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The Color of Blood: Racial Dynamics in Harry Potter (Part 2)

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Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-Part series examining racial dynamics in the Harry Potter universe. An earlier version of this series was published by BenBella Books in The Psychology of Harry Potter, under the title "Harry Potter and the Word that Shall Not Be Named."

In part one of this series, I argued that the Harry Potter books and films were both a literal and metaphorical commentary on real-world racial dynamics. Whereas the first part focused on J.K. Rowling's literal racialization of her characters, this portion focuses on her metaphorical use of blood-status.

The Color of Blood

The tendency of some wizards to place a premium on pure blood (that is, on pure breeding) and treat half-bloods and Muggles as second-class citizens is an obvious parallel to our own society's history of oppression of Blacks and obsession about interracial sex and marriage. A number of characters, including Draco and Lucius Malfoy, explicitly espouse the superiority of pure blood, but this racist[1] attitude is best personified by the portrait of Sirius's mother (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 78):

Filth! Scum! By-products of dirt and vileness! Half-breeds, mutants, freaks, begone from this place! How dare you befoul the house of my fathers. . . . Yoooou!" she howled, her eyes popping at the sight of the man [Sirius]. Blood traitor, abomination, shame of my flesh.

Contained in this epithet are a number of important ideas: 1.) that half-bloods (i.e., those of both Muggle and wizard parentage) are subhuman and undesirable, and that 2.) their very presence threatens the purity and cleanliness of both their surroundings and those that come into contact with them[2]. Thus, her disgust extends to her son, who befriends and invites the half-blood members of the Order into his house, and by so doing contaminates not only the house but himself. This view is remarkably similar to the beliefs held by supporters of anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, who thought that inter-racial unions would contaminate and dilute the pure White blood and lead to moral degeneracy and ultimately the country's downfall. While the last U.S. anti-miscegenation law was finally struck down in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), inter-racial marriage continues to be controversial for many people[3]. It is certainly a sign of progress that the contemporary argument against such unions is more likely to be framed as an issue of compatibility than as blood contamination, but no doubt there are still more than a few people who, when it comes to Black-White marriage, have the same reaction as Sirius's mother[4].

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Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia (source: Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times)

Rowling makes a strong link between the evil of Voldemort and the Death Eaters and the belief in pure-blood superiority. Throughout her books, all examples of prejudice and discrimination against half-bloods or Muggles are perpetrated by either the Slytherins or Voldemort's supporters, while each "good" character, without exception, not only explicitly denounces prejudice against half-bloods but behaves accordingly. Thus, Dumbledore hires Hagrid to teach at Hogwarts, despite the fact that he is a half-giant, and when Rita Skeeter reveals his half-blood status, Dumbledore, along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, convinces him that blood status is irrelevant. Similarly, the Weasleys, Sirius, and all members of the Order clearly reject the notion of half-blood inferioritydespite the scorn and disgust such a stance engenders from the pure-blood racists who surround them.

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Rowling's treatment of eugenics and race-mixing is well executed. Not only are the specific details accurately rooted in real-world history, but readers are clearly shown the harm that this extreme kind of racism can cause. That said, taking a clear stance against extreme racism is neither progressive nor controversial these days. Short of self-identified white supremacists, few of us today would endorse the beliefs of either Hitler or Voldemort. That said, the Sotomayor hearings, the Gates-Crowley incident, and the "Birther" obsession are just a few recent reminders that we are not even close yet to living in a post-racial society. Racism is a contemporary problem, not a historical one, but contempoary racism is more covert and subtle than its predessor. It is these more subtle racial messages that require a careful analysis. There are numerous such messages in the Harry Potter books and films, but I will focus on just one here: The stability of racism.

Can Racists Change Their Stripes?

For all the series' emphasis on choices, the tendency to be or not to be racist seems almost entirely impervious to change. Of the many characters in the series who espouse racist beliefs, only Draco may have become less racist as a function of his life experiences, and even that possible transformation is mostly left to the reader's imagination. Is the depiction of Draco's steadfast racism realistically drawn, especially in the face of consistent evidence against pure-blood superiority? Actually, it is.

Draco's imperviosness in the first six books (and arguably the seventh too) to any information that contradicts his deeply held conviction of pure-blood superiority is consistent with cognitive dissonance theory, which holds that people experience emotional discomfort when their attitudes are challenged and tend to try to eliminate this discomfort by discounting the challenging information, rather than engaging in the more difficult task of changing their belief system to accommodate it. Thus, when Draco's belief in pure-blood superiority is challenged by Hermione's obvious intelligence, he finds reasons to invalidate her accomplishments (e.g., she sucks up to the teachers or she studies so much because she is too ugly to have friends).

This is not to say that there would be no hope for Draco in the real world. Racial identity models developed by psychologists William Cross and Janet Helms suggest that emotional, personal experiences that challenge one's beliefs regarding race may create enough cognitive dissonance to inspire real attitude change. Perhaps Dumbledore's unstinting faith in him in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might have inspired Draco to re-examine his beliefs. Or perhaps Harry's choice to reveal to Draco's mother that her son was alive might have done so. As usual, Rowling doesn't provide us with the Slytherin perspective, but it's not a stretch to imagine that the intense course of events in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may have provoked Draco's racial growth.

But attitude change need not rely on randomly-occurring life experiences. Psychologists have identified a number of factors associated with creating group- level attitude change (including racial attitudes). If the teachers at Hogwarts want to facilitate more open-mindedness and less prejudice in their students, they could draw on contact theory, but they'd have to proceed carefully. According to contact theory[5], ethnic and racial group prejudice can be reduced or even eliminated by bringing group members (in this case, half-bloods and pure-bloods) into cross-group contact with each other, but only as long as the nature of the contact meets a prescribed set of conditions. These conditions include 1.) ensuring that status within the group is not dependent on blood lineage, 2.) having ample opportunity to get to know members of the other group, 3.) not behaving according to the other group's stereotypes, 4.) being required to cooperate with members of the other group, and 5.) having support from the relevant authority.

It is not coincidental that the problem of intolerance of half-bloods seems limited to the Slytherin House, despite the likely presence of both purebloods and half-bloods in all four Houses[6]. In Gryffindor, for example, the students seem completely disinterested in blood lineage, perhaps because all of the above conditions are met. In contrast, none of the necessary conditions are met in the Slytherin House, where the hostile environment toward half-bloods makes them reluctant even to disclose their status. As just one example, "pure-blood" being the password to the Slytherin House Common Room is a clear indication of institutional endorsement of pure-blood ideology, that apparently even Dumbledore (one would assume the Headmaster would have access to all passwords for security reasons) was willing to turn a blind eye to. It is noteworthy that even Snape, the Head of Slytherin, does not readily disclose his half-blood status, much less do anything to promote tolerance or open-mindedness in his students.

The research on contact theory suggests that prejudice against half-bloods in Slytherin would be most easily eliminated if House membership were re-sorted each year, as this would facilitate equal status and acquaintanceship and require cross-group cooperation. Of course, given Hogwarts's history and tradition, this intervention is not likely to be adopted. Even so, prejudice against half-bloods could be considerably lessened through the creation of a safe, equal-status environment in the Slytherin House. This would require Snape to model tolerance and acceptance and take an assertive stance against intolerance of any kind, including humor. While this is not likely to dissuade the hard-core racists, it will effectively move their belief system outside the mainstream, and consequently, outside of most people's comfort zone.

Dumbledore's Army was assembled to fight Voldemort. By integrating members of other houses, it was also a good intervention against inter-house prejudice. Too bad it didn't have any Slytherin members.

It is worth noting that the obsession with blood and lineage is not limited to wizards. Even in the Harry Potter universe, select Muggles are shown to be as racist as any Death Eater. Consider the not-so-subtle undertone of eugenics[7] espoused by Vernon Dursley's sister, Marge, who, in reference to Harry, remarks in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 27:

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)

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Please, apply your reasoning ( forget Draco for a ... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Aug 7, 2009 at 12:29:18 PM
Wow Mark, lot to chew on here.  I don't think Isr... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 11:43:32 AM
About a week ago, I had an epiphany, or at least a... by Scott Baker on Friday, Aug 7, 2009 at 4:31:44 PM
"Baby studies" at Stanford fifteen years ago or so... by GL Rowsey on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 7:52:24 AM
It obviously depends on how much exposure children... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 11:28:17 AM
Like Harry Potter, it has more to do with "blood"*... by nightgaunt on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 11:18:37 AM
Thanks, Nightgaunt. I've written about X-Men and a... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 11:35:24 AM
Keeping them in such 'purity' like the fanatics of... by nightgaunt on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 3:06:13 PM
I'm a real fan of TrueBlood. Hope you cover that i... by Rob Kall on Sunday, Aug 9, 2009 at 3:37:12 PM