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IT’S STILL DARK AT TWILIGHT: Scrubbing off the Whitewash of Urban Fantasy!

IT’S STILL DARK AT TWILIGHT: Scrubbing off the Whitewash of Urban Fantasy!

whitewash 2Whitewashing is the practice in which an author, filmmaker, artist or fan takes a character who is originally of color in literature and / or film and replaces them with a white character, actor, or model, or a person who looks “more white”, in order to appeal to the white masses.

Whitewashing is also used to describe the entertainment industry’s erasure of People of Color from history and / or specific locales.

This practice is extremely prevalent in Urban Fantasy.

Fans of Urban Fantasy often give the excuse that because most Urban Fantasy is set in a rural town, the percentage of People of Color who populate those towns is so insignificant that inclusion of them is pointless and even unrealistic.

This would almost make sense if the problematic subgenre was Rural Fantasy. The issue at hand, however, is Urban Fantasy.

Human settlements are classified as rural or urban depending on the density of human-created structures and resident people in a particular area. Urban areas can include towns and cities while rural areas include villages and hamlets.

whitewash 3Rural areas are settled places outside towns and cities, that often develop randomly on the basis of natural vegetation and fauna available in a region. They can have an agricultural feel to them – think the village in Children of the Corn, or Mayberry, with Andy, Otis, Opie, Barney and Gomer Pyle all gathered at Floyd Lawson’s Barbershop enjoying Aunt Bee’s apple pie.

whitewash 4Unlike rural areas, urban settlements are defined by their advanced civic amenities, opportunities for education, facilities for transport, business and social interaction and overall better standard of living. Socio-cultural statistics are usually based on an urban population – think Chicago, Atlanta and New York City.

So, why in the hell would Urban Fantasy be chiefly set in a Mayberry, when it clearly should be set in Chi-Town? We should change the subgenre of these stories to Rural Fantasy. Believe me; the complaints of whitewashing would end then; especially from me, because I would never bother to pick one of those books up.

Now before one of you fanboys rants about Jim Butcher setting his Harry Dresden books in Chicago, let’s explore this fact a bit deeper.

Yes, both Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden Series and Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires, are set in “Chicago”. This is obviously a very different Windy City from where I grew up and spent most of my life, however, because my Chicago is only 40% white. Yet Butcher’s and Neill’s Chicago’s are about 99% white. It’s like they took big bottles of White-Out and went berserk. Their works are, most certainly, about as fantastical as writing can get, perhaps even farcical. But Urban? Nah.

whitewash 6Speculative fiction author Maurice Broaddus, in his article entitled Putting the Urban in Urban Fantasy, says:

“About a year ago, Jim Butcher’s Twitter feed erupted into a bit of a kerfuffle about the whitewashing of urban fantasy.  Apparently folks were bent out of shape by his depiction of Chicago, essentially whitewashing it as his Chicago comes up a bit short on the amount of black folks (or other people of color) living there.  Frankly, I wasn’t too bent out of shape over this as somehow every week people used to tune into Friends who lived in a New York remarkably bereft of black folks.  It’s to the point where I go into an urban fantasy expecting not to encounter minority characters other than in a ‘magical Negro’-type capacity.”

He goes on to say:

“There are more stories to tell in urban fiction than Boyz N the Hood or Menace II Society or baby mama dramas.  Just as there are more characters to write about in urban fantasy whose stories aren’t as often told or voices always expressed.  With the legends of the Green Knight, Red Knight, and Black Knight (in each of the books, respectively), Tristan and Isolde, trolls, zombies, a dragon, elven assassins, Red Caps, griffins, gangstas, and thug life tossed in, I guess I’m putting the “urban” in urban fantasy.  This isn’t your father’s King Arthur tale, but it is mine.”

No Rural Fantasy with Maurice Broaddus’ Knights of Breton Court series. This magnificent series is pure Urban Fantasy at its very best.

whitewash 7Come on, y’all…if you write a story and set it in a place like Broaddus’ Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, London, or Las Vegas, basic demographic research will indicate the presence of People of Color.  To read and enjoy Urban Fantasy, I am expected to just accept that Black people don’t exist? You get the side-eye for that one.

Whether or not you like Urban Fantasy, the fact of the matter is that this subgenre of Fantasy has had an immense and global impact on people through literature, television and film. 

It is because of this impact that we cannot ignore the messages that Urban Fantasy brings. Each time an author of this subgenre decides to tell a story, instead of working so hard to erase People of Color out of existence, they should work just as hard to erase the problems that plague our society. And fanboys…do not say that writers should not have to be political; that they should be free to write merely to entertain. Every statement we make is political. Every sentence we write is potentially life-changing for someone. Such is the power of the word.

You cannot truly change culture without literature. We can pass a thousand laws saying that racism and sexism are wrong. We can make a thousand impassioned speeches to rouse the marginalized masses; but if everyone returns home after those speeches and sits down to read the latest installment of Twilight, or watch the next episode of The Vampire Diaries and their fictional worlds in which those same marginalized masses barely even exist – then how much change can truly be affected?

It is within the pages of books and under the light of the TV screen where we will reach people and change the world for the better…or worse.

whitewash 8Over and over again, we are told that our stories aren’t worth being told. We do not get to be the heroes. We are never “the one destined to come since man was young upon the earth”. If we are lucky, we get to be the “magical negro”; the “noble savage”; the sidekick; the Black person who doesn’t die in the first ten minutes of the film.

This is damaging to the psyches of People of Color. And a devastating blow to the self-esteem of our babies.

So, don’t tell me writers just write to merely entertain, when entertainment has such a powerful, deep and lasting impression on the minds of us all.

RedeemerThis is why Black speculative fiction is so important. In my own work of Urban Fantasy, Redeemer, the hero, Ezekiel Cross, is a Black man from an Atlanta of the future who is used in an experiment that transports him to an Atlanta of the past – our present. This Atlanta is a gritty, real Atlanta in which intelligent and powerful Black people – both good and bad – exist.

Redeemer is witty, thrilling and, sometimes, frightening Urban Fantasy that I have always wanted to read; with heroes I have always wanted to see.

Will it change the world? Maybe…give it a read and let me know.

31 responses

  1. Hopefully you guys will check out my book. No whitewashing here.

    It’s about a zombie virus that kills everyone except one race. . .

    January 21, 2013 at 11:17 am

    • We certainly will, Richard!

      January 21, 2013 at 11:19 am

      • Good stuff, Balogun. Also, being from Chicago, I’ve searched far and wide for urban fantasy and sci fi set in Chicago. I’ve heard a lot about Dresden Files, but I can’t bring myself to pick up the series yet. If I’m going to read about a futuristic or alternate Chicago in a sci fi/fantasy setting, I’d like for it to be realistic with its worldbuilding.

        About eight years ago, I read Octavia Butler’s Parable novels (set in L.A.) and Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (set in Toronto), and decided that my short stories would depict Chicago in clever, interesting, sometimes sad, and realistic ways, much like how they do their cities and settings. It’s been slow going, but I hope I’m doing the same for Chicago.

        January 21, 2013 at 11:58 am

      • Thanks, Malon! Yes, you are doing the same. Your work is exemplary. You are doing Chi-Town proud! :)

        January 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm

  2. Jessica Burde

    Granted I’m no expert, but last time I checked, there are plenty of rural areas with POC as well. So I’m not sure ‘rural fantasy’ would make the whitewashing any better in my eyes. It’s true as I understand it that there are most rural areas in the north and east that are almost entirely white, but in the south and west as I understand it.

    Aside from that, very much in agreement – I went to school in NYC for a few years, and anyplace in NYC being as whitewashed as most urban fantasy is would just seem freaky strange.

    January 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    • You’re right, Jessica. People of Color reside and work everywhere nowadays. And yes, our exclusion from most settings is, indeed, strange and unrealistic. I will continue to write heroes I want to see and tell good stories that EVERYONE can enjoy. Thanks, for your feedback!

      January 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm

  3. Please forgive me if this is a rude question, and I don’t mean it to be, but is there a difference for you between Whitewashing and thoughtlessness?

    What I mean is, people typically surround themselves with others who look and think as they do, so even if these authors live in the urban spaces they write about (I haven’t looked that up, so I don’t know), what if the world as they experience it really /is/ that monochromatic? Is that still whitewashing or lack of research?

    Using myself as an example, I live in a town in Alaska that I don’t even know the stats on (or how to look it up: Is there a standard methodology for that?).

    I’m an introvert who only gets out to a few specific (you could say special-interest) gatherings/week. A couple church services, one of them at the half-way house where my dad preaches. A stop at the library and grocery store. Picking up my kids from their small Christian school.

    I am near-paranoid about perpetuating stereotypes, but a lot of the time in my everyday life, I see the stereotypes reinforced.

    The most inspiring, admirable “people of color” I have met were that true statistical minority of homeschooling moms (I typically homeschool– this year is an anomaly). I adore these women, and feel closer to them than most of my white friends, but I wonder how much of that is the homeschooling connection and our fierce independence, and I start to guess we’re back to being around the people who think like us.

    K– that was a bit of a ramble. But do you make/see a distinction between whitewashing and ignorance, or is the result condemning enough without specifying the cause?

    January 21, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  4. Fabulous! Small town life is different, yes, but there are POC everywhere. Black, Asian, Native, Latino/Hispanic. And I remember a time, not that terribly long ago, that Italians and Spaniards weren’t “really” white either.

    Our stories should reflect the world around us, and that includes the good, the bad and the ugly. The light complected young man who was forbidden to date a girl because the dad (who loved him until that fatal moment) found out that the young man’s father is Black. True story.

    Our urban fantasy should also reflect the realities of our world and then draw us past that, into the realm of the fantastic.

    January 21, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    • Thanks, Ruth! Your story about the light complected Black man does not surprise me and is actually a fairly common one. Yes, our urban fantasy should resemble a turkey drumstick: a large bone of reality, covered by the meat of creativity.

      January 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm

  5. This is a really interesting topic that I’ve wondered about a lot. I have this same problem with a lot of fantasy, and sic-fi too. It seems that if there ever is a non-white character than the focus is on their race, not their character. I would love to see more POC in settings across the genre spectrum.

    January 21, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    • I agree, Andi and I would love to see the same thing, which is why I write the heroes I want to read about and relate to. Thanks, so much, for your feedback!

      January 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm

  6. Brilliant article Brother Balogun! It seems so odd to be having this conversation in the 21th century, right after the inauguration of our first Black President. Yet here we are. You’re so right–our stories must be told for our children and yes for us as well. Thanks to the advent of Indie publishing and the cultural explosion of POC SF/fantasy they are. There be paranormal folks in these here urban hills :)

    January 21, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    • Odd, but, unfortunately, necessary. Thanks, for your feedback, Sister Valjeanne! :D

      January 22, 2013 at 7:23 am

  7. I understand and agree that the problem exists, and needs addressing. But I think it is an organic problem. First consider that most writers are refecting their life experience in their writing. That means that their writing will often reflect their personal experience from 10-40 years prior. Consider also that most of these writers are white, with white cultural experiences. The standard mantra in writing is “Write what you know”.

    I know that I would have a herculean task if I were to try to write realistic black or other POC characters into a story. (Only in part because I am not a writer). Primarily because I have no depth of knowlege or experience with POC. I suspect this is not an uncommon problem for white culture writers. It is a sad legacy of our History that we have a strongly self segregating culture in the US. But that is disolving, and I suspect this problem will eventually dissolve as well.

    Still, never a bad thing to make us aware of our problems. It speeds the process along when we become conscious of it.

    January 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    • their > They are.. they’re.. see, not a writer.. not gonna look for the others I know are in there..

      January 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    • Well said, Howard. Thanks, so much, for your feedback!

      January 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    • Jessica Burde

      Sorry, as I white writer, I have to say it: You are right, but…

      You are right – I grew up in a stereotypical white suburban town, and had little or no exposure to POC until after I got out of college. I worry about writing POC characters, because I don’t think I can avoid all the stereotypes that I don’t even know where drilled into my head. I worry that I will offend someone unintentionally. And learning about the culture of POC will require just as much on my part as learning about people in another country or time period, because those cultures were not a part of my experience growing up.

      BUT…

      Read Eric Flint’s 1632 series and get a look at the Herculean research he did into 17th century Europe. Consider the detail Tolkien put into LOTR (He invented entire languages – more than one). Look at the scientific and technological detail hard sci-fi writers build into their stories. Writers already put that kind of research and effort into other areas of their writing. The fact that most don’t put it into the demographics of their story (and this applies to race, sexual orientation, gender and pretty much every social issue out there) is a mainly a result of some combination of blindness, laziness and subtle prejudice.

      For an example of a white writer who manages to include POC without any hesitation or hiccup that I can see, check out Patty Briggs. She doesn’t make a big deal about the races of her characters, but her urban fantasy, while still containing more white characters than not, still includes a real mix of races, including Native American (or part NA) main characters, and secondary characters of African-American, Arabic and Chinese descent. It IS doable, and more people should be doing it.

      January 27, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      • Well said, Jessica Burde! I concur. Thanks, so much, for commenting!

        January 27, 2013 at 8:29 pm

  8. Fujimoto

    This very topic had been gnawing at me for a few weeks now: I’ve heard of sword and soul, I’ve heard of steam funk (I’ve got Book 1: Kings on my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed it), but what to call black urban fantasy? That really should be the name for it in the first place, and one of my ideas as an aspiring writer is about a tough, idealistic intercity young black woman who becomes the only line of defense against the supernatural horrors threatening her home and friends. I want there to be a specific sub-genre I could put that in that says “black urban fantasy” to stand out. I’m so glad I found the blog today, especially this topic! Keep up the good work, and I’ll be getting the Ki Khanga book as soon as I can!

    January 26, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    • I would love to read your story once it is complete. Please, keep me posted. And thanks, so much, for your support!

      January 26, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      • Fujimoto

        You’re welcome! Thank you for the interest! I hope I can put the idea to print.

        January 26, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    • James Nelson

      Actually we should just make Urban fantasy black. If we start to label stuff it’s just gets shoved in a dark corner of the bookstore, (or the net) where people walk/surf past without seeing it; the way you do a homeless person on the street. Fact is lots of people would read true urban fantasy the same as lots of people would read good steamfunk. The problem is we live in a society that trains people to think that they’re not going to like it, or that it’s inferior to the mainstream stuff they’re used to. Making it easy for them to ignore it, doesn’t get the work out.

      February 17, 2013 at 4:43 am

  9. Pingback: Whitewashed Urban Fantasy « Dissent of a Woman

  10. Lee

    It’s historical mystery rather than urban fantasy, but I have to put in a plug here for Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series (first book: A Free Man of Color). They are set in New Orleans in the 1830s, and she does an excellent job of portraying the three-way tension between the French who originally colonized the area, the Americans who are now moving in, and the free colored who are uneasily balanced between them… and the black slaves upon whose labor the economy of the entire region rests. As far as I can tell (being a white person), she also does an excellent job of getting into the head of a non-white character of the period. Amazing books.

    February 14, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    • Thanks, Lee! I will certainly check out Ms. Benjamin’s book.

      February 15, 2013 at 10:03 am

  11. Thank you for a wonderful piece that sums up all of my own doubts about this genre, which seems to be fast ossifying into yet another game with rigid conventions that erase the very people who make these cities what they are. And I think it’s gotten worse since urban fantasy debuted in the late 1980s; Emma Bull’s ‘War for the Oaks’ certainly features white characters who have the freedom of the city in a way that people of color never do, but her version of Minneapolis was more multicultural and multiethnic than Jim Butcher’s Chicago (which is funny, because I moved from Chicago to Minneapolis at the very time Bull was writing her book, and I remember being struck by huge number of blonds).

    And a mention of Octavia Butler’s ‘Parables’ never goes amiss. She’s very seldom mentioned when urban fantasy comes up, but her novels feature the city–or the sprawling metastasizing exurbs–as a live organism rather than a stage set. And she takes the whole post-apocalyptic survivalist setup and turns it on its head; it’s solidarity, cooperation and trust that make for survival, not lone-gun paranoia.

    Last and best, you give us all a reason for doing the right thing by history past and present. We are the storytellers, the cultivators of imagination, and she/he who shapes imagination, makes history.

    February 21, 2013 at 3:16 am

    • Well said, E.P.!
      Thanks, so much, for your feedback!

      February 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

  12. Ben Aaronovitch

    In the spirit of blatant self-promotion can I present my Rivers of London series (the first book was retitled Midnight Riot in America). I’m often asked why the cast is so multicultural to which my answer is always – because it’s set in London.

    February 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm

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