Sunday, August 17, 2014

Paint It Black

So this weekend was GenCon, the annual convention devoted to (in a nutshell) Dungeons and Dragons and its many and varied multimedia descendants. Gamers can often be a prickly lot (sometimes, it seems, quite proudly so) and thus it seems that there's always another teapot tempest brewing over something that the mundane world would likely find utterly trivial and/or incomprehensible. And, tooling around on social media this morning, I came across one: Drow cosplay as the new blackface.

A bit of background, in case you're not into the whole gaming scene. In Dungeons and Dragons, a player can take on the role of a more or less professional adventurer in world that is, generally speaking, a mash-up of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Middle Earth," your average Renaissance faire and the general stereotypes that we have of Mediaeval Europe. This world is liberally infested with monsters, which the characters, as directed by their players, fight and slay for fun and profit. (It can be significantly more sophisticated than this, but it doesn't have to be.) Characters can be of several different non-human species, such as Elves, Dwarfs, Halflings (originally descended from Tolkien's Hobbits), et cetera. In various supplemental materials evil versions of most of the various non-human species that players could use for their characters were presented as monsters. And so were introduced the Drow, subterranean elves with jet-black skin and paper-white hair that worshiped a giant spider-goddess. They quickly became popular. And this has lead some people to wear Drow costumes (with lots of black body-paint) for conventions - a practice known by its Japanese name of cosplay. (Which is short for "costume play.")

But, wherever there are White kids painting their faces black, there are going to be people who see this as reminiscent of the blackface minstrelsy of the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. Hence, controversy. Which, to my mind, is a waste of energy. While minstrel shows didn't really die out completely until the 1960s, I suspect that you'd have to do a fair amount of work to find someone who's actually seen one. It's unlikely that the average person at GenCon, or any other gaming or speculative fiction convention, would have first-hand experience with the art form. Thus, it seems like a real stretch to presume that a person seeing these young people...

Drow costume play at DragonCon. Not really my thing. But the new blackface? You can't be serious.
...Would honestly think that their intent was to perpetuate the "lampoon[ing of] black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical," or would take that away from what they were doing. But even if that were the intent and the effect, I still maintain that we have to get past the idea that we can control what people think about us through maintaining tight control over what images of us make it into the broader world. And when others seek to exercise that control on our behalf, I think that we're better off simply telling them, "Thanks, but it's okay."

There may, in fact, be a cadre of people out there who have set for themselves a goal of returning race relations in the United States to the 1850s or thereabouts. I'm pretty sure that they've merely set themselves up for disappointment, but in any event, I'm not afraid that they'll ever succeed in such a short timeframe that I won't be able to do anything to mitigate the damage. It's difficult to be a competent student of American history and not understand the centuries of injustice that the European settlers, their allies and their descendants have perpetrated on people both like and unlike them. But it does us little good to spend our lives being afraid that they are waiting for the chance to return to those days. Or to see harbingers of negative change in random acts of fandom.

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