Harry Potter has been in the news a lot lately.
Every few years there’s something with this series, which must have been written by one of the most Twitter loving authors in recent memory. At this point, I feel a pang of disappointment every time I see J.K. Rowling’s name in a headline. I don’t even need to read the story, because I know it’s gonna be bad.
I know that a lot of people have been saying that we should separate the work from the author, that we can still love the books without lionizing Rowling. That’s a nice thought, but it’s not really true. No work is ever completely removed from the beliefs of the author, and the Harry Potter books are no exception.
There are at least several hundred issues to consider with progressivism in the Harry Potter universe. The books are rife with anti-semitism, tokenism, and just an overall simplified understanding of race. Much of what needs to be said about Harry Potter has been said. Again and again and again.
However, this particular clusterfuck comes at an especially jarring time in American history, while black Americans take to the streets to protest police brutality and white Americans are coming to terms with their own covert racism. The fact that everybody’s favorite childhood racism allegory is trending at the same time that people are engaging in a national conversation about race is… thought provoking, to say the least.
I guess we all knew this reckoning was coming. The kids who loved Harry Potter are growing up, and we can look at the work with less starry eyes.
Harry Potter has often been praised for introducing children to concepts of racism and segregation. In the magical world, pure blooded wizards are at the top of the hierarchy, followed by half-bloods (one wizard parent, one muggle parent), then Muggle born wizards, then muggles. Voldemort is a Hitler-esque character who is hellbent on restoring racial purity in magical communities, Harry and company are fighting to take him down. A number of excellent points have been made in condemnation of the allegory as a whole, most importantly that because wizards were a historically oppressed group, their fear of fraternizing with their former oppressors is not the same as racism against black people. In fact, in many ways the story can be read as a fear mongering dystopia of what might happen if an oppressed group gained power: that oft feared, but never realized, black supremacy.
But let’s say that for the sake of argument we accept the allegory as Rowling intended it to be, with the pure-bloods taking the place of white people, Muggles taking the place of black people, and those in between becoming bi-racial. Voldemort’s supporters become white supremacists—which is heavily implied by the KKK style hoods they wear—and Voldemort their leader. Even then, Rowling’s progressivism doesn’t stand the test of time.
We understand that Voldemort wanting to kill all the muggles is bad. That’s a given. They are hated and oppressed and they shouldn’t be. Fine. That’s definitely an important concept for a child to understand. Still, it is hard to ignore that in a story about how Muggles aren’t second class citizens, we never actually meet a Muggle with a fleshed out character. This story about oppression is told through the eyes of the non-oppressors, not the oppressed.
In fact, the only really notable Muggle characters in the book are the Dursleys, who do not really make you want to root for the muggles. The Dursleys, Harry’s aunt and uncle, raise Harry in a cartoonish manner, locking him in closets and giving him old socks for Christmas. So the maligned race in Harry Potter are either absent victims or they are villains.
The majority of the conflict in the books is not between the Muggles and the wizards who want them dead, but between the good wizards and the bad wizards. The main characters, for all their fighting spirit, are mostly of wizarding stock. They would still be safe under a Voldemort regime, and they are only targeted because of their allyship. This plays into the classic white savior trope, where a white person experiences pushback because of their friendship/support for black people. This is problematic because it equates the experience of an ally dealing with some unpleasantness because they chose to stick their neck out with the experience of an oppressed person being persecuted for something they cannot change. The characters in Harry Potter made a choice to fight Voldemort. Thousands of nameless dead Muggles never had that choice.
The Harry Potter books could have been a hundred times more poignant and gripping if they included Muggle children, damned from their very birth, leading the fight for their own liberation. Instead the books follow a main character who is neither literally nor allegorically of an oppressed race as he saves an oppressed people who are portrayed as incapable of saving themselves. If that’s not a white savior, then I don’t know what is.
Harry Potter books also play into another white savior trope by suggesting that there is a clear line between racist and not. We know that Voldemort is a bad guy, definitely. We also know that Harry Potter is a good guy. The fact that this line is drawn so clearly means that we miss out on the nuances of these characters—like the fact that Voldemort is not actually pure-blood and much of his racism comes from self-hatred and “colorism” (or whatever we’re calling the wizard equivalent of colorism: the different shades of half-bloodedness), or that Harry accepts the system of slavery that exists in the wizard world because the house elves are “happy” to be working.
The slavery apologism is especially shocking, but racism runs rampant throughout the wizard world, even among the good guys. The Hogwarts house Slytherin is named after a pure-blood supremacist, muggles who know too much have their memories erased against their will, and micro-aggressions abound. When Hagrid says to Harry “It’s your bad luck you grew up in a family o’ the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on,” we have to wonder how that would sound if we took out Muggles and put in another word. And these are the people we’re supposed to be rooting for?
Harry Potter characters, like white people, can get away with their micro (and macro) aggressions by saying that they’re not extremists—it’s okay that they say racist things sometimes because overall they’re on the right side of things. This isn’t true. Racism doesn’t exist in such clear cut terms. There are more shades of gray than just racist vs. not racist. By setting Harry Potter up as a fight between good and evil, Rowling neglects to address the racism that the “good” characters often exhibit, which is ignorant just short of dangerous.
There’s no reason we can’t continue to read and be entranced by Harry Potter. There’s plenty of valuable and entertaining reading in between the white savior mindset. Teenage rebels taking down a corrupt government? Disagreeing with racist authority figures? Eating pumpkin pasties? All good stuff.
Still, we need to look at these books more critically than we did when we were ten. However much we may love them, they are undeniably tinged by the beliefs of their creator. That doesn’t mean we have to burn them in front of the library or anything, but it is important to note and criticize these shortcomings whenever we can. There are a lot of them, so let’s keep talking. Personally, I’m waiting with baited breath for people to start discussing the fact that the Harry Potter universe features a subhuman race of goblins who control all the banks and money. That was something I did not quite pick up upon when I was eight.
So whether you love Harry Potter and hate Rowling, or the other way around, it is vital to understand that the two are intrinsically connected. We cannot condemn one without revisiting the other, and we shouldn’t. As with all works that have become outdated, we can learn from them, and read them without celebrating them.