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A Black Boy Even Taller Than Ron: Racial Dynamics in Harry Potter (Part 1)

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mikhail Lyubansky       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   13 comments

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Note: An earlier version of this paper was published by BenBella Books in The Psychology of Harry Potter, under the title "Harry Potter and the Word that Shall Not Be Named."

At first glance, the Harry Potter universe seems to have little racial tension. There are a handful of non-White characters, including Gryffindors Lee Jordan, Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson, and Parvati Patil, as well as Harry's first romantic interest, Cho Chang. Yet, despite providing the non-White characters with racial identifiers (e.g., Angelina Johnson is described as "a tall black girl with long, braided hair" [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 224], and Dean Thomas as "a Black boy even taller than Ron") [Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone 122])[1], Rowling seems to deliberately give racial status about as much attention as she does hair color. On the other hand, there is little doubt that she uses wizards, Muggles, and house-elves as symbolic racial categories and that Voldemort's obsession with pureblood status is a very thinly veiled allegory for European and American obsession with racial purity during the first half of the 20th century. The purpose of this 3-part article is to critically examine Rowling's literal and metaphorical treatment of race in order to understand the series' underlying racial messages in the context of contemporary scholarship in this area. I will begin with the literal analysis.


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The Racial Utopia?

It might seem peculiar that Rowling would go to the trouble to racially identify certain characters only to ignore their racial status for the remainder of the series, but this particular combination of behaviors is characteristic of contemporary neo-conservative racial ideology (Omi & Winant). According to this ideology, race is assumed to be socially constructed and racial justice is pursued via a "color-blind" society in which everyone pursues the American/British dream by "lifting themselves up by the bootstraps" (i.e., a "just world" that rewards good choices and a strong work ethic). "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our [biological or God-given] abilities," says Dumbledore (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 333), who later reminds Fudge, the Minister of Magic, that what people grow to be is much more important than what they were when they were born (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 708). Accordingly, for neo-conservatives, the belief that race (a biological or God-given characteristic) does not matter is typically grounded in one or both of two seemingly contradictory but actually compatible beliefs""that "we" are all the same (i.e., "humans" or "Americans" or "Muggles") and that each one of us is a unique person.

The color-blind ideal is so eminently reasonable that it can seem almost objectionable even to question it. After all, who wouldn't want to be perceived as a unique being? Yet, critics of a color-blind ideology (and there are many) reject it for several reasons. To begin with, they point out that a color-blind ideal, at best, does nothing to curtail the institutional and interpersonal racism that are still experienced by people of color on a daily basis and, at worst, actually works to maintain the racial hierarchy by pretending and acting as though it didn't exist (e.g., the Ministry of Magic during its denial of Voldemort's return)[2]. In addition, critics of racial color-blindness argue that racial status is associated with cultural experiences (e.g., music preferences, experiences of discrimination) that shape a person's identity or sense of self. This perspective is well-captured by Dr. Lisa Delpit, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Education & Innovation:

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I don't see color, I only see children." What message does this statement send? That there is something wrong with black or brown, that it should not be noticed? I would like to suggest that if one does not see color, then one does not really see children. Children made "invisible" in this manner become hard-pressed to see themselves worthy of notice.

To be sure, there is no evidence in the books that any of the non-White characters suffer from poor self-esteem or any other negative state, but there is no evidence to the contrary either. One of the privileges of Whiteness is to deny the impact of race on people's lives and this privilege is readily apparent in the Harry Potter series. The truth is that, because the stories are almost exclusively told by a White narrator (who notices race but doesn't examine its impact), through the eyes of White characters (who don't notice race), we really don't (can't!) know anything about the reality of the non-White characters. To see racism, critics of color-blindness argue, it is first necessary to see race[3].

The irony is that, their statements to the contrary notwithstanding, neoconservatives do, in fact, notice race. They just pretend (sometimes for legitimate reasons) not to. Rowling is no exception. Consider the precise words she uses to describe Dean Thomas: "A black boy even taller than Ron". This seemingly innocent phrase communicates several important parts of our racial mythology. First of all, it is generally assumed that what we choose to comment on says something about what we consider to be important. In that context, by describing Dean the way she does, Rowling is telling the readers that there are three things that are important about Dean Thomas's appearance: that he is Black, that he is male, and that he is tall -- in that order. Secondly, it is telling that Rowling chose to describe Dean as "black", rather than saying that he has "dark skin". The latter term is objectively neutral, as well as accurate. In contrast, as we all know, no one's skin is really black (or white). In this context, these words only have meaning to us as racial categories. To use them is to signify implicit acceptance of racial categories. To use them, even in an attempt to demonstrate that there is no racism in the world, is to validate (and acknowledge) the existence of race.

And that's not all. By describing Dean in this very short phrase as being "even taller than Ron," Rowling (probably unconsciously) communicates that we can only understand "blackness" by somehow relating it to whiteness. In the past, it was commonplace for non-Whites to be judged based on mainstream (i.e., "white") norms without any consideration for how institutional racism might influence Black behaviors and attitudes. Thus, for example, Black soldiers were judged intellectually inferior when during WWI they scored lower than white soldiers on a standardized test of intelligence (the Army Alpha) that contained many culturally-loaded questions that Blacks educated in the Jim Crow South were much less likely to answer correctly. Rowling doesn't do this, of course, but by describing Dean's height as relative to Ron's, she does endorse, rather than reject, the idea of a white-centric standard.

The skeptic will dismiss such a reading of "an innocent description," but Rowling's portrayal of race is problematic even within the neo-conservative ideology that she stakes out. The problem is that, in a world that seems designed to parallel the demographics of contemporary England, non-White characters barely seem to exist and none occupy positions of authority. This is evidenced by the fact that Cho Chang is the only non-White character who is developed to any degree, as well as by the fact that not a single important adult character in any of the books is a person of color""not even in the otherwise progressive Hogwarts (Kingsley Shacklebolt might be considered a "token" exception). Their absence is conspicuous, especially given that Rowling has worked for Amnesty International and clearly intended to create a multicultural society in which cultural differences, while generally unnoticed, are celebrated when the occasion permits (e.g., Seamus Finnigan's shamrock-covered tent and other decorations at the Quidditch World Cup). No doubt, Rowling intended to comment on race by focusing on blood status and house-elf rights. Her treatment of these topics provides ample opportunity to examine both contemporary and historical race relations, and it is to these racial metaphors that I will turn to in part 2.

[1] In contrast to the non-White characters, none of the White characters are racially identified. Part of the reason lies in the privilege of Whiteness. "As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations" (Lipsitz 1). But like Lord Voldemort's name, the omission of "The Race That Shall Not Be Named" (Woods 2) signifies more than merely the absence of necessity. Naming "Whiteness" brings to mind various racial discrepancies that affect every aspect of our lives and brings awareness to racial privilege, a process that tends to make White people feel uncomfortable (Kivel 9), even though there is no similar discomfort in using racial identifiers to refer to people of color. To experience this discomfort, I invite you to try Thandeka's "Race Game," in which the African-American theologian and journalist challenges White people, for one week, to racially identify other Whites whenever making reference to them (e.g., "my White friend Ron").

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[2] This is the stance taken by most social scientists interested in race, as well as the official position of the American Sociological Association, whose 2002 statement on race posits that "Refusing to acknowledge the fact of racial classification, feelings, and actions, and refusing to measure their consequences will not eliminate racial inequalities. At best, it will preserve the status quo."

[3] This statement is a reasonable summary of the multicultural racial ideology""that race, although socially constructed, should be recognized (seen) in order to validate the experiences (both positive and negative) and cultural differences (e.g., food, music, dialect) that members of racial minority groups may share.


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor 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 courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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