Too White Bread for This Shit: Race and Racism in Laurell K Hamilton’s Urban Fantasy Series

Too White Bread for This Shit_ Race and Racism in Laurell K Hamilton’s Urban Fantasy Series (1).png

“I’m so white-bread, if you cut me I’d bleed bleached flour! I have no ethnicity to me, and I’ve always wanted some.”

– Laurell K. Hamilton in an interview excerpted from Locus Magazine.

I’ve been reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s urban fantasy series – the necromancer-focused Anita Blake series and her sidhe political drama Merry Gentry series – since I was in high school and I picked up a copy of Incubus Dreams (Anita Blake #12) back in 2004.

In the fourteen years since I began reading the two series, I’ve noticed one constant in both of her series. Hamilton constantly attempts to talk about race in her work through a focus on (predominantly white) supernatural characters while characters of color in the series are reduced to stereotypes and tropes that have long-since went out of style. Simply put, Laurell K. Hamilton is awful at writing about race and racism.

Case in point? Hamilton’s explanation for why the Anita Blake series doesn’t have many Black vampires.

In her preface to Mikhail Lyubansky’s essay “’Are the Fangs Real?’: Vampires as Racial Metaphor in the Anita Blake Series” in the 2010 essay collection Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series, Hamilton writes that:

I have debated on whether to share the real reason that there are not more African American or dark-skinned vampires in my books. I can’t decide if its politically correct to say it here. The truth is that all vampires are paler as a vampire than they were as live people, thus someone of African American descent would be paler. But how pale? I was pretty sure that if I had characters that were African American but paled them all out that I’d be accused of trying to literally white-wash them. Was I over-thinking it? Maybe, but at the beginning of the series I was very aware that I was white bread as far as I knew, and didn’t have any experience here to draw on. I was in my early twenties and I just couldn’t figure out a way to ask the question of someone without sounding stupid, or racist, or both.

Think about that for a moment folks, in 2010, Hamilton admitted to not having many Black vampires in her books because… she was worried about being accused of whitewashing them due to the way she set up her vampire’s biology. Hamilton actually confesses to being more worried about the way her Black vampires could be received than she is about realistically portraying the diverse place that her characters live in.

Besides that, the explanation Hamilton gives is unsatisfactory for many reasons:

First off, Black people don’t have a monopoly on melanin in the world. In the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, there are plenty of other vampires of color (several of which have brown skin) present and vamping.

Next, how about the fact that deciding to make vampires’ skin pale in undeath is a choice that Hamilton makes to explain her unease with potentially writing Black ones?

This is a world with a less than solid magic system and an author who has gotten character details wrong in the same book they first show up in, nothing about her work is fixed in stone except, apparently, for a handy excuse for her not having more than two or three Black vampires in a city with a not-insignificant Black population.

If she’d wanted to have more Black vampires, she would’ve written them in.

Thirdly?

Blade.

obama mic drop

And finally, if she was that worried about being accused of whitewashing in the nineties… why is it that there still aren’t any Black vampires as recurring or main characters in the series?

She wrote that preface in a book published in 2010 and eight years later as the twenty-sixth book in her biggest series is set to come out later this year. I’m pretty sure that she currently doesn’t have any Black vampires in that series that have shown up for more than a mention or a page.

Additionally, her explanation for a lack of Black vampires in Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter doesn’t exactly excuse the way that Hamilton’s worldbuilding in that series or the Merry Gentry series essentially means that we don’t get major Black characters in any of her work.

At last count, there are less than a dozen recurring Black characters still alive and active-ish in the Anita Blake series:

  • Jamison Clarke, a light-skinned animator who only exists to be a pain in Anita’s ass for his early appearances. Currently, since the series doesn’t focus on her job at Animators, Inc, he rarely shows up.
  • Clive Perry, a cop on the preternatural squad who gets called the n-word by a racist cop for several pages in the third book in the series. That’s the most significant screen time he’s had so far, I think.
  • Vivian, a leopard shifter, in Anita’s pard. She is a submissive leopard who basically shows up to be a perpetual victim of abuse and rape that Anita feels she needs to save. At one point in Burnt Offerings, she’s described as having skin “that pale shade of dark that says African-American via Ireland” which makes no sense.
  • Luther, the one Black vampire in St. Louis that I can remember. Back when Anita was doing more detective-y work in the early part of the series, he was a recurring minor character who gave Anita advice. Now? I can’t remember the last time I saw him in one of these books.
  • John Burke, another animator who hasn’t shown up for several books. He’s literally Brother Voodoo (white streak and all) and after his introductory description in Guilty Pleasures, Hamilton has Anita say that thanks to that white streak, “you knew that he would always play the villain”.
  • Jamil, Richard’s bodyguard and a fellow werewolf. All we know about him is that he has waist-length cornrows that someone else does for him, a snazzy sense of style that seems ripped from the Harlem Renaissance, and one time Anita nearly sucked the life from him. Additionally, in The Killing Dance, the character is portrayed as homophobic to the point of harassing lesbians with Gwen saying that, “Jamil is one of those men who believes that every lesbian is just a heterosexual woman waiting for the right man. He was persistent enough to me that Sylvie kicked his ass.”
  • Sylvie, a lesbian who happens to be the most dominant werewolf in Richard’s pack. She has few notable appearances after Anita breaks with Richard and the pack and just about ZERO backstory or personality beyond stereotypical portrayals of Black queerness.

I think… that’s about it in a city that as of 2017 apparently has Black people making up an estimated 24 percent of the population. Anita has no Black lovers, scarce few Black friends or associates, and her interactions with Black characters that she doesn’t automatically dominate because of her status in one pack or another remain antagonistic.

Anita Blake - Vampire Hunter - Guilty Pleasures 03 - 03

The giant were-rat? Is only the second Mexican character you’re introduced to after Anita.

While there are other characters of color who aren’t Black – such as biracial Native Bernardo Spotted-Horse, Mexican were-rat King Rafael (and seriously, it is so messed up and racist that she made the second-most prominent Mexican character in the series a were-rat), various members of the purity-fixated Chinese weretiger clans, and the handful of named Black characters in the series that I listed – these characters all have limited access to Anita’s life, are relegated to minor support roles, and/or are frequently portrayed via stereotypes about their ethnicity.

That’s frankly unacceptable.

What’s also unacceptable is the fact that there are zero main or supporting characters of color in the Merry Gentry series thanks to Hamilton’s continuous whitewashing of a diverse locale (Los Angeles) in conjunction with a purity-obsessed species that somehow “predates” race. The only characters of color that I can think of in the series are humans who are relegated one-off appearances such as the soldiers that appear in the last two novels.

title_a_kiss_of_shadow

In the Merry Gentry series, her lover Doyle’s black skin is quickly divorced from the potential for him both being part sidhe and “of color” despite the fact that there are people of African descent with skin so dark as to be considered black. Same goes for Nicca, the only other sidhe with anything other than pale or white skin. Like Doyle, he’s mixed with another kind of fae, one that’s seen as lesser than the sidhe.

Hamilton uses the prejudice directed towards the two characters from other sidhe – a prejudice akin to what people of color receive from racists – but makes a point of letting the reader know that their heritage is pure Celtic with no extras on a too-frequent basis.

The series’ obsession with pale and light skin, by the way?

A marker of an intense and alienating type of colorism in the series where Merry is seen as desirable because of her lightness.

So not only does this series not have any characters of color even though it’s set in LA half the time, Hamilton’s reliance on stereotypical and frustrating comments about the desirability of “pure, white” skin across the nine novels in this series just oozes a rather racist sentiment about skintone.

(Echoes of this colorist preference for pale white skin come across with Anita Blake and her pale vampires every once in a while, but it’s predominantly present in the Merry Gentry series with its sidhe hunger for pale white skin on every page and as a focus of every sex scene.)

Nicca was brown, but Doyle was black. Not the black of human skin, but the complete blackness of a midnight sky. He didn’t vanish in the darkened room, because he was darker than the moonlit shadows, a dark shape gliding toward me. (A Caress of Twilight)

He shook his head. “No, I crave the sight of pale flesh stretched underneath me. I want my shine matched by another. I want that, Meredith, and you can give it to me.” (Kiss of Shadows)

My skin shone as if the moon had climbed inside me and was trying to melt out through my skin. (A Stroke of Midnight)

Pale sidhe skin is constantly highlighted as a feature of what makes them worthy of desire, with the most powerful and attractive sidhe being described having glowing pale skin all the time.

In this series, Nicca and Doyle are Othered in a way that is frankly uncomfortable to see, even before Hamilton goes in on her way to make it clear that they’re not brown/black like humans can be but that they’re something else (and technically better).

Colorism and literally pretending that diverse supernatural beings wouldn’t exist aren’t the only problems that Hamilton has with race and racism in her urban fantasy series.

Far from it.

Hamilton also has a huge problem with objectifying male characters of color. When they do show up in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, they’re seen as exotic erotics. Part of what makes them appealing to Anita and what should make them appeal to the reader is the fact that they’re non-white men with great bodies and whatnot.

My first experience with this objectification of male characters of color actually came when I was first reading Obsidian Butterfly and playing catch-up with the series back when it first came out. In Obsidian Butterfly, a main character of color is the biracial Native American Bernardo Spotted-Horse.

He’s introduced to the readers while wearing nothing more than a sheet. Of his first appearance, Hamilton writes that:

The door opened, and our conversation cut off abruptly. I was wondering if it was the dreaded Olaf. The man in the doorway didn’t look much like an Olaf, but then what does an Olaf look like?

The man was six foot, give or take an inch. It was hard to tell his exact height because his lower body was completely covered by a white sheet that he had clutched in one hand at his waist. The sheet spilled around his feet like a formal dress, but from the waist up he was anything but formal. He was lean and muscular with a very nice set of abs. He was tanned a lovely even brown, though some of that was natural color because he was American Indian, oh, yes, he was. His hair was waist length falling over one shoulder and across the side of his face, heavy and solid black, tousled from sleep, though it was early to be in bed. His face was a soft, full triangle, with a dimple in his chin, and a full mouth. Was it racist to say that his features were more white than Indian, or was it just true?

Later on, in the same chapter, after he tries to get a little touchy-touchy with Anita because he saw how she looked at his half-naked body when they first met, Hamilton has her clap back at his interest, saying that:

“If you want to come to the door looking like a Playgirl centerfold, don’t blame me for staring. But don’t make more of it than it is. You’re nice eye candy, but the fact that you’re coming on this strong isn’t flattering to either of us. Either you’re a whore, or you think I am. The first I’m willing to believe. The second I know isn’t true.” I walked up to him now, invading his space, the blush gone, leaving me pale and angry. “So back off.”

First of all: yes Anita (and Laurell), it is racist to say that Bernardo’s features were more white than Native.

Aside from that, this whole section is a masterclass in how not to write a marginalized character from an ethnicity that’s frequently hypersexualized in media. It’s not just that Bernardo answers the door in a sheet or that he’s written as attractive, but that Hamilton writes his attractiveness as tied up in his “Indian-ness”, sexualizes him, and then essentially punishes him for the fact that she introduces him as “sexy Indian in a bedsheet” instead of as a fully fleshed out Native American bounty hunter.

Like many of the male characters of color in the series, Bernardo comes across via racist stereotypes that are meant to convey how attractive he is/should be to Anita. His hair and skin-tone are the most oft-used markers of that racial Other that makes him stand out for objectification, but he’s also subject to some actually gross fetishization later on in the book when a werewolf forces him to drop his pants and reveal that he has well… a giant circumcised penis, in order to confirm what Anita had said in order to get him to pass as her boyfriend instead of her backup.

That’s a thing in this book.

The reveal is followed by people congratulating Bernardo and being gross about the fact that Anita is supposedly able to easily deal with his monster cock. It was a scene that felt fascinatingly filthy when I was a teenager reading it under the covers but, in my adulthood?

It’s a racist mess of a problem.

Bernardo’s characterization begins and ends at “sexy Native who flirts with Anita endlessly and is so very Native but also kind of white-passing despite how very Native he is”. His main purpose in Obsidian Butterfly is to be attractive and Native.

That’s basically it.

He’s a hired and hot token with a gun.

And it does not get better with later appearances considering how in Affliction (#21), Bernardo’s friend and fellow bounty-hunter/marshal Edward refers to him as “Hunger” (because of this absolutely hamfisted comparison Hamilton insists on using for four of her characters). This tiny bit of worldbuilding, twelve books after he was first introduced, winds up weirdly objectifying him in a way that I think is at least a little bit messed up:

‘The vampires said Bernardo looks good enough to eat, but no one’s ever tasted him, so he leaves them hungry.’

She frowned.

Jonas seemed to think about it, and then he grinned wide and happy. He laughed. ‘He’s tasty like food, I get it.’

‘Dangerous food,’ Edward said. ‘He has the fifth highest kill count of any marshal.’

We’re on Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #26 (Serpentine this fall) and we still don’t know anything about Bernardo aside from the fact that he’s a sex object. More work has gone into describing Bernardo’s hair and how he’s white-passing despite also being so very visibly Native that Anita doesn’t shut up about it if they’re in the same room.

Objectification is dehumanizing and Bernardo is constantly subject to degrading comments at his expense, both to his (fictional) face and behind his back. This is not good writing considering how he’s currently the only Native character in this book to have any sort of status in the series.

Part of the problem is that Hamilton lives for extra purply, purple prose.

But the rest of the problem?

Too often, when describing a character of color, Hamilton gravitates to racist descriptors. Chinese characters are heralded by some inherent Chinese-ness (Black tiger shifter Yiyu is described as “wearing one of those short Oriental-style dresses” in her earliest appearance).

On top of the racism literally inherent in making a Mexican character a rat shifter, Rafael is frequently and literally reduced to his Mexican-ness (his strong Mexican features and Anita mentally marveling that he doesn’t have an accent) in Guilty Pleasures and beyond. And then there’s South-East Asian wererat Scaramouche is literally introduced as looking like “some maharaja’s son gone off to the West to dress in designer clothes and forget everything he owed his family in India” in Crimson Death.

See the way that she has Anita describe Moonus/Moon in Skin Trade:

The last man was also ethnic, but I wasn’t entirely sure what flavor. His short hair was curly enough to be African American, but the skin tone and facial features were not quite that. He, too, was tall, dark, and handsome, but in a different way. His eyes couldn’t decide if they were dark brown or black. They were somewhere in between my dark brown and Rocco’s almost black. But either color, they were framed by strangely short but very, very thick lashes, so that his eyes looked bigger and more delicate than they were, like something edged in black lace.

Or how about this scene from Kiss the Dead where they found an injured vampire that sets off the following description from Anita:

The man blinked large dark eyes at me, his face grimacing in pain. His short hair was naturally black, to match the slight uptilt of his eyes. I wasn’t a good judge of Asian ethnicity. If I had to guess, I’d have said Japanese or Chinese, but he could have been Korean. I guess it didn’t matter. He was slender, and about my size, so he looked delicate for a man.

Seriously.

These are things that made it to print and publication.

Hamilton is someone who undoubtedly says pointless platitudes like “I see people as people, not as races” when you try talking to her about race, but that point of view is not too present in her works considering how she treats and describes the scarce handful of characters of color in them.

And folks, while we’re here, we really need to talk about how Anita’s biracial identity and her sometime-ish status as a woman of color (despite only claiming it when it’s convenient – typically when a visibly brown character of color needs to be put in their place) is a cop-out for Hamilton who took “staying in her lane” to new levels with limiting the amount of Black vampires in her series but not… when writing a biracial Mexican character that experiences racism.

Biracial, in the Anitaverse, appears to mean “white passing” to the audience and to Anita. The weretigers who are biracial, are largely white-passing despite their Chinese heritage. She has Anita essentially tell herself that Bernardo, whose father was Native, looked more white than Native.

And of course, there’s Anita.

ScreenHunter 293

Ignoring that there’s no one way for people of Mexican descent to come across, the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books go out of their way to show us that Anita doesn’t look, act, or think in a way that the readers or society can associate with a Mexican identity.

Anita is white-passing to the point where she repeatedly mentions how few people ping her as being “half Mexican” unless she brings it up first (and then they confirm it because “no one white bread would have hair that black” or something like that).

Despite growing up with her Mexican grandmother possibly in Mexico after her necromancer powers develop, Anita speaks less Spanish than I do (and I’ve been living in Miami on and off for eight years and spent a formative chunk of my childhood in Puerto Rico) and makes a point of talking about how she doesn’t like Mexican food in Obsidian Butterfly.

Instead of her engaging with her heritage in any meaningful or positive way across the series, we’re subject to scenes like this one from Obsidian Butterfly where, as always, her heritage is tied up in a white person’s racism towards her pale and perfect behind (and yes, I know the bitterness is there):

“Have you seen the entire house yet?”

“Not yet. Officer Norton was trailing a little too close for comfort. Made it hard to walk.”

The smile closed down, but the look in the eyes was real. “You’re a woman and with that black hair probably part something darker than the rest of you looks.”

“My mother was Mexican, but most people don’t spot it.”

“You’re in a section of the country where there’s a lot of mixing going on.” He didn’t smile when he said it. He looked serious and a little less young. “The people that want to notice will.”

“I could be part dark Italian,” I said.

A small smile that time. “We don’t have a lot of dark Italians in New Mexico.”

Anita’s status as a woman of color seems highly contingent on the racist reactions from white people around her, instead of coming from her positive experiences as a woman of color. Hamilton has divorced Anita from anything resembling her heritage or identity, something I find strange because of how the Merry Gentry series is all about a similar character doing everything she can to cling to and reawaken old traditions from her people.

I’m assuming that it’s not too far off until we get a scene where Anita says she can’t stand Selena or doesn’t get the hype all these years later because Hamilton has done some work distancing Anita from any possible signifiers of Mexican-ness until it’s time for her to lecture a more visible person of color about racism.

Of course, biracial characters and people shouldn’t have to be loaded down with signifiers for their heritage. That’s unfair to them.

At the same time, however, one of the major problems with Anita (and many of the other biracial/multiethnic characters in the series) is that everything leads back to whiteness for them. Anita is Mexican by way of her late mother and lived with her grandmother for much of her childhood following her mother’s death and yet…

In “Anita Blake–Half-Latina?! Who knew!“, blogger Elia’s Diamond’s writes that:

Anita Blake’s biraciality has no real importance in the series; it can easily be removed, and the story would practically be the same. Anita Blake herself is not particularly a shining example of race consciousness, neither is Hamilton by her own admission.

Later on in the piece, the blogger goes on to talk about the ways that Anita’s presentation as a biracial Mexican – who doesn’t engage with her heritage – renders her a problematic character who is, functionally white for most of her narrative. I think it’s important to think about what Elia’s Diamond points out: that Anita’s whiteness (white skin and privilege) as well as the fact that Anita’s lovers are, almost exclusively white or “white passing” are problems that butt up against the series’ constant need to use Anita to have or portray particular anxieties related to race and racism in a supernatural setting.

Anita functionally lives 99% of her adult life as a white woman because she’s incredibly light-skinned, has features generally associated with white people, looks more like her German-American father aside from the hair (apparently), and doesn’t seem to have any connection with her heritage. Anita has privilege that other, more visible characters of color in the series don’t have and yet she never actually seems to think about what that means or how she should be using that privilege to help others.

What could be an interesting character flaw and a point of interest coming from a more self-aware author instead becomes a glaring hole in her characterization and an issue that makes Anita difficult to see as an even partially fleshed out character.

Having Anita be adrift from her heritage and uninterested in reclaiming it would be fine if not for the fact that Anita constantly keeps bringing up the racism she’s experienced in the past when talking to other people of color about prejudice. Especially Black people.

Especially when the prejudice centers supernatural beings.

A recurring motif in the series centers on Anita calling out humans for their prejudice towards shapeshifters and vampires… and making it about race and racism. This is an issue present in many urban fantasy series where supernatural beings are out in the open, but the Anitaverse does it worse because not only is she equating the experiences of people of color to those of violent supernatural beings, but she’s frequently ‘splaining the realities of racism to… other people of color.

Anita has equated an old vampire hunter’s hatred of vampires to a white supremacist’s views on Black people… essentially ‘splaining anti-blackness and anti-vampire politics to a Black woman (Laila in Hit List).

She constantly brings up her (blonde and blue-eyed) step-mother Judith not being seen as her mother when they were out and her WASP fiancé not following through thanks to his mother’s pressure back when she was in college. These painful parts of her past are only brought up specifically to recenter conversations about racism to people of color or prejudice against supernatural beings and remind the reader that she’s totally not as white bread as you think she is.

On top of that, the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (and, dare I say, Hamilton herself) has a problem with Black people, one that frequently uses Anita to wield casually racist commentary.

In Affliction, she notes that dark-skinned Black bodyguard Bram “had been quietly disdainful when he found out that my black curls and dark brown eyes hadn’t come with my mother’s Mexican skin tone.” (This is right after a weirdly uncomfortable bit of musing about how Bram couldn’t tan any darker and newfound knowledge that Black people can burn in the sun.)

Jamil is a homophobe – calling back to racist assumptions that Black men are always homophobic that are not her place to explore especially since she never actually does explore it…

Whenever New Orleans Animator John Burke (the only person almost as good as Anita is at voodoo)  shows up, it’s with the reminder that he’s not good enough, too misogynist, etc.  He’s basically a Blaxploitation badass ripped out of Live and Let Die with Anita doing double duty as Bond and Jane Seymour’s attempt at playing a white obeah woman as the flick’s Bond Girl.

Anita has yet to have a wholly positive interaction with a Black female character where she didn’t need to establish her dominance as the alpha WOC first (Sylvie was antagonistic to her originally and Vivian is treated as a victim first and foremost).

I honestly can’t wait for the day when the series tries to tackle colorism in any form because it won’t be pretty.

In Dead Ice, there’s straight up a scene where Anita compares naïve witches that don’t use protections while performing magic to “a couple wearing mink and diamonds driving their brand-new Jaguar through the ghetto and thinking that nothing bad will happen to them, because they’re good people”.

Think about that for a second:

‘Ghetto” is typically used as a racist stand-in for “place where poor Black people live” and chances are that the nice couple in their fancy dress is a white one. So she’s set up (or rather, returned to) a dichotomy where white is nice and fluffy and darkness is… not.

Considering Hamilton’s racist (non)responses to both Ferguson and St. Louis  in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder (she focused on her fears for her “cop friends” and shamed supposed rioters without ever talking about the murder in any detail) and Donald Trump being elected (she, at one point in the linked blog post, blames Obama for tearing this country further apart), I’m not super surprised.

But this is borked even from a logical standpoint somehow divorced from race: people driving somewhere aren’t likely in trouble. If they’re driving a Jaguar anywhere the only time they’re in danger of anything is if they’re speeding and crappy drivers. Or if they start shit with people because they think their whiteness will protect them.

I’ve lived in some neighborhoods that I’m sure Hamilton would deem “ghettos” but I’ve also lived in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Miami. Guess where I felt more worried that I’d get killed, hurt, or robbed in…

The Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series has been one of the most popular urban fantasy series for almost my entire lifetime – and the Merry Gentry series is no slouch when it comes to popularity either.

From 1993 when Guilty Pleasures was first published, until rather recently, Hamilton has been seen as the reigning queen of the urban fantasy genre. Love them or hate them, many people talk about her books until they’re red in the face because she’s a weirdly polarizing writer. Different people have lauded and criticized her for the use of sex scenes in her books to her “feminist” heroine – one with no female friends and a “one of the dudes” mentality. They’ve criticized her errors and praised her for getting the military and law enforcement right.

From the moment that I was introduced to her work and, in particular, Anita Blake, I’ve seen people talk her up as a writer with good representation for people of color and list Anita as a heroine of color when folks ask for diverse recommendations.

Maybe folks should rethink both of those things.

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
This entry was posted in Book Talk, The Great Big Anita Blake ReRead and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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