GeekGirlCon ’16 Panel Recap: Finding Your Place in the Wizarding World – Race & Identity in Harry Potter
I am my most geeky when I’m thinking about Harry Potter; this is an objective truth about me. And so, when I saw that there was going to be a panel entirely about Harry Potter and critical approaches to considering it, I planned my entire con weekend around attending it.
The panel was called Finding Your Place in the Wizarding World: Race & Identity in Harry Potter. The fours panelists were Robyn Jordan, who you may know as co-host of the podcast #WizardTeam; Sabrina Avila; Isabela Oliveirla; and Olivia Hernández.
Robyn began the conversation by proposing that the blood status metaphor—one of the key themes in Harry Potter—is not quite as overt as we all may like to think. While the allusion JK Rowling draws to race in our world via blood status in the Wizarding World is obvious to many PoC readers, it’s not necessarily clear to everyone. This affects how race is discussed throughout the fandom and how readers, especially those of marginalized identities, are able (and allowed) to engage with the story.
However, this doesn’t stop the conversation from taking place. Olivia explains how the Harry Potter fandom has the power to bring these themes to the forefront, even if they were unintentional on JK Rowling’s part. In these cases, fandom can and does have power the canon doesn’t.
There are, however, instances when the fandom can let readers down. For example, the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in The Cursed Child received a less-than-heartening response from many within the fandom, Robyn recalled. For her, that backlash was evidence of the fandom’s paperthin inclusivity. Sure, she was allowed to be there, but only if she didn’t make waves and demand representation.
Isabela, Sabrina, and Olivia echoed this sentiment: They were Hermione, but they weren’t allowed to see themselves in representations of her.
For Sabrina, this meant finding other ways of connecting with the characters. “Growing up the way I have, I’ve just always kind of accepted that characters are white. And I’ve just had to find the little things within them that I can fit in with,” she explained.
For Olivia, this meant keeping those fantasies to herself. “The headcanon of Hermione being Black or mixed was something that was, like, a secret I had for myself for such a long time,” she said.
At this point, the panelists began discussing the dangers of JK Rowling’s commitment to ambiguity in terms of identifying her characters. Robyn pointed out that JK Rowling has publicly expressed how much she likes writing the “other.” This doesn’t sit well with PoC fans. People of color, queer people, people with disabilities, these are the real “others” of any story. Being a kid who kind of doesn’t fit in (AKA Harry Potter) just isn’t the same thing, but that’s the kind of thing JK Rowling is actually good at writing.
Sometimes, the ambiguity of the characters’ identities in the actual canon is attributed (by white readers) to the fact that Harry Potter is set in a magical other-world. In other words, wizards don’t see color. This argument, Robyn said, is “kind of a cop out. There’s no magic in the world that could make you blind to the issues that we have in America around race and sexual orientation and gender identity. Wizards might live underground but they don’t live under rocks.”
Olivia agreed, explaining that “It’s not just harmful, but it’s unfair, I think, for Rowling to try and have it both ways. Like, I’m going to give you explicitly raced characters on the fringe, and then you can imagine whatever you want within the trio of heroes. I think that’s so unfair and the older I get, the more I re-read the books and engage with fandom, the more angry I get about that.”
The issue, the four agreed, then becomes whether someone like JK Rowling, a white woman, would have even been able to authentically write a Black hero, for example. At this point, Sabrina warned against the dangers of privileged voices attempting to add diversity to stories and ending up tokenizing people of color and other disenfranchised perspectives.
Addressing this concern, Robyn and Olivia suggested that writers with the sort of resources JK Rowling has utilize them to increase the diversity in the actual production of stories. Not only should privileged writers do extensive research before writing characters who’ve had different experiences than them, but they should also actively elevate the work of writers from diverse backgrounds.
The second part of the discussion revolved around questions from audience members and ranged in subject from JK Rowling’s appropriation of Native American cultures in her development of Ilvermorny on Pottermore to the lack of religious diversity in the Wizarding World. In conclusion, Robyn, Sabrina, Isabela, and Olivia reminded us that it’s always possible to engage critically with the stories we love, to seek out the media representation we deserve, and to make what we can’t find. The power is in fandom, and the fandom is us.