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.
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?
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.