“What are you?” asks General Kirigan, the first time he speaks to Alina Starkov, the heroine of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.
It’s a fair question. Alina, an unassuming cartographer in the general’s army, has just displayed hitherto unknown powers and created magical light in the dark wasteland known as the Fold. But “what are you,” and General Kirigan’s immediate dismissal of Alina’s straightforward responses, filled me with a sense of wincing familiarity. In Leigh Bardugo’s “Grishavese” books , Alina is white, but the Netflix series changed Alina’s race to reflect actress Jessie Mei Li’s half-Chinese heritage, and as a half-Chinese person myself, I know all too well that “What are you?” is the world’s worst and yet most popular guessing game for mixed-race people.
This game’s always played at your expense, and you can never win. If you don’t answer with your precise ethnic makeup, you’ve lost because the questioner feels entitled to keep guessing. If you do answer, you’ve reduced yourself to a genetic code— and even then the questioner may not like or accept your answer. If you try, as Alina does, to offer your name or job title, you also lose, because the point of the game is to make you feel like an outsider. In her opening voiceover, Alina even says that she’s never felt welcome in her homeland of Ravka, because she looks like her mother and her mother looked like the enemy: the Shu, from Shu Han, a fantasy analogue for an amalgam of Asian countries. To drive it home, when Alina is first presented at court, the Queen of Ravka remarks, “I thought she was Shu,” before looking Alina over and concluding, “Well, I guess she’s Shu enough.”
The Queen turns to her translator, still not addressing Alina directly, and asks them to tell Alina good morning, which forces Alina to admit she doesn’t speak Shu— a moment that reminded me of all the times I have had to awkwardly admit I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. So the Queen asks again: “Then what are you?” Not Ravkan, apparently, as declared by one of the heads of state, but not Shu because of her looks and lack of fluency in Shu—and certainly not enough, a feeling I wish wasn’t so familiar. The only things we know about Alina’s parents are that they are dead and of specific fantasy races. The orphaned Alina is therefore both of her parents’ identities and neither, and looked down on for it. Each episode includes some race-based insult or attack. A cartographer assumes Alina was born in Shu Han. Soldiers assume Alina’s a spy. Another Grisha, a magical practitioner who can manipulate specific types of matter, calls Alina a half-breed. The palace maids sneer that Alina smells, and advise Genya, a magical make-up artist, to make Alina’s eyes “less Shu.” Genya brushes off this, the most painful and most familiar anti-Asian attack, with a breezy, “I don’t care that you’re part Shu.” (A bystander’s indifference isn’t at all reassuring when other people have just made it clear that they care.)
Alina is labeled a half-breed perpetual outsider with odd eyes so many times, but the climax of the first season gives her a chance to push back. (Spoilers follow.) “Your first words to me were, ‘What are you?’ This is what I am,” she says to General Kirigan as she blasts the Fold with her sun summoning powers. It’s a crowning moment of magical achievement, and a refutation of the racist stereotypes imposed on her. Alina defiantly defines herself by her abilities—not, as everyone else has, by her appearance.
I found it cathartic, the perfect fantasy retort I will never actually say—but it also made me realize that Alina is the only character whose arc is built around overcoming racism. The Grisha arguably suffer the most discrimination in the series, but though magical powers seem inherent and inherited, the Grisha themselves are ambiguously positioned. I’m still not clear if in the Netflix series, magical powers are the result of an X-Men–style genetic mutation, or if the Grisha are a race. The diverse main cast also includes Archie Renaux as Malyen “Mal” Oretsev, Kit Young as Jesper Fahey, Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa, Howard Charles as “The Conductor” Arken Visser, and Sujaya Dasgupta as Zoya. Though Zoya corrects a side character who misidentifies Inej as Zemeni instead of Suli in a backhanded compliment, none of the other characters played by actors of color—and especially none of the male characters— experience any racism. We’re told that everyone hates the Shu particularly because Ravka and Shu Han are at war, but this war is never seen onscreen, and its most concrete manifestation is a single background poster that looks like WWII anti-Japanese propaganda. “We only dislike this one race because we’re at war with them” isn’t how racism works in the real world, and this simplification is baffling given that so much of the onscreen discrimination is so clearly and viscerally pulled from life.
We know nothing of Shu Han, or its culture, and neither does Alina. Her experience of being half-Shu is one of pain and isolation. Though that is the experience of some in the Asian diaspora—feeling entirely American while not looking it—it ties into ongoing discussions of how the minority experience in popular media gets boiled down to a narrative of continual suffering. Why not write in some of the good things that come from being BIPOC as well as the bad? Since Alina was originally white, it leaves one with the disturbing suspicion that the series believes that being a member of the Asian diaspora is defined solely by the racism one encounters.
This is not to knock the writers of the books or the show, the decision to cast diversely, or Jessie Mei Li’s performance (which was at times literally well as figuratively brilliant), but to point out Shadow and Bone is part of a larger cultural issue, where Netflix will diversely cast stories originally written by white authors with all-white characters without critically thinking about the lived experiences of people of color. Bridgerton and The Witcher had similar problems, where it seemed like sometimes the races of the characters mattered, sometimes they didn’t, and most often it seemed like the writers hadn’t thought through the implications of their choices. For better or for worse, being BIPOC in a majority white culture results in a completely different way of being, seeing, and interacting with the world than a white person would. A person of color embodying a role that’s only half-tailored to fit them makes for dissatisfying and often confusing viewing—like unexpectedly seeing yourself in a funhouse mirror when you wanted a regular one.
Changing a white character to a BIPOC one by only adding in racism also lands the series in the perpetual Catch-22 of limited representation. With so few big-budget series headlined by a person of color, should they reflect the real world and the racism people of color experience, or should act as an escape from it? Even on a series as divorced from reality as The Mandalorian, actors’ cultural backgrounds can still inform their performances; Temuera Morrison drew on Maori tradition when deciding how Boba Fett would fight with a gaffi stick. As a half-Asian person, it can be cathartic to see the racism you personally experience—often brushed off as “not that bad”—treated as a series of villainous actions to be triumphed over by a heroine who looks like you. It can also be shockingly painful to have your racial Otherness flung in your face in a fantasy world where you’d hoped for an escape from the ramped up anti-Asian rhetoric of the real world, and where you know racism doesn’t have to exist because other characters of color don’t experience it. It’s a complicated question of competing needs, one that must acknowledge that being a person of color means more than experiencing racism, and one that, in case of Shadow and Bone, needed a much more complex explanation and a deeper examination of this fantasy world’s racial politics than the one we got.