How many times has this scenario happened to you:
You’re reading an Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance story and a shapeshifter shows up that isn’t a wolf. They’re lions, tigers, or bears and guess what… they’re all white.
It happens to me a lot and frankly, I’m sick of it.
From Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series to Shelly Laurenston’s Pride Stories to the shifters in the M/M anthology series Cereus, shapeshifters in urban fantasy tend to be well… overwhelmingly white.
Unless of course, the author needs a villain or to toss out stereotypes of masculinity. Then we get shifters of color. For a little while.
Obviously, I have an issue with the fact that the majority of urban fantasy writers won’t even consider writing shapeshifters whose animal matches their outside in terms of origin.
When you criticize the nearly overwhelming whiteness of a genre like this, you do get people crawling out of the woodwork to lecture you about historical accuracy. There are people who’ll yell until their lungs give out about how it makes sense to have all white characters in fantasy stories because – and I’m not kidding here – because of historical accuracy.
Well here’s a little historical accuracy for you:
Lions, tigers, and other big cats? Not something typically associated with whiteness or white people. Like, at all. Same goes for hyenas and bears. Hell, the fact that most werewolves in the genre are white when wolves are most commonly associated with indigenous people (especially in North America) is ridiculous.
When I first picked up Shelly Laurenston’s The Mane Event, I did it because lion shifters were at that point a novelty in the urban fantasy genre and I didn’t like the fact that Laurell K Hamilton’s lion shifters were white, jerks, and almost overwhelmingly patriarchal. I was excited to see what Laurenston would do with lion shifters but then when every single one of them turned out to be white blond people I was left frustrated.
In what world are lions – one of several big cat species that are native to the African continent – something that has ever been associated with white people outside of “man, white people sure love to kill them”? In what world, do you think of lions and not think of Africans?
And then to have this overwhelmingly narrow focus on descriptions like their “pale golden skin” and “manes of thick blond hair” –
There aren’t any shapeshifters of color in these books that aren’t explicitly “foreign” and othered for the sake of exoticism, but then you have shapeshifters whose shifted forms belong to animals that have ties to Africans and to indigenous people on our continent running around like they own the place.
Laurenston’s hyenas? All white.
Her polar bears? White. (Ditto for the lone polar bear shifter who shows up in one of the Cereus stories.)
Her tigers? White.
The few characters that show up that are explicitly shifters of color are Othered.
And it’s not cool. It’s not fun to read as a fan of urban fantasy that’s also a person of color, to know that the majority of the writers in your favorite genre don’t even think about representation when it comes time for them to put pen to paper.
Sometimes, you can tell when erasure is accidental.
This isn’t it.
This is systematic, purposeful. This is a choice.
Sherrilyn Kenyon (who’s gotten fussed about in this feature before, I believe) even has a reason why all of her shapeshifters (called werehunters) are white. It’s in-text and explicit. All of her shifters come from the sons of a Greek king and a magician. They can only procreate with their mates who are almost always other Greek shapeshifters or Apollites (children of Apollo who are universally white and blond). Very rarely are they mated to humans (who are always white and almost always blond).
So she’s purposefully written out the potential for shifters of color in her works by making explicit the origins of her werehunters as capital-G Greek. Every so often, we’re thrown a bone when she remembers that other pantheons predated and postdated the Greek one and she gives us some “tanned” Jackal shifter or an indigenous American shifter, but guess where they are –
Not carrying their own book as an individual, that’s for sure.
Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be white shapeshifters in your book or stories, but that if you’re going to create a shapeshifter mythos that precludes the existence of shapeshifters of color, you’re a jerk. If there aren’t any shifters of color in your work but the white shifters you have turn into lions (from Africa), tigers (largely associated with India and Pakistan), jaguars (the Amazon), or polar bears (associated with Inuit people), I’m seriously questioning your motives.
This is one of those things where writers can do better. They can take an active interest in diversifying their characters rather than whiting out diversity (or the very potential for it) in their urban fantasy stories.
There are some authors who are big names in urban fantasy who have diverse shape shifters in main and non-stereotypical roles (Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series, Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, and Eileen Wilks’ World of the Lupi series are three that stand out the best to me) and of course, there are other writers that grasp that a diverse reality means a diverse fictional world, but diverse shifter stories are nowhere near as common as they should be.
And seriously: if you’re an urban fantasy or paranormal romance writer who can’t think of the last shapeshifter of color in your work that wasn’t a villain or a chew toy for your strong white female lead, you need to get right.