Harry Potter and the Complexity of Inequality
Abstract: In this essay, the idea that racism in the Harry Potter books, as well as in real life, is a deeply ingrained part of human nature, and even the best of people show signs of discrimination.
J.K. Rowling presents a complex view of racism and discrimination throughout her Harry Potter series. In all of the Potter books, racism and other social inequalities play a major role through the plot. From the house-elves, the most easily recognizable example of prejudice, to even just Muggles, or non-magical humans, discrimination is shown as both something only villains see, and something characters on the “good” side show. Immediately as Harry is introduced into the wizarding world, the different social classes become recognizable. Some classes of people are looked down upon by others; for example, pure-blood wizards look with distain to Muggles, Mudbloods (wizards born to Muggle parents), and blood traitors (pure-blood wizards who don’t believe they must preserve their bloodline). Even more classes show prejudice towards humanoid beings, such as centaurs, goblins, and other half-breeds. Despite the amount of kindness in a characters heart, nearly all of them show some type of discrimination throughout the course of the series. By providing readers with this complex world, Rowling holds a mirror up on our own. In modern culture, even the best of people have built-in prejudices for a nationality, culture, or race. By first showing that racism is something to be fought against, and then by introducing her audience to a number of prejudices that characters aren’t as bothered by, J.K. Rowling asserts that discrimination still exists in the modern world, and humans should become more aware of it and fight to stop it. J.K. Rowling examines the role of equality and racism in modern culture through her characters.
The first and biggest example of inequality portrayed in Harry Potter is discrimination displayed by characters we are taught to believe are “bad”. Most notably, the discrimination shown by Death Eaters towards “Mudbloods” or Muggle-born wizards and witches is the type of discrimination the audience is taught to detest. From the very first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Draco Malfoy is introduced in a way that sends messages of hate. The audience is intended to not like Draco, partially because he immediately shows discrimination towards Mudbloods. Draco, after asking Harry if his parents were wizards, says “I really don’t think they should let [Mudbloods] in, do you?” (SS 78). Draco, being raised in a pure-blood family, feels as though he is superior, as do the Death Eaters, Voldemort’s supporters. Voldemort himself, in fact, thinks of himself as pure-blood, although his father was, in his words, “a foul, common Muggle.” (CoS 314). In thinking this, Voldemort could easily be compared to Hitler, in persecuting not only a race he didn’t like, but one he was a part of. The Nazi- Death Eater comparison has even been brought up to J.K. Rowling.
The expressions “pure-blood,” “half-blood,” and “Muggle-born” have been coined to people to whom these distinctions matter, and express their originators’ prejudices! If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted “Aryan” or “Jewish” blood. I saw one in the Holocaust Museum in Washington when I had already devised the “pure-blood,” “half-blood,” and “Muggle-born” definitions and was chilled to see that the Nazis used precisely the same warped logic as the Death Eaters. A single Jewish parent “polluted” the blood, according to their propaganda.
While comparing Voldemort to Hitler is a relatively easy thing to do, “Voldemort-as-Hitler is something of a cliché. Both of them have come to represent evil, as an abstract easy-to-hate concept, and drawing parallels is almost too easy.” There are definite similarities between Voldemort and Hitler, although Harry Potter presents more than just the “pure-blood” or “Muggle-born” issues in dealing with equality.
Another example one might look at when observing social and racial differences in the Harry Potter series is the difference between wizards and humanoid beings, specifically goblins. This prejudice is often looked upon throughout the course of the series, and is beginning to be seen in more than just “bad” characters or characters we are meant to dislike. Even good people occasionally show some sort of bigotry towards goblins. Goblins fall into the humanoid creature category, with minds of their own and their ability to communicate with wizards. But, should goblins be granted the same rights as regular wizards and witches? The readers never get a definitive answer. True, goblins are the people who run Gringotts, the main wizarding bank in London, but in other aspects they aren’t given equal rights. One thing goblins are often complaining and protesting for is the use of wands. The students of Hogwarts learn in their History of Magic class about goblin rebellions, yet they never seem to have succeeded. Goblins must apparently still “deal with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures,” in the Ministry of Magic (GoF 449). Ron jokingly refers to them as “Ugly Goblins,” but Hermione, who is often the most supportive towards different classes and creatures, says goblins are “quite capable of dealing with wizards! They’re very clever.” (GoF 449). Despite their ability to deal with wizards, goblins have never won full wand rights, or the rights to be classified as individuals. They are also looked at differently than other wizards and witches. Ron, who was raised in a wizarding family, often makes jokes at the expense of goblins, and his brother, Bill, wouldn’t even call goblins his friends, though he works with them. “As far as there can be friendship between wizards and goblins, I have goblin friends- or, at least, goblins I know well, and like.” According to Bill, “We are talking about a different breed of being,” not one who should be treated like a human (DH 516-517). Because humans can’t quite understand goblins ways, they immediately act differently towards them. Even characters the audience is meant to love show some sort of discrimination towards the goblin race.
Goblins appearances are reminiscent of another human-like being portrayed in the Harry Potter series, house-elves. House-elves are one of the more prevalent examples of inequality in the series. House-elves also have the ability to communicate with humans, much like goblins, only they have less drive to stick up for themselves. Never has there been a house-elf riot, because house-elves enjoy their job. They are portrayed as servile creatures, who don’t want to be given freedom. George Weasley, another one of Ron’s brothers, asserts that the house-elves at Hogwarts are “happy. The think they’ve got the best job in the world!” (GoF 259). Unfortunately, Dumbledore’s kind treatment of the house-elves at Hogwarts is more of an exception than a rule. Because a house-elf’s nature is to serve, wizards think they have the right to abuse their elves, as the Malfoy’s treatment of Dobby proves, as well as Barty Crouch’s treatment of his elf. In Dobby’s first encounter with Harry, Harry politely asks Dobby to take a seat, to which Dobby responds with tears:
“S-sit down!” he wailed. “Never! never ever!”
Harry thought he heard the voices downstairs falter.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I didn’t mean to offend you or anything-”
“Offend Dobby!” choked the elf. “Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard- like an equal-” (CoS 13)
Barty Crouch, a worker for the Ministry of Magic, acts in much the same way towards his house-elf, Winky. When we first meet Winky, she had been sent by Crouch up the top box in an incredibly large Quidditch stadium to hold a seat, even though she is petrified by heights. Then, once again, at the first sign of disobedience, he gets rid of her without a second thought. As Crouch stares at Winky sobbing over the prospect of being fired, “There was no pity in his gaze.” (GoF 138). Even as Winky prostrates herself at Crouch’s feet, he “took a step backward, freeing himself from contact with the elf, whom he was surveying as though she were something filthy and rotten that was contaminating his over-shined shoes.” (GoF 138). The direct maltreating of house-elves is done by characters the audience is intended to dislike, yet the prejudice goes deeper than that. Good people, even one’s who have been discriminated against themselves (like Hagrid and Harry), fail to do anything to improve the house-elves way of life. Hermione, once again the kind soul, is disgusted by the way most house-elves are treated, and sets up her own organization to do something about their way of life. She is the only character in the course of seven novels who stands up for house-elves, and is even ridiculed by fellow classmates for trying to improve the house-elves situation. As Hermione attempts to gather funds for SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare), the students respond with less than enthusiasm.
Some people, like Neville, had paid up just to stop Hermione from glowering at them. A few seemed mildly interested in what she had to say, but were reluctant to take a more active role in campaigning. Many regarded the whole thing as a joke (GoF 239).
Although SPEW was never taken very seriously, in the end Hermione was correct that in treating house-elves with compassion, you will form better bonds with them. When Harry needs information from Kreacher, his house-elf, his getting angry at Kreacher got him nowhere. Once he was kind to Kreacher, and gave him something he desired, Kreacher warmed up to him and went above and beyond his duties. Perhaps treating house-elves with respect would serve the wizarding community better, but they can’t quite get over their built-in prejudice.
The tales of Harry Potter are more than just a story about The Boy Who Lived, who fought for his whole life against a villain. The Harry Potter series presents an extremely complex view on racism and discrimination, with not only the villains showing prejudice but the “good guys” as well. Everyone showing overt racism towards people are meant to be hated, yet other characters get away with doing nothing at all to help oppressed creatures and suffer no repercussions. In doing this, J.K. Rowling shows her audience the flaws in modern culture, where any sort of racism is frowned upon, yet everyone still shows prejudice towards different races without meaning to. However, in the end, even that is not to be encouraged, she shows, because treating people equally gives the best results for everyone. “Her final book stresses the importance of tolerance and equality for creating a free society.” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2009, pp. 208-09). And only by creating a society free of prejudices can humans (and wizards) expect to live in peace.