There is evidence through survey research that for millennials, Harry Potter has contributed to a more tolerant and inclusive political culture and increased investment in diversity and equality. In 7 books, J.K. Rowling gives us a magical world whose characters struggle with personal, social, and political challenges that mirror our own and provide for lessons that continually present themselves in new ways over time. It seems the major themes, like “authoritarianism is bad” and “standing up for yourself is good” hit their mark. When we look more closely, however, we can see gaps in the lessons Harry Potter gives us about heroism, allyship, and anti-racism.
Anti-racism is defined by the Anti-Racism Digital Library (a research development initiative dedicated to the 9 victims of the Emmanuel AME Charleston 2015 shooting) as some form of focused and sustained action with the intent to change a system, institutional policy, practice, or procedure which has racist effects. ”— http://sacred.omeka.net/
Harry Potter is not marketed as a story about race or even about activism, though these themes are woven throughout. The heroes of the story are the characters who fight against the idea that there should be an established hierarchy with pureblood wizards at the top, half-blood wizards underneath, and everyone else — Muggleborn, Muggle, and non-human magical creatures — at the bottom. The most prominent system of oppression in the book is aligned to blood status and not skin color, but the parallels between the ideology of pureblood supremacist wizards and the white supremacist Nazis of our world are overt and important. And so, I will use the terms anti-supremacist and anti-racist interchangeably as I talk about the work the heroes of the story do to overthrow Voldemort and the Death Eaters and what they would have done well to approach differently.
The Order of the Phoenix, our main band of heroes, does some great work in the fight against Voldemort. They save Muggle lives when and where they can, they protect Harry, and they show up to fight to the death for their cause. Still, it never seems to occur to the Order or Dumbledore (their leader, who is supposed to be the greatest wizard to ever live) that the fight against the Death Eaters is just one piece of a larger fight to destroy the pureblood supremacist systems they interact with daily. If the Order had realized this, they would have spent the 13 years between the First Wizarding War and Voldemort’s resurgence continuing to engage in anti-supremacist work. This means the kind of work that happens away from the battlefield and over shared meals, with community service, and through identity-development is the foundation of true anti-racism and the only way we can see lasting change.
If the Order had realized this, they would have spent the 13 years between the first Wizarding War and Voldemort’s resurgence continuing to engage in anti-supremacist work.
An Order of the Phoenix that had a true vision for what a totally restructured and supremacy free Wizarding World looks like would have used the reprieve from fighting Voldermort to educate others about why wizards shouldn’t fear or hate Muggles. They would have committed themselves to working for healing and new partnerships with the giants and werewolves preemptively. They would have built contingencies to fight for the closing of Azkaban and fair trials for those accused. They would have distributed the power and privilege they had in order to care for the powerless in their society. Instead, Dumbledore allows history courses in Hogwarts to be run by an uninvested ghost; Muggle Studies continues as an elective and not a requirement; Snape allows students in his house to make comments of blood purity unchecked; Vance, Podmore, and others at the Ministry allow bribery by wealthy families to go unquestioned; and the most marginalized and vulnerable members of the Order are left to survive on their own. The Order of the Phoenix could have multiplied 5 times in size over the course of 13 years and been so influential in the society that the fear and hopelessness felt by the general population when the Death Eaters resurge would have been replaced with resolve. Instead, they allow Voldemort to return to a world operating with business as usual.
In addition to their shortcomings in anti-racist work in the community, the Order fails at true allyship within the organization. The Order capitalizes on the marginalization of members without real attempts to change their position in the larger Wizarding World. Remus, Dung, and Hagrid are all good examples of this exploitation. If we accept that the only possible job Dumbledore could find for Lupin in 13 years is as a teacher at Hogwarts, then we must ask: why must Lupin work in order to deserve care? Could they not come together to provide basic necessities for Dung and Remus, secured room in the Hogshead perhaps? If we accept that none of the Ministry-connected Order members can stop Fudge from sending Hagrid to Azkaban with no trial, hearing, or proof, then we must ask how they helped him recover? The expectancy of Molly to care for everyone, the expectancy of Sirius, Remus, and Hagrid to relive their childhood traumas without argument, and the expectancy of Mrs. Figg to fill the role of multiple people with no magic of her own are just a few additional examples of the lack of true allyship and care for one another within the organization. What incentive would a wizard without a direct link to Dumbledore have to join the Order when they see so little benefit? What reason would house-elves or goblins have to partner with the Order when the Order allows for the mistreatment of elves in their care, has little interest in the freeing of elves overall, and shows no value or respect for goblins and others.
What the Order of the Phoenix teaches us is that measuring heroics or goodness by ideology alone clouds our reality. A character should not simply have to align with Dumbledore or hate the Death Eaters is to be accepted as good. It is this measure that allows for debate on whether a character that delights in the abuse of children under his care is in fact a hero because he also seems to believe that Voldemort is bad and receives Dumbledore’s knighting into the Order of the Phoenix. It is also this measure that allows us to see Molly and Arthur as faultless despite their desire for an enslaved elf, the racist and sexist beliefs we see in Ron and the other boys, and the unfair judgment shown towards others like Fleur and Dung. It is the measure that ranks Albus Dumbledore as the greatest wizard of all time despite his manipulation of the most vulnerable and his willingness to sacrifice others, and the selective nature of the injustices he chooses to fight. Sirius Black tells us that the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters and I think we need to accept that the world is also not divided into bad people and heroes. There are many of us, arguably decent humans, who have incredibly far to go in backing up our beliefs and values with real action and change before we earn any badge of honor. The Wizarding World’s problem is this flawed perception that if they just get enough people to believe the right things, society will restructure itself. This magical world, like ours, doesn’t want to question, it doesn’t want to reconcile, it doesn’t want restorative justice, but is then shocked that supremacist uprisings keep occurring.
“This magical world, like ours, doesn’t want to question, it doesn’t want to reconcile, it doesn’t want restorative justice, but is then shocked that supremacist uprisings keep occurring.”
In our world, this looks like not challenging problematic family members in their views and then being surprised when they are recorded acting on their beliefs. It looks like not reporting sexual harassment in the workplace and being shocked at the number of victims your team member has assaulted. It looks like spreading trans-exclusionary rhetoric and still believing you are champion of the marginalized. We must do better than our beloved characters in this series that we look to for guidance by remembering not to ascribe the evils of the world to one person or government. There is no one “big bad.” When we are not all intentional about learning the actions and ideas that reinforce and perpetuate systems of oppression so that we can interrupt those things daily, our good hearts are meaningless.
The millennial generation is often called the Harry Potter generation as a compliment and a nod to how accepting and progressive we are. But maybe it’s time for the Harry Potter generation to grow up and be more. Because just being accepting — or just focusing our energy on one Voldemort at a time — isn’t actually what tears down systems of oppression. It’s the daily work of practicing what you preach and committing to learning more. The Harry Potter generation, like Dumbledore and other Order members, is comfortable “knowing where we stand” and nothing more. But just as we’re left questioning the “goodness” of Snape, Sirius, or even Molly and Arthur, future generations will question ours if we don’t actively live out our self-claimed anti-racism.
If you are interested in learning more about Anti-Racist work, you can visit Ibram Kendi’s anti-racism center, RacialEquityTools, or Teaching Tolerance. The Harry Potter Alliance is an awesome organization that is dedicated to making activism accessible and sustainable. There are also incredible Harry Potter fan communities engaging in critical fandom and collectively using their learning to foster change in the real world at Black Girls Create and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.