Thursday, December 24, 2015

Why I'm Conflicted about JK Rowling's Response to Black Hermione


For "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," a stage adaptation to Harry Potter, Noma Dumezweni (picture above) is set to play Hermione.

There was some backlash to this decision (of course!). Cue the standard rhetoric: "Hermione is white in the movies!" "It'd be okay if she was originally black, honestly it would, but this is just rewriting something for the sake of diversity." "Why are people of color stealing white roles now?"

JK Rowling, amazing as she is, had many responses. A look through her Twitter feed will show wonders of her support for a diversification of Harry Potter, through her own tweets or tweets she retweeted (please let technology work for me and have these tweets show up).

Her "official" response (or, at least, the one that's gotten the most publicity) is this one:
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015

There is a big reason to love Rowling's response. JK Rowling never specified Hermione's race; this is true for many many characters, in many many novels. In a Western white world, white is the default race for any person whose race is not specified.

This is problematic.

The "default" identities are almost always identities of privilege. In an ideal world, there should be no default (because any default automatically excludes others). Whichever identities are deemed to be "default" or "normal" determines who in society will be deemed most human. The default reveals whom society holds front-and-center in its mind, and whom society is structured to value, and protect, the most.

Let me give you an example. Imagine a person. Any person. Now, describe them.

Applause if you imagined a low-income undocumented trans woman of color with a disability. Now, this may seem odd to you - why would you ever have imagined such a specific person? But say you imagined a cisgender documented straight white man with no disability. Isn't that person described just as specifically as the trans woman? Why is it "easy" to imagine him instead of her? Who does society deem as "normal"?

The idea of "normal" or "default" is constructed, and those who are deemed default are valued the most by society. They are given the most rights and these rights are assumed to be natural.

But they're not natural. These privileged rights are societally-given. For example, it's not "natural" that a cis man is given the most control over his body compared to other people. "Nature" does not restrict access to contraception, hormones, and surgeries. Humans do. When non-cis men demand control over their own bodies, they seem to be asking for "extra" rights, outside the "normal". See why it's so important to deconstruct who is deemed default?

As Aaron Kashtan puts so well in this article, "The default assumption of whiteness is no longer acceptable." It all comes back to messing up the idea of "default" and "normal". Casting a black Hermione does this beautifully. Since Rowling never described Hermione's race, Rowling can play with the idea that society deemed Hermione to be white. Deconstructing white normality will also deconstruct the dehumanization of people of color. Rowling can mess up the idea of a "default" race. She can get people to think twice when they label a "generic" person as white.

But JK Rowling's response also has some problems. Although it's nice that she never mentioned Hermione's race in the novel, why didn't she? Knowing full well, due to society, Hermione would be seen as white, why didn't Rowling specify her race? Couldn't Rowling have messed up the idea of a "default" race by specifically mentioning Hermione's race at the end of the first novel - tricking readers into thinking she's white, and then turning the tables in the novels? Why didn't Rowling do this in the novels?

There's an answer. Novels aren't visual. Therefore, it's much easier to avoid engaging with race if race never has to be mentioned. It's a cop-out for writers who are uncomfortable with race. In a world where race heavily influences every person, it's odd to see characters "without a race". But, honestly, we all know what we infer: these characters are white.

There seems to be a pattern of characters whose racial identities are not mentioned, and then are cast as white to no criticism. There is a pattern of characters whose racial identities are briefly specified as of color, but are cast as white (see: Katniss Everdeen). And when characters are cast as people of color: people get outraged.

Knowing full well that society will deem all characters in her British novel to be white unless specified otherwise, why didn't Rowling specify Hermione to be black? Many black girls would have loved this. Here I am, an Indian man, loving every instance that Parvati and Padma Patil show up in the books and the movies because they look sort of like me. Because even though the other main characters' races are not specified, I know I am not the generic race. I know I can never relate to them.

And there's more. Changing skin is not enough. If a character's plot is unaffected when their skin changes color, well, racism wouldn't exist. Now that Hermione is black, how will her Blackness play a part in the plot? Since much of the Wizarding World is influenced by the Muggle World, since many from the Muggle World come into the Wizarding World (Muggle-borns), and since the Muggle World is structured by race, the Wizarding World almost certainly has racism in it. (I can't imagine Snape or Umbridge not making snide remarks about Hermione's skin.) Will Rowling embrace Blackness in skin only, or embrace all the issues of Blackness as well?

Rowling did something similar with Dumbledore, announcing he was gay after the books were published, and only hinting at his sexuality in the actual novels. Yes, finding out he is gay was amazing. But we deserve more. Why couldn't he be gay in the novels?

A common concern will be that this is a children's story, and issues of race (and sexuality) are too heavy for children. This concern usually comes from white and cis straight people. Almost all children of color have been given the "you will be treated differently because of your skin" at a young age. All children of color experience racism at a young age. Many queer children struggle with sexuality and/or gender before they're even five years old. Their issues are real, and they need sources and guidance in how to deal with such issues. They don't need novels and plays that are blind to their identities. Identity blindness only helps the default. It only helps the privileged.

We don't live in an ideal world. We don't live in a colorblind world, and I'm tired of colorblind novels. In a world where white is the default, we deserve characters of color to be unapologetically labelled as such.

So there's my dilemma. Rowling has done a lot. We just deserve a lot more.

Congrats congrats congrats, Ms. Dumezweni!!!!! You're going to make an amazing Hermione :D (I'm honestly so excited for this, I hope they get it on DVD so I can watch here in the USofA.)
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