- Harry and the Other:Answering the Race Question in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter
As Farah Mendlesohn notes in her essay "Crowning the King: Harry Potter and the Construction of Authority," "attempting to write a critique of a body of work that is clearly unfinished is a challenge to any academic" (159). Despite such difficulties, literary critics, including Mendlesohn, found the interpretive challenge too tempting when it came to analyzing J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Unfinished though it was until 2007, critics could not resist putting forth arguments about Rowling's novels, and the world(s) they depict, arguments that could only be proven definitively once the series had concluded.
One issue in particular has led to vastly different interpretations of the Potter series: the books' stance on issues of race and ethnic otherness. As many readers have noted, the Harry Potter books are deeply invested in teaching their protagonists (and through them, their readers) how to confront, eradicate, and ameliorate racism through its depiction of the racism that underlies Voldemort's campaign against "Mudbloods." This essay will discuss two different intellectual traditions of antiracism education—multicultural antiracism and social justice antiracism – and explore how Rowling draws upon each in order to show both her protagonists and her readers how to approach the challenging task of fighting racism. It will also explore the implications of her decision to privilege a multicultural antiracism pedagogy over a social justice approach.
The critical response to the issue of race and ethnicity in the Harry Potter books has been varied, to say the least. On one end of the spectrum, critics such as Karin E. Westman have suggested that the Harry Potter novels offer a trenchant critique of "materialist ideologies of difference," a critique that Brycchan Carey argues demonstrates "opportunities for political activism available to young people in the real world" (Westman, "specters" 328; Carey 104). Such critics believe that Rowling's texts create an implied [End Page 76] reader who is asked to condemn the racism of the wizarding world—not only the distinction between "Mudbloods" and "pure bloods" voiced by its more extreme members, but also its limitations of the rights of sentient others and its foundation on enslavement of house elves. On the other end of the spectrum can be found critics such as Mendelsohn, who argue that "Rowling's world of fantasy is one of hierarchy and prejudice" (177). In between are those who argue that the texts' attitudes toward race are contradictory, simultaneously embracing both radical critique and conservative traditionalism (Ostry, Anatol). Now that the final volume in the Harry Potter series has been published, which of these many positions on race and ethnicity in the text can be supported most convincingly?
In order to begin to answer this question, I believe, we must look first not at the novels themselves, but at antiracism as a word and a concept. For, as Alistair Bonnett points out in his history of the term and the various movements that have claimed or disavowed it, "different forms of antiracism often operate with different definitions of what racism is" (4). Different readers can find Rowling's novels conservative or liberal in their depiction of race relations not because some are right and some are wrong, but because they draw on different traditions of thought about what constitutes racism, and what remedies are required to overcome it.
The general term antiracism is a relative newcomer to the English language. Although "anti-racist" dates to the 1930s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, antiracism was not widely used until the 1960s, and then primarily in countries where either French or English was spoken (Bonnett 10). During the 1960s, two very different definitions of the concept emerged, definitions that were from the start in tension with one another. While both definitions agree that antiracism centers on "those forms of thought and/or practice that seek to confront, eradicate, and/or ameliorate racism," they differ in what they label racism, and in what steps they believe should be taken to eradicate and/or ameliorate it (4). One line of thought, which has its roots in the European Enlightenment, argues for...