Symbols for social change in “Harry Potter”
Many fans of the Harry Potter series, and other works in the fantasy genre, have criticised J.K. Rowling’s use of magical creatures and the tension between magical races to act as a metaphor for real world racism and other inequalities. While critics justify their position by arguing that metaphor makes the messages easy to miss or intentionally ignore, I have to disagree. I think the initial ambiguity of the deeper meaning behind the tension between pure-bloods, werewolves, goblins, and trolls is actually a very powerful tool for educating readers about larger systems of discrimination, particularly for young readers.
Even strong advocates for social justice do not always seek out fiction that explicitly comments on situations of social justice. Books dealing with social issues tend to be difficult to read and repel casual readers, as well as young readers. Readers who don’t care about or are unaware of the realities of discrimination and inequality in our world are even less likely to pick up a book that speaks directly about the topic. This is where Jo’s work comes in.
When a person, particularly a child, enters a fantasy land, everything is accepted without question. Hagrid can use a pink umbrella to give Dudley a tail? Sure! Wizards travel using green powder thrown into a fireplace? Why not?! These things are easy to swallow in the fantasy genre. Jo used this fact to her advantage: When Remus Lupin is treated poorly by the wizarding community for his lycanthropy, the reader accepts how damaging discrimination is, not only to Remus’s feelings (as many people tend to view discrimination this way) but also to his physical well-being, which leads into classism, but I’ll address that later. The reader first sympathizes with Remus’s social and physical condition before it is revealed he is a werewolf, which, as a metaphor, represents the social and physical effects of HIV/AIDS. Individuals with HIV/AIDS may experience discrimination; affected individuals may isolate themselves socially or avoid romantic relationships, and many individuals worry that their children will be born infected. All of these anxieties are shared by Remus. Remus also faces a lot of discrimination, which causes his perpetual unemployment and the anxiety and depression he seems to suffer from. This leads to increased sympathy in the reader for individuals suffering the many effects of chronic illness in the real world. In some respects, I do have to criticise Jo here for attempting to tackle an issue as expansive as HIV/AIDS and ultimately failing to capture the problem sufficiently, but her effort to include this in the time when she was writing was admirable since HIV/AIDS was still widely misunderstood.
The metaphor functions differently for other magical races. Goblins, house-elves, centaurs, and trolls are important players in the plot of Potter, but rarely do witches and wizards treat them as such. There are far too many nuances of these metaphors to cover in a single article, so I will cover a different aspect of magical racism, using each species as an example.
Goblins are my favorite of the magical species in the series because the metaphorical resonances are so powerful. Goblins have contributed to wizard society across centuries, yet they are seen as a necessary evil in the magical world since they are skilled in forging goods and run the wizard banks but still treated as decidedly other; their appearance and their pride in their race makes them unappealing to wizards. I think the situation of goblins in the wizarding world reflects some of the struggles and stigmas associated with Jewish people and anti-Semitism in the Muggle world. Many of the stereotypes associated with goblins are also associated with Jewish people (big noses, greedy, suspicious). Again, Jo does not fully explore this metaphor, but she makes good with the few mentions and appearances of goblins. While it would be unfair to assume that the average fan is anti-Semitic and could tacitly gain some insight from the description of the goblin’s struggle, the parallels to the real world do help fans examine their own prejudices against racial groups, especially when there is little acknowledgement of a group’s individual history as it is situated within the broader world (which applies to goblins and Jewish people both).
Another fascinating way Jo looks at race in the series is in relation to class; many of the pure-blood families in Harry Potter are wealthy, and the intersection of wealth and race exists in a similar way in our own world. There are poor pure-bloods and wealthy ones, but the fact of the wizarding world is that pure-bloods have an advantage, not only of race, but of history. There are deep roots for the Malfoys, the Blacks, and the Lestranges, one that blood traitors (the outcasts) and Muggle-borns (as kind of immigrants into the magical world) lack. Class is a very obvious issue in the series, which is introduced when Ron is, but its connection to race is lost on the reader at first. However, with Draco’s appearance, and again with the Black family manor in Order of the Phoenix, the reader begins to unravel the knotted web of intersections between race and class.
The number of race and class issues in the series cannot be covered in one editorial, but I believe this is Jo’s intent. The wizarding world parallels our own in an expansive way that, when introduced to a reader at a young age, builds a basis for a worldview that is critical of the status quo of race and class in our world. Far from ignoring the issues of race and class in our world, as some have accused her of, Jo has used her influence to make these issues more accessible to her readers.