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The Trouble With Elves: Racial Dynamics in Harry Potter (Part 3)

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Note: This is Part 3 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."

After establishing that the Harry Potter books and films were both a literal and metaphorical commentary on real-world racial dynamics, part one of this series examined J.K. Rowling's literal racialization of her characters, while part two focused on her metaphorical use of blood-status. Here, in the 3rd part, I discuss the wizard attitudes toward elves and Hermione's anti-racist organization S.P.E.W.

The Trouble With Elves

Poor Hermione. Unlike practically everyone else in the wizard world, she considers the treatment of Elves to be morally problematic. "You know House-elves get a very raw deal!" says Hermione indignantly. "It's slavery, that's what it is! . . . Why doesn't anyone do something about it?" (Goblet of Fire 125). Ron's response aptly captures the dominant view: "Well, the elves are happy, aren't they? You heard Winky back at the [Quidditch] match".'House elves is not supposed to have fun.'. . . That's what she likes, being bossed around . . . " (Goblet of Fire 125).

Hermione protests, but Ron seems right. When, Barty Crouch threatens Winky with clothes (the only path to freedom), she prostrates herself at his feet, shrieking "No, master! Not clothes, not clothes!" (Goblet of Fire 138)hardly the reaction we would expect from someone unhappy with his/her circumstances.

Hermione, of course, is undeterred. After researching the history of Elf enslavement (it goes back centuries), she decides to form S.P.E.W., with the initial intention of obtaining fair wages and working conditions and the long-term goal of getting Elf representation in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures (Goblet of Fire 224225). Both Harry and Ron join, but they do so reluctantly and clearly only as a favor to Hermione. Neither they, nor any of their classmates, are actually interested in acting on behalf of Elf rights. Ron again seems to speak for everyone when he says, "Hermione open your ears. . . . They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!" (Goblet of Fire 224).

Can sentient beings desire enslavement? And if they do, should they be allowed to make that choice? Though intended for children and adolescents, the Harry Potter books and films ask some very grown-up questions.

In the real world, there has never, to my knowledge, been a group of people that liked being enslaved, though slaveholders in the United States certainly made that argument [1]. It is therefore somewhat troubling that Rowling creates a race of sentient beings that does, in fact, seem to enjoy enslavement and prefer it to freedom. That said, the attitude of the Elves creates an interesting moral dilemma. Should we respect and honor the wishes/desires of the "oppressed" group (Ron's position)even if our own moral sensibilities are offended by their "enslavement" or should the value of universal freedom (Hermione's argument) trump the value of free will?

It is tempting to dismiss Hermione's argument, especially considering that neither Harry nor Ron nor any of the adults at Hogwarts or in the Order of the Phoenix seem interested in taking up the cause. Harry and the Order, after all, are supposed to represent what is good and just. Surely, we are intended to let them guide our moral judgments, especially since Rowling had previously trained us that there is little moral ambiguity in her characters (i.e., all the good characters are open-minded towards half-bloods, while all the evil characters are prejudiced). Taken together, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Hermione's campaign for Elf rights is misguided idealism, a not uncommon adolescent malady.

Moreover, there is something to be said for free will. Most of us have had the experience of doing something nice for someone else and enjoying both the process of this selfless act and its consequence. It's not so hard to imagine a group of beings whose meaning in life was based on just this kind of selfless helping. If they really like it (and there is no evidence that anyone but Dobby is unhappy in their "servitude"), then it would not only be unwarranted to set them free but immoral and unkind as well.

And yet, I believe that it is Hermione's position that is more morally acceptable. For one, it is Albus Dumbledore, not Harry, who serves as the moral compass of the wizard world. Harry wants to do the right thing, and he never lacks the courage to follow through, but he sometimes lacks the experience and wisdom to know what the right thing isas when he tries to rescue Sirius. Here, too, he lacks the requisite wisdom. Dumbledore's explanation to Harry concerning Kreacher's complicity in Sirius's death is instructive:
Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry . . . Sirius did not hate Kreacher. He regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike. . . . We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward. (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 833-834)
To be sure, Dumbledore seems to be arguing more for treating the Elves compassionately than for setting them free, but he is also drawing a parallel between indifference and neglect and mistreatment and abuse, which certainly suggests that he would be much more sympathetic to the goals of S.P.E.W. than to Harry's and Ron's professed indifference.

Psychological and historical research also supports the goals of S.P.E.W., as there is evidence that prolonged enslavement (and even second-class status) can lead to the victimized group's internalization of the oppressors' belief system. This is evident in the writings of Black civil-rights leaders such as Malcolm X [2], as well as in the numerous studies that have documented the tendency of members of oppressed groups to endorse negative stereotypes of their own group. If contemporary experiments demonstrate the presence of internalized racism under relatively egalitarian (and legally equal) conditions, it is possible to imagine that the much more severe oppression of enslavement could, after several centuries, produce the type of reliance on the masters and the unwillingness to make free choices that the House-elves espouse. If true, and Dumbledore's commentary on Kreacher seems to imply as much, then the House-elves' preference for enslavement is a product of oppression rather than an exercise of free will. Hermione may indeed be idealistic, and she underestimates how challenging the transition to freedom would be for both Elves and wizards, but her position on Elf rights (and even her methods of achieving change) is morally just and scientifically valid.

Notably, a lack of prejudice against Muggles or half-bloods does not seem associated with a greater likelihood of supporting Elf rights. This is evident in Order of the Phoenix, in which even Sirius Black, whose rejection of his family's obsession with pure blood caused him to run away at age sixteen and his family to disown him and burn his name off the family tapestry (Order of the Phoenix 111), was unable to see the Elves as anything other than servants. Ditto the Weasleys, despite Sirius's observation that they are the prototypical blood traitors (Order of the Phoenix 113). In fact, of all the positive characters, Ron seems to be the least interested in Elf rights and the least sensitive to their plight. For example, when Hermione accuses him of making up his Divination homework, Ron (who is guilty as charged) pretends to be outraged. "How dare you!" he says. "We've been working like House-elves here." (Goblet of Fire 223). Although it may be tempting to dismiss the comment as a meaningless joke, humor can often provide important insight into people's belief systems. Hermione rightfully raises her eyebrow at the comment, as it suggests that Ron is unaware that comparing an evening of schoolwork to a lifetime of slavery could be considered offensive.

Unfortunately, this happens in our world too. Although many individuals do see human rights as important across a variety of different identity groups, it is also true that advocates for racial equality do not always act as allies for the LGBT and disability communities, and vice versa. The bottom line is that Harry and Ron mean well and clearly have the courage to act consistently in accordance with their convictions, but their views about certain types of oppression are nonetheless narrow-minded. No matter how progressive we may believe ourselves to be, I think the same is true of all of us.


[1] The absurdity of this belief is evident in Louisiana physician Dr. Samuel Cartwright's 1851 proposal of a psychiatric diagnosis (drapetomania) to explain the pathological tendency of Black slaves to flee captivity. In a paper published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Cartwright argued that drapetomania was both treatable and preventable and prescribed whipping and amputation of the toes as the most effective treatments.

[2] I am referring to the part of his autobiography in which he comments on his life prior to his imprisonment and subsequent conversion to Islam.
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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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I suppose The Lord of the Rings is a lesser, inclu... by GL Rowsey on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 6:46:04 AM
Thanks, Lloyd!  I need to write about TLR.  No d... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 11:19:26 AM
It actually is not surprising that Ron would be th... by Scott Baker on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 8:26:29 AM
That's an interesting interpretation, Scott.  Tha... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Aug 8, 2009 at 11:14:59 AM
Just what we need. Another idiotic analysis destro... by J Dee on Sunday, Aug 9, 2009 at 6:03:46 PM
1. You don't have to read it. The topic is clear i... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Sunday, Aug 9, 2009 at 9:03:33 PM
Harriet Tubman is said to have carried a gun, for ... by wagelaborer on Tuesday, Aug 11, 2009 at 8:21:41 AM
I agree. People tend to prefer with what they know... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Aug 11, 2009 at 11:01:22 AM