Because my cosplay article has been kinda going crazy the past few days, people are tagging me all over the book of faces in discussions of various cosplay and cosplayers. I’ve been ignoring most of them (because I can’t spend all day commenting on facebook, despite evidence to the contrary), but I’ve commented on a few, usually because they were posted by a personal friend or professional connection.
One of these happened this morning. Someone tagged me in a post about some rando cosplaying as Hitler at Dragon*Con, asking what I thought. I responded that, although I’d love to tell him to eat a platter of dick tacos because he’s cosplaying a symbol of real-life violent racism against me and my family, I don’t agree with the calls to ban his costume from future cons. I don’t think costume censorship leads anywhere useful.
And then all hell broke loose.
I can boil “all hell” down to a few sentences: I was evacuating all credibility I had in my stance against shaming cosplayers for race, size, age, or gender identity because I was “shaming” cosplay Hitler. My call for acceptance of cosplayers of all races and body types should naturally extend to an acceptance of someone’s choice to cosplay Hitler. Expressing my discomfort with cosplay Hitler is bullying and victimizing him.
Now, first of all, this is probably an academic distinction, but I did not actually tell cosplay Hitler to eat a platter of dick tacos. I speculated that I might do such a thing were I to ever see him in person. The chances, however, of me actually having the nards for such a face-to-face confrontation are precisely equal to the chances of me being elected the next Mormon prophet. That said, I do admit that I said in writing that I would like to invite him to such a dining experience. So the distinction is academic. But it exists.
But here’s my point (and I know you’re all relieved that I actually have one): Expressing discomfort at a costume that embodies real-life violent racism against me and my family– and I have living Holocaust survivors in my family– does not make me the bully.
Those of us who fight racism and speak out against the symbols of racism are used to being told that we’re the problem. “Toughen up,” we’re told. “Freedom of speech,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Get over it,” “Stop taking everything so seriously.” But the worst, by far the worst, is being told that we’re the ones oppressing and victimizing by speaking out against racism, its symbols, and its tools. I think it’s very difficult for people who have never personally experienced bigotry to understand what it means for people who have been violently oppressed to be confronted with symbols of that oppression. It’s flabbergasting, though, when they refuse to even attempt understanding and instead blame the victim for speaking out.
This isn’t about the principle of “accepting all cosplay no matter what.” Only the inexperienced think all principles should be taken to their furthest extreme and still hold. There’s always a line. And being able to see that line is almost always about experience and always about understanding. Sometimes it’s the experience of age, sometimes it’s the experience of bigotry and marginalization, sometimes it’s education. There’s no freedom that isn’t curtailed at some extreme expression of it. Freedom of speech, for example, ends at libel, slander, and copyright violation. Generally a given freedom is curtailed when the exercising of that freedom harms someone else, and surely the freedom to wear whatever costume you want without being told by someone, “What the actual fuck are you doing? This is not OK” ends at the moment you choose a costume that is aggressively racist.
I know it’s hard to have compassion for people who have experienced bigotry when you haven’t experienced that bigotry yourself. My son and I are confronted with anti-Semitism in real life all the time. There are people who absolutely believe we don’t deserve to live because of who we are. And Hitler is one of their main symbols. Making a choice to dress as Hitler is making a choice to bully, to victimize, to hurt. People at Dragon*Con posed with that person while making the Heil Hitler salute. This is aggressive, deliberate racism.
Cosplay Hitler is the BULLY, not the VICTIM. It does not undermine my stance against bullying to express that I am personally uncomfortable with a costume that bullies ME DIRECTLY, and the implication that HE is somehow the victim of MY bullying is nonsense-flavored nonsense, especially considering that I am defending his right to wear that costume despite everything wrong with it.
It’s super-common for people who fight against bigotry to be told they’re the ones being the oppressors, that it’s somehow violating someone’s constitutionally-protected freedom of speech to say, “Hey, that’s racist,” as if freedom of speech protected them from the consequences of that speech. So I should have known better. I should have been able to predict what would happen, because it happens all the damn time. But frequency doesn’t lessen the pain.
I went back into that discussion and deleted all of my comments. I’ve been trying to shake the hurt, anger, and deep, deep disappointment all day. My husband came home and I cried all over again just telling him the story. Racism fucking hurts. Being told that you’ve lost credibility and that you’re the bully because you expressed personal discomfort with a racist act FUCKING HURTS.
Part of the pain and disappointment is being ashamed of myself. I should have stood my ground, but I wasn’t strong enough this time, and for that, I’m ashamed.
So this is what I ask, from the center of my pain and my shame: The next time you see someone say “That’s racist and hurtful to me,” don’t tell them they’re wrong. Don’t tell them it undermines their opinions or their credibility. Don’t tell them that their outcry victimizes the racist. Ask them why it hurts. Stand with them. Apologize. Try to understand. You do not get to decide whether or not bigotry, its symbols, or its tools are hurtful to their targets, or how hurtful they are. Listen, learn, and comfort rather than accuse, blame, or belittle.
We all fuck up, all the time. We all make stupid, bigoted remarks out of ignorance or carelessness, or sit by in silence while others make them. But we have to KEEP TRYING. We have to stop ourselves from saying stupid, hurtful shit like, “toughen up,” or “You’re the bully for shaming the racist.” We have to keep asking ourselves the difficult questions. We have to try hard to understand the bigotry others face. It’s a choice we have to consciously make.
It CAN get better if we CHOOSE to make it better, and that has to be a conscious choice we all make as individuals.
I stand by my opinion that cosplay Hitler should be allowed to wear his costume to whatever con he likes, because I can’t side with costume censorship. And I stand by my opinion that it’s an aggressively racist act to costume yourself as a real-life violent racist murderer and torturer whose victims are still living. And I stand by my opinion that he deserves whatever blowback he gets for his public display of racism. And I stand by my opinion that people who shame cosplayers for their race or size are being colossal jerks. I stand by all of it.
But most of all, I stand by my pledge to try my best to understand the experiences of others and to have compassion for those experiences.