Harry Potter and the Default Whiteness - an analysis of race in JKR's HP series

in harrypotter •  last year

Did pretty well on this essay for a module on Race & Ethnic Relations a while back, so I thought I'd upload this on Steem as a filler piece while I figure what else I can write about. It also serves as a warning for any who might be about to follow my Steem and are severely offended by nerdisms to save yourself while you can.

Footnotes are substituted by [numbered brackets]

This essay seeks to revisit J. K. Rowling (JKR)’s famed Harry Potter (HP) series (both novel and film), and rethink race and ethnicity. Media can reflect both societal expectations and societal illnesses. In HP, white privilege and the lack of clear, progressive writing results in a superficial attempt to proclaim liberal values. I argue that JKR’s attempts at diversity (notably, her portrayal of the wizarding Americas, backing a black Hermione Granger, and using marginalized communities in the wizarding world as allegories for real world communities) inevitably shies away from actual diversity. Her writing reinforces our notions of the white saviour and racial stereotypes, thus failing to commit itself to any revolutionary ideas about race. Yet this is only symptomatic of living in a “colourblind”, post-racial utopia. There is no commitment to specificity, because the author presumes there is no need to, beyond talking about equality in abstract terms. After all, the language she does draw on is power-laden, and relates back to the structures in our world that while may not be racist in themselves, produce differentiated outcomes.


Arguably, JKR writes against oppressive systems and racist ideologies. Yet her inability to depict real-world oppression leads to perpetuating the same narratives she is supposedly fighting against. JKR’s methodology hurts her message when her commentary on racism is restricted to the magical world. We must note how the rules for her world only work if you consider white privilege, and collapse when you consider it from anyone else’s point of view. The idea that in wizarding America contact with Muggles does not happen [1] is only plausible if everyone is white and/or magic is entirely hereditary. Yet neither of those is true. As such, whiteness is assumed as the default, which functions both because of, and results in, white privilege.

Image source: Pottermore

After all, what happened when wizards were born slaves? Were they whisked away to the magical world and expected to leave their relatives to rot? Are magical native children invited to Ilvermony? Do witches of Japanese heritage head to the internment camps when they begin? Will they hide and leave their non-magical families? JKR is content to act as though the wizarding world has no racism and instead uses magic vs Muggle tensions as an allegory. However, the existence of Muggleborns who would be affected by non-magical racism contradicts this, and highlights how JKR views the world through a Eurocentric lens. In assuming that race has no baggage, JKR’s white privilege comes to the fore, and thus she privileges the Western perspective over others.

Indeed, her portrayal of the founding of Ilvermony relies on colonialist tropes [2] and fails to consider non-white narratives. JKR does “not seem to consider the fact that the category of Native Americans is not unitary, but rather made up of numerous groups, each distinct and unique. Her depiction eliminates the heterogeneity, creativity and diversity of the tribes” (Backe, 2016). Her utilization of culturally and spiritually significant concepts for the edification of white wizards uncritically valorizes and replicates power structures enacted by colonialism. Yet this is not the only representation of non-whites as the unfamiliar ‘Other’ in the books.

While most of her characters are written as racially-ambiguous, they are portrayed as white in the films [3]. Any characters of colour present are given no development, or positive characteristics: they are replaceable, and their race more visual. We learn that they are non-white only through descriptions of their physical features (and hence JKR tells, rather than shows us, what non-whites are like, which suggests superficiality and also reflects how they warrant no depth, unlike her white characters). It is disturbing that the major character of colour that does appear, Cho Chang, is only prominent as Harry’s love interest. Asian femininity [4] is used as a reward, given that she is described as demure and yet sexual. Indeed, it reinforces heteronormativity, alongside the idea that Asian women are for the benefit of white men, á la the yellow fever (Hwang, 2008). The only other major non-white character, Dean Thomas, is stripped of any “Blackness”. We know he is Black because JKR writes it so, but there is no reference to his Blackness other than as an adjective [5].

The use of racial categories in describing them acknowledges race, but lacks follow-through on acknowledging non-white cultures, “whitewashing Hogwarts and the magical community as a whole.” (Matkov, 2013, p.9) The colonial attitude of assimilating non-whiteness into a white landscape results in the series falling short of the racial equality it advocates for. Indeed, Eurocentrism and Orientalism reinforce normative whiteness. All these characters of colour are silent in the books, as Said (1978) stated, “the Orient is not the Occident’s interlocutor, but its silent Other.” (p. 215) Any roles given are minimal and show them as largely assimilated, such as speaking perfect Standard British English without accent. Any differences are not explored, and if represented, they are seen as exotic and primitive: “Three African wizards sat in serious conversation… roasting what looked like a rabbit on a bright purple fire.” These only further perpetuate white perceptions of non-Western cultures, and the “naturalness” of whiteness.

One wonders if JKR’s ambiguity was unintentional simply because she never considered non-whites for her main characters, which indicates the perspective that JKR centers her novels on. Discourse in media is constructed from Western “subject positions” (Davies and Harre, 1990), where once adopted, subjects take on biases and perspectives relevant to that discursive position. In essence, these subjects construct discursive formations that privilege the West over the non-West (Hall, 1992). Of course, the readers/audience are also culpable: our mindset of default whiteness is also what lends credence to a majority-white cast. Moreover, racist structures in place, such as the underrepresentation of people of colour from the media industry may prevent other possibilities from being considered. And yet, while pushing against the current vernacular of race/ethnicity, this essay highlights how we still see and feel through an ethnic lens (Karner, 2007).

“All children’s tales contain some political message, even when not intending to… [authors] write their internalized social norms into their works. Thus, authors who do not consciously choose to write against the dominant social and political system inevitably write for it.” (Hüls, 2004, p. 16). In this, JKR’s series perpetuates white privilege, and fails to be as progressive as it proclaims. This not only leads to inconsistencies (Berlatsky, 2015), but prevents the material from lacking a certain depth. A canonical black Hermione could understand the double-entendre of being called Mudblood (given mud as brown) and have her sympathy for the elves (whose oppression is negated by their penchant for servitude, remarkably like the Africans, who were assumed to be built for slavery [6]) speak from the knowledge of her own marginalized experiences and of her people’s history. Instead, JKR’s main characters reinforce paradigms of whiteness. Her message of equality as metaphorical and indirect rather than literal and direct underscores the gaps in her reality.


The books focus on a multicultural approach towards dismantling oppression rather than a social justice one (Horne, 2010): HP backs away from Hermione's institutionally-based solutions vis-a-vis S.P.E.W, and devalues such a method. As the series progresses, S.P.E.W’s [7] relevance fades and the reader is expected to mock Hermione’s ideas, replacing an ideology that suggests that institutions themselves may be inherently racist with one that points to the flaws of the people who run the institutions as the true culprits. “The craven Fudge and the authoritarian Scrimgeour are singled out as the real issue” (Horne, 2010, p. 86), not the norms that systematically grant one group greater rights and privileges at the expense of others. Even Voldemort is given precedence as the true evil, rather than the blood purity ideology that existed before him, which allowed him to rise. His pseudo-eugenics is a rhetoric that many Purebloods espouse. “Half-breeds… How dare you befoul the house of my fathers!” Sirius Black’s [8] mother screams at him for inviting in non-Purebloods. Not only is this reminiscent of anti-miscegenation laws, the notion that it is normal, with our saviours doing nothing to counter it specifically, propagates to the HP audience that racism can be defeated by countering racists, and not racist mores/practices.

The series, fundamentally framed around the struggle between good versus evil, demonstrates repeatedly that good is light, and evil is dark. The Dark Mark determines one’s allegiance to Voldemort, who is also known as the Dark Lord: their bodies are symbolically identified and corrupted (Nasir, 2016). The problem with this lies not only in the strict binary (which engulfs Hogwarts, resulting in Slytherin’s isolation) but the racial undertones of HP’s morality. JKR is not alone in presenting this: assigning immorality to “darkness” is omnipresent, which connects “dark” people to the same sentiment. While both sides in the war are dominated by white bodies, it is precisely because of the white-dominated narratives in HP that makes any deviance from non-whiteness problematic. Colour as racialised is essential in understanding how even innocous concepts can harm, and how racially charged our world is.

The use of language is key in determining groupness and one’s identity in HP. Racial purity, according to the wizarding world, is visible and salient. These categories are seen as “inherent”: you are either Muggle, Squib, Mudblood/Muggleborn, Half-blood, or Pure-blood. The strict boundaries of each category refuses social mobility, and condemns those of “impure” blood. In this, language pre-defines what we pay attention to: status is only as markedly apparent in the wizarding world because of the weight that has been given to certain lineages. This is particularly interesting, as we learn these ideas through Harry, whose Muggle upbringing acts as an audience proxy. The dichotomy between Before and After this knowledge makes apparent that race and racism is learnt: “You do not come into this world African or European or Asian; rather, this world comes into you”. (Desmond and Emirbayer, 2009) Readers witness the effect of both individual and institutionalized racisms through the lens of blood purity. The Pure-blood Malfoys are purported to be “independently wealthy [9], with no need to work for a living” and able to influence people in power, through the Hogwarts Board of Governors and contacts in the Ministry. We see its inverse in the Ministry’s treatment of Mudbloods through the Muggleborn Registration Commission, as prejudice escalates into institutionalized discrimination.

Ironically, it is the groupness in Hogwarts that fuels prejudices against Slytherins. Here, categories generate conflict. Typecast [10] as evil, the Slytherins are forced to seek solidarity with each other, given that the other houses are not receptive to befriending them. The professors contribute to this stigma, and Albus Dumbledore’s unabashed favouritism [11] for the Gryffindors strengthens it further. Hogwarts Houses thus reflect clear demarcations of categories and how it relates to stereotypes via self-fulfilling prophecies, creating particular classifications of reality (Mukhopadhyay, 2014); serving as echo chambers; taking sides in the war that arrives. Slytherins are more likely to be Death Eaters, if only because that is the only community they have access to, as per subcultural theory (Cohen, 1955). Notably, the only opportunities that those marginalized achieve are those associated with immorality. Death Eaters, a type of gang subculture, exemplifies this.

Source: http://gryfflndor.tumblr.com/post/88236012135/hogwarts-pt-1pt-2

As such, we see how the everyday relates to the ideology of the war waged: the ideas held while in Hogwarts are often carried throughout the rest of their lives. This includes the treatment of the different magical “races”. Racism is institutionalized- the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures exists to police magical, non-human populations. We encounter justifications for its existence: “filthy half-breeds” refers to centaurs, and the brutal mistreatment of elves is normalized [12]. Their marginality is given little explanation, although the wizarding world is built on elf slave labour, and in that sense their oppression is functional. The mounting hypocrisy between her intended and conveyed message is evident. As Horne (2010) asks, how can you argue that Mudbloods should be granted the same rights as Purebloods, but suggest that sentient races are, by nature, servile to another? Thus the audience realizes the problem of depicting racial problems through allegories, while simultaneously denying race as it is in the real world. Remus Lupin’s assertion of his experiences of marginality is another turning point. “You don’t know how most of the wizarding world sees [werewolves] like me! When they know of my affliction, they can barely talk to me!” (Rowling, 2007) That these attitudes are widespread denote how they, along with prejudice towards blood (im)purity, build up to the war. They do not act alone, but within a larger sociopolitical context. For example, the discrimination against werewolves contextualizes why magical non-humans would ally with Voldemort, “they think that, under his rule, they will have a better life.” (Rowling, 2005) While the audience is expected to find this ironic/laughable, it is perturbing that the other races would turn towards the very incarnation of evil over mainstream wizarding society.

Hence, race and ethnicity in HP straddles multiple intersections and methods. We witness how it not only carries classist undertones, given its focus on only upper- and middle-class struggles, but also heteronormative in its portrayal of only Asian characters as female, and (potential) love interests. While there are surface representations through allegories, the contradictory ideas of inferior sentient races coexisting with the message of blood equality highlights a failure to do be properly inclusive. Given that there is no direct attempt to write about racism in our world as it truly is, we must conclude that JKR only repeats the rhetoric of white supremacy and colonialism. The structures of the wizarding world thus reflect the structures in the Muggle world with no real enlightenment or breakthrough.

1 - [Rappaport’s Law enforced strict segregation between the Muggles and wizards. Wizards were no longer allowed to befriend or marry Muggles. Penalties for fraternising with Muggles were harsh. Communication with Muggles was limited to the basic minimum. In America, the Magical Congress of the United States of America acted totally independently of the Muggle government and increasingly regarded Muggles as the enemy. The law drove the American wizarding community, already dealing with an unusually suspicious Muggle population (due to the Salem witch trials), still deeper underground. Source: Pottermore]

2 - [Ilvermony was founded with the arrival of English immigrants in America, despite the prior existence of Native American wizards. Magic is only organized and legitimized when white people appear, erasing Native agency and ability to teach their own magic to their children. It appropriates Native traditions, such as their mythologies, while erasing Native peoples (who are relegated as props or appear only in the background).]

3 - [Which JKR was partially responsible for. Of the main cast (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Matthew Lewis) that appears throughout all eight films, none are non-white.]

4 - [Moreover, the only other Asian characters that do appear are female- the Patil twins- are similarly described. It is worth questioning if they are Asian because they are female, or vice versa, since their value seems to be tied to their race, however subtle their racialization, given that there is no other comparison or representation.]

5 - [Even Angelina Johnson is not identified as Black until the third novel, which implies a lack of importance of her racial identity. While this does help us see beyond just a racial lens, which is what we ought to aspire to, the idea that she has no other identifying feature for her Blackness beyond an explicit adjective is ahistorical and deracializes her identity.]

6 - [Part of the stereotypes that were used against African Americans was that they were simple, loyal, and eager to serve.]

7 - [Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare]

8 - [The Blacks are an old Pureblood family.]

9 - [The wizarding world is highly class-stratified society, with class being racialized, but we witness exceptions to this through the poor Pure-blood Weasleys. Mudbloods, entering the wizarding world for the first time, lack the social and cultural capital to upwardly mobilise, and presumably financial: the different currency negates most Muggle wealth. Although pounds can be converted to Gringotts gold, the conversion rate is in favour of wizarding currency (with 1 galleon being approximately USD$25), and as such Muggleborns would find it difficult to afford magical items or ascend financially, unless already born in the upper-class.]

10 - [Each Hogwarts house is given an archetype, supposedly according to the values held. However, it must be noted that while Slytherin’s traits are “cunning” and “ambition”, other houses’ values can be equally bastardized for notorious ends. For example, Hufflepuff’s loyalty above all; Ravenclaw’s quest for knowledge; Gryffindor’s desire for glory.]

11 - [In the first book, Dumbledore waits until the Slytherins are sure they’ve won the House Cup to announce some last-minute points to Gryffindor. While Harry and his friends deserve recognition for stopping Voldemort, Dumbledore could’ve given them these points at any time, and waiting until such a dramatic moment to do so only serves to draw negative attention from the houses that now feel slighted. When the headmaster so clearly favors Gryffindor, it’s sure to cause tension within the other houses. While Snape is guilty of doing the same with Slytherin, when Dumbledore practices favoritism, his position of power makes it seem as though the school itself favors Gryffindor.]

12 - [Viewed as servants without feeling or emotions, elves were made to do hard labour with no wages or sick leave. Individual masters like Sirius would not provide places for their elves to sleep, and Horace Slughorn made his elves taste-test his mead for poisons.]

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