Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Neither Whitewashing Nor Blackface

Ginger Goat will be publishing our first LARP soon. We plan to Kickstart a game called Dangers Untold by Shoshana Kessock. The game is already playtest ready, and I love it. Shoshana does great work.

But I want some help from the gaming community to address a sticky situation that I've created. I want to add rules to Dangers Untold about how to use Girls Elsewhere and Heroine of Heiankyo as settings for Dangers Untold. These games encourage players to girls from a variety of countries and language groups. Diversity in gaming is something I value. But I'm concerned about how this diversity will translate into a LARP.

Would you feel comfortable dressing and speaking as a character of a different sex and race? In the US, there is a very racist tradition of painting one's face another color in order to play a cheap caricature of a minority. This is called "blackface." I absolutely do not want players to participate in this racist tradition. So how can we respectfully explore LARPing a character of another race or sex?

There is another, more common racist tradition in storytelling called "whitewashing." In this tradition, all characters, or at least all important characters are white. Most are men. This is the tradition that Heroine and its supplements inherently rejects. In a Heroine game, the main character is a girl. If you use any of the supplement books, she is probably not white.

Here is where I want your help. How do you think we can build a LARP that avoids these two extremes? How can we tell stories about characters who aren't like us without playing hateful caricatures? Do you have any positive experiences with cross-race or cross-sex play, especially in LARP? Do you know of any good articles or resources about cross-race or cross-sex play in LARP? I want to avoid the two extremes of whitewashing stories and playing characters in blackface.

Please join the conversation. Talk to me on Twitter or Google Plus. Comment below. Or email me at gingergoatpress@gmail.com

Let's tell stories together. Let's tell genuine stories about realistic people who don't all look like me.


  1. I don't really think the two issues you mention apply to the participatory medium of LARP in the same way they do to one-to-many media like books and film.

    If you see a character in blackface in a film, you know that they had a role they could have hired a black actor for, and chose to hire a white actor and go to the extra effort of putting him in makeup instead. This obviously raises certain questions. The minstrel tradition in particular consisted of white people dressing as black people to perpetuate entertaining stereotypes about black people.

    In a LARP, there is no public audience to peddle stereotypes to, and the pool of potential actors is limited to the self-selected group of players. The usual problems with blackface do not apply, and the only danger is that someone will take offense because of the association - which can be easily avoided by not using makeup to denote real life races, something I've never seen any LARPer do anyway - most players are quite used to using their imagination.

    Similarly whitewashing is an issue in Hollywood if they have a black or asian character and make the character white so that they can hire a white actor when they have plenty of great black and asian actors available. To take a group of white players and either force them to or prohibit them from playing characters of different races would not address that issue.

    So I see this as something for individual groups to deal with. Portrayals will be respectful as long as people are enthusiastic and comfortable about what they're cast as, which is something the organisers should be ensuring anyway.

  2. Thanks, Peter. I'm glad to hear you think the issue is unlikely to bother the players. Since some of the optional settings take place in other cultures, I wanted to consider the issue before problems arise.