What “Harry Potter” Teaches Us About the Psychology of Prejudice (And How to Reduce It)
In light of current events, many people are frustrated by the prejudice, racism, and injustice that are still present in the United States and the rest of the world. Although the Harry Potter series doesn’t directly deal with issues like racism, it is a useful metaphor for understanding the psychological processes behind prejudice in our own world and how to combat them.
Although the brain naturally categorizes people as ingroup or outgroup members, prejudice tends to arise when people perceive these outgroup members as a threat. People can interpret another group as posing a physical threat to them but also as a threat to resources, values, power, or status. We see all of these at play in wizards’ relationships with other groups.
It’s understandable that our brains would try to identify physical threats, but we tend to generalize these threats based on limited information. In the wizarding world, half-giants – like Hagrid – are discriminated against because they are associated with vicious giant attacks experienced by past wizards. We also see wizards show prejudice toward werewolves, like Lupin, out of fear that they might be bitten. These threats are clearly overblown, however, since Lupin and Hagrid are no more dangerous than any other wizard.
Threats to power and status are also clear in the wizarding world. Wizards are afraid of other creatures who are able to do magic, and they do their best to subjugate them in order to avoid losing control. House-elves, for example, are not allowed by wizard law to use a wand because wands, combined with their own special brand of magic, would make them more powerful than wizards. A more subtle example of this comes with Muggle-borns. The idea of a wizard who is born from Muggles threatens the distinction pure-bloods have made between these two categories, calling into question pure-blood superiority.
Muggle-borns can also be seen as a threat to resources. Once Voldemort takes over the Ministry, he plays into this fear by representing Muggle-borns as people who have stolen magic. This rhetoric, combined with the wizards’ stronghold on wands, presents magic as a finite resource that Muggles, house-elves, and even goblins could encroach on and steal for their own purposes.
Last, there is a threat to values. This category is less concrete but no less powerful in people’s minds. Centaurs are seen as a threat to values because they consider human matters to be trivial and beneath their notice. Goblins are also a threat to values because they don’t believe in wizard conceptions of ownership. People often view values as mutually exclusive, making this source of prejudice difficult to overcome.
Now that we understand why people develop prejudice, there are certain factors that can make prejudice better or worse. One of the main strategies to reduce prejudice on an individual level is for people to interact with outgroup members in a controlled environment, fostering positive feelings that can eventually be applied to the outgroup as a whole. There are several factors that need to be at play in order to reduce prejudice in these situations.
First is equal status. If one of the people in the interaction has more power than the other, it is difficult for prejudice to be reduced. In order for Dobby to become friends with wizards, he can’t be forced to do their bidding. For Lupin and Hagrid to gain the trust and respect of their community, they need to be given the job of a professor.
This equal status couldn’t be achieved without top-down, authority support. Dumbledore is the one who hires Lupin, Hagrid, Firenze, and Dobby. When Voldemort takes over, we see how his reign encourages discrimination and violence, pushing people to act on their most prejudiced instincts. People follow authority figures, so it makes a tremendous difference who is in power.
Prejudice is often increased by exposure to false media messages, as seen in the Daily Prophet. Rita Skeeter writes a highly biased exposé of Hagrid’s status as a half-giant and includes Hermione’s status as a Muggle-born when describing her as a conniving heartbreaker. Proper education is the best way to combat false media messages. Unfortunately, Hogwarts does not make it mandatory to learn about Muggles or magical creatures, and some of the professors have their own biases, which influence their students.
One of the most effective ways to combat prejudice, however, is common goals. When people have common goals, they are forced to work together to achieve them. Dobby, Lupin, Hermione, Hagrid, and Firenze all have the goal of taking down Voldemort, which means that it is easy for Harry to accept their differences and be grateful for their support. On the other hand, Harry’s prejudices only intensify when he works with Griphook because their goals conflict.
These are all strategies for reducing prejudice on an individual level, but as we see, structural changes often need to come first in order to set up communities where these positive interactions can take place. It’s a good thing that the wizarding world has Hermione Granger in charge to push forward some legislation.