Friday, October 4, 2013

Multicultural Tokenism in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy



Recently, while I've been searching for a good "witchy" book with a non-white lead, I was reminded of one of my most loathed tropes that is still really prevalent in fiction. I found it first in the Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy genres, but it can be found in all genres of fiction. It seems to be popping up in YA a lot lately too. 

The white-passing, multicultural (mixed race) lead. They’re often female character, but the same trope can be applied to male characters too. All of them will fit one or more of the items on the list below.


  • Their non-white ethnicity is tied to or is the source of their powers. 
  • They have a Western European name, or a stereotypically ethnic last name, like Bloodmoon or Akira. Or are named after a well known god/goddess from the non-white culture's pantheon. Bonus points if they share a name with a non-white Disney character.
  • They are the result of their non-white parent raping their white parent.
  • Their non-white culture is a source of personal pain, because their non-white parent is dead, absent, an abuser, and/or the main villain of the series. 
  • They are out of touch or at odds with their non-white culture.
  • They’ve been rejected by their non-white family/culture.
  • They are the only character of color in the story.
  • If they are other characters of color they are all different ethnicity, never more than two people of the same ethnicity appear in the same book. 
  • If there is another character of the same ethnicity, as the lead, in the story they are a minor/one-off character who ends up dying to help, save life of or further complicate the lead character’s story line (aka WiR). Or they are a villain.
  • If a new reader were to pick up a book in the middle of the series they would have no idea the character is not white.
One of the problems with these characters they are not authentically representing their ethnicity or the experience of being multicultural. They are essentially a white character taking on the affectations of another culture. In other words this is just a subtle form of Cultural Appropriation.  

Cultural Appropriation isn’t just taking on the guise of another culture, but reducing the complexity of another culture down to an, often negative or disparaging, stereotype. For example, that men of color are absent parents, abusers and/or rapists. 

Now, this is not to say that all the books with white-passing, multicultural leads fall into this trope. However, even some of the good ones can stray into problematic territory. I think this happens for two reasons. First, because a person’s ethnic and cultural identity (even white characters) isn’t treated with the weight it deserves in fiction. Secondly, authors are not aware of or don’t take the existing racism in our culture into account when they write about characters of color.

Racism is real, and it still heavily influences how people of color are represented in fiction. Any author who wishes to write about them, should understand how racism affects their lives and to make the effort to not contribute to it. Nor should they attempt to avoid dealing with the complexity of the issue by erasing or ignoring a multicultural character’s ethnicity.

Our family, culture, and where we come from is a very significant part of who we are. Even the absence of them has a profound affect on a person’s own identity. The experience of being multicultural is a wonderfully complex way to demonstrate a journey toward that self discovery, but it deserves to be fully represented.

[Special note: Many of the traits of this trope can easily apply to characters who are part human and [insert magical race or species here]. It’s important to remember that even if an author has taken race (in the traditional sense) out of the story, in popular cultural and fiction, white is the default human race. So the supernatural race/species often becomes the “other” and their treatment can be just as much of a reflection of racism in our culture. Where a half human character must seek to purify or be more human to be heroic. As a multicultural person, stories like this read a lot like white supremacist pamphlets than a fantasy story about self discovery.]

2 comments:

This is a really good point, and one that permeates all kinds of fiction, especially genres where the authors are predominantly white. I can't help but wonder if it's because white people are iffy about writing other races (because then there's the possibility of the character becoming a stereotype or caricature)? Regardless, you're 100% correct. Thanks for the read!

Cate,

I think you're right. Some authors think they can avoid the tricky part of writing a character of color, by making them part white, and focus on their white perspective. Sadly, this erases both their non-white culture and the perspective of being multicultural. Not to mention this treatment in fiction reflects a very real life oppression multicultural people face. Where our ethnicity isn't seen (colorblind) or we are treated as an exotic sexualize fetish ("the best of both worlds").

I'm working on a post with tips on how to write characters from other cultures, genders, etc. I honestly, think that many authors over think the process and psyche themselves out of even trying. To some extent our culture aids in the process, but continuing to portray non-white people as alien and other to the point that people (who have friends and family who from marginalized group) believing that couldn't possibly relate enough to a character of color, LGBTQ person, etc, enough to write them as a lead character.

That's a lie that Western media has been forcing down our throats for centuries. It needs to stop. /end of rant

Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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