I love that Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is finding a new life and second wind on Disney Plus. In light of the conversations and controversy behind Hamilton, begun to reflect on my experiences in living history communities. When the original Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Philippa Soo, posted a video of an Asian American child singing songs from Hamilton, it was heartfelt. An LA Times article talked about the importance of representation. While Hamilton is a surrealist and minimalist presentation of American history played by all types of Americans, I realize these minorities are participating in preserving history – telling the story of America’s beginnings. Who lives, who dies, to tell your story? No matter our background, it is up to us to keep on teaching others and keep history alive.
Now let’s talk about my family’s history.
A long time ago, I used to frequent the pinup pageant scene. I only placed once. When I placed in this veterans themed contest, I lauded the accomplishments of my late Uncle Ed, a guerilla fighter with the Allies in WW2 in Manila and a sergeant who saved his platoon in the Korean War earning a Silver Star when I was asked who was the most patriotic person I knew. I knew since an early age, through stories from my Uncle Ed at Thanksgiving and having amazing teachers who taught World War II thoroughly – including the contributions of Filipino Americans, we definitely had our place in American history.
So, why am I seen as “the enemy” anytime I attend World War 2 events in Southern California…you know…home of liberal Hollywood?
I’ve always loved learning about history. I devoured the American Girl books. Molly, the kid who grew up during World War 2, was my favorite. A schemer with glasses? Yup, that’s me! I was always number one in my American History and Government classes in high school always winning accolades. I loved traveling across the United States learning more and more. I also have my group of friends, mostly from the anime scene, that are super into World War 2 naval history.
I moved from Boston to Los Angeles in 2015. I was quite active in the navy otaku scene. I learned about World War II reenactments in my area. Sadly, I was too curvy to fit into the expensive vintage WAC uniforms. My friend graciously let me borrow his air force uniform for my first WW2 event. We had a lot of fun representing the air force. However, I still aspired to represent the WAVES. It was rare as a unicorn to even find a WAVES uniform in internet searches. However, that didn’t stop me. I did my homework. I collected plenty of reference photos. I bought fabric and supplies. I spent a few months working on my WAVES uniform. I was ready to attend my first event wearing my homemade WAVES uniform. Good as a new standard issue!
While I did get compliments from making my WAVES uniform, I got some very judgemental looks from several prominent reenactment groups. As a female, I know a death glare when I see one. I just held my head up high and continued to take space. I noticed that these folks that were giving me death glares were white or very much white passing. Even when I gave them compliments and wanted to learn more about their groups, I was immediately dismissed. I thought pop culture conventions had their set of gatekeepers, but living history is another level of gatekeeping.
I tried not to think too much about my identity in these spaces. I was always taught not to make your identity an issue. I just didn’t quite understand. It’s not until I realized that there was not a single BIPOC in any of these living history groups. I continued to attend maybe one or two more events. Maybe someone will see that an Asian like me is a part of this and they’ll feel inspired? I always felt not welcomed, but I showed up anyway. I had a vendor tell me my outfit was “wrong” because my outfit wasn’t “true vintage.” Either way, I knew I still belonged there to keep the spirit of Asian American WAVES alive.
While I may sound that I’m very headstrong in this post, maintaining that strength is draining. It would be nice if someone would have made the effort to even say “hi” or a “we would love you to be a part of our group.” I had to mentally fight imposter syndrome and hedgehog’s dilemma (google it) to mentally deflect death glares coming at me.
This was also true when I started to dabble in the Revolutionary War community. While I did see maybe one or two BIPOC partaking in the event, I was still given death glares by Karens and Kens in period costume. Mind you, this event took place in the belly of the Karen and Ken beast, Huntington Beach. I liked how the event was ran, but the community felt very clique-ish. I would have appreciated a “hi” or “nice outfit! do you want to learn more about historical costuming?” You best bet that I would have loved to dabble in conversations about historical costuming!
I don’t understand gatekeeping in educational historical communities. Even if I made a newbie mistake, wouldn’t you want to help a new person out? I saw this trend in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community where Susans and Walters kept to their white Science Fiction and Fantasy ways and looked down upon anything that did not fit their mold. These communities are dying. And I’m hearing the same from living history events as well. Perhaps if they did not gate keep away from new people, they would not have this issue. I hear cries of “this community is toxic!” tears from the same girls who claimed they were my friend, complicit to their group’s exclusionary practices.
It’s been confirmed to me by allies to BIPOC in the living history communities that a majority people are racist and want to keep the community pure. Sounds more like Nazis than actual Allies to me. It’s not just my mind overthinking. It’s been confirmed to me first hand that two photographers that roam these parts have posted anti-BLM on their social media feeds and have laugh reacted to resource sharing. The death glares were real. I never had this issue in the otaku naval history research and gaming groups I’m affiliated with. If anything, I’m welcomed to wear my WAVES uniform to gaming events. There is no racism or glares if I’m wearing a WAVES uniform at gaming events. While the gaming has their own issues, I never felt unwelcomed. At least this area has made me feel safe and welcomed to represent.
I love historical costuming. I love making things from scratch. I’m not letting racists stop me from participating in the things I love. Like many BIPOC’s, we’re tired of white washing and romanticizing of American history. It’s a pity that these living history folks have no idea of the 442nd Infantry Regiment or the Asian American women who have served in the WAVES. If they were so educated in these topics, there would not be an exclusion of marginalized folks in these spaces. Who will live, who will die to tell your story when there’s no one left? That’s why I continue to do what I do. This American history is also my history. I am just as an American as anyone else participating in these events. My melanin may be different, and that’s ok. BIPOC have every right to belong to these events and take up space.
TL/DR: Gatekeeping kills hobbies and those who may want to contribute value to the hobby.