cosplay, black, cultural appropriation, racism, BLM, japan, anime, TikTok
Accused of culturally appropriating Japanese culture, Rios said she's now weary of cosplaying some characters. Photo: Courtesy of Mia Rios

A Black TikToker Was Accused of Appropriating a Japanese Character. Then She Was Banned.

“I don’t know how to put that lightly, but we can’t really get away with just wanting to dress up like a character without receiving some sort of hate, backlash, sexualized comments, or just a weird gaze upon us.”

Wearing a blue dress and tying her auburn hair up with two red ribbons, Mia Rios felt transformed into a character she loves.

For her, Asuka Langley Soryu from the popular Japanese anime Evangelion embodied more than a fierce fictional character. Rios, a 23-year-old student in California, also felt tethered by a personal connection to the young pilot—a shared past of trauma.  

“She thinks that she has to earn unconditional love when she should, as a child, just already be entitled to that, and that was something that made me feel really bad for her,” Rios told VICE World News.


But in September, after posting photos of what she thought was a proud achievement of cosplaying Asuka, the 23-year-old cosplayer was accused of culturally appropriating and fetishizing the character. Shortly after, the comments turned to Rios’ race.

One user on TikTok commented on Rios’ video that they “don’t like African Americans.” Another user, who claimed to be Japanese, directly messaged the 23-year-old to say she couldn’t wear a Japanese school uniform because she’s a Black woman. 

It sexualizes Japanese people, the user explained. When Rios asked if the same logic would apply to a white woman wearing the attire, the user said no, “because white women aren’t sexual like black women are.”

Following a stream of critical—and some racist—comments, Rios’ TikTok account was banned and flagged for violating the platform’s community guidelines. She joins a growing number of Black cosplayers and TikTok creators who feel wrongfully silenced by the app and the cosplay world’s prejudiced expectations.

cosplay, black, cultural appropriation, racism, BLM, japan, anime, TikTok

Rios cosplaying Asuka in her red plugsuit. Photo: Courtesy of Mia Rios

Rios, who has been cosplaying Japanese characters for over 10 years, was no stranger to receiving disparaging remarks.

“Like, ‘Oh, that character isn’t Black,’ and other people would say, ‘You look weird, you look like an alien,’” she said.

Simply posing in a school uniform would incite sexualizing observations. “These comments I get, a lot of times it’s like, ‘You are a Black woman in a school uniform. Therefore, you’re on the same level as a woman in school uniform lingerie.’ So my race adds a sexual connotation to literally anything that I do,” she said.


“I don’t know how to put that lightly, but we can’t really get away with just wanting to dress up like a character without receiving some sort of hate, backlash, sexualized comments, or just a weird gaze upon us,” Duru said.

Anuli Duru, a Black female cosplayer and artist based in New York City, echoed Rios’ concerns. She added she’d receive cosplay suggestions because of her curvaceous body, stereotypically associated with Black women, while also being told she couldn’t play certain characters due to her darker skin. “Us [Black cosplayers] just existing feels like it’s illegal sometimes,” she told VICE World News. 

“I don’t know how to put that lightly, but we can’t really get away with just wanting to dress up like a character without receiving some sort of hate, backlash, sexualized comments, or just a weird gaze upon us,” Duru said. 

The modern cosplay boom started in Japan. Since the 1980s, fans of anime and manga would cosplay, a portmanteau of the English words “costume play,” and role play as a specific character. The subculture has since taken off globally, with anime conventions held in Australia, the United States, and parts of Europe. 

But as the performance art rose to the global stage, accusations of racism and cultural appropriation—unacknowledged or disrespectful adoption of a cultural element that’s not your own—have followed.


In 2019, French cosplayer Alice Livanart was banned from competing at the London event EuroCosplay after being accused of blackface. Livanart created a physical suit she’d step into to embody Pyke, a darker skinned character from the video game League of Legends. The French participant vehemently denied such accusations, claiming she made the fictitious character come to life with love. In 2020, a Black model was called racial slurs when she cosplayed a lighter-skinned anime character. 

But the difference between these cases, scholars say, is that much of the criticism directed toward Black cosplayers is akin to gatekeeping, an attempt to limit Black artists’ participation in the culture.

Emerald King, a professor of Japanese literature and pop culture at the University of Tasmania, said such people think they’re protecting Japanese culture by reinforcing purer representations of characters, many of whom appear white in illustrations. “But at the end of the day, a lot of the reason why these characters look white is because it’s easier to print blank spaces, to just have the line drawing,” she told VICE World News. 

John Russell, a professor of cultural anthropology at Gifu University in Japan, suggested white cosplayers often get to portray “white” or white-appearing Japanese characters without facing criticism because whiteness is viewed as racially transcendent.


“In part, I think, this is because the Japanese view whiteness as a national/cultural descriptor more than a racial one. Or even a universal one that does not require racial marking: The works of Bach and Beethoven are described as ‘classical’ or ‘Western’ music, not ‘white music,’” he told VICE World News over email.

Such gatekeeping isn’t limited to the subculture of cosplay. In fact, like in Rios’ case, it’s seen on much larger platforms such as TikTok. 

Just in July, the $400-billion company was accused of anti-Black censorship when Black creator Ziggi Tyler posted a video revealing a flaw on the app. Tyler couldn’t put phrases in his bio that included the word “Black” without being immediately flagged for inappropriate content. “I am a Neo-Nazi,” on the other hand, passed.

In 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests swept across the U.S., Black creators also noticed being shadow banned. The app was removing or limiting users’ content without warning, thus driving down engagement—something Rios said she was familiar with even before her account was entirely banned in September. TikTok has said such restrictions were a result of errors in its hate speech detection system, which flags phrases without respect to word order, and not a reflection of the company’s values. 


In response to requests for comment, a TikTok spokesperson told VICE World News: “We recognize and value the impact that Black creators continue to have on our platform and across culture and entertainment.” 

The spokesperson also said they were working to “incorporate the evolution of expression into our policies and train our enforcement teams to better understand more nuanced content like cultural appropriation and slurs.” TikTok did not respond to questions about why Rios’ account was banned.

For Rios, accusations that she culturally appropriated Japanese cosplay culture have made her question how long she wants—or will even be allowed—to stay in the cosplay community. What was once an activity that brought her joy was now a task she has to emotionally prepare for and be wary of. 

“I don’t want to get deplatformed again. I don’t want to get harassed again. I don’t want to do all this stuff because it doesn’t matter if what I do is right and wrong—I’m still going to get negative interactions,” she said. 

Rios was also accused of fetishizing the Japanese culture known as kawaii.

“She’s using their clothes as accessories,” one comment on Rios’ videos said. 

“These mfs will fetishize japanese stuff, make it into an ‘aesthetic,’ then go and act like they know everything about japan and asians,” said another comment, which also accused her of being an “undercover racist” and lying about studying kawaii culture.

cosplay, black, cultural appropriation, racism, BLM, japan, anime, TikTok

Rios dressing in Japanese kawaii culture. Photo: Courtesy of Mia Rios

Literally translating to “cute,” “kawaii” represents a whole aesthetic of adorableness that emerged in Japan from the 60s, and brings with it descriptors such as hyperfemme, shy, and charming. 

To members of the kawaii community, such accusations highlight the hostility some Black people face when engaging in such hyperfemininity.

Ebony Bowens, a Black singer and performer who dresses in kawaii fashion, said growing up as a Black woman in New York, she was expected to emulate certain characteristics directly opposed to adjectives usually associated with the subculture. “You’re rough. You’re not sweet, you’re not soft, you’re not quiet, you’re not girly,” she told VICE World News. 

But after learning more about the hyperfeminine subculture some 15 years ago, Bowens felt a strong attraction to it for how kawaii liberated her from societal pressures.

“It’s a revolution, a rebellion, against what Japanese society says is what adults should do, how we should dress, how we should talk, how women should present themselves and how they should be presentable to men,” she said. Bowens said she had never been accused of culturally appropriating kawaii culture in Japan.

According to Russell, kawaii culture has associations with Caucasian whiteness, an aspiration among young girls in postwar Japan, though traces of it were found from as early as the 1900s. 

“This included both the tradition of valorizing white skin as well as the idealization of Caucasian physical features which came to be associated with beauty, wealth, and a refined, Euroamerican-derived modernity, associations that survive today on fashion magazine covers, and in skin-lightening photo apps and cosmetic ads,” he said. 


Though Black people were portrayed as cute, too, they took on animalistic forms or caricatures, Russell said. “Blacks are cute—but not in the same way shōjo manga and Disney princesses are. Rather, they are cute in the same way that monkeys or comical, roly-poly piccaninnies, the animalistic black children that adorned so much of global kitsch, or animated mice are kawaii,” he said. 

Examples he gave included Dakko-chan, a black doll popularized in the 60s that has now ceased to exist after being called racist, and when a blogger compared African runners in a marathon to chimpanzees in 2019.  

As a Black woman in cosplay, Rios is used to being made to feel like a “gross, disgusting, ugly monster,” or being told to kill herself for ruining a character, she said.

But what really frightened her was when she was accused of hurting Japanese people with her cosplay. “I just want to celebrate the character and have fun. There’s no intention of harming anybody,” she said.

Some Japanese artists and cosplayers have come to Rios’ defense. “I want to ask my Japanese friends, did she really do something wrong?” said Haruka Kurebayashi, a kawaii artist and influencer who models.

She said kawaii culture is for everyone. “It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner. Nor does your nationality, gender, age, or skin color matter,” she said.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.