In 2010, Black people from across the diaspora made up just over 32% of Chicago’s population.
But I bet you couldn’t tell that from reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files or Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series where there are zero main characters who are Black and few recurring characters who are explicitly “of color” in the respective series.
How about St. Louis which had a 49.2% Black population in that same year? Meanwhile, Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series have like two Black characters who show up between them and neither character has a backstory or a last name.
Or Los Angeles where white people who aren’t Hispanic or Latino only made up 28% of the population of the city and yet are over represented in every single piece of fiction about the city.
What about New York City where Non-Hispanic white people only made up 33% of the population. Something you couldn’t tell from well… anything ever set there because people continue to frame NYC as this ultra-white city where people of color only show up to be support staff to white characters rather than being centered in their own stories from the start? (Looking at you Daredevil and Jessica Jones…)
Even one of my favorite authors has done it. Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series is set in Detroit in the distant future, but as far as I know, there are no Black characters onscreen for very long.
The entire demographics of Detroit have changed because she literally had a powerful spirit destroy the city and kill everyone prior to the first book. Which means that prior to the series, she killed off (rather than moved) hundreds of thousands of potential Black characters and then never did anything with Black characters to kind of… make up for that.
Like this is the sort of thing that doesn’t even appear to matter to urban fantasy authors and she’s 100% one of my favorites.
Lastly, we have New Orleans whose population was made up of 60.2% Black people that year and has been historically a city where white people were the minority. Tell that to authors like Sherrilyn Kenyon and creators for shows like The Originals who, following in Anne Rice’s whitewashing footsteps, have made New Orleans into a home for vampires and other supernaturals who are nearly exclusively white males.
Urban fantasy as a genre tends to ignore characters of color.
It’s funny that the term “urban” which largely has centered on Black characters in cities, stops being about them when it comes to this genre. (Seriously, the erasure is real.)
In fact, I firmly believe that in urban fantasy, you’re more likely to see vampires, zombies, and demons than you are people of color who aren’t villains, cannon fodder, or framed as the eroticized exotic. Which is not cool. At all.
I’ve deemed this erasure of people of color in major metropolitan areas “gentry-fication”, a riff on the real-world phenomenon of “gentrification” where white people move into an area historically populated by people of color and literally change the landscape of the area until these people can’t stay there anymore due to increases in rent, more hostile police officers, and neighbors who harass them at the drop of a hat.
(The term owes about 40% of its roots to Laurell K Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series which is set in St. Louis and LA and manages to have maybe one actual character of color in the series but endless amounts of white humans and light-skinned fae like Merry Gentry who have to deal with in-series racism and take up 99% of onscreen roles.)
In the urban fantasy genre, we see this sort of takeover done largely offscreen. It’s more of a rewritten history than anything where we have these cities largely populated by non-human beings who tend to replace characters of color. We’re never shown why or how this process has happened, but all we know is that there are these non-human beings who are stronger and more dangerous than people while simultaneously being more oppressed.
I blame this on the fact that so much of the urban fantasy genre hinges on werewolves/vampires/etc being oppressed on a systematic level due to the publishing industry’s obsession with allegories. Instead of looking at nuanced portrayals of oppression (what would a vampire who was a former slave hold as their ideology, how would they look at the typical vampire relationship with humans), they just go “well vampires are oppressed. The end”.
They give these paranormal creatures experiences that are analogous to those that people of color face when dealing with racists:
- Housing discrimination
- Workplace harassment
- Relationship discrimination
- Being seen as hyper-sexual
- Hate crimes
- “racial” slurs
All the while not showing more than one or two actual characters of color in the narrative. And then these few characters of color never get to take center stage or deal with what I like to call POCProblems because the narrative pushed by urban fantasy has already given it away to paranormal beings.
When you’re writing, there are two things you need to hold onto:
- The demographics of the area that you’re writing
- The needs of diverse audiences
Automatically, no story set in New York City or LA should erase Black, Asian, or Latino characters. The immigrant experience should also be noted because of the large amount of people in those places that are first and second generation immigrants.
You’re writing an urban fantasy story set in a massive hub of diversity and yet somehow all of the characters that get the spotlight are white?
Seriously, Jim Butcher’s Chicago is one of the whitest representations of the city I’ve ever seen.
And he knows that his Chicago has next to none of the diversity of the actual city.
Because to Jim Butcher, vampires, wizards, and other supernatural beings belong in Chicago.
Not so much.
Not at all. At least, not from within the city.
Same with Sherrilyn Kenyon.
I’ve been reading her Dark Hunters series and related works for over twelve years now and I still can’t remember having the focus fall on a Black character in New Orleans or Asian or Latino ones on the West Coast. She’s writing in these cities where you have specific types of diversity and then the majority of the characters she writes are white people who tan very well if they can go into the sun.
(And I have a serious bone to pick with authors who introduce entire species where their defining characteristics include: white skin, blond hair, blue eyes the way that she does with the daimons but I figure we’ll get into that later.)
And Laurell K Hamilton. She is still churning out books that people read and love. And these books still are very far from diverse. Her St. Louis is still very beige, still focused on whiteness and white characters that you’re unable to even really find Black characters in a narrative set in a city where they are the actual majority.
None of Anita’s lovers are Black.
None of her actual friends are either.
Offhand, I can only name three Black characters in her Anita Blake series. And one’s Jamil. Who we know nothing about aside from how he’s a snazzy dresser who wears his hair in long cornrows.
This is not how you do diversity.
Now you might be wondering “I’m setting my series in a city with a small amount of diversity in their demographics/making a city up, do I have do include diverse characters there too?”
Because you’re not writing for those people. You’re not writing a sexy wolf shifter story set in Shreveport for people who actually live in Shreveport. You’re writing for readers who know nothing about the town. You’re writing for and in a diverse world and you owe it to your audience to actually put diverse characters onscreen.
You’re writing about stuff that doesn’t exist: werewolves, vampires, and zombies. You’re giving these characters and creatures lives and fleshing them out, but they seem overwhelmingly white in the process.
Try including some diversity that does exist.
If you’re a writer and actually invested in combating gentry-fication in your Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance works, here are five ways that you can do that:
- Look at your main character. If they’re white, think about the “why” behind that decision. If your character can be a character of color, why aren’t they one? What about their love interest or best friend or the clever antagonist? If the only characters of color you have in your urban fantasy works are sidekicks or minions, deconstruct your work because you’ve messed up.
- Where is your work set? What is the setting based off of? If you’re writing in a city like Miami, your MC shouldn’t be white if you want them to be relatable to people from Look at where your MC has grown up, the neighborhoods and schools you’ve written down in your notebook or files and think about why your characters don’t match those demographics.
- Do a spreadsheet for all of your characters with dialogue. Put the basics down. If you can count characters of color on one hand, you need to fix that. Flesh out some minor characters if the book is already done. Change major characters to make an impact.
- Ask for diverse alpha and beta readers. Having a team of diverse people nudging you along and saying honest things to you as you work will keep you focused and your writing will benefit from them. (And please: don’t try and get them to do it for free: PAY/REWARD FREELANCE EDITORS/DIVERSITY CHECKERS FOR THEIR TIME AND EMOTIONAL LABOR!)
- Challenge yourself from the start. You’ve created a sacred dwelling of the fae in the middle of Hyde Park? Diversify that shit from the get go. Show dark-skinned fae princes who are coded as Black people. Give me vampires who hail from China and Korea rather than freaking France. Set your book somewhere other than a community that’s entirely American. Yo, the main requirement of “urban fantasy” is that it’s set in a city. There are cities everywhere that don’t look like the NYC of Friends and How I Met Your Mother. Set your sprawling vampire urban fantasy police procedural there. Don’t get complacent with what you think sells in order to write a whitewashed book.
Diversity in publishing isn’t a niche.
It’s not a fad.
It’s a way to be true to the world around you and by not including any in your urban fantasy series, you’re saying that people of color are far more unrealistic or unbelievable than supernatural characters. You’re saying that your books aren’t for us.
And that’s something you need to fix because it’s not a good attitude to have.
8 thoughts on “URBAN FANTASY 101 – GENTRY-FICATION”
I’m a huge fan of Jim Butcher but I’ve been well aware of the lack of PoC in his books, except for the occasional bad guy or token.
The same is true of the books by Ilona Andrews ,which are set in Atlanta. I’ve been to Atlanta, there are plenty of black people there. I was kind of pissed when they changed the model on the book covers to look more white. Before that she looked mixed-race.
As for Laurell K Hamilton, her problems extend far beyond erasure to outright racism and stereotyping of PoC, in all of her books. Although the book has a primary female protagonist she manages to embrace all of the phobias, and -isms, you can think of in every one of them.
As a general rule I have stopped reading American Urban Fantasy because I’m getting tired of reading about white women in love triangles. A lot of these books got into the market riding on Laurell Hamilton’s coat tails and a lot of the them reproduce all the same problems you’ll find in her books. There’s such a glut of these books in the market now, that I just avoid adopting any new writers unless there are PoC in them. If I’m not already reading them, I’m not going to. At this point, when I see a white woman on the cover holding a weapon, I don’t bother. I know what to expect.
I loved the Skeleton Crew Underworld Cycle books by Cameron Haley with a largely Hispanic cast.
Daniel Jose Older’ s Resurrection Blues books have a mixed race cast.
Read just about any Urban Fantasy set in London. Those books seem to avoid having werewolves and vampires in them entirely. Apparently the British have moved on from rehashing Twilight and a lot of them include PoC in prominent positions in the story.
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I didn’t even think about the POC erasure in Ilona Andrews’ books. Geez, that’s bad. But you’re 100% right now that I think about it.
LKH is actually going to be a frequent example for how NOT to do with diversity or even a female lead because right now, she’s checking off a whole lot of issues. I like referencing her because she’s still popular in the US and still beyond tone deaf to her issues. Like Anne Rice, she never learns or changes.
Finding good Urban Fantasy that’s meaningfully and positively diverse is hard but worthwhile. So naks for the recommendations and suggestion that I try British UF!
Mind you, I didn’t enjoy Resurrection Blues but I’m going to get Shadowshaper once I get a Miami library card. I’m a huge fan of the Rivers of London series because it’s diverse and dark and super witty like it’s definitely my favorite series. There’s also the World of the Lupi series which has issues but also a Chinese American lead and her family showing up regularly!
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I haven’t tried the Kylie Chan books but they’re at least not set in the West.
I also love the Demon and the City Series by Liz Williams. They are not set in the west and all of the people in them are Asian. The books are very accessible, very easy to read,and lots of fun.
I love the Rivers of London books too. I just finished the last one and ready for the next coming soon.
One of my favorite British authors is Kate Griffin. She writes the Magicals Anonymous series, which feature a female protagonist of Indian descent and were a lot of fun to read. She also writes the Matthew Swift series, which have a white male protagonist, but PoC are prominently featured in a few of them. (The Neon Court, for example, features fairies of a distinctly Asian feel, which is refreshingly different.)
Reblogged this on Fleet Sparrow.
I wanna tattoo this to my face I stg, yes all of this.
Reblogged this on Geeking Out about It and commented:
In a series of Urbam Fantasy 101
[…] is. I’m going to refer you all to a passionate and insightful post by a writer named Zina titled Urban Fantasy 101-Gentry-Fication that covers all those questions in detail. The big take away from this is to make the diversity […]
This. This… so much.
I’m currently writing an urban fantasy, one of the first things that came to mind when I sat down and did some competitive research was, “This genre is white-washed as fuck.”
This fact has bothered me for years with fiction, both in books and on screen. I loved Buffy, Harry Potter, Bitten and Teen Wolf. I enjoyed Butcher and Blake. Yet, none of these creators took the time to step back outside their own bubble and look at the reality of these cities, as you point out. I read this really great quote that said when writing Urban Fantasy, DON’T bend the reality to fit the fantasy, bend the fantasy to fit the reality. This would include writing some characters, really, many of them, that are POC.
I think white writers might have 2 fears that stop them from including realistic, POC characters. They’ll be accused of appropriation, or making those characters tokens. This isn’t an excuse. You’re doing all this elaborate world building and you can’t put the effort into going outside white people? Melissa F. Olson wrote a an article about this if you want to check it out, (http://melissafolson.com/writing-race/) I’d love to hear your feedback on her thoughts for writing race and minorities. The biggest takeaway I got being, include everyone, and make sure it’s no big deal.
For my own work, I looked at your 5 questions and answered them honestly. I’ll leave them here for anyone who might be answering their own.
1. Look at your main character – Yes, she is a white female. Her female best friend is Asian, her male best friend is Black. Her love interest is Hispanic (and his father is the Alpha of the pack, so a majority of the shifters are as well). But why is the main still white? Because as a white female from a tiny, rural town in Ohio with NO diversity whatsoever, I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that I could do any justice to a lead that was a POC. Maybe one day when I’m a much better writer, but before that, I need more time outside my culturally limited environment.
2. Where is your work set? – A fictional city a couple hours from Sacramento. So I looked at their population demographics… 45% White. 27% Latino or Hispanic. 18% Asian. 15% Black. 12% Other. 7% of 2 or more races. 1% Pacific islander. 1% Native American. I felt my cast was plausible with these statistics.
3. Number of Characters that are POC or a minority – 3 mains, 2 minor, even more that make brief appearances.
4. Diverse alpha and beta readers – Any chance you have some contacts? I will very happily pay for these services. I’m still in need of these readers in general, so I’d love to send them to a diverse group and make sure I’m NOT writing these characters as tokens.
5. Challenge yourself from the get go – For me, characters have always just showed up in my brain. It’s my job to bring them to life in a real, authentic way. That’s been a complete labor of love and I really hope that shit pays off.
Thanks for writing this. It’s absolute gold and will help myself and other writers going forward. I’m really REALLY glad I read this today.
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