histories of racial tension and trauma as well as other forms of injustice in this society. When white cosplayers dress as characters of color, they are reinforcing (Unintentionally! Yes, you don’t have to step on someone’s foot on purpose for it to hurt) a long history of Hollywood’s exclusion of people of color. The trouble of it all, is that race and skin color simply are not costumes and paint fans of color can take off anytime they want.

When white cosplayers dress as characters of color, the clock strikes midnight and they can take off their costume and go back to the lily-whiteness that protects their lives. They can decide who else they’d love to cosplay, because Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Wonder Woman, all of the Doctors and their companions, and so many other fandom icons look like them already.

When white cosplayers dress as characters of color, that isn’t race-bending.

It’s called white-washing.


Image Sources: SpaceDebris.com and the LA Times

Like what happened in Star Trek: Into Darkness to Khan Noonien Singh, one of the greatest villains in the Star Trek franchise. Apparently, the future isn’t brighter - it just got a little whiter. Or what about the live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender, the same one that unapologetically whitewashed an ensemble cast of color?


Image Source: tumblr.com

Oh that’s right. The only characters of color in the film were the villains. Inclusion, amirite?

Which is why White!Korra in particular feels like such a slap in the face. Wasn’t this the same franchise that fans cried over when Hollywood took Katara’s melanin, slapped it on the villains, and tried to pretend as though racism in the U.S. is something that President Obama ended upon his inauguration?

Race-bending, on the other hand is about debunking the myth that people of color can’t be complex, engaging protagonists of their own stories. It is about refusing to believe in whiteness as the default setting in humanity, and centering people of color in their own narratives as - you guessed it - real people. Racebending looks like América Chavez from Young Avengers, or like Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man.


Image Source: Hitflix.com


Image Source: The Verge

In short, race-bending looks like the rest of us.

White folks, it’s cool if you love Korra, Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, or Michonne from The Walking Dead. No one says you can’t do that. Please continue loving and supporting characters of color, especially women of color. The beauty of storytelling is that it’s one of the biggest exercises in empathy and learning about what it means to be human.

It’s precisely because we learn about each other’s humanity through fandom that white-washing should be an issue that concerns you, white folk. White-washing takes humanity; race-bending gives.

White-washing goes deeper than anyone’s hurt feelings, or simply being offended; it’s really more about systemic erasure. It is another lash on the back, another way racism gets a free pass to make more and more little kids of color wish that they were white.

So, go ahead internet. Please try to whitesplain this one to me like Matt Damon.



in Cosplay