Critiquing Harry Potter: Ethnicity & Representation

Some Harry Potter readers today assert that J.K. Rowling’s universe is not accurately diverse enough. Population research yields an interesting dialogue about the demographics in the series, but representation is an even more complex issue.  

By Serena Ypelaar

I’m about to do something which may surprise you: I’m going to criticize Harry Potter.

During my life I’ve spoken with many friends about my favourite book series, and in the last few years especially, the issue of diversity often looms large.

In Harry Potter the possibilities for discussing diversity are endless, from ethnicity, to LGBTQ+ inclusion, to gender, to species.

Today, I’d like to talk specifically about ethnic diversity. Why are there only, like, five* non-white kids at Hogwarts? (*Seven, but who’s counting?) The fact that there are so few minority characters isn’t ideal for the most popular book franchise of the twenty-first century so far. Even in the 1990s when the Harry Potter books are set, shouldn’t there be more diverse characters to represent the society the novels portray?

I definitely thought so … and then I embarked upon some research for this article and found this thread on Reddit, in which a fellow fan argues that the Harry Potter universe accurately reflects the ethnic demographic of the United Kingdom at the time. In the census for 1991, the year Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins, 94.1% of Britons identified themselves as white, 5.9% as non-white.* (I don’t think the census asked about mixed ethnicity, since it was the first UK census to collect information about ethnic background.)

da_3
Dumbledore’s Army in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Photo: Harry Potter Wikia

With the 40 students in Harry’s year (5 of whom are non-white), that places the white population at 90% and the non-white population at 10%, which is actually almost double the proportion of non-white people in Britain at the time. What?!

Indisputably, Harry Potter is a product of its time. Though author J.K. Rowling’s illustrated demographic fits the temporal setting of the story, it doesn’t accurately represent its readers, who span the world over. Readers aren’t going to see the current population (of either Britain or the world) represented in the novels; they’re going to see the population of Britain 20 years ago. And with such a diverse present-day audience, we’re now left with a disparity in terms of ethnic representation.

I would therefore argue that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the number of non-white characters featured in the story, but rather the significance J.K. Rowling gives (or doesn’t give) them in the narrative. Let’s count the confirmed non-white students mentioned at Hogwarts in the books:

  1. Dean Thomas
  2. Blaise Zabini
  3. Angelina Johnson
  4. Lee Jordan
  5. Cho Chang
  6. Parvati Patil
  7. Padma Patil

How many of these students have a major part in the story? None, really.

cho
Cho Chang, as played by Katie Leung in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Photo: Warner Bros.

Cho Chang, Harry’s one-time love interest, features prominently in Order of the Phoenix but isn’t central to the other books. Rowling has received major criticism for her portrayal of Cho, with accusations of cultural ignorance in choosing her name, negatively depicting the only East Asian character in the books, and more.

Dean Thomas, who is Black, is consistently present as one of Harry’s friends; he shares a dormitory with Harry and Ron, and dates Ron’s sister Ginny for most of Half-Blood Prince. Dean has a rich backstory which was originally included in the books but didn’t survive the editor’s cuts. His story, in which he eventually learns his wizard father was killed fleeing the Death Eaters (Lord Voldemort’s followers), was omitted in favour of Neville Longbottom (a white character, interestingly) avenging his parents after Death Eaters tortured them into insanity.

kingsley
Kingsley Shacklebolt, played by actor George Harris in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Photo: Pottermore

The whiteness of Harry Potter goes beyond Hogwarts, too. Kingsley Shacklebolt, a Black wizard who is a powerful Auror and future Minister for Magic, is praised throughout the last three books, but he’s still a fairly minor character. There are also no identified South Asian characters in the Harry Potter universe apart from the Patil twins, and Latin American characters are non-existent.

All the main characters in Harry Potter are white. We’ve gone over historical demographics, but we should be asking a critical question here: why didn’t Rowling write any of the main characters, or even the major supporting characters, non-white?

After Hermione was portrayed as Black in the broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a play that was approved, but not written, by Rowling), the author stated on Twitter that she “loves black Hermione”. I personally feel that Rowling latched onto the casting to retroactively interpret her novels as more inclusive than they were when she wrote them. Yes, she seems to support diversity now, but my reading of Rowling’s character descriptions has me convinced that she never wrote Hermione as non-white.*

It’s easy to approve a casting choice and take credit for diversity, but it’s a pretty passive act. In terms of the heavy lifting, Rowling hadn’t originally made strides to portray ethnic diversity in her books. Given all we’ve considered, that seems fair since she wrote the books in the 1990s – even in 2001 when the first film was released, Britain was still 90.9% white. Nevertheless, the later films, made 15 to 20 years after the books take place, haven’t increased ethnic diversity in the casting despite the chance to broaden the demographic for a contemporary audience. And it doesn’t change the fact that none of the non-white characters were given major roles in the books.

Principal_cast_of_the_Harry_Potter_series
The main cast of the Harry Potter films (from left): Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Are questions of ethnicity more prevalent here in Canada (and the United States)? Possibly, since both nations were built on mass immigration. Does that mean North American readers scrutinize diversity more than those in Europe or worldwide? Maybe.

What do you think? Should the Harry Potter films have tried to reflect today’s population to bridge the gap between the whiteness of Britain in the 1990s and its current demographic? Should we throw the idea of accuracy out the window? Going forward, what should the cast of spinoffs like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them look like? Are J.K. Rowling’s efforts at diverse representation tokenistic, or am I not giving her enough credit?

Who knows, maybe in 20 years we’ll get a remake that fulfills all its potential for representation, and the concept of a “diversity quota” will be so outdated that it’s laughable. Only time will tell.

____________________________________

FOOTNOTES
*As of the last census in 2011, 81.9% of the British population identified as White British.
*My reasoning regarding Hermione’s race, and my argument that J.K. Rowling is opportunistically interpreting her past work, is as follows:
  • “Hermione’s white face was sticking out from behind a tree.” This quote from Prisoner of Azkaban describes Hermione in a state of fear, and while it may be a turn of phrase for a stricken expression, it seems odd to describe a Black person having a white face no matter how bloodless or pale they’ve gone. There are countless other ways to describe fear or panic.
  • “… Ron looking incredibly freckly, Hermione very brown, both waving frantically…” Ron and Hermione have both just returned from holidays in sunny places; Ron from Egypt, Hermione from France. I’m certain Rowling is describing Hermione’s tan here, which implies that her “very brown” face is darker than her original skin tone.
  • Hermione appears as white in book covers. J.K. Rowling has the power to veto such a portrayal if it is inaccurate, and as Hermione’s race would be such a major difference, I’m sure she would have noticed and corrected it.
  • Rowling approved white actress Emma Watson’s casting as Hermione for the films despite overriding other more minor character details (she told writers to remove a line where Dumbledore mentions a girl he once dated, since Dumbledore is gay!). She would have instructed casting directors of Hermione’s appearance.
  • This sketch by Rowling, like all others by her, depicts Hermione with fair skin.

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