Friday, July 8, 2016

The Awful Racism of the House of Night Series

It’s time to look again into the abyss that is the House of Night series, grab your gun and set your sights on those barrels and shoot those fish.

Like… well… everything, the House of Night Series doesn’t exactly do well when it comes to race, despite having several POC. Or perhaps because it has several POC as the way these characters are treated is, well, typical for the House of Night series

Firstly there’s Shaunee and perhaps the most annoying element of this “character” is how little character there is there. She’s a member of the Nerdherd and like the rest of the that little gang, she exists to serve Zoey, love Zoey, and be Zoey’s minion. She is a member of Zoey’s circle. She is a sycophant, she isn’t really a character. In fact, most of the time she’s only half of a character since the authors got tired of this writing stuff and decided to just share a personality with two characters.

Let’s be clear here, Shaunee appeared in the very first book and was present in all 12 of the main books to some degree. And in all that time the closest thing she had to an actual storyline is to not keep finishing Erin’s sentences. That’s the closest Shaunee ever comes to actually being a human being. 12 books. 12. She’s supposed to be a major character and she has no real storylines or presence

What she does have is sassy quips, because that’s what her role is - to be the sassy Black friend with the witty dialogue. This is exacerbated by Erin - Shaunee’s white “twin” who basically has identical mannerisms to Shaunee. And no, this is not ok. A stereotypical sassy Black woman is a problem, a White woman who ACTS like a stereotypical sassy Black woman just adds an extra level of cringeworthiness to the whole proceedings.

It doesn’t help that the author also loves to put severely problematic speech in the voice of her minority characters. So Shaunee will outright praise some really gross fetishistic description (honestly, every single time Shaunee is described it sounds like someone quoting a Starbucks menu with the “cappucino mocha chocolate”), even commenting on one nasty fetihistic line with “thank you for appreciating my Blackness”.

Just because a white author puts her awful racial descriptions in the mouth of a Black character doesn’t make it ok. Especially since if you’re also going to make comments about “good” (straight) hair or “obvious weave” when deciding to degrade designated evil Black women. Your straw Black characters don’t make your racist fetishism acceptable.

This also brings us to Kramisha, the other prominent Black character (and, beyond Zoey and her grandmother, which I will get to, the only other really prominent POC, certainly prominent ones who live. We have some vague background POC red fledglings - who just basically appear to have some dubious descriptions but then fade into obscurity) who is introduced in Hunted. Kramisha is an oracle - which basically means she exists as one of the many many many sources of terrible cryptic prophecy for precious Zoey.

And that’s it. She has no storyline. She has no real character. She also speaks in African American Vernacular English. Or what the author thinks is African-American Vernacular English which is very very different and pretty cringeworthy to read:

There are several things wrong with this quote.  First off, the author of this series is White and she is invoking what is clearly a family conversation to which she would have little to no access to in the first damn place.  It’s never as simple as just don’t trust white people.  There’s no context to this commentary and there’s no nuance whatsoever.  Secondly, the attempt to use a pattern of speech that Cast is clearly not familiar tokenizes and reduces said speech. It reads wrong because it is wrong.  The sentences feel half finished and unformed without any sort of depth.  Juxtaposing Cast’s work to authors like Alice Walker, Sapphire, and Zora Neal Hurston who legitimately utilized African-American Vernacular only serves to show how badly Cast failed to capture the spirit of the communication she was attempting to co-opt for the purposes of characterisation. There are just some things you have to live and breathe to be able to give life to them on the page.  Cast was clearly out of her depth when she decided to turn African-American Vernacular into her tourist destination.

Look not every character has to or even should speak the Queen’s English (though if your characters are saying “bullpoopie” then yes yes they should) and definitely marginalised communities have their own accents and dialects that shouldn’t be erased. But this is all this character is - the oracle who also throws in sassy, neck rolling, snapping caricature who speaks and acts like this because the author has decided to just throw a “sassy Black woman template” over her oracle without having any actual personality or character (or any respect or research for the actual speech pattern). A minority character behaving in a stereotypical manner can be problematic (often it is a problem because of the very narrow ways that minorities are portrayed than the character itself being inherently bad) - but they can still be a character besides that. But when all they are is a stereotype? Then that’s just a tool, a shell, a racist caricature taking up space that you can’t be bothered to fill with a real character

Which brings me to another issue - disposability. Perhaps the first actual attempt of a respectful (for a given level of respectful - she is exoticised and othered to the hilt. I think the character could have had three heads and eleven eyes) portrayal is Shekinah. The big head chief of Vampiredom… and she dies. She dies after doing nothing. She does almost as a footnote. She dies and is almost instantly forgotten. Do they even have a funeral for her? They certainly never mention her again. This supposedly revered figure and her death barely causes a ripple?

This disposability is never more glaring than when Zoey loses her temper and possibly kills two horrendous Black criminal stereotypes in Chosen. After using her magical powers to throw these men to their possible deaths the only backlash she gets is from Heath worrying she may be a bit mean. That’s about it, the full extent of her angst over the corpses she left in her wake. She doesn’t even know if she’s killed them - she doesn’t care. Their deaths are irrelevant, they’re punctuation.

Now contrast this to the White people Zoey thinks she has killed in Revealed and the level of grief and horror she feels in Redeemed. Let’s be extremely clear here - these two incidents are almost copies of each other. Some men menace Zoey, she loses her temper and unleashes her magic, thinking she’s killed them. But when it was Black men she killed, she forgot it within a few chapters. When they were White she hands herself to the police and actively pursues suicide. It’s impossible not to look at this comparison and not see the racism of it. I boggle at the idea that anyone can see these two scenes next to each other and not smell it - it’s not subtle, it’s not really open to any other interpretation, it’s blatant. Inexcusably, utterly, Blatant.

When the Casts do actually try to come close to addressing racism, it’s scarcely better. In Lenobia’s Vow we have a shot story that examines the relationship between Lenobia and a mixed race Black man in slavery-era Louisiana. He is very aware of racism, he desperately faced racism and he was convinced that his relationship with Lenobia could never happen because of racism. In response Lenobia… completely ignores it. She argues, she overrules, she insists that they can still be together. It’s not “yes this is terrible but we can fight it,” she just doesn’t even really acknowledge the enormity of what she’s demanding… and he dies before they can come close to examining it

Only to be resurrected in later books as… a White man. Really? “We couldn’t be together when you were Black so now resurrection skin lightening time!” Forbidden, tragic love is solved by bringing him back to life in a caucasian body. Happily Ever After in White and Delightsome colours.

Now we come to Zoey herself. We have to remember that Zoey is a Native American. She is a person of colour. And the way her heritage is treated is deeply troped. Honestly, we could just replace every post we’ve written about cultural appropriation, POC being used as magical guides/tools and just replace them with the House of Night series.

Zoey’s being Cherokee is rarely mentioned or rarely made remotely relevant to her character except in one common occurrence: when woo-woo becomes relevance. Even then, most of Zoey’s power comes from Nyx - though it’s implied her being Cherokee gives her special insight into her special Nyxy woo-woo. Being Cherokee means little to Zoey as a person or a character - serving only to inform her as a bringer of magic

But that pales next to her grandmother, Sylvia. Sylvia who may have no sense of smell because the entire world smells of burning sage. Sylvia who must have her own turquoise mine. Sylvia who chants and dances and repeats the same very very very very few lines of Cherokee because the authors not only think a google search is sufficient to research an entire culture, but not even a particularly extensive or involved google search. Syvlia is every mystical Native American wise woman/shaman stereotype writ large, everyone’s grandmother always there with wise but vague advice and woo-woo, always with a sachet of herbs and woo-woo to help Zoey and her pack of followers. This isn’t a character. It barely even counts as a caricature. Even that damn crying fake-Native American sobbing over pollution would raise an eyebrow at this one.

Imitating other races before Rachel Dolezal made it cool
On top of this we also have Kalona and the Raven Mockers. One of the central strands to Kalona’s story is that he fathered the Raven Mockers by raping Cherokee women before the Cherokee made a clay woman called Aya (a word that seems to mean “Me” or “Myself” in the Cherokee language - and lo, my googling has matched the Casts’) to imprison him under the Earth of Oklahoma (and I have seen commenters on You’re Killing Us’s excellent House of Night reviews question the idea of Cherokee being in Oklahoma before the Trail of Tears). This whole legend appears to be completely made up by the authors and just slapped on the Cherokee characters without any real attempt to respect their actual culture, legends or beliefs. Oh, we do have the “Raven Mockers” - creatures whose name have been taken from Cherokee mythology and turned into this:

Cannot Unsee

I had to see it, so so do you. Blame Cyna - I have been. Repeatedly. This is the very definition of raiding foreign cultures for random woo-woo without spending half a second to respect those cultures.

If you want to be especially nauseated, you will find if you do google “Kalona” and “Aya” you will find references to a Cherokee legend - citing the House of Night series as the source but not clarifying that this “legend” is one in

Yes, following in the footsteps of Twilight the House of Night Series has decided to create a whole fake mythology for Native American people

What is more galling about this is that, despite the repeated chanting, dancing and eternal smell of sage and scattering of turquoise and occasionally googled Cherokee word, there doesn’t appear to be any actual Cherokee legends, mythology or even belief system being invoked. Seriously despite constantly using Cherokee woo-woo, despite EVERYTHING smelling of perpetually burning sage and despite ol’ grandma Sylvia causing a worldwide rush on turquoise, there are no references to Cherokee spirituality. Cherokee magic is taken and used. Cherokee ethnicity is referenced to justify woo-woo left, right and centre. Cherokee are given an apparently false legend to patch in some of the clumsy world building. But actual Cherokee culture, Cherokee beliefs, Cherokee legends? These are absent. These are not important. Anything that isn’t USEFUL to the authors’ narrative is discarded

The Native American heritage of Zoey and Sylvia is not there to present Cherokee characters, Native American characters or POC characters. Their heritage is there as an origin story. It is there to justify their powers, their magical insight and their useful tools. Their heritage is reduced to the same clumsy origin stories we see with with superheroes - only the origin stories of superheroes are normally more detailed and more realistic and respectful. And that includes an entire cohort of superheroes who were irradiated into super powers rather than debilitating illnesses and solar powered crash landing aliens.