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Harry Pot­ter’s legacy of blood pu­rity

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - THE FACTS ISSUE - By melissa brinks

Harry Pot­ter’s pu­rity prob­lem.

Even among those who con­sider them­selves pro­gres­sive, there’s a per­sis­tent be­lief that ig­nor­ing dif­fer­ence is the path to equal­ity. By pre­tend­ing we “don’t see color” or be­hav­ing as though ho­mo­pho­bia is over be­cause of mar­riage equal­ity, we ab­solve our­selves of re­spon­si­bil­ity while per­pet­u­at­ing white supremacy, het­ero­sex­ism, and other sys­tems of op­pres­sion. Na­tion­al­ism, specif­i­cally the promi­nence of men­tal­i­ties like “Amer­ica First,” is founded on the idea that Amer­ica, Bri­tain, or other world pow­ers look one way: white.

As is­sues of na­tion­al­ism and xeno­pho­bia have dom­i­nated re­cent elec­tions, the Harry Pot­ter se­ries—which cel­e­brated its 20th an­niver­sary this past sum­mer—has emerged as a weirdly rel­e­vant ana­log. Au­thor J.K. Rowl­ing doesn’t fully flesh out the con­cept of the “blood pu­rity” that de­fines both wiz­ards and Mug­gles (hu­mans with­out mag­i­cal blood), but it of­fers nu­mer­ous metaphors for the same white-su­prem­a­cist con­cept.

The wiz­ard­ing world has its own so­ciopo­lit­i­cal hi­er­ar­chy, with pure­bloods (wiz­ards born to two wiz­ard par­ents) at the top, fol­lowed by half-bloods (wiz­ards with one Mug­gle par­ent), Mug­gle-borns (wiz­ards born

to non­mag­i­cal par­ents who are oc­ca­sion­ally re­ferred to by the slur “mud­blood”), and squibs (non­mag­i­cal peo­ple born to wiz­ard par­ents). Mug­gles are be­low all of th­ese. How­ever, de­spite the breadth of the Pot­ter em­pire, Rowl­ing never dives into the bi­ases in­her­ent among wiz­ards that make th­ese dis­tinc­tions nec­es­sary or ex­am­ines the ten­dency to look the other way when op­pres­sion is hap­pen­ing un­der our noses.

In Rowl­ing’s world, dark fig­ures in wiz­ard­ing his­tory—most promi­nently Volde­mort— have en­forced this hi­er­ar­chy to erad­i­cate all Mug­gles and vi­o­lently en­force the supremacy of pure­blood wiz­ards. The con­cept of blood pu­rity comes from hu­man at­tempts to cat­e­go­rize and marginal­ize peo­ple based on their color, eth­nic­ity, and re­li­gion, but Rowl­ing ap­plies it to a pre­dom­i­nately white, straight, cis world. That Rowl­ing uses this anal­ogy with­out ref­er­enc­ing the his­tory of hu­mans of color who have borne such geno­ci­dal ob­ses­sions re­in­forces the hi­er­ar­chy in which Volde­mort be­lieves so strongly: Mug­gles are not worth con­sid­er­a­tion. Mug­gles ex­ist out­side of the main story as “oth­ers”: some­times as face­less vic­tims of Volde­mort’s vi­o­lence, other times as nec­es­sary an­noy­ances—like the camp­ground man­ager who’s had mem­ory-eras­ing spells cast on him so many times that he thinks it’s Christ­mas in the mid­dle of sum­mer—but never as three-di­men­sional char­ac­ters.

Good wiz­ards don’t hate Mug­gles, of course, but they don’t of­ten go out of their way to hu­man­ize or help them, ei­ther. Wiz­ard­ing Eng­land ex­ists along­side and within Mug­gle Eng­land, but when Mug­gle lives are threat­ened, wiz­ards pri­or­i­tize the safety and self-preser­va­tion of their world over their fel­low hu­mans. As Volde­mort and his squad of Death Eaters wreak havoc on Mug­gle so­ci­ety in Half-blood Prince, wiz­ards only ap­proach the Mug­gle prime min­is­ter for help af­ter a bridge col­lapse, two mur­ders, a “hur­ri­cane,” and a failed at­tempt to mind con­trol a politi­cian—or, more ac­cu­rately, when the threat to Mug­gles risks ex­pos­ing the wiz­ards them­selves.

Even the Weasley fam­ily, deemed “blood traitors” by pure­blood su­prem­a­cists be­cause of their sym­pa­thy for Mug­gles and Mug­gle-born wiz­ards, are ashamed of their non­mag­i­cal rel­a­tive, an ac­coun­tant. Arthur Weasley’s fas­ci­na­tion with Mug­gles is meant to be en­dear­ing, but even though he is in­ter­ested in Mug­gles, there’s no deeper ac­knowl­edge­ment of their

hu­man­ity; he seems mostly to marvel over their abil­ity to do any­thing at all with­out magic. It’s an at­tempt to cel­e­brate di­ver­sity with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing a hi­er­ar­chy, the same kind of at­ti­tude that al­lows priv­i­leged pro­gres­sive peo­ple to in­sist they don’t see color or dif­fer­ence.

But the frus­trat­ing truth at the heart of the Harry Pot­ter se­ries is that wiz­ards don’t see Mug­gles as equals. It’s easy to ig­nore Mug­gles be­cause wiz­ards have the abil­ity to fully iso­late them­selves from Mug­gle so­ci­ety, just as white, straight, or cis­gen­der peo­ple tend to look at them­selves and their peers and pro­claim that ev­ery­thing is fine, de­spite what might be hap­pen­ing out­side of their own com­mu­ni­ties. The pas­sive con­cern for Mug­gles echoes how those with priv­i­lege in the real world only care about op­pres­sion and vi­o­lence when it hap­pens to those con­sid­ered peers. Few peo­ple seemed to talk about this dur­ing the peak of the se­ries’ pop­u­lar­ity, but the con­ver­sa­tion has be­come more con­sis­tent as con­ver­sa­tions about in­equal­ity, priv­i­lege, and par­ti­san pol­i­tics be­come more com­mon­place.

With so much of the se­ries set at Hog­warts School of Witch­craft and Wiz­ardry, it’s un­sur­pris­ing that we meet few Mug­gles other than the Durs­leys and Mug­gle-born wiz­ards like Hermione. In­stead, we see the feel­ings and as­sump­tions wiz­ards have about Mug­gles: There’s Harry’s per­sonal ha­tred for the spe­cific Mug­gles who’ve made his life un­bear­ably hard; the cu­ri­ous fas­ci­na­tion with Mug­gle ways; and the al­most in­sti­tu­tional ha­tred and sneer­ing dis­missal that’s a hall­mark of pure­blood su­prem­a­cists like Draco and Lu­cius Mal­foy.

When Volde­mort takes con­trol of Hog­warts, he spins wiz­ards’ ig­no­rance and lack of con­nec­tion with Mug­gles into an av­enue for pro­pa­ganda, en­cour­ag­ing ha­tred among wiz­ard youth. Un­der Volde­mort, wiz­ards are taught that Mug­gles are a vi­cious, stupid, an­i­mal­is­tic threat to the wiz­ard way of life that should be ex­tin­guished. In a clear ref­er­ence to the ed­u­ca­tion of Hitler Youth in Nazi Ger­many, Rowl­ing is on the verge of mak­ing an ex­cel­lent point: A lack of in­for­ma­tion is a breed­ing ground for lies and fear­mon­ger­ing. Yet the char­ac­ters still seem to care more about how pure­blood supremacy will af­fect the Mug­gle-borns at Hog­warts than the Mug­gles who don’t even know that they’re a tar­get of a geno­ci­dal vil­lain.

Rowl­ing has long been crit­i­cized for the lack of di­ver­sity in the world she built, where char­ac­ters like Dum­ble­dore and An­thony Gold­stein were only con­firmed as gay or Jewish once the se­ries was fin­ished. Read­ers are ex­pected to trust that di­ver­sity ex­ists within the Harry Pot­ter uni­verse with­out ev­i­dence, al­low­ing Rowl­ing to coast by on as­sump­tions with­out proof. Th­ese marginal­ized iden­ti­ties are ul­ti­mately just set dress­ing, cu­ri­ous bub­bles of di­ver­sity in a sea of straight, Chris­tian char­ac­ters (the en­tire wiz­ard­ing world seems to cel­e­brate only Christ­mas). They’re there, but we never see how they are there. What does it mean to be gay or Jewish or Black in the wiz­ard­ing world? Does it mean what it means in Bri­tain, or does the wiz­ard­ing world re­serve all its prej­u­dice for Mug­gles?

It’s easy to ar­gue that th­ese is­sues aren’t ad­dressed be­cause it makes for a bet­ter, more es­capist fan­tasy, one that al­lows read­ers a break from our mun­dane lives. In em­brac­ing a fan­tasy so clearly steeped in white Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism, Rowl­ing recre­ates those same prej­u­dices in her work: That which isn’t “us” is bad, weird, or merely cu­ri­ous, not whole, rounded, lively, and hu­man. When Rowl­ing fails to ex­plic­itly in­clude di­ver­sity on page or screen, it speaks to a deeper lack of con­nec­tion with those that are “other” to Rowl­ing her­self.

Though Rowl­ing has fin­ished the main Harry Pot­ter se­ries, the ho­moge­nous wiz­ard­ing world con­tin­ues to have an im­pact on her work and those in­vested in it. When Noma Dumezweni, a Black wo­man, was cast as Hermione in the re­cent U.K. pro­duc­tion of Harry Pot­ter and the Cursed Child, it was


“un­be­liev­able” for many fans. Rowl­ing’s screen­play de­pic­tion of 1920s Har­lem in 2016’s Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them was de­void of Black peo­ple, but fea­tured a Black-coded gob­lin, with mo­tion cap­ture by a Black wo­man, voiced by a white singer.

Harry Pot­ter and wiz­ard supremacy didn’t cre­ate na­tion­al­ism. It didn’t vote for Brexit. It didn’t elect Trump. But it’s a symp­tom of a per­va­sive un­will­ing­ness to ex­am­ine how we re­late to oth­ers and a de­sire to pro­tect na­tion­al­ist ideas about pu­rity and her­itage at all costs. That it plays such a heavy and un­ques­tioned role in Rowl­ing’s se­ries speaks not to the se­ries con­tribut­ing di­rectly to real-world prob­lems, but rather to how in­grained it is in our so­ci­ety that so many of us failed to no­tice.

MELISSA BRINKS is a free­lance writer, ed­i­tor, and pod­caster. She coed­its the Women­write­about­comics.com games sec­tion, talks about pop cul­ture on her pod­cast, Fake Geek Girls, and tweets about were­wolves at @Melissabrinks.

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