Article: Seraphina, fullblood prejudice and pervasive racial passing

So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)

I guess that, insofar as you buy the setting, Seraphina and the other half-dragons are an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be mixed-race in a world where race divisions are sharp and bitter, and half-dragons are viewed as abominations. What I take issue with is the whole setup: as a metaphor for race relationships [1] (and, even if this wasn’t deliberate, the metaphor sort of naturally bubbles up when the book tackles subjects like interspecies breeding, interspecies prejudice and other related stuff), this is freaking old-fashioned. It might have been the case in my grandparents’ generation (and even then, did we genuinely have two races at each other’s throat in such a non-subtle way?); but it’s certainly never been my experience. In a similar way, prejudice here is outright ugly and blatant: people throw “abomination” very quickly at half-dragons (and at dragons), and Seraphina herself is very much aware of this–even doubting at times that she has a right to exist.

Thing is… this might have all been true, once upon a time, but my personal experience of growing up (in basically as white and as conservative a milieu as you can find in France) has far more subtle prejudice. Certainly no one ever accused me of being unfit to live, and no one ever threw stones at me or tried to beat me to death: my experience of prejudice is a myriad small things that made it clear that I was odd and unwelcome; and that I would argue is no less damaging/formative than the large burn-the-halfbreed/kill-the-abomination prejudice that is writ large across Seraphina.

It’s a bit like… imagine an SFF book with a made-up universe which has a species with two genders, one of which is deemed inferior to the other, prone to hysterics, and only suited for bearing and raising babies at home. Would you really be praising the forward-thinking and awesome depiction of gender issues of such a book? [2] That’s a bit how I feel about Seraphina: the setup is kind of cool, but I can’t get over the fact that it has nothing to do with my experience as a mixed-race person; and in fact promotes a false idea of what this experience is like today.

Seraphina is also oddly obsessed with “passing”: its entire cast of half-dragons is able to pass themselves off as humans in one way or another (not to mention its entire cast of dragons, who can turn into humans and mostly go undetected if they don’t happen to wear distinctive markers such as the silver bells humans impose on them). There’s the barest of a hint that some half-dragons can’t pass as humans, but of course they’re not the ones that you meet in the course of the narration, which kind of reinforces the impression that a large percentage of them can and will pass as human, just by putting on the right disguises and clothes [3]. I suspect part of this obsession comes from the fact that it’s a US book and this has always been a huge issue in the US. I’m not going to trivialise this here, but I want to make one thing clear, and it is that not all mixed-race people can pass as “fullbloods”.

Some of us (white/SE Asians mixed-race people, for instance) simply never have this option, and we live our entire lives with what we are writ clearly on our faces and bodies. It’s not a matter of makeup or bulky clothes or what have you: this fantasy of being “normal” (white, in a white-majority country) will just never come true for us. Being continually mistaken for “the other side” or “the Other” is how we grow up; how we move in our countries of birth; and it’s part and parcel of what made us what we are and what continues to shape us. The acknowledgement that this can happen is almost entirely absent from Seraphina (and indeed from a great many books with mixed-race people I’ve read).

A couple assorted issues I had with half-dragons: I disliked the idea that they all had a special talent (it reeks of “halfbreeds are special magical people”, one of my pet peeves–it’s the equivalent of the Mystical Asian for mixed-race people); and the conclusion that Seraphina and the other half-dragons form one cohesive people whom Seraphina strongly identifies with is… disquieting for me? I understand the quest for a racial identity; but again, this is a bit like saying that all Eurasians raised in Europe should form a natural, cohesive whole: to be sure, we all have common points, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m going to have a strong sense of “those are my people” when I see them (the differences between our upbringings are also going to be quite extreme, notably depending on the combination of parents we had). It’s also segregational in a way that makes me uncomfortable: Seraphina bemoans the fact that humans and dragons can’t be closer together, but takes the first opportunity she gets to form her own tribe–so much for integration and interspecies closeness…

(there are also other points I found mildly annoying: notably that dragons are non-emotional, that only humans get to experience True Love(tm), and that this lack of emotions is presented as a flaw for dragons rather than another point of view on the matter)

So, that’s my experience of the book. I apologise for ranting and singling it out–it’s hardly the only book which has that kind of issues with mixed-race people, but it’s the one I happen to have most recently read…

Feel free to discuss/argue/disagree in the comments!

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[1] I’m less sensitive to those issues, but Rachel Swirsky rightfully points out that the dragons (highly logical, viewing emotions as incorrect) share many of their characteristics with traditional depictions of people on the autistic spectrum.

[2] I’m aware such books exist, and are even published today!

[3] Again, there’s an attempt to suggest that some people can pass less handily than others: Seraphina just has a girdle of scales around her midriff; another character we meet has an actual tail. But it still doesn’t prevent her from functioning as human with the putting on of proper clothes–it’s hardly what you call a physical feature that’s impossible to hide.

13 comments

  1. Being one of the ones who recommended Seraphina to you, I feel kind of embarrassed. I made the recommendation long before you posted your “Mixed-race people in SFF” post at the beginning of the month, and wasn’t aware of the lot of the tropes you mentioned in that post.

    After I read it, I thought “yep, Seraphina definitely upholds a lot of those bad stereotypes” – for which I’m sorry.

  2. The whole dragons-passing-as-human thing sounds a lot like that childhood fantasy of pretending you’re really a dragon or something else magical and the “mundanes” don’t know it and you’re *sure* you’re going to be mistreated when they find out so you hug the precious secret to yourself and also indulge in morbid fantasies of persecution if you’re “found out.” And like a lot of Americans she seems to be rather embarrassed by this (rather common and harmless) childhood fantasy so she tacked on a “grownup” issue like racism to it.

    Another thing Americans do when they want to write a story where they Confront Important Issues is to focus on a gaudy, ultra-violent form of that issue. For example, racism: the stories are always about super-violent evil bigots who are All Hate All The Time. This is the equivalent of dragging out the KKK and lynching whenever someone tries to discuss racism in America. It’s our way of saying It Can’t Be Racism because there’s no crosses burning on a lawn.

  3. When I read it, I felt it hit home with a number of my experiences, and also thought you’d hate it. It’s a little hard to explain, but there’s pressure in that band of could pass. That when things happen, it’s my own fault for not passing, because I could. I never did anything to self-harm (though I did make attempts to straighten my hair as a child), but the pressure says it wouldn’t be so bad if I did. People know skin bleach is harmful, but they’ll still recommend it, because I only need to be a little lighter to pass. Hair bleach would destroy my hair, but at least it’d be blonde and I’d pass.

    So there’s stuff in Seraphina I relate to, but I think it’s shown through over-simplified genetics. It’s not a person with parents of two distinct races who usually ends up here. It’s when there’s been a lot of mixing, which leaves that ambiguity and a wide range from never-pass through could-pass to totally-white-looking, all in the same family.

  4. @Christina: hahaha, no worries, you weren’t the only one who recommended it, and it’s nice to have something to hang my criticism onto :)
    @Andrea: yup, totally agree. I wish someone would write more subtle, but that may be too much to expect…;
    @Polenth: oh, I totally understand why someone who could pass with a little effort would be pressured to do so, and I’m sorry you had to go through this, it’s as nerve-wracking as the alternative. As you say–the genetics are always somewhat dicey on this, and it has more chance of happening in families that have been really mixed (but I think the one-drop rule in the US obscures a lot of issues linked with racial mixing).

  5. (Speaking as a white American who lived for three years in a majority-black neighborhood, and now lives in a city where white non-Hispanics are a plurality…)

    Yeah, when you said at the top “not all mixed-race people can pass as ‘fullbloods’”, my immediate mental reaction was “well, of course… for example, the vast majority of children from black/white relationships would be socially considered as black, period”. (Although in some contexts they would have higher status than people who have darker skin.) Are things different in cultures where there are socially recognized intermediate categories like “colored” or “Eurasian”, so that there are more boundaries that one has a potential for crossing?

  6. @Seth: it can be slightly different, in that the children of a white/SE Asian couple can either be classified as Eurasians or Asians depending on people’s knowledge and perceptual boundaries…
    But yeah, most mixed-bloods are doomed to be “not normal” by the standards of the dominant culture.

  7. Thanks for this, Aliette! I have the book on my shelf but haven’t read it yet.

  8. @Shveta: you’re welcome!

  9. I came across this post via a tweet and I kept thinking about it because my response to Seraphina was so different. I was going to comment in detail here, but my reply ended up getting so long it turned into a blog post. The short version is that I think I accepted Hartman’s depiction because to me it seems to reflect (at least in some aspects) the relationship between Christians and Jews in the European Middle Ages.

  10. @Laura: thank you for the blog post!
    That said, I can’t help but disagree about a number of your points–chief of which is that I don’t think the relation between the Nazis and the Jews under Nazi Germany reflects at all the dragon/human situation in Seraphina. The Nazi/Jews was straight up persecution perpetuated on people who mostly did not have the power to defend themselves; here we have two people in a position to mutually attack each other (the dragons ate humans, the humans had dracomachia and killed dragons) and who live in an atmosphere of strong and reciprocated prejudice that might lead to a war of mutual destruction at any time. This is what I meant by “two races at each other’s throat” (otherwise by your definition, nearly every colonised race was “at each other’s throat” with their colonisers, starting with my own grandparents in French Indochina…)

    It also did occur to me that the dragons were meant to mirror the Jews in the Middle Ages; but if that is the case I again take issue with the selective worldbuilding which copies the ugliest and nastiest anti-semitism of the Middle Ages, and conveniently omits to mirror the other ugly points such as religious prejudice (within the Catholic Church), sexism and racism…

  11. First of all, I think the novel was drawing on history, but not necessarily trying to construct direct parallels with all aspects of history.

    But if one does want to draw stronger parallels, I suppose it could be argued that the Nazis portrayed the Jews as being a huge threat to Aryans even though they weren’t:

    the Nazi leaders employed a “paranoid logic of innocence, irresponsibility and projection” (262). They attributed not only all their own aggressions and atrocities, but also all their blunders and defeats to the occult machinations of a global Jewish conspiracy bent on destroying the German people. (Herf and Belknap qtd by Meade)

    Also, the well-known association between Jews and money-lending could perhaps find a parallel in the dragons’ tendency to acquire hoards of treasure.

    As for the Church in Goredd, it’s clearly suppressed heresy and I didn’t notice there being any female priests, so I’m not sure Hartman has omitted to “mirror the other ugly points such as religious prejudice (within the Catholic Church) or sexism.

    It did seem as though the heir to the throne was generally female, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because it was the norm for Goredd to have a Queen or whether it was due to the fact that we come into the story at a time when the only legitimate male in the royal family has been murdered and his sister’s only child is a girl. Getting back to the historical parallels, perhaps it reflects the importance of Queen Elizabeth I of England and/or Queen Isabella of Castile.

    As I said, though, I don’t think Hartman was trying to create a fictional world in which every aspect of the fantasy world correlates to something which happened in history. Rather, I think she may have been drawing on certain aspects of particular experiences of racism and “passing” and placing them in a context which is very different in significant respects.

  12. Went to a reading of Seraphina because the author’s local to me. A bunch of us were talking after, and all thought it “about” different things, so I’ve been googling ever since then. Wow. People think it’s an allegory for all sorts of struggle – neuroatypicality, queer identity, gender, mental illness, race, religious persecution, class conflict. We all have different “oh that’s for sure my group” identifiers too, it’s sort of amazing.

    The author’s talk made it clear that this was a personal exploration for her, which is why this was an interesting discussion. It’s quite clear what you’re seeing is there, but I don’t think it’s truly one to one about anyone’s struggle except maybe the authors’.

    But it’s definitely about having an identity that the culture casts its shadow onto and works to deny or constrain or repress. A general story exploring how we cast our fear upon others. I think it works as a way of looking at the way we oppress and hurt each other through our own projection, but that it’s NOT anything, specific. It’s a new oppression, so that we can all look at our own oppressions and how we internalize the hate that comes at us.

  13. i think actually there is a mixed-race (as opposed to mixed-species) character in the book named millie (friend of the princess) which makes me think the author didnt have mixed-race people in mind in the half-dragons, fwiw

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