Not All Black And White

Not All Black And White

How it is to be a woman of color in the larp scene?

Dear non-Person of Color (PoC) larpers. 

We are not here to give you all the answers on how to solve racism.  Neither will we be able to give you one coherent answer for you to use on questions on how to make the larp community better.

We are four Women of Color (WoC) with different backgrounds and different reasons for why we love larping.

We are not the same but we have one thing in common: we all want to see the larp community change for the better and be a bit less oblivious towards racist structures.

With this article, we invite you to sit with us, listen, and remember our words and stories.

Photo of Anna Erlandsson

Anna Erlandsson at the larp Witches of Ästad Farm. Photo by Anna Erlandsson

So, who are we and what do we do when we are not larping?

Aina: My name is Aina Skjønsfjell. In my everyday life, I work as a translator and have done for 10 years now. I have a degree in languages and linguistics. Oh, and I live in Norway!

Liselle: I’m Liselle Awwal, and I live in Denmark. I am a self-employed crafter with a webshop with a lot of nerdy things!

Jonaya: My name is Jonaya Kemper and I’m a Nebula Award winning game designer and an instructor of game design at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. In addition to that, I am known for some of my theories on identity transformation using role-playing games.

Anna: I’m Anna Erlandsson from Sweden. I work with digital games and have a burning passion for making the gaming culture more inclusive.

The four of us have larped for over 20 years and it‘s breathtaking to think that we have done this hobby for so long. But what made us start larping?

Anna: For me, it was a longing to play fantasy for real. I read a lot as a kid and I was drawn to the fantasy bookshelf in the library. I read these magical stories and so wanted to be a part of them myself.  When I was a teenager, I discovered that there was a thing called larp and as soon as I turned 18, I went to my first one. I have never looked back.

Liselle: Just as Anna, I was an avid reader from childhood, particularly of fantasy books. Once I got online in the early nineties, I started role-playing online. It was a random segment on television, just before the turn of the century, which revealed the larp world to me: a brief clip of a fantasy larp in a forest. I was immediately obsessed, and upon discovering that my cousin was a larper, introductions were made.

Aina: I wanted to be a goth vampire and wear vampire clothes! My goth friend told me that she and her goth boyfriend played Vampire: the Masquerade not too far from where I lived and that I should absolutely join. So I had my grandmother sew me an all black, medieval-inspired “period” piece of the finest polyester fabric and off I went to drink red wine and look pretty.

Jonaya: I love to dress up and play pretend, and I have trained for my entire life in improvisational theater. A very close friend of mine, Noxweiler, suggested I give it a try as he loved it. I always said no to larping, because as a Black person in the U.S. we don’t tend to go to a secluded area unless we trust everyone involved. I know it sounds absurd, but this is very true. There is a real pattern of Black people dying on innocuous trips. Many large U.S. based larps are boffer campaigns taking place in forested areas, and this isn’t always accessible or safe.

I trusted Nox, but not everyone involved. Nox basically had to show me that no one would try to murder me, in order for me to go. He actually had to say: “There will be other Black people.”  It worked, and here I am today. Dr. Diana Shippey was actually the first person I saw there and it made me feel a lot more relaxed.

Photo of Aina Skjønsfjell (left) and Jonaya Kemper in Regency clothing with lace fans

Aina Skjønsfjell (left) and Jonaya Kemper at Fortune and Felicity. Photo by Kalle Lantz.

Over the years, we have tried a lot of different styles of larp, from Nordic larp to blockbuster larps and we all have different types of characters we prefer to play.

Liselle: Ohh, I very deliberately try to bounce between characters that are very different, but I often have the most fun with scheming manipulators.

Aina: It depends on the larp, I enjoy playing a leader a lot, or a villain. That being said, I have greatly enjoyed playing Thug #3, The Mad Scientist, and even The Vapid (but pretty) Princess. I can find joy and fun in almost any character if I can play with good people at a good larp

Jonaya: In general I like to play any character I can learn from or learn things with. Or the ones I am most disallowed from being in actual society. My favorite role genuinely was an NPC. I played Death in the U.K. run of Just a Little Lovin’, and this was perhaps my favorite role of all time.

Anna: I either like to be very different from myself, like a visual pretty teenage princess or super cool ranger, or I like to create a lot of pain and drama for my co-players – with full consent of course! In the latter case, I love playing characters that are in the background but at the same time have all the power.

Photo of Liselle Awwal in a fur hat.

Liselle Awwal at a scene in The Last Song, by Avalon Larp Studio & Yxengaard. Photo by Henrik B. Hansen.

Besides being larpers, we have done different things in our communities and on the international level that we will now brag about!

Aina: I am proud of being a name many people recognise in the world of larp, both as a larper (some even say that I’m good – I am one of those people) and as a voice for larpers of color. The fact that people have come to me for advice on inclusivity is always something I’m proud of and grateful for, even if I don’t always have the ability and/or spoons to help out.

Jonaya: Despite the actual psychological harm it caused to me personally, I would say my biggest achievement is fighting as much as I can for the inclusion of people of color in fantasy, which led to me coming up with my theory of emancipatory bleed. I didn’t know how much the theory has helped people, but I think I am more proud of this than any of my other work. I love helping people.

Liselle: There are larps I have organized that I am proud of, but I am also proud to have developed my crafting skills to a level where I can monetize them. The making of things is the fun part, and selling them enables me to spend as much time crafting as I want.

Anna: I feel so proud over how much I speak up for inclusion for PoC in larp and in the gaming hobby. That I have also been able to push this on a national level and talk about it abroad gives me hope that perhaps it will make it easier for other PoC after me.

We are from different countries, Anna from Sweden, Liselle from Denmark, Aina from Norway and Jonaya from the U.S. What are our experiences when larping in our home countries and being a Woman of Color?

Liselle: Oh god, it is frequently exhausting, being one of less than a handful of PoC in my local community, and frequently at larger international larps or events. Sometimes lonely, if difficult debates surrounding marginalization are attempted, as it is very easy for my voice to be drowned out by a multitude of dismissive ones.

Jonaya: While I am grateful for the people who have helped me find success, for me, it has been genuinely awful. If I did not truly believe that larp was an excellent tool for liberation I would stop. I have many privileges being a U.S. citizen, but it was very difficult to get death threats for my work and to be accused of perpetrating “cancel culture.” I have been doxxed. I have been lied to. I have had other larpers scream in my face while running larps. It can be very exhausting honestly, and I am one of the more well-known faces. Marginalized people also face representational burnout, i.e. we have to be a perfect presentation of a human and any slip up can toss us out. So there’s a feeling that we must present perfectly while facing enormous scrutiny.

Anna: In the beginning, I did not think about it so much, mostly cause I was so happy to be able to larp. But it has been exhausting at times to both be one of the few WoC and a very loud voice about diversity and inclusion. I have mostly gotten small “well-intended” comments but it is the ignorance towards racist structures and how… white the larps hobby is in it’s thinking that really drains me.

Aina: Well, it is better now, as I am older and meaner and give fewer forks. But you rarely escape a “well-intentioned” “compliment” or an action/question that is a micro-aggression. They’re [at] least daily at events.

Photo of Anna Erlandsson in period costume holding a flyer

Anna Erlandsson at Fairweather Manor 5. Photo by Nadina Dobrowolska.

There are few PoC in our larp scenes and we four found each other in recent years. Have we felt supported by other PoC in the larping community during the years?

Aina: I think the larp community as a whole is too big with too many cultures to say only yes to that. Obviously not all PoC will support me, as I probably will not support all PoC. And I don’t always need support. But I try to focus more on the support I get from the people around me than the support I don’t get.

Anna: I have felt so much support from other PoC in larp during the years but at the same time, we come from such different backgrounds that it is impossible for us to agree on all things. I have way different experiences and opinions from some PoC and that is just as it should be and sometimes, the clashes are real.

Liselle: Yes, and no. Several years ago, I joined the newly created “Larpers of Color” group on Facebook. It was purportedly a global network, but since the vast majority of members were U.S. larpers, my experience was that my perspective as a European PoC was often ignored or dismissed. I was excited for such a group to exist in theory, but in reality it became a stressor to the point that I left.

I have felt very supported by PoC – from all over the world – I have met through larps and related events, and I have heavily relied on especially a handful of other WoC for support and encouragement.

Jonaya: Yes and no. I have a thriving and amazing community that supports me and I can dialogue with, but there have been a few noticeably bad actors who do their level best to close the door behind them by appealing to a “status quo.” There are certain PoC who have done real damage by perpetuating stereotypes and causing lateral violence. Even so, I think I have become a better person by learning from and dialoguing with many people of color, especially from outside of the U.S.

Photo of Aina Skjønsfjell in a half-mask wearing a fur coat

Aina Skjønsfjell. Photo by Kamil Wędzicha

PoC are in a clear minority when it comes to larp and all four of us are in agreement that larping is a very white hobby. But why?

Jonaya: This is something we need to look at systemically. I don’t believe any one ethnicity is intrinsically disposed to a hobby, but that their lives allow them to do it. From a U.S. standpoint white people have a systemic upper hand and have more leisure time, unless they are lower class. It’s quite hard to think of larping when you do not have your fundamental everyday needs met. In the international larp scene as well, many of the participants are middle class and have large degrees of mobility and disposable income. If you don’t have to worry about healthcare and vacation days, then you can sign up for every game. There’s also the point that if you don’t see anyone that looks like you who larps, you may believe you don’t belong there. This happens frequently.

Liselle: We have to remember that not only is larp a white hobby. For example, Denmark is a pretty ethnically homogenous country. Even so, there should be more POC larping, but I fear that the experience of being one of the few larpers of color may have scared many off over the years.

Aina: I see the same in Norway, it’s a white hobby. The way larp is portrayed in the media, showing white people doing white nerdy things. The lack of representation will lessen any interest for the few non-white people who are interested in trying, because if you already are a little geeky, chances are you are ostracised in your current communities already. Not everyone is up for finding a new community where you will once more be the odd one out. Then when no PoC joins, including them for representation is harder, and thus the spiral continues.

Anna: From a Swedish point of view, this is an expensive hobby and you need to know someone that can point you to larps and help you with the first steps, from equipment and transport to friends. The lack of PoC is another thing that I think scares away people. It is not easy to go into a hobby where you are not represented and you have to worry about racism.

I think it’s a serious issue when we take larp as an example of an inclusive hobby. In Sweden, the larp scene is so good at welcoming women and queer people but white larpers tend to stop there and think that this is good enough. “Well, if more PoC would like to larp, they can just join us.” They completely forget about the previously mentioned barriers for PoC when it comes to larp.

Jonaya: Yes, I think the biggest barriers for getting more PoC into larp are time, money, and relevance.

Aina: And the lack of visibility and representation.

Liselle: This is an important thing. Because if the first thing potential newcomers encounter when they look at the larp scene is a wall of dismissiveness along the lines of “larp is for everyone, we do not see color, learn to separate fantasy and reality,” that is not reassuring or actually inclusive. We need to trust that our concerns will, at the very least, be taken seriously or listened to, rather than mocked, belittled and brushed off.

Photo of Aina Skjønsfjell in a black robe and gloves holding a person's hand

Aina Skjønsfjell at a larp organized as part of a friend’s wedding. Photo by Nadina Dobrowolska and Maciek Nitka.

Without getting into details, we have had bad experiences when it comes to being a WoC in the larp community. How has that affected us?

Liselle: I spent too many years afraid of rocking the boat before I decided it was vital I raise my voice and object when I encountered issues. When I met other PoC in the international scene, it gave me confidence. The realization that me not speaking up on certain issues might mean no one would was also a deciding factor.

Anna: I started to speak up when I met another WoC and realized that she have had the same experience. That it was a structure and not just me. From then I just continued to “make a mess” and being the one that made trouble. I wanted it to be better for PoC that came after me. But dear god, it can be so exhausting.

Aina: Yes, it can often make me tired, and feel like I am “that person” who always has to bring up “that thing.” On good days it makes me proud that I am and can be, but mostly it makes me want to give up because I still have to.

But I see that times may be changing. Some people are trying more, making more effort. The larp community isn’t doomed or hopeless, but it looks like it will take a lot more time than I should like.

Photo of Liselle Awwal

Liselle Awwal at The Last Song, by Avalon Larp Studio & Yxengaard. Photo by Henrik B. Hansen.

While it has become better, some big mistakes have nonetheless been made by white larpers when it comes to inclusion that still make us want to facepalm.

Liselle: A common mistake is to make assumptions about what PoC want or need without actually consulting us. I realize inclusion can be difficult to navigate, but it is frequently not enough to glance at the opinion of a single PoC on social media and then decide that this must be the universal truth. What is needed or wanted for a larp in Denmark may be entirely different from what PoC larpers in the U.S. require.

Jonaya: Totally agreeing on not listening to their local populations!  As much as many of us are connected, we are different. I don’t know anything about being Ghanaian and Danish, so I don’t know what that community needs exactly. Listen to what the racialized people in your community need first.

Anna: The idea that all PoC are one big happy family is so weird, since we all have different backgrounds and experiences. I honestly get pissed off when it‘s assumed that we need to think the same way and give one answer, for inclusion to be allowed to happen.

Aina: Non-PoC larpers need to listen more when you are being told something is problematic. Do not dismiss it because you wouldn’t do that. Chances are, you might. Speak up if you see others do problematic things. Stand with us. Don’t make us seem like the only “those people” who always and only have to talk about “those things.” Be one of “those people” with us. If everyone is “those people,” none of us are.

Liselle: And make sure to elevate PoC voices. Listen attentively if attention is called to something being an issue, even if it is one you – or even your personal PoC friends – have not experienced to be an issue.

Anna: I feel that white people can be offended very quickly when they are pointed towards racist things, or even problematic people that are using racial slurs. That is one thing I would like to improve. And not having to argue why actual Nazis should not be allowed at larps…

Jonaya: And we need to rethink how the community uses “cancel culture” and “woke.”  Oftentimes organizers may fear being canceled or complain about wokeness if a PoC player comes to them with an issue. Instead of listening, they use these phrases exactly like far-Right politicians, and that stops the growth of larp. I wouldn’t feel comfortable at a larp where an organizer reacts to feedback that way.

Photo of Anna Erlandsson in a fur shawl

Anna Erlandsson at the larp Vedergällningen. Photo by Anna Erlandsson.

One question that we have gotten during the years is: “Why do we keep on larping if things are so horrible?” There are some reasons, apart from the fact that we love larp.

Liselle: To discover and bond with other WoC in recent years has been wonderful. It´s a special feeling to experience solidarity when we are meeting. Just to support each other in chats has been novel and delightful. There has been an uptick in allied voices of support trying to amplify my own to ensure it is heard on issues that affect me, for which I am thankful.

Jonaya: Another one of my favorite experiences is being a visible PoC in order to help other visible people of color. I played the Headmistress for the first run of Forbidden History, and had an amazing scene in which I was able to acknowledge oppression and power, and open a door for a player who played a student.

Aina: I love that I have met other WoC that I would not have met elsewhere. It has been really good, it is like we have our own little community within a community. To see how similar and yet different our experiences are, comparing “war stories,” and to really know that we are not an entity; usually most of these women have vastly different opinions on everything and I love us for it.

Anna: I have loved to find my voice in the community and be part of the change I’ve seen happen during these years. It goes slowly but it happens, and that gives me hope. Not to mention that I have met so many wonderful WoC that have become dear friends. They are people that I can reach out to and share experiences with as a WoC and that has been invaluable for me.

Photo of Jonaya Kemper in action with a wand

Jonaya Kemper at Avalon. Photo by Nadina Dobrowolska.

We will be larping for at least 20 years more and sometimes, we will be very loud when it comes to inclusion. For all non-PoC, here is some advice from us to you on how to get more PoC into larp. 

Liselle: Invite PoC larpers into your projects, and not solely as inclusivity consultants but fully fledged collaborators. This is so important. Do not expect us to work for free.

Jonaya: Continue to support PoC in making their own stories and uplifting them, especially in their own communities. There are many racialized individuals living in Nordic countries who need their voices amplified in the ways that only they know how to explain. I would love to play in the worlds they create.

Anna: Support PoC in your community and accept that we have different opinions. Yes, it will get complicated but it is the road forward. Accept that larp is not so inclusive as of now, and that it is not enough to just say that “everybody is welcome.” Collaborate with organizations and schools to open up the door to larp for young PoC.

Aina: In short: Listen to us.

Cover photo: Aina Skjønsfjell at the larp Avalon. Photo by Nadina Dobrowolska. Photo has been cropped.

This article is published in the Knutpunkt 2022 magazine Distance of Touch and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Erlandsson, Anna. 2022. “Not All Black and White.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt 2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 15-23. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.

Authors

Anna Erlandsson (b.1986) is a Swedish larper and journalist. She has organized many lectures, panel talks, and events on the area on inclusion, feminism, and the importance of gaming culture in the society. Photo by David Lagerlöf.
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