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. And I haven’t even started on mixed ethnicity: as a half-Indian (Goan) myself, I’m no stranger to the erasure of mixed identities. In fairness, delving into the specifics of minor characters’ heritage might have been a bit technical for a 1990s children’s book series. Relating this back to demographic research, there are deeper-rooted issues regarding the historical exclusion of mixed ethnicities on censuses in general (which could fill a whole other post, I’m sure).

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.

This article is part of the Critiquing Harry Potter series. Read about gender representation in the Harry Potter franchise here.

____________________________________

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, 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 re: Hermione’s appearance.
  • This sketch by Rowling, like all others by her, depicts Hermione with fair skin.

8 thoughts on “Critiquing Harry Potter: Ethnicity & Representation

  1. I think you are just looking for something to rant about Harry Potter diversity is accepted by fans even the minorities have no issue with it and globally no one should have an issue with it cos it’s a British movie not a global one

    Like

    1. Thank you for reading! I’m not sure I agree that all the fans accept the level of diversity in the franchise (including the books, not just the movies) – there have been dialogues across fan sites such as Mugglenet.com, as well as the Harry Potter subreddit, where I’ve seen fans express concerns about representation! Seeing those discussions is what led me to write this post in the first place – the whole fandom is never going to unanimously agree on things, and I’m sure you’re absolutely right that some fans (including some people of colour) don’t see any issues with it. However, this article was meant to assess whether the level of diversity was accurate in the landscape of 1990s Britain, and the nature of how the minority characters feature in the story. While the number of POC in Hogwarts does reflect the demographic of the UK at the time, the minority characters fill limited or peripheral roles, which is often what I’ve seen fans enter heated discussions about!

      Of course we can’t impose current standards onto a 1990s book series 20+ years later, but it’s interesting to discuss how the films and other elements of the franchise (which are more recent and still being created) try to connect to a global fanbase today, where more attention is being paid to matters of representation. And I certainly do enjoy a good rant, especially when it comes to Harry Potter – my favourite contemporary book series 😉 thanks for your comment!

      Like

  2. It’s nice to hear this perspective. I think it holds a lot of truth. Especially now with other revelations about Rowling, I personally don’t think Rowling thought much on these things. The book reflects her view of the UK, I’m sure she didn’t think about diversity and a global following.

    Something I’m curious of your thoughts on as a fellow mixed race person is interpreting the books as a way to talk about racism and mixed race. Literally Harry, Voldemort, Seamus, and others are mixed (magic/muggle); there’s a whole group of purebloods acting a lot like white supremacists of the real world.

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for reading! That’s a fascinating point you raise about mixed race – so many pivotal characters like Harry, Voldemort, and Snape have “mixed blood” and it’s definitely fair to say there’s a parallel between that and the issue of mixed ethnicity/race in our society.

      In terms of “blood purity” in the series, I think it’s interesting to read how characters like Voldemort and Snape camouflage themselves within the primarily pure-blood Death Eater circle (bigots, for that matter) to avoid prejudice/discrimination. And despite being half-blood, both actively contributed to the bigotry (for a time, in Snape’s case. We know Voldemort keeps his own blood status relatively quiet; I don’t think many of the Death Eaters knew he himself was a half-blood. It’s similar to white-passing today – as a mixed person, it’s a very strange relationship to have with society and culture. There is technically no “visibility” in terms of Blood Status, since everyone could theoretically conceal their Blood Status to get by, whereas in our society, colourism and skin-tone bias is a substantial mechanism behind racism (which the blood purity parallel seems to lack). Of course, Blood Status can be easily researched by parentage, as we see in Deathly Hallows, but it’s not inescapable – and so the nature of the prejudice in-text is perhaps more nuanced. As a fellow mixed person, how do you feel about the portrayal of mixed identities in the series?

      Like

      1. Yes you make great points. I guess reading it as a child, I felt it but hadn’t realized that was why I connected to it. But I feel like it as a children’s book represents some of the basics of the mixed-race experience. And at least for me a few good examples of how it can go, Harry and Seamus compared to Voldemort and Snape. Different upbringings, different outcomes, but they still made clear choices for their futures. Harry didn’t seek revenge on Voldemort, Snape left the deatheaters for love.

        I think also in the context of it being a small community in England, all the purebloods basically knew all the other purebloods. So it wouldn’t be difficult to usually know if someone was a muggle born or halfie because they were either very new or you knew they had one parent your whole family knew of. But true it wouldn’t be as obvious or as complex as our real world colourism

        Like

      2. Yes, that’s very true about choices actually! The novels emphasize choices as a defining factor of identity, which is also good for a children’s novel in terms of didactics. Good point about the small size of the community too, you’re absolutely right! I didn’t really think about how everyone would know the purebloods and thus would know who WASN’T a pureblood as well. It’s definitely an interesting parallel to mixed identity in the Muggle world, and that sense of “belonging” that can be elusive if you’re mixed and don’t feel fully entrenched in a community. Thanks for your great reply!

        Like

Leave a Reply to Serena Ypelaar Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.