Black Magic: Diversity in the World of Harry Potter

I was nine years old when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the first of countless times. By the time the series ended, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were to become as familiar and as cherished as childhood friends. I imagined them as I imagined all characters at this age: white. White like the people I saw on TV, white like most of the kids in my class, white like every teacher I’d ever had. That’s what book characters were supposed to look like. That’s who the heroes were.

Even when I read the names “Parvati and Padma Patil,” the world I grew up in was so narrow and whitewashed that I failed to recognize that these girls were meant to be Indian like me. I assumed they were unusual wizarding names just like “Minerva” or “Dumbledore.” It wasn’t until years later, after I’d read a book set in India about a girl named Parvati, that I finally made the connection, and was stunned with a feeling that I, as a young girl of color, rarely experienced: recognition. Representation. Seeing some semblance of yourself reflected in something you’ve consumed and treasured and made a part of yourself.

But it’s hard to become invested in a couple of background characters who make only cameo appearances in arguably the most beloved books and movies of our generation. This is one reason why the diversity of the Harry Potter world is inexcusably lazy. J.K. Rowling gives us token characters of color who make short appearances—Angelina Johnson, Lee Jordan, Dean Thomas, Parvati and Padma Patil, and Cho Chang—but the main plot lines belong only to white characters. Cho Chang is the only one with slightly more than a handful of lines, but she too is a minor character and a poor excuse for representation. As poet Rachel Rostad points out in her brilliant spoken word piece, “To J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang,” Cho Chang is a generic Asian woman with no agency who is stereotypically placed in Ravenclaw, the house that values intelligence, and whose emotional vulnerability is meant to make Harry’s later love interest, the white Ginny Weasley, look stronger.

Rowling’s self-professed passion for social justice falls short within the canon of her novels. After all seven books were published, Rowling revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay, an aspect of his identity which was never mentioned in the books nor appeared to influence him as a character in any way. In response to one reader’s remark that there were no Jewish students at Hogwarts, Rowling revealed in a tweet that Anthony Goldstein, one of the forty original students Rowling imagined at Hogwarts, was Jewish. Never mind that Goldstein appears only in passing within the novels, and his religion never mentioned.

Now, nine years after the release of the last book and five years after the release of the last movie, Rowling’s world of Harry Potter has expanded to include a play,Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, opening in London in July. The play will feature a different imagining of a central character that many fans have desperately hoped for: a Black actress, Noma Dumezweni, has been cast in the role of Hermione Granger. Following both intense backlash and glowing praise, Rowling responded on Twitter with this statement: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”

This begs the question, if white skin was never specified, then why is Hermione played by a white actress in the movies? The answer to this, of course, is that in our society white skin is seen as the default, and any other race must be explicitly specified – and even then, white actors may get the roles. A recent example of this was the controversy surrounding the casting of white actress Emma Stone as a partly Hawaiian and Chinese woman in the movie Aloha.

It’s difficult to tell whether Rowling’s after-the-fact attempts to diversify her story are merely pandering, or a well-intentioned endeavor to rectify her mistakes and make up for the severe lack of diversity within her original novels. Though it could be seen as too little, too late, the casting of a Black woman as Hermione Granger is also an incredible opportunity for young women of color to see themselves as the heroine, to be represented as a bright and precocious young witch whose wit and bravery often save the day. It’s also an opportunity for older fans to gain a new perspective on a beloved character.

According to data published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, roughly 12% of children’s books published in 2014 were about people of color, and just 9% were written by authors of color. Conversations about diversity in film and television are already beginning to take place, thanks to recent incidents like the Oscars’ all-white slate of acting nominees. But diversity in literature is not as talked about, though it’s just as much of an issue. It’s no wonder that readers who grow up exposed to all-white stories eventually recreate these narratives when they become writers and filmmakers. The status quo of white as the norm is one that needs to change to reflect a diverse population of readers.

Harry Potter remains a part of me and of my childhood. It taught me lessons about love and friendship and standing up in the face of prejudice. It takes a true fan to think critically about the work and to see it for what it is, flaws and all. While Rowling’s novels leave much to be desired in terms of diversity, the casting of a Black Hermione is a welcome step in the right direction, and hopefully will cause readers and viewers to question why we too often assume that white is the default. Maybe it will even inspire writers and casting directors to diversify their characters. In any case, Noma Dumezweni is about to prove that Black girlsare magic, and it is my hope that someday the magic of all kinds of people will be able to shine through in literature, on screen, and on stage.

Illustration by Taylor Roberts

Lucie Pereira is a sophomore Writing, Literature and Publishing major from San Francisco, CA.

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