Here's What We Think J.K. Rowling Got Right — And Wrong — About Race In America
We debate why space wizards would have been easier.
Harry Potter is at a crossroads. Last week, J.K. Rowling released four new pieces of writing about magic in America on Pottermore — pieces that have spurred passionate reactions about the treatment of Native Americans in Rowling's imaginings.
So how are we feeling about the weird place the world of Harry Potter is in right now?
Alanna Bennett: Both Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling are slowly starting to acknowledge that they're not going to stop releasing new Harry Potter content, ever. They're gonna hang on to that copyright forever. So it's interesting watching them try to set that future up, and seeing where in that process they might be shooting themselves in the feet and/or tiring people out. It's a weird tightrope walk — especially as Jo starts wading into more and more cultures she hasn't actually lived in.
Hayes Brown: I am pre-exhausted for all of this.
AB: I am not against what she's doing on principle — not in reference to the culture stuff, to be clear, but to the general thing of expanding this world and expressing her thoughts on it. This might be because I have personally grappled with what happens when I disagree with her, in big ways and small. But I do think she's in a place where, regardless of what she writes, there are going to be a lot of people she upsets.
HB: Dear J.K. Rowling, you cannot win. Sorry. Welcome to America. Love, us.
AB: Which doesn't erase that those feelings are valid. Harry Potter means so much to so many people, so people are naturally going to have all kinds of reactions to it — especially when it wades into very real cultures that Jo is not a part of. Those reactions are real, and important. But in the very general sense of watching the world's most famous living author try to expand on a beloved world, what's happening right now is endlessly fascinating to me.
HB: It's so true. Which is a shame because we've all been so curious about this very thing — tell us about wizards in America! We want more information! Help us!
Alexis Nedd: Jo has crucially never attempted to fictionalize a minority culture before, instead allowing wizards to stand in for a minority subculture. No one's going to get pissy over a tea cozy joke because it's dominant British culture. But that's not what's happening anymore. And you can't put a fantasy bandage on a cut that hasn't stopped bleeding.
Do we buy that wizards in the Americas are any less racist than their No-Maj counterparts, as has been implied by these new Pottermore entries?
AB: After the Pottermore piece that focused on the influx of European settlers into North America, Jo tweeted that "there was mutual respect and a sense of kinship between all wizards, no matter what their race." Do you believe it?
HB: Ummmmm. UMMMMMMM. I get that we all hope and want wizards are better than us mere No-Maj. But that just seems implausible.
Anjali Patel: I don't know, I feel like if that were true we would have learned more about various wizarding communities in the book.
AB: Were European wizards, like, impervious to European Muggles' imperialism? Because that seems unlikely.
Krutika Mallikarjuna: Listen, there is no way wizards aren't racist.
HB: They literally had a civil war [in the original books] because some of them were racist against Muggles.
AB: Yeah, if wizards were fine with each other regardless of race, this definitely brings up the "why the hell did wizards let the Holocaust and slavery keep happening" question.
HB: I think Jo has wand-waved the Holocaust/World War II issue away, with Grindelwald. But slavery... boy, I don't know.
AB: Yeah, there sure was a lot of massacring of entire peoples.
KM: If wizards weren't racist, there'd be cross-pollination in a serious way — either Europeans would have "discovered"/settled in North America much sooner OR Native Americans would have shut that settler shit down immediately. You're telling me they don't have some charm in that world that could detect small pox? Or at least ill intent? No fucking way. Especially if they had met shady-ass European wizards before the settlers even got there.
HB: Here's a theory: Maybe they were racist, but in a different way. They could be like, "Hahaha, this skin color difference thing is bullshit; the clear distinction is between the magical and non-magical. Non-magical people are basically subhuman, but that black wizard is totally my equal."
AB: That does seem to be what a lot of wizards pick up on in the text of the original series.
HB: So racism was still in their community, just expressed in a way that we're not used to.
AB: But I also don't buy that there's not…wait for it…intersection. Especially when it comes to different kinds of magic. You know there had to be judgment between those who did wand magic and those who used wandless magic. That had to be exacerbated by what was happening in larger communities around them — being invaded and doing the invading. People will use anything they have to write other peoples off.
AP: Even the way wand magic is described: "Wands channel magic so as to make its effects both more precise and more powerful."
AB: It's hard for me to believe there was no conflict in the changeover to wand magic without some forced assimilation.
AN: There is no way wizards, individual people with PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER AT THEIR FINGERTIPS, let slavery happen without being racist.
KM: Also, wizards have slaves. Just of a different species.
Matt Ortile: That brings it back to Hayes' point. They could be like, "Hahaha this skin color difference thing is bullshit. The clear distinction is between magic and non-magical. Muggles are basically subhuman, but that black wizard is totally my equal."
HB: I think that wizards think they're woke but are really still sleeping.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Yes, like white people.
Shane Whitaker: I definitely take issue with how she portrays ancient Native magic. Emphasizing that Animagi were more common among Native wizards and that we were particularly gifted with plants and potions is building off the very real-world (and inaccurate) mythos around Native spirituality. It enforces the notion that Natives are one with nature and paint with all the colors of the wind. I would have been much more impressed if she'd built her idea of Native magic around other unique things about Native society, like family and tribe structure, or interconnectedness.
HB: Ooooh, and she's already established that family magic is both ancient and deep.
MO: So what do you think? If Jo had just not mentioned Native American relations or given them her brand of magic in her world, essentially just left their existence well enough alone, would that have been better or worse?
SW: Personally, I think the picture of Native wizards she painted in the first piece really played on already prevalent misconceptions about Native spiritualism. After that, Natives have stopped playing much of a role in this series. So I feel like she might as well have just not touched on us at all because she's mimicking the way history typically erases Natives. That said, I would have loved this if her initial picture of Native wizards was more human and less based in stereotypes.
SW: I also think it would have been so dope if she had kept Native wizards central to the series and used that community as key players in how the rest of this history is playing out. Like, what if Native wizards had played a major role in forming MACUSA? How might Native wizards have had different attitudes toward No-Maj people than European-American wizards in the era of Rappaport's Law? What if the Natives had been the ones to advocate for more leniency in wizard and No-Maj relations? We could have been so interesting! Having the Native dude be the one to make wands out of thunderbird feathers that are particularly prized by transfigurers just furthers the skinwalker mythos. But, like, part of me is happy just to see a Native play any kind of important role in this world. I was expecting no further mention of Natives after the second piece.
SW: I feel like how little Natives are mentioned in the second piece of writing kinda mimics how the history of North American settlement is usually told. We were welcoming, then there was some conflict, and that's about it.
AN: There's so much in American history that should have been righted by the supposed closeness of native and European wizards. "Hey friends, your non-magical cousin is pretending to buy like a hundred different cultures' worth of land from France. You want to maybe talk to the French wizards in the court and put the kibosh on that?" "No, native wizard friend whose family has been aware of mine for many generations and who is my equal is every way, we won't do anything to stop this and also we won't help you when our No-Maj brethren literally murder almost everyone you know."
HB: I'd again go back to how frustrating that must be for Jo, and how much she must want to wand-wave that all away. But the fact that she addresses it at all and goes through such great lengths to point out how much the wizards from different continents respected each other and their traditions actually makes it a little worse.
KM: That's my main problem with this whole thing. "Lemme just retcon hundreds of years of horrible colonialist and racist history in a few hundred words and some tweets" – it lets white people off the hook. Does it feel good to be like, racism doesn't exist in my fantasy world? Sure. Does it make the real people of color whose identities and culture you are using to build and sell your fantasy world feel good? No.
AB: Yeah, that's a consistent thing for me: I very strongly believe that she is trying and listening. But I also think she comes from a very '90s feminism — let's call it Tina Fey, Joss Whedon feminism. That is a ship that has a tendency to sometimes take on water when it comes to the standards that are being put in place right now. Not that the standards themselves are strictly new. But there's definitely a furor of conversation around them that's of the moment, and there's a lot of visible flailing as people try to catch up — or as they don't catch up and have to stare down the consequences of that.
What are the logic questions that are hounding us with all this new information?
AN: With Rappaport's Law, how do American wizards keep track of No-Maj-borns when they're so segregated? Are No-Maj-borns supposed to leave their families behind?
HB: Also, still left in the air: What happened to No-Maj-borns born into slavery? What happened in the 1860s when there was an influx of Chinese immigrants to the West?
AN: And what about later immigration of Irish wizards used to their way of dealing with Muggles? Would they have to immigrate specifically to magical parts of the U.S.? Especially because America is an immigrant country, cloistering wizards makes no sense because there's no way to get people who have lived among non-magical folks to submit to hanging out with the same seven shitty wizards forever?
Aside from the details, what is it exactly that we're getting stuck on?
MO: When I was on a Harry Potter role-play forum, I made a Filipino character that went to Hogwarts as an immigrant. He grew up in the Philippines, was raised in London, got his letter at 11. But instead of getting his wand at Ollivander's, he got his wand in the Philippines — 12 inches, acacia wood, duwende beard hair core. Duwendes are part of Filipino folklore and it was a fun way to put a spin on the culture. The genuineness and authenticity of identities/cultures being written about BY those identities/cultures is very important and only serves the attempt at world building. But I must admit, duwendes are considered fictional, not a part of any spiritual belief, though acknowledged in contemporary Filipino culture. This Native Appropriations post brings up the important point that Native American faith is very much alive and real for those who practice it. It's one thing to create fiction out of "Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump." But to fictionalize concepts from a culture that consider them true is risky business. I guess that's what happens when you try to supplant something fictional into something that already exists. But I guess that's what fiction is — an extension of what is not fiction.
HB: This is something that I'd love to talk to JK Rowling about. Part of the thing that makes me feel almost bad for Jo — but not really — is the need to place this magical world she's created smack-dab in the middle of our very fucked-up real one. The idea of world-building on top of the real world, instead of an entirely new one. There are limits to how much she can make the history of her world less terrible than ours. And having to decide things like inflection points in history and how you handle them. Because a lot of what she does is through metaphor and allusions — Grindlewald was an expy for Hitler and his rise. Now, though, as she expands her world more, she has more and more history to deal with. How does she decide what happened as it did IRL, and what has a wizard twist? And how does she meld those two together into a narrative that isn't full of contradictions?
AB: And now that she's tackling this whole continent that she hasn't spent nearly as much time in, it's fascinating to watch the interpretations of that history and how it intersects with this world she crafted around a different (but obviously intersecting) one.
HB: When you try to place that wizarding layer on top of the US, you get these points of friction that don't pop up nearly as strongly in the British context
MO: Maybe it would have been easier in Canada. But they obviously also have native populations in Canada. So...
AN: It would have been easier in space, to be honest. Space wizards would have been less fraught.
So, what is it that we actually want from Fantastic Beasts and the world built around these American wizards?
AB: So, question: In your ideal world, what would Fantastic Beasts be about? I feel like we all have specific things we'd like to see.
MO: GAY WIZARDS.
HB: I just wanna see some magic and dragons. I am purposefully keeping my expectations lower than low.
AN: I want Fantastic Beasts to be about Newt Scamander fucking up and having the black wizards of the Harlem Renaissance help his ass out.
KM: Honestly, I'll be happy if the one person of color in the trailer (Seraphina Picquery, president of MACUSA, played by Carmen Ejogo) has screentime/lines that don't revolve around exposition and sending the hero on his journey. If we see even a liiiiiiiittle bit of character development for her, I'll be pleasantly surprised.
There certainly is a lot to think about as Harry Potter chugs on into eternity. Here's to whatever comes next.
Thumbnail image via Chris Jackson / Getty Images.