Harry Potter and the Wizarding World of Systemic Racism

Pride Month is here, which means J.K. Rowling is on the internet being a bigot. I’m only kidding. She does it year round, it’s just that more people take note during June. Once more, I see friends and acquaintances on social media debating whether or not she is, in fact, a bigoted TERF piece of shit. Spoiler: yup, she is. Further spoiler: don’t read the rest of this if you don’t want me to ruin Harry Potter.

So here’s the thing, I loved the Harry Potter books. The craft of their construction is one of the more impressive literary feats I’ve ever seen. The way each book is a bit longer, the prose a bit more mature. These are books that grow up with you. As a series, it was best taken as it was released rather than in a month- or two month-long binge. Best of all if you were the same age or just slightly younger than the characters.

I liked the stories, too. The schoolyear-long mystery plots, the ways in which each of the three main characters were fully essential to the resolutions, and the way Harry and his friends stood up against the rise of Magic Fascism. There’s an issue, though. More on that in a sec.

Separating art from artist is a conversation we keep having. We had it about Michael Jackson, and look: I fucking love Thriller. We had it about Orson Scott Card, and look: Ender’s Game is brilliant, but also problematic in a number of ways. Witness also Dan Simmons, who created one of science fiction’s greatest works in Hyperion, but in real life is a toxic jerk who regularly erupts with severely bad takes.

And now, on to Rowling.

I’m not writing this to excoriate her unwavering TERF status or her repeated attempts to lock down a narrow and biologically inaccurate definition of “woman.”

I’m writing this because you probably misunderstood Harry Potter. We all did.

Look at this thing I came across the other day. It briefly and concisely sums up numerous ways in which Rowling’s personal prejudice expressed itself in the Wizarding World. The books are drawn with the tools of antisemitism and anti-abolitionism. There’s a pretty strong anti-trans message. And much more.

You might be forgiven for missing much of this. Particularly if you came to the story from a place of privilege, of never having directly experienced this particular bigotry or that. You might roll your eyes at names like “Cho Chang” and “Seamus Finnegan” while missing what should be blindingly obvious about a family of redheads with seven children living on modest means, even when the text comes out and explicitly says this:

My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.

Draco Malfoy, who presumably holidays in Ireland but never leaves the resort.

The French girls manage double-duty as coquettish Continental sex-pots and helpless damsels and I’ll bet you only remember one of their names. Do not Google it – what’s Fleur’s last name??

Viktor Krum is the most swarthy-Easterner-come-to-seduce-innocent-English-girls since goddamn Dracula.

But the Message of Harry Potter! Voldemort’s followers are racists and they’re the bad guys so obviously this is a story about anti-fascists and anti-racists overcoming the looming specter of Magic Hitler.

Except it just doesn’t fly like that.

You know that old canard about how a computer makes no mistakes, but can only carry out its programming and if it “malfunctions” that was just a failure of the programmer? Yeah, guess what.

Rowling’s various bigotries are baked into the world-building. The goblins are bad enough, but the house elves who don’t want to be free? Because really they like servitude, it’s just the beatings that are an issue. It’s oh so frustrating for Hermione, isn’t it. Isn’t it fucking just.

Take another look at Voldemort’s followers. Just the important ones, the ones who play large roles in the story. The Malfoys, Bellatrix, Crouch Jr… scions of old money families. The only Death Eaters who play important roles and aren’t the magic equivalent of Old Money are Useful Idiots or magically controlled.

Harry himself comes from that old money, as does Sirius Black. But Sirius grew up in it – and rejected its company. Harry grew up oblivious to it, only discovering that aspect of his heritage when he first went to Diagon Alley. See, he didn’t grow up with the money. He didn’t grow up in that society.

Neither, of course, did Voldemort. Tom Riddle was an orphan. More importantly, he’s half Muggle. His followers probably don’t know that, right? The Dark Lord despises his Muggle father and his own “mudblood” status.

Remember how it’s widely believed Hitler had at least some Jewish blood?

And how a large part of Hitler’s early biography revolves on his attempts at social climbing?

Harry Potter is about class. How very British.

Its hero, just like its author, did not grow up with wealth but attained it later (though Harry gets his much earlier than Rowling got hers). Its hero is upper class but grew up in a weird lower-class situation within a middle class family. Hermione and the Weasleys likewise represent the lower social strata.

Sirius grew up in the House of Black but rejected his family’s decadent, aristocratic bigotry. He, even moreso than Harry, is that time-honored British version of the White Savior: the Good Aristocrat.

Or, for the Americans in the room, the Good Master. You know, like the O’Haras of Gone With the Wind. That novel makes a lot out of Scarlett’s family not “mistreating” the human beings they bought and sold like cattle.

The central conflict of the entire series, in every single book, is Voldemort trying to kill Harry Potter. The rich, white, pureblood Boy Who Lived.

All the other stuff is secondary. It’s backdrop. It’s world building. Yes, the subtle and then blatant rise of fascism is very, very bad you know. But what matters, from the very first page, is the threat to Harry Potter.

All the bigotry – and I’m still talking about the prejudice built into the world itself, most of which does end up being espoused by the villains but which is undeniably hard-coded into the setting – is really just fine, thank you very much, right up until the rise of fascism threatens Harry.

It’s all fine until then.

Rowling must see the real world something like this. She doesn’t like people who aren’t like her, but the only way she’d ever stand up for them is if somebody threatened her along with them. She is the one there will be nobody left to speak up for when they finally come for her.

Harry goes on to become a cop, naturally. And you know he’s a good cop. He won’t do those evil things the Death Eaters did, and he won’t allow evil to stand unopposed as did the Ministry under Crouch.

But he also won’t free the house elves, because they were better off in servitude.

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