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 fans, the additional pressure felt when not playing a character of the same ethnicity can add an unspoken anxiety to the experience. It often feels like a white cosplayer can not only dress as their favorite characters of color but also do so in the most offensive way without comment. But when a non-white cosplayer colors outside the lines in the same way, there’s a risk of getting an awkward look because—instead of seeing the costume—no matter how perfect it might be, others see 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” privilege many fans still engage in on a regular basis.
An article in the April issue of Wired Magazine confirmed and put into words a theory I’ve always secretly harbored: 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 Brontë 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.”
When I started in online fandom in 1999, mostly writing fanfiction, I was always looking for relatable 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 white default 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.