One Direction

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Obviously no white person has ever actually been offended by a black family cosplaying as the Simpsons. So what is going on here? It’s possible Kelsey is just trolling, but let’s take the principle of charity (for once) and  assume that it’s more complicated than that. What would make Kelsey say something so stupid?

Doubtless Kelsey noticed some examples of cosplayers getting called out for race-bending. She probably should have noticed that this is not the most common reaction to a white person dressed as, say, an anime character. Any trip to any comic convention should reveal plenty of people cosplaying outside their race with no repercussions. But of course just as every conceivable text is available in the Library of Babel, every conceivable opinion in available online, and we all know that there are people who would be angry about a white Luke Cage costume, and that they would express their anger on a scale that ranges from “you are a monster” to “you should go kill yourself” (the Steven Universe-fandom level).

So she did noticed that some people, the most vociferous people, care about cosplaying outside one’s race, and that most people don’t. Also, that no one has hnf6bg8xp1m03hsjez3c.jpgever cared about black Simpsons. She (as part of the subset of everyone) has never cared about black Simpsons.

Kelsey probably should have said, “I am not the same demographic as Steven Universe fans, and I will probably never embrace their values, so let me reiterate that I believe all people should be able to cosplay as whomever they wish.” But instead she tried to extrapolate an ideology. And an ideology cannot endure this kind of contradiction. We sometimes create elaborate justifications to persuade ourselves that our beliefs are not a crufty assemblage of  demographic signals, but it’s not going to be easy to explain how becoming a walking advertisement for a Japanese property like Sailor Moon is cultural appropriation.  There were two simple ways for Kelsey to resolve this contradiction: either

A. white people are allowed to cosplay as nonwhite people (people who believe this: the vast majority of fandom) and nonwhite people are allowed to cosplay as white people (pwbt: all humans); or
B. white people are not allowed to cosplay as nonwhite people (pwbt: a few loud people) and nonwhite people are not allowed to cosplay as white people (pwbt: no one).

Let’s tabulate the votes. If x is the the population who knows what cosplay is, then for option B, the vote is .8x+x=1.8x; for option B the votes are .2x+0=.2x. Let’s take a moment to see which is larger, 1.8 or .2. Annnnnd Kelsey chooses…

cage-lede.pngHa ha! Of course Kelsey chooses option B. She was going to choose option B from the start and none of your votes counted. It’s like the time the student council asked the kids to vote on whether smoking should be allowed in school.

We look at the question “should people be allowed”? and note that some people vote one way and some people vote another way, and then we always move in one direction. We always say “people should not be allowed.”

Where maybe someone may once have said, “How come it’s racist to fake a Chinese accent but not an Italian accent?” now we just toss off phrases like “despicably racist Italian accent“(careful: that link looks like it’s about cartoons, but it’s actually about sports) as though we all agreed that what we really needed was more rules about how people should speak.

(I speak, of course, as someone whose latest book has been called racist because of some jokes about France. (The reviewer also seems to think the book is marketed at six year olds, instead of sixth graders, so what are you going to do?))

images

Perhaps you see a similar one direction argument elsewhere? The proof is left to the reader.

Kelsey, and by extension all of us, chose this option for several reasons. It gives her the opportunity to engage in a fantasy of oppression. It gives her the self-righteous justification necessary to tell others what to do. In a word, it gives her power — a small rush of power she can cash in online. All she had to give up to get it was the give up autonomy over how she dresses next Halloween.

I learned last week of a phrase of Coleridge’s: “The motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” He was talking about Iago, but of course I see this phrase as more broadly applicable. At the risk of violating the principle of charity, perhaps it even applies here.

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7 comments

  1. Yes, but why don’t you acknowledge the third option: different RULES for different PEOPLE, man.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with N. Just because it is okay to dress up as Sailor Moon does not mean there isn’t outrage anytime someone dresses up in blackface. For example: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/second-grader-sean-king-trouble-dressing-blackface-tribute-martin-luther-king-jr-article-1.1080172 I’m not saying there aren’t arguments to be made about why dressing up in blackface might be offensive in a way that other races dressing up as each other isn’t, I’m just saying if someone complains about the rules of racial etiquette being asymmetrical between two groups, it is a bit of a non-sequitur to respond with examples from other races, while having your only example of white as black costuming be hypothetical and also acknowledge that people would in fact be upset by it.

    Your point about these ‘why is x acceptable’ conversations always ending in a ratchet effect of nothing being permissible is absolutely correct though. The sanctity of oppression has so thoroughly permeated our language that the only way many people can even verbalize that another’s oppressed status is nonsense is by claiming that oneself is in fact oppressed. The idea that victimhood is a thing to be ashamed of rather than proud of is apparently too radical for our discourse these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen white Power Men, so I didn’t really mean for it to be hypothetical. I added a pic for clarity, even though for some reason it was more fun to look up images of Sailor Moon cosplayers.

      It’s clear, I think, that the mainstream response (as opposed to the Steven Universe response) is that it’s OK to cosplay across race as long as you don’t mimic racial features: Black skin, “slanty” eyes, etc. Here‘s a white woman imitating a black man in a very mainstream context, and she shows, I think, exactly how far you can go. She’s wearing a bald wig, but it’s a white bald wig.

      This distinction is arbitrary, but most taboos are arbitrary. (I would say that your being offended by the pronouncement “I think Rick should be put in camps” is less arbitrary, if that makes sense.) Nevertheless I believe this is an accurate statement: a person cosplaying as another race will usually get away with it; a person imitating racial features of another race will get called a monster.

      I say this as someone who once dressed as Holdaway from Reservoir Dogs.

      I’m not sure victimhood has traditionally been something shameful — surely some analogy could be drawn to the tradition of martyrdom / Nietzsche’s slave morality. But that’s probably a whole nother topic.

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      1. You’re right, that probably is the distinction between what makes dressing up as a person of a different race acceptable or not.

        As for victimhood being shameful, you’re right, it is another topic, although I may have overstated my case. I’ll just say it is bizarre to me that people are vying for victim status.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Nonsense. A minority may cosplay with all the racial features of another minority and be above comment. What is permissible for the minority is not necessarily permissible for the majority. Different RULES for different PEOPLE, depending on which side they are on in the power dynamic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are certainly demographics (including a not inconsiderable number of my own) where this principle of no-reciprocity is gospel, but I hardly think it’s reached mainstream consensus the way opposition to blackface, for example, has. (Even this is not universal in America, or we’d have nothing to twitter-outrage about.)

      I said, I believe correctly, that no white person has ever been offended by black Simpsons cosplay. A black person in whiteface may not offend everyone, but would, I wager, be interpreted as mocking the white race in a way that black people dressed as Batman or Sherlock Holmes would not. You might argue that blacks are allowed to mock a race, and they’d have an easier time of it than if vice versa. But the number of demographics accepting a behavior is going to be different once the white face breaks out.

      Note that for years it has been completely acceptable for a man, on stage or on the BBC, to dress as a woman, even though women are a traditional minority in the kierarchy plotting you outline above.

      The attempt to impose a consistent ideology (the “punching-up” theory) to our crufty system of racial taboos is, I think, in part an attempt to kick Jews out of the protected circle (because we always seem to want to lapse into anti-Semitism, for some reason, and because Palestine), and in part an attempt to pretend that a series of demographic signals is an ideology.

      Any lack of consensus, any inconsistencies, any ambiguous situation such as Kristen Wiig above would be a difficulty for an ideology to overcome, but is, as I hope I have argued again and again, a feature for signaling.

      Like

    2. circuskerry · · Reply

      Hmmm, I think that this is again an oversimplification. An Asian, Hispanic, Jew, Bohunk, or other minority in blackface would get as much censure as a generic White person. I’m with Hal that our system of racial taboos is an ever-changing crazy quilt, and can’t be reduced to an easy framework.

      PS- I just rewatched “Sixteen Candles” the other day, and apparently Bohunk was still mainstream in the 80’s. I thought it had died out in the late 50’s. Also date rape is a literal joke in the movie, which shows that the shift in the Overon window isn’t always a bad thing.

      Like

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