Ask A Reenactor: Ethnicity & Reenacting
Shortly after my question about bullying, I got another series of questions about a potentially controversial subject within the reenacting hobby: ethnicity. Here are the questions:
“Given the stigma of “farbery”, what are the odds of reenacting as a non-white person? It seems like most reenactors deal with European or American events where people of color are rarely, if ever, involved. (But on the other hand, I’ve seen white people portraying Viet Cong fighters, which seems weird.) I realize this is a really complicated issue, but any thoughts you have would be much appreciated!”
“How accepted it is for a person of color to portray a white person? Because most events focus on white history. Our rev war group didn’t have a problem with it, but we did garner a lot of derogatory comments from the public. Because, you know, tourists are classy.”
“re: ethnicity in reenacting – It often sounds like you can be caucasian and be anything, but if you’re ethnic, you gotta be whatever your ethnicity is! Like, if I’m asian, are my only “valid” options Vietnam or Korean wars? What if I want to do some medieval European thing? But meanwhile caucasians are being Viet Cong and everyone is cool with that. (Not accusing you/your group of anything, it’s just… interesting.”
These are all great questions! However, since there are really kind of two main themes going on here, I’m going to address them separately, and then also post some of the commentary I got from other reenactors that I know.
1. In regards to white reenactors portraying other ethnicities (such as the aforementioned Vietcong), the reasoning is actually a practicality issue: there simply aren’t enough reenactors of said ethnicity to go around. I myself have portrayed both Vietnamese and Chinese soldiers in my time, due simply to the fact that there weren’t any Asian reenactors who stepped up to do so. The vast, vast majority of reenactors are white/Caucasian, and sometimes in order to have an “enemy” to fight, some of us have to portray combatants who were originally of a different race. You run into this in many different periods.
2. There are actually plenty of roles available to Asians, Latinos, and People of Color if you do enough research. History was actually far more multi-cultural than our whitewashed history textbooks would have us believe, and I think that many reenactors would actually love to see a little more diversity at events. If you’re a prospective reenactor who isn’t white, you have quite a few options available to you:
A. Find a unit (or form one!) that was a historically black/Asian/Native/whatever unit.
B. Find a unit that will allow you to “latch onto” them as someone from a historically black/Asian/Native/whatever unit who got lost and is temporarily with them.
C. Find a unit that was historically diverse and/or integrated to join.
D. Find a historically appropriate role for you to play. Some of these may be a bit uncomfortable or un-PC (such as slaves, servants, workers, “savages”, etc), but they are a part of history and it’s important for people to see how poorly people of different ethnicities were treated throughout history, and how far we have come, as well as to see the roles they played in history.
E. Find a conflict that had a high proportion of other ethnicities, such as wars that took place outside Europe, and try to drum up enthusiasm for reenacting it.
F. Find a unit that will allow you to portray someone who would historically have been white.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways for non-whites to get involved in reenacting in just about every period you could ever wish to do, with the right research. Plus, as you’ll see in other reenactor’s comments below, many reenactors would love to see more diversity in the hobby. You are, admittedly, at some risk of facing some attitude from more conservative reenactors or tourists, but I feel that your presence would overall be very appreciated.
Here are some of the comments by other reenactors within my personal circle:
Well, I say that you should not let something as random as ethnicity stop someone from reenacting what they want. Still, if you are worried about it (not that I think you should be) if you do detailed research, you’ll find examples of what you want to do. Did you know that in both WW1 and WW2 the Canadian Army was completely intergrated? They were! There is even a great photo from WW1 of a Canadian Highland unit (in kilts) just out of action and one of the wounded is an Asian-Canadian. Also, there were many African-Americans that went north to Canada to join what they thought at the time as an “all black unit”. They joined the Black Watch of Canada. People of color (what does that really mean, we are all of the same race… human race). Well trying to stay on point here, every culture has a varied and rich history and our histories are also more intertwined than most want to believe. We must remember that this is a hobby and we are not really the people we portray. – SK
I’ve never personally run across someone who was told s/he could not portray a certain impression because they are a certain race/ethnicity. But considering the other ideas/opinions held by people in the hobby, its not a large stretch of the imagination that it occurs. – SL
You can make sure your equipment and uniform is accurate, but you cannot control your ethnicity. If you like an impression, go for it. If we can look past things like age and physical condition, there’s no reason we should scrutinize someone over their ethnicity. – SB
I think part of the reason that seeing non-whites portraying “white roles” is more rare and heavily scrutinized comes from the fact that the hobby as a whole is vastly skewed towards white reenactors. There just aren’t large numbers of minorities involved, to the point where it’s almost surprising to me any time I see non-white people at a reenactment, no matter what role they’re playing. I heartily wish this weren’t the case, since 18th century America was an amazingly diverse place. Personally, I would love to get more African Americans involved in portraying black loyalists during the AWI. To echo what others have said, if you research hard enough you can likely find a correct impression that fits. – TS
I agree with the current thread. It would seem that reenacting is skewed, but I DO think research is key (for any impression)… IMHO, this is a game that we all agree to play, and I think there is a place for everyone with an honest interest in history…. – KL
I, too, would like to see more minorities in reenactment. I do not think it is vital that they portray someone of their racial/ethnic group though. – SL
Interesting that we in the 2ndSC have had African Americans join our ranks. Francis Marion was described as haveing a 50/50 split along racial lines. – BP
This is a topic I’ve been stuck in for awhile. I’ve had several people hit me up to do WWII Japanese or Vietnam War Viet-Cong, but for nothing else than Authenticity’s sake, I refuse to reenact as anything other than white, Caucasian people. I would love to do a WWII Japanese impression, but no matter how good someone’s impression looks, it is still greatly countered by them being an “incorrect” race. I wish that more “whites” would follow that. I do think the main problem is that the reenacting community in Europe and the US is comprised mainly of white reenactors. It would be much easier and authentic if there were enough Asians to reenact Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese roles, but there aren’t. So whites have to fill their places, sadly. My friend Kim has run into this. He’s Korean and really has a hard time doing anything other than Korean War, Vietnam, or Soviet… – CB
I think they should be able to do whatever they damn well please. I saw a black rev war reenactor at Lancaster and whether the role was “appropriate” or not, it was the most badass thing I saw! I thought rock on! – KK
If you are a non-white reenactor and would like to chime in, PLEASE do, as I think it will serve as encouragement for more people to get into the hobby where they may have been hesitant to before. Heck, if you’re a white reenactor who has something to say about this issue, please leave a comment with your thoughts as well.