Remembering Harry: Multicultural?

Much as I love the Harry Potter books I do think that Rowling’s efforts to multiculturize them are clunky. While watching the Order of the Phoenix movie the other day, Roxanne and I muttered to each other “Who is that?” as a handsome black man, dressed in African garb and called Kingsley, spoke up at the Order of the Phoenix meeting. When he reappeared in the final book I realized we’d obviously just forgotten about him, probably because he didn’t do enough of significance for us to remember him. This all came to mind when reading Uzodinma Iweala’s insightful piece in today’s Washington Post, “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa.” It seems to me that Rowling is as well-meaning in what she did with Kingsley as those Iweala writes about. Please read it.

And then there is the Native American reference on Page 216 of Book VII. “The mother, Kendra, had jet-black hair pulled into a high bun. Her face had a carved quality about it. Harry thought of photos of Native Americans he’d seen as he studied her dark eyes, high cheekbones, and straight nose, formally composed above a high-necked silk gown.” Since there was no further mention of her or anything Native American what was the point? Debbie Reese asked about this on child_lit and wrote about it on her blog, “Native Imagery in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Please read it too.

Finally, Debbie points to a provocative 2005 article by Keith Woods, “Harry Potter And the Imbalance of Race.” Please go read it and then come back and tell me if he’s on target or not.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Remembering Harry: Multicultural?

  1. Wallace

    Who decides which books get press (Harry Potter) and which get censored? After all, censorship is becoming America’s favorite past-time. The US gov’t (and their corporate friends), already detain protesters, ban books like “America Deceived” from Amazon and Wikipedia, shut down Imus and fire 21-year tenured, BYU physics professor Steven Jones because he proved explosives, thermite in particular, took down the WTC buildings. Free Speech forever (especially for books).
    Last link (before Google Books caves to pressure and drops the title):
    America Deceived (book)

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  2. As much as I love HP, I wholeheartedly agree that Rowling’s attempts at multiculturalism are clunky. Though she has been censured for her “tokenism,” (Richard Adams writes in The Guardian, “[Harry Potter] includes obviously Asian and black characters as students… but there are no feasts for Rosh Hashanah or Diwali”), I am not sure where her intentions lie. I will admit that I was a little thrilled to see the name “Parvati Patil” in Book 1.

    Rowling’s world is overwhelmingly white–no main character is a person of color and though Harry had a thing for Cho and Ron went to the Yule Ball with Padma, at the end, there were no “interracial” (by our Muggle definition) relationships. However, I am not sure if this bothers me too much; frankly, children’s literature published in America is overwhelmingly “white” and I am pretty much resigned to that fact ;).

    Wonderful Poynter artcile.

    That “Native American” description in Book 7 *really* bothered me. It was as if Harry was looking at a display at the American Museum of Natural History. Ick.

    Sorry for the scattered thoughts. I do have much to say on the subject and I’ll stop by again if/when the conversation gets going.

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  3. Monica, thanks for these interesting links. Here’s another, only loosely related to the multiculturalism topic but I thought you might find it interesting:

    http://llamabutchers.mu.nu/archives/231750.php
    From a post by Steve the LLamabutcher:

    “The bone I have to pick with J.K. Rowling–or maybe it’s intentional, and therefore something to credit her with–is the complete absence of the humanities from the course of education at her magical school. The wizarding world as she presents it is completely bereft of art and music of their own creation which is not derivative of the creations of the non-magical world. In many respects the wizarding world—or, at the very least, wizard Britain—is a world which never really left the medieval: they never went through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the revolutions of capitalism, industrialism, and Darwinism. Now, I can see how a number of our readers would probably say a combination of the last three aint bad (and certainly the Shire of Tolkein was Rousseauian presentation of Britain minus the last three), how many of us would want to live in a world without the humanism and individualism and rationalism and science that were the crowning achievements of the first two? Not me, for one.

    “The first book—and I have a gut hunch the last book—pivots on the character never actually met by the reader of Nicolas Flamel, a historical figure with a long history of being used by authors as a representative of the obsession with alchemy. To me, the series rises and falls with the fate of another obsessed alchemist born several centuries after Flamel lived: Isaac Newton. Newton turned away from alchemy in the end and embraced science and the scientific method, and with it the principles of rationalism and free inquiry. Rowling’s wizards remain profoundly uncurious about the nature of their world, and the small few who inquire are kept hidden away within the Department of Mysteries, their work kept secret. The Wizards, from the fragments that Rowling provide, turned within themselves in Europe at least at exactly the time the Europeans reached out to understand the world, the universe, and the place of human beings within it.

    “Whether intentionally or not, Rowling has shown us a world within a world free from imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, religion and industrialism—yet it is a society racked profoundly with racism and slavery, governed oppressively without any pretense of due process, the rule of law, equality, or democracy, and in a world without great art, sculpture, literature, poetry, dance, or music of its own.

    They have Dumbledore. We have DaVinci, Newton, Smith, Darwin, Einstein, Watson, Dickens, and Neil Armstrong.”

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  4. I have to disagree with you here, Monica and Pooja. In the book of PHOENIX, Kingsley is an essential member of the Order, and gets significantly more screen time than some of its other members. He is introduced not with the African daishiki and hat he had in the movie, but as a “bald black wizard” with “a deep, slow voice” and “a single gold hoop in his ear”; given his last name and this description, I’ve always thought he was a play on “Shaft,” and meant to be distinctly cool. He’s an Auror, which is the job Harry aspires to, and you’ll note that he is made the Minister of Magic at the end of HALLOWS . . . Surely this is not the way the author would treat a token character, or one that she’s using solely in a “clunky, well-meaning” manner? And if you think it is still clunky and well-meaning . . . then what *would* satisfy you?

    Thank you for posting the Poynter article, as it’s thought-provoking, and I will remember its points as I edit in future. . . . The main thing I as an editor am taking away from it is that Harry shouldn’t have thought of Kingsley as a “bald black man,” but rather a “bald man with chocolate-colored skin” or somesuch, thus acknowledging the variations of skin tone within the Afro-British community, and giving Kingsley a description with the same detail and lack of explicit race as her white characters receive. This seems fair enough to me. But as for the lack of Rosh Hashanah or Diwali, they may be celebrated at Hogwarts, but they wouldn’t have played any role in Harry’s story, so they aren’t mentioned, simple as that. The books also skip Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Easter, and Harry’s friends’ birthdays when they aren’t relevant to the plot; and Christmas is consistently relevant to the plot only because Hogwarts has a Christmas break.

    That last point is, I think, what often frustrates me in these discussions of multiculturalism: An author sees characters in his or her head and tells their stories, and to me that is his/her only responsibility: to tell those characters’ stories truthfully and well. JKR saw Harry, Ron, and Hermione as white, and she told their stories well. Why didn’t she make one of them of a different ethnicity? She didn’t see them that way. (And then of course she would be open to charges of inauthenticity as a white author writing about a person of color…) Clearly an all-white Hogwarts would be disturbing and wrong, but its racial makeup, as far as we can tell, reflects that of Britain today (see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_population/PEEGCommentary.pdf), and saying “She didn’t include Diwali” is saying that she didn’t interrupt her story to be *more* multicultural, in precisely the sort of clunky well-meaning manner that I think you’re deploring here, Monica. Instead she has created a world where characters of multiple ethnicities are included and treated as real people, not as representatives of those ethnicities (which would indeed be clunky well-meaning etc.), and where everyone is united in the fight against a larger evil who wants everyone to be of one race. If this still doesn’t work, I ask again sincerely: What *would* satisfy you?

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  5. Amy

    First let me say I’m a huge fan of Harry. And I also love many other classic and well-written children’s fantasy adventures set in an Anglo Saxon sort of context. But I am also very busy these days promoting the notion that we need more fantasy adventure set in other cultural contexts, and, most specifically for me, an African American cultural context. How many children’s and young adult fantasy adventures can you name with any Black characters in them? (Don’t take off your shoes to count.) Check out What Happened to the Black Kids? on the media materials page of my website http://www.wozabooks.com (and then check out my book The Call to Shakabaz, which features all Black characters).
    Amy

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  6. Cheryl,

    I”m totally with you that Rowling was only responsible to the story in her head and had no obligation to make her main characters anything other than what they were for her. But once the story is out there I think it is fair for me to express my own feelings as a reader. I”m not going to presume to say what would satisfy me because I like the books! I just don’t think they are perfect and Kingsley and that Native American reference were things that jarred for me.

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  7. I am (again) in full agreement with Monica. I do like the books very much but I don’t think they are perfect. I also think that Harry Potter is an “easy target” *because* the books are enourmously popular; other books have the same issues but just aren’t as scrutinized.

    As for what would satisfy me… well, that has nothing to do with Harry Potter. I would like to see more high-quality novels and picture books featuring children of color as protagonists ideally in contemporary settings. The CCBC compiles annual statistics on the number of books published annually by and about people of color. Over the years, the numbers have grown, but multicultural literature still represents a small percentage of the overall number of books published for children and teenagers. (http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/pcstats.htm)

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  8. I agree with the notion that Rowling writes whatever in her head and whatever works to advance the story and does not have to stop and put in well-meaning racial bits. I was never bothered by the lack of active Asian characters… and not even bothered that the one, slightly active Asian character was shown buckled under the pressure.

    However, I do see that Harry Potter series should be scrutinized for its treatment of racial relationships. The entire underlying motivation to propel the “dark” side is the cleansing of others, of un-pure or inferior races. If such notions exist in the characters’ minds, wouldn’t there be a bit more consciousness directed toward different kinds of “differences

    Since we see the sorting out of the mis-treatment of the House Elves, the Werewolves, and Mudbloods as prominent elements of the plot and in the characters’ lives, it is not unreasonable that the readers’ senses are more tuned to the treatment of racial balance, the “traditional” kind.

    So, although Rowling is not responsible to feature strong, non-white characters just to satisfy some readers’ emotional needs, she did make the decision to highlight racial tensions in her books, and thus it seems natural that she receives some criticism regarding the ethnic balance in her cast.

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  9. Amy

    Interesting discussion. Thanks for hosting and opening it, Monica. I agree that many of Rowling’s efforts at including a more diverse array of humans and descriptions are clumsy (especially that Native American reference). But I heartily disagree with Keith Woods, The narrator of HP is obviously white and white folks don’t usually comment on the race of fellow white folks. Narrators, even those who speak from the third person, aren’t color-free or color-blind. What’s the use of trying to further mask the reality that the story is told from a white POV? Instead of descriptions such as “the tall white muggle” in HP, I’d much rather see a whole series written from a black-centric POV–a Christopher-Paul-Curtis-ish type of fantasy series.

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  10. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Books at Bedtime: Harry Potter

  11. Jen

    It’s an interesting issue. I think that Woods is certainly right in that non-white characters get descriptions that both specify their race and generally are less vivid and specific. However, I would argue (and I even think Woods might agree) that that way of describing and designating non-white people, real and fictional, is typical of the way in which people are identified in a predominantly white society. I don’t see its manifestation in the “Harry Potter” books as particularly unusual or troublesome. My personal opinion is that, in situations where a certain aspect of your appearance is the most distinctive, it’s both natural and inoffensive to use those aspects as descriptive characteristics. It is not distinctive or useful to be described as white in a British boarding school. But it *is* less common to be black or Asian, to have bright red hair, or to be extremely old or tall. It doesn’t make for useful description, in life or in writing, to make a note of features that are typical of the majority. One of the results of living in a society with a strong majority is that it’s common, for better or for worse, fill in the blanks with characteristics of that majority. While that may not be a good thing, it’s hardly unique to Harry Potter.

    I actually find it more obnoxious when I feel like the prose has been made more awkward in order to *avoid* a mention of race, or when the plot and pacing of the story is altered to work in cultural references that seem gratuitous. Even as a kid, I hated those interminable introductory chapters to “The Babysitters’ Club” volumes, with their endless references to “chocolate-colored skin”, “almond-shaped eyes”. I’d much rather have race be identified, than have it be the elephant in the room. I’d much rather see an author be comfortable mentioning it, even if that way is imperfect.

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  12. I think that Rowling and her editors have really difficult jobs in terms of figuring out how to handle race; and though the efforts to include multicultural characters sometimes feel clunky, I’m fairly satisfied.

    The question that I keep wondering about, though, involves Dean Thomas. It’s not the clunky reference to “a Black boy even taller than Ron” that shows up in the American edition that makes me wonder — it’s the sentences that surround it.

    In the British version, the passage in question begins: “And now there were only three people left to be sorted.” Those three people are Lisa Turpin (Ravenclaw), Ron Weasley, and Blaise Zabini.

    In the American version, the same passage is present:

    And now there were only three people left to be sorted. “Thomas, Dean,” a Black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table. “Turpin, Lisa,” became a Ravenclaw and then it was Ron’s turn.

    But Blaise Zabini is there, too — so if you count the students left to be sorted, there are *four*, not three. Rowling’s blurb about Dean Thomas on her website says that he had to be cut from the scene in the British edition to save space — and thus, the sentence introducing him in a later chapter as another Gryffindor makes sense. But the textual stemma makes me wonder, because the American edition has the reference to three students, plus Dean, AND it has the later Dean introduction sentence. So it does make me wonder what the source manuscript for the American edition was.

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