When Defaulting to White Isn’t an Option

Cosplaying for kids at Madam Tussauds NYC

[Originally published in June 2012, on Racialicious.com]

The Thursday before The Avengers premiered I put on my Captain America USO Girl costume and headed down to Madam Tussauds in New York’s Times Square. I had very little idea what I was going to be doing there and only went initially because a call for Marvel cosplayers (people who dress up as various characters) had been put out for a photo-op by the museum. They were about to open their Avengers exhibit. Admittedly, I was nervous, as cosplaying without the guarantee of a friendly face in your corner can be nerve-wracking. Fandom doesn’t always have its head screwed on straight when it comes to the touching, ogling, and respect of female cosplayers.

The crowd wasn’t exactly what I was expecting — and I mean that in the best way possible.

Though I’ve long since learned that I’m not as alone in fandom as I once thought, the visual reminder was striking: Brown kids like science fiction and fantasy too, and not only that, we can appreciate the chance to participate in this form of paracosmic play — a creative participation in fandom through cosplay, writing fanfiction, making fanvideos, otherwise engaging in wordplay and imaginative play — just as much as the next person.

Eight of the cosplayers there, including myself, were POCs, and so were the overwhelming majority of the kids from the local daycare brought to see us and the exhibit. I’d run into some of the same cosplayers on an individual basis at various events around the city, but never all at once and I had no idea that they all knew each other. A few of them recognised me, but more refreshing was that they recognised and accepted the costume without question.

Cosplaying in and of itself can be stressful enough (I’ve definitely had Convention days when I did not feel confident enough for tight spandex) but for non-white cosplayers the additional pressure felt when not playing a character of the same ethnicity can add another, untalked about layer of anxiety to the experience. A white cosplayer can not only dress as their favorite characters of color, but also do it in the most offensive way without comment. When a non-white cosplayer colors outside the lines in the same way it invites the opportunity for a frustrating pause, because instead of seeing the costume — no matter how perfect it might be — they’re seeing the color of your skin and you can see the confusion in their eyes. Why is a black girl dressed as Zatanna?

Worse are the ones who aren’t confused, but then think they’re being inoffensively clever. “You know there probably weren’t many Black USO Girls in the 1940s, right?” Or, my personal favorite, “Wonder Woman? I thought you would’ve done Nubia.”

It’s an extension of the ‘default to white’ policy that fandom employs on a regular basis.

Because fandom can be particularly dense, it’s often not enough to describe a character as having ‘olive skin’ a la Katniss Everdeen. If you want your fandom to accept your non white character they better have chocolate or mocha skin, almond eyes, or a spicy personality. If fandom isn’t specifically and immediately told that their favorite characters are POCs, the assumption is whiteness. If fandom is later told that their beloved character is non-white, fandom erupts. The Blaise Zabini incident of 2005 — in which JK Rowling revealed that a semi-popular Slytherin character who had always been considered handsome was Handsome While Being Black — was particularly enlightening.

Lest anyone think that was a one off occurrence, let’s once again look to fans of The Hunger Games — I know you’re not all bad, but ya’ll really need to send someone to get your cousins. Their racist stripes came out again, this time over the potential casting of Jesse L Williams as Finnick Odair in Catching Fire. Williams is ‘not how [they] pictured’ Finnick Odair to look, despite the character description: tan/golden skin, incredible sea-green eyes, bronze hair, and handsome.

Jesse Williams

Works for me.

But with the missing mocha (or any other word relating to some kind of warm and/or spicy drink) descriptor fandom defaulted, because even when considering a fictional dystopia white privilege is alive and well. Any kind of representation is hard earned, as if we’re not a viable fanbase to be won over. As if it wouldn’t be nice to have more than a handful of characters per fandom to dress as without receiving a side-eye. As if we wouldn’t like to be encouraged to reap the same benefits that active fandom participation encourages.

An article in the April issue of Wired Magazine confirmed and put into words a theory I’ve always secretly harboured: that young people who engage in paracosmic play are developing creative skills that pay off later in ‘real life’. The examples are numerous (is the upcoming novel-turned-movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter anything but a historical AU fanfic?), though the article cites the Bronte Sisters (best known for Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre) as a prime example of those who began writing early through creating and building upon imaginary worlds as children.

It now appears that, like the Brontës, kids who engage in paracosmic play are more likely to be creative as adults. In 2002 researchers Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein conducted an elegant study. They polled recipients of MacArthur genius grants — which reward those who’ve been particularly creative in areas as diverse as law, chemistry, and architecture — to see if they’d created paracosms as children. Amazingly, the MacArthur fellows were twice as likely as “normal” nongeniuses to have done so. Some fields were particularly rife with worldplayers: Fully 46 percent of the recipients polled in the social sciences had created paracosms in their youth.

[The full study can be read here]

When I started in online fandom in 1999 — mostly writing fanfiction — I was always looking for relateable figures to participate with. Often I had to create them out of thin air, or widely embellish the often slim back stories that side minority characters were given in my favorite fandoms. I was willing to do the legwork that Joss Whedon wasn’t for characters like Kendra (and, fortunate enough to even have a personal computer to engage with the fanfic communities) and thanks to years of not being recognised in Halloween costumes I’ve grown used to having to explain that I’m dressing as non-white characters and why I’m doing it. But what happens to the kid who isn’t encouraged to participate because the ‘default to white’ policy removes the impetus from the start?

Paracosmic play isn’t the only childhood activity that nurtures the development of creative skills, but for me the benefits are too great to ignore. Fandom turned me into a writer, taught me Photoshop, forced me to learn how to code by the age of 13, showed me the basics of web design, and helped set my course of study in college. All of these elements helped me score my first job after college. Spending years making the singer Monica look like Max from Batman Beyond for online role-playing paid off when I was asked to design ads for a Tony Award winner’s concert series. I can’t imagine what my own life would be like if fandom hadn’t shaped it the way it did, and I’m going to guess that there’re several white fans who would say the same. Luckily, they have a framework to participate in that’s constructed specifically to cater to their needs.

Stefanie Brown’s pulled from Batgirl? Sure it sucks and it’s a bad move on DC’s part, but it’s not as if they’re lacking for white and blonde representation in the DCU. Pull Cassandra Cain, on the other hand, and the number of Asian heroes starring in their own books –not just in the DCU, but in all of mainstream comics — ticked back to 0 in 2006 (soon to be back up to 1 when Cassandra returns in Batman: Gates of Gotham) Williams can’t be Finnick because he ‘doesn’t look like’ the character is described. He’s not Garrett Hedlund or white, period. Why on earth would I dress as Wonder Woman when there’s a black version I obviously should have done? How dare a woman of color think she can become She-Hulk. Not only are POCs underrepresented, being in fandom is sometimes too downright exhausting to stick around .

Fandom is not for every kid, and some are just genuinely more interested in baseball than they are in Harry Potter, and the singular case of Finnick Odair isn’t going to be the death knell to POCs in fandom, but we need to see a change in these media spaces so that more young fans of color like the kids at Madame Tussaud’s are encouraged to reap the benefits of participatory fandom and paracosmic play.

Of course, the half the beauty of white privilege in fandom is never seeing or thinking of yourself rendered as unrealistic in a space that’s supposed to be unrealistic and fantastical to begin with. So what’s to change, right?

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