Thursday, August 21, 2014

No, cosplaying a drow isn't racist

Is that drow on the right dual-wielding banjos?
So last weekend R.A. Salvatore had his photo taken with some folks cosplaying drow, and it was posted to the official D&D Twitter feed. Naturally, some people went apeshit, because, well, racism.

The line from the Outrage Brigade was that these folks who were dressed up like subterranean elves were actually in "blackface", and thus their choice of costume was demeaning to black people, with some explicitly calling the picture racist:
And it should be pointed out that this is not a new phenomenon. People have been complaining that cosplaying drow = racist for years. Not that it makes it any more valid as a position, but it's not new.

This is blackface; it
deliberately demeans blacks
But I have to say that cosplaying a drow is not "blackface" despite the superficial similarities. "Blackface" is more than just the color of the makeup; there's a whole set of behaviors that are specifically designed to outrageously parody black behavior and speech that really form the core of what makes "blackface" offensive (and rightly so).

The only thing cosplaying a drow has in common with actual blackface is the color of the makeup used. Even the application of the makeup is different; I've never seen anyone cosplaying a drow with exaggerated red lips, for example, or with exaggerated nappy black hair. There are no picaninny dark elf children stuffing giant mushrooms into their mouths, nor are half-drow referred to as mulattos (mulat-drows?). It is not remotely the same thing, on an objective, aesthetic, level.

This is not blackface; it makes
evil subterranean elves look cool
It is simply not the point of the type of cosplaying at issue, and despite the superficial color of the makeup, there is nothing to link cosplaying with racism, blackface, or minstrel shows. Without the critical addition of the performance, deliberately intended to let the audience know that it is black culture that is being parodied (and demeaned in the process), to assume otherwise is simply to be looking for an excuse to be offended.

Now, it's one thing to say that something doesn't meet the objective definition of blackface (and/or racism). It is also the case that many folks could have a subjective impression that anyone putting on black makeup, for whatever reason, is inherently and irredeemably racist, simply because of the superficial resemblance to historical blackface. Indeed, Dace at the Black Roleplayers Association blog seems to make this very point:
So how do we get such different ideas on what cosplaying Drow means. Most of it comes down to the lived experience for people of color (black people in particular). As last Halloween showed ,when Julianne Houghe darkened her skin to look like her favorite character Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black, black people take the idea of black face very seriously. Even when it's not done to insult black people we still feel slighted. This has to do with racial scares [sic] that have never quite healed. I know on an intellectual level that a lot of time has passed between when black face was done as a way to degenerate [sic] an entire people and now.
So, the question becomes, how to react when someone self-admittedly reacts negatively (and strongly so) to something that is:

  • Not actually the thing that denigrated black people
  • Wasn't done with the intention of denigrating black people

To his credit, Dace addresses both of my points in his post:
But in application what you're doing is black face. The idea of black face isn't static. While yes it originally was meant to be white actors doing minstrel shows [sic - black performers donned blackface too, as it was the convention of the performance at the time] the concept of what black face is has grown. That's just how culture works. ... It is no longer limited to minstrel shows and is pretty much taken to mean anytime someone dresses in black skin. We will never be cool with black face.
"What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
That is precisely the point, though. It is not "pretty much taken to mean anytime someone dresses in black skin." It may be taken that way by Dace and those who agree with him, but the mere fact that there are people out there who don't agree with him means it is not "pretty much taken". It's his personal, subjective, opinion, and his personal, subjective, reaction. (And those of the people who agree with him.) What he is (and they are) really saying here is, "Anyone who disagrees with me needs to change how they think on this issue, because I'm right." Except his is a subjective opinion and not an objective fact; more about that essential distinction below.

As for my second point:
I knew Ms. Houghe intent was not to do harm but to honor a character she cherished from an excellent show. That's why I never thought she was racist. However I did feel her choice was in bad taste.
But "bad taste" is a far cry from "racist", and taste is by its very nature a subjective thing. Everyone, every day, does dozens of things that someone else could find in bad taste. Driving a car with a Darwin Fish on it, for instance, is incredibly insulting to tens of millions of Christians in this country. Does that mean that they should be banned, or that people who have them on their cars (as I do) should somehow be publicly shamed, or individually confronted in mall parking lots? Of course not.

Do the collective historic experiences of black people in the United States somehow give them an elevated status in regards to their subjective opinions (even - especially when those opinions are at variance with the reality of what blackface is, and that someone who is demonstrably not racist can still want to dress up like a cool evil subterranean elf)? Does the fact that a century and a half ago their great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave mean I need to defer to their subjective, ahistorical opinions in my choice of fantasy costume, even though my ancestors (as far as I know) never owned slaves and in fact fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War?

I do not believe it does.

Not a drow. This is more like an
Andorian without the antennae.
There are some folks out there who do try to split the baby. Cosplaying drow is okay, as long as one does it with gray (or purple???), rather than black, makeup. But that is simply pandering to those who think that their subjective opinions -- that anyone wearing black makeup, for any reason, is in blackface and therefore racist. Bear in mind that the drow were invented by Gary Gygax years before cosplaying became a thing, and certainly before Drizzt made drow "cool". And their description?
Drow are black-skinned and pale-haired. They are slight of build and have long, delicate, fingers and toes.
Not gray, not purple. Black.

Ultimately, though, this whole thing is such a product of our hypersensitive culture. Everyone is looking for something to be outraged about, such that true outrages get lost in the static. When blacks have such disproportionately high rates of incarceration, single-parent families, high school dropouts, and unemployment, it is ludicrous to claim that people dressing up like cool evil subterranean elves are in any way, no matter how minor, contributing to the woes of the black community.