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.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

20 thoughts on “No, cosplaying a drow isn’t racist

  1. Wouldn't the white hair negate the impression that this is blackface? Not only is it not nappy hair, but it can't even be chalked up to the person being lazy. Pointy ears make it even clearer to casual passerby that the cosplayer isn't wearing blackface (and those people aren't going to be familiar with the drow's inherently evil nature, so they just look like black elves)

    Also, since when is Drizzt cool? I haven't heard a single positive comment about that character ever. Best was "he's not that bad"

  2. Sadly, some people are just that willfully ignorant. If the world doesn't fit their tiny little view of it, the world needs to change, not them. Nothing that can be said or done will change their minds.

    1. Um, no. Tolkien's dark elves (Moriquendi?) were dark on the sense that they had remained under the stars and never saw the light of Valknor. The drow come from the Norse legends of Svartalfheim.
      My 1e Ranger Lord ended up married to the priestess ftom the Vaults of the Drow for a brief time – do I get bonus points in the PC flame wars for that?

  3. The Drow (dark elves), as a concept, are much older than Tolkien.

    People who are offended by these cosplayers should really be more tolerant and accepting of other people's lifestyle choices.

  4. Was about to correct Thiles, but I see Rod beat me to it. Why do people attribute so much to Tolkien? Guy writes a decent children's book and people think he invented all of fantasy

    Couple things I wanted to add: Norse mythology mentions two names for dark elves. Most believe these refer to the same creature, though there isn't a total consensus. Also, the dark elves may've been dwarves

  5. Nero live action roleplaying had purple skinned dark elves for a while because of this issue. Then everybody realized that with the pointed ears, white hair that this was not blackface in any way shape or form. So everybody when back to using black makeup.

  6. That's pure, unadulterated, blatant ignorance. If they knew what a drow is, they simply couldn't make such comparisons; no sane human being could, really. Sometimes human stupidity really astounds me.

  7. Drizzt was cool before it was cool to hate him. Damn hipsters. I mean, seriously. Those books are /popular/. Look at the sheer volume of people who complain about "Arg I'm sick of people trying to make good drow characters!". He was an interesting take on a concept, opened up drow culture for a different perspective, and in general the books were a fun read.

    As for the black face thing. Meh. Defining anything to broadly just waters it down.

  8. Actually, I have a couple of comments. I was appalled that you used a photograph of Al Jolson and said "This is blackface." While it is that, Al Jolson was one of the earliest supporters of racial equality in show business. He bankrolled a cross-country trip, and sunk some of his own money into the show, in Garland Anderson's play APPEARANCES, which became the first African-American straight play (as opposed to musicals) on Broadway (1925). He also took the position of backing Jack Johnson (the first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion) vs. Jim Jeffries, the ex-champ who came out of retirement in 1910, in several columns for VARIETY. Jolson was roundly criticized because his stance was seen as highly unpopular, but he was vindicated when Johnson beat Jeffries. There are many other examples…I suggest you visit the site and see for yourself. You really offended me when you did this. Second, I was present at GenCon in 1993 when I met R.A. (Bob) Salvatore, a great guy, and there were absolutely NO COMPLAINTS in regards to Drizzt or the Drow. Don't you think TSR would have handled the situation then? As I recall, they got rid of the daemon, demon, and devil names for 2nd Edition in response to certain minority religious groups who complained about them. Not much cosplay going on back then, either, though I *do* remember seeing a girl in a Princess Leia "slave girl" outfit from RETURN OF THE JEDI. Anyway, those are my opinions…and let the haters hate, as they say these days.

  9. My understanding of how to cosplay someone of another race is to not try to match their skin tone, but have a good enough costume that there's no doubt who you're trying to be. A white person cosplaying as Storm from the X-Men, for example, trying to change their skin to match would in fact be blackface.

    With drow, we come across the very specific issue that you ARE trying to look like another race rather than a specific individual. If you were trying to be Drizzt, or another specific drow character, I believe the above etiquette would apply (keep your skin color, but have a good costume).

    But from the variety of pictures you've included in your post, there are people dressing up as their D&D characters, not just established characters. Since there aren't as many clear markers of who you're trying to be in that circumstance, the skin tone issue becomes harder to avoid.

    The primary exception to the skin color rule of cosplay is unnatural skin tones. So a cosplayer in costume as a green-skinned character, such as the Martian Manhunter, is encouraged to use makeup to change their skin tone. This is where we get the "compromise" solution of grey or purple makeup. (The statue of Drizzt on display at Gencon is a lovely shade of charcoal grey)

    And that's not getting into the implications of a subgroup of a typically good-aligned race that has been marked by the gods with black skin for their evil deeds.

  10. Racism? Blackface? Huh…??? To me these just look like people dressing up for a gaming convention as Drow, a fictional race of (mostly) evil subterranean elves invented by Gary Gygax (or whoever) for a game called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

  11. So, over at Tor we have someone complaining whites aren't welcoming enough to minorities in gaming.

    Then we have this BS.

    Gee, do you think white players, like more and more white people in the US, see a black person and see a minefield where you could step on their subjective hurt and resultant rage at any moment. Do you think people who see that think, "yeah, they sound like they'd be fun to game with but what happens if I step on the land mine" and instead of welcoming them to their game tell them it is full?

    The Tor article on race and gaming includes a statement about how no matter how hard you try you can't escape being racist.

    In light of that and "controversies" like this one how many people are going to quit trying and just assume racist just mean some black person is pissed at you.

    The primary exception to the skin color rule of cosplay is unnatural skin tones. So a cosplayer in costume as a green-skinned character, such as the Martian Manhunter, is encouraged to use makeup to change their skin tone. This is where we get the "compromise" solution of grey or purple makeup. (The statue of Drizzt on display at Gencon is a lovely shade of charcoal grey)

    Perhaps they are out there but none of the African-Americans or Africans I've know are black in the sense of Drow black. I can't think of a black person I'd ever seen who, if I was painting them, I'd use Lamp Black as the base for skin tones any more than I've seen a white person who I'd use Titanium White as the base for mixing their skin tones.

    For I Drow I can see not just uing Lamp Black as a base but out and out straight. So, I'd argue the exception does apply to drow.

  12. It's actually racist as it is depicting the drow race. Other than that, b.s. from folks who enjoy pretending to be outraged or else have true mental illness and need help from professionals.

  13. It's not white people's place to determine whether or not something is racist if it pertains to black people. Only black people get to decide if a particular cosplay is black face or not, and I just read a much better article from a black cosplayer's point of view that drow cosplay when done in this fashion makes them feel extremely uncomfortable, and rightly so. Different skin tones for drow are canon so please don't make anyone feel uncomfortable at conventions!

  14. Shounen Bat, you do realize that drow are actually an ancient European fairy that was depicted with dark skin, yes? "Don't make people feel uncomfortable" my ass. This is a fictional race, no one is overtly trying to look African. Please stop.

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