Diversity in Harry Potter and Wider YA & MG Literature

This post is part of #PotterheadJuly, a month long countdown to the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child run by Aentee at Read at Midnight. To check out the 84 other posts scheduled for the month, go here

Diversity in YA fiction is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I thought I would use diversity in Harry Potter and post series additions to talk about a wider issue in YA and Middle Grade fiction – lack of diversity, multiracial and cultural representation.

A LITTLE ABOUT ME AND MY EXPERIENCE

I was born and raised in Australia and have spent all 20 years of my life immersed in Australian culture, with a decidedly thick Australian accent to prove it. As such, I identify as Australian and will forever call it my home wherever my life may take me. However, when people come up to me and ask, “where are you from?”, I answer with Sri Lanka right away because I know that that is the response they expect from me. Am I offended by it? No. Even though I see myself as Australian through and through, I am very proud of my heritage and the cultural elements that it lends to my life. However, this was not always the case.

I distinctly remember one incident in primary school where a fellow student called me “really black” (in reference to my skin tone) and I proceeded to go home and cry about it to my mum. From there sparked a childhood of growing up not really appreciating the skin that I was in – how much easier would my life have been if I grew up with white skin? And it isn’t even that I grew up in an area that was not multicultural – most of my friends are from non-White backgrounds. It was just that in media around me, in the books that I was reading and the TV shows I was watching, the accepted image of an Australian or the traditional depiction of beauty was fair skin.

Now at the ripe old age of 20, I am almost entirely comfortable in my brown skin and would not change it even if given the opportunity. I love the rich culture and heritage that I came from. But why did it take me so long to accept me for who I was? What if I could have lived in a world where I turned to my tormentors and fought back with “So what If I have brown skin. Hermione has brown skin and she is intelligent, kick-butt and amazing”.  It would have changed my childhood and I think that is why so many readers of Harry Potter envision a world where their favourite characters are people of colour – because of the profound effect it could have had on their lives growing up and the effect it can have on the lives of so many others.

Now just a disclaimer before anyone eats me. I have nothing against White main characters. What I am against is when all the characters I read about have been whitewashed. What I am questioning is why can’t kick-ass main characters of books be written as people from diverse backgrounds? Why is it when I walk down the street, I see people of different backgrounds everywhere but when I open a book, I don’t?

DIVERSITY IN HARRY POTTER

Although a large population of the Harry Potter community has been fighting for diverse characters for a while – Black Hermione and Indian Harry have been  permanent figures on Tumblr from basically the inception of site- a lot of people had an adverse reaction when they saw the promotional images of Hermione and Rose Weasley that were released for The Cursed Child. I know that for a lot of people it isn’t because they are against representation as a whole, but because Hermione has always been fair skinned for them – Emma Watson became Hermione in the movies and so it is difficult for the wider community to suddenly look at Hermione as being a person of colour.

However, maybe it is due to a second, more problematic reason? There has been a certain conditioning of society, through the books we read and the characters that are prevalent in them, to assume a character is White before we are even privy to a character description. Hermione’s skin colour was mentioned a total of twice in the books and indirectly at that – once when discussing how brown her skin had gotten from the sun and once when describing how white her face had gone from fear. So why did everyone easily accept Hermione as White in the movies and can’t accept her Black in the play when both are adaptations of the same core text?

Some people may pass it off as not being that important – why shouldn’t we just focus on the character traits themselves?- but for kids (and for adults alike) that have suffered even one moment because of the colour of their skin or the diversity of their background, cultural representation can shape their sense of self. Books hold more power than we can even begin to understand and have the very real ability to alter society.

MOVING FORWARD

So is it as simple as adding more diverse characters to books? One would think. However, I have often come across two main arguments time and time and again in reference to multicultural representation – a) White authors should not be writing coloured characters because they are blinded by their privilege and b) including diverse characters can often seemed forced.

No.

We need White authors writing characters from different backgrounds. We need Non-White authors writing characters from different backgrounds. WE NEED EVERYONE WRITING CHARACTERS FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS. Like any other good piece of writing, research is necessary and therefore if you take the time to learn about the culture you are writing about and not buy into stereotypes, representation will be accurate and non offensive.

The argument that diversity is forced is probably the worst that I have ever heard. Although books should not include “token” diverse characters the same way they shouldn’t include “token” LGBTQ+ characters, diversity does not seemed forced if treated correctly. Here is a revolutionary idea – if White characters can do something, non-White characters can do exactly the same thing! I know, crazy right. Don’t include a diverse character to then go ahead and kill them off or never mention them again. Take you diverse character and have them go slay a dragon, or save the world, or start a rebellion – THEY CAN DO ANYTHING.

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20 thoughts on “Diversity in Harry Potter and Wider YA & MG Literature

  1. Maithree says:

    Amazing post. As a person of colour myself (I was born in Sri Lanka- although my accent borders on astrange combination of English, Australian as American😂), I totally agree with everything you’ve written. Although I connect more with a character’s personality, knowing that physically, they are like me is a little more comforting, I guess. I dont really know how to explain it. Diversity is so important now, and YA books are getting better. More characters a getting represented. It’s nowhere near perfect, but it certainly is going somewhere!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Audrey says:

    I agree with you, but I also think one possible reason (at least for me) why we assume a character is White is because of the setting. If a story is set in America or the UK or Australia or any other country where white people are the majority than I will assume the characters white, however if the story is in India or Kenya or China than I’ll assume the person is Indian, Kenyan or Chinese respectively. Because it has to do with the concept of the Other. When you are the majority, it’s always the minority that gets stereotyped and categorised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • headinherbooks says:

      I agree and this is exactly why we need diversity in our books! Because in reality, there are so many different cultures and skin tones in US/UK/Aust other than White and it isn’t being translated at all in our fiction

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Haley Keller says:

    I love this post. You make so many great points. When it comes to white authors writing about POC characters, I saw a really great post on Tumblr that made the distinction between writing characters that are from different backgrounds than you and writing specific stories about being that background. It was worded much better than that, but I thought it was a great point. As a white person, I think I should be striving to write characters from many different backgrounds, but when it comes to a story about some specific cultural tradition or specifically about being Autistic it would be better written by authors with those experiences. So I should write, say, Autistic characters, but not a story about coming to terms with being Autistic. Of course, there’s going to be some gray areas between those two ends of the spectrum, but I think it’s a good distinction to start with.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Heather says:

    This is so important! I know that I am guilty of assuming characters are white when I read a book, but it isn’t something I’m proud of. Personally, I love the idea of a black Hermione and some of the fanart made of her has been the most beautiful I’ve found. But Indian Harry? I haven’t heard of that one at all—I need to go check it out right now! The one thing I’d say in terms of criticism of the black Hermione trope is that since she’s so vocal about other political and social issues, like liberating house elves for one, then it would also make sense that she would equally care about racial issues too. That doesn’t really show up in the books. I don’t think it’s wrong at all for the fandom to keep promoting a black Hermione, but since it is such a good fit, I keep asking—why didn’t Rowling write Hermione as a WOC in the first place? I mean, it’s absolutely fine to work past the assumption of all characters being white, but I feel like a great way to get past that would be to explicitly state that Hermione was a WOC in the first place. But Rowling didn’t. And I don’t really know how to feel about that yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • headinherbooks says:

      That’s a really good point and I don’t know how I feel about it either! It would have been great if Rowling had written her as explicitly WoC in the first place but I guess that is why conversation about it is so important – to make sure that authors know that we want to read about people of colour

      Like

  5. Emily @ Loony Literate says:

    AMEN TO THIS POST. I had the privilege of going to a VERY multicultural school (as in white people being minority) and it was a nice little bubble to be in. But then seeing the racism outside of school was awful – friends whose families have been in Australia longer than mine, and they’re being told to “go back where you came from.” Popular culture is such an incredible force for change and I think people like J K Rowling have enormous influence. So yay for Black Hermione, and yay for diversity. Wonderful post xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • headinherbooks says:

      I totally understand what you mean about the bubble! My high school was incredibly multicultural and accepting and then when I started working and going to uni, the racism around me was kind of shocking. And yes, that is exactly why we need representation in pop culture 😊 Thanks Emily 💕

      Like

  6. Lunch-Time Librarian says:

    This is a great post, especially the bit about EVERYONE writing diverse characters. I could clap, honestly. When I was younger whenever I read a book I always assumed all the characters were white unless it explicitly stated otherwise. Even characters described as ‘tanned’ I also assumed were tan white people because no one ever just said “dark skin” or “black”. But now things are different. I grew up with Emma Watson and so I know I’ll never picture anyone else as Hermione. But to think of a young girl reading the series for the first time and associated a strong, smart, kick butt girl as someone with dark skin, I can’t pretend that doesn’t make me proud. I think sometimes as adults who have grown up with HP we can forget about the new readers coming along. So while I definitely don’t believe that JK always imagined Hermione as black, I’m happy to see what there will be an interpretation where she is.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alicia @ A Kernel of Nonsense says:

    You really hit the nail on the head with this post. Diversity is so important to those of us who aren’t white. I think a lot of people take for granted that they can turn on the tv or open a book and immediate there is a character who looks like them and who has a similiar background. This is one of the reasons I love that there is a black Hermione, because somewhere out there there is a little girl who gets to see someone who looks like her in such a strong role.

    I find it really interesting that you tell people you are “from” Sri Lanka when asked. I’m curious, how would you describe yourself if those expectations from other people weren’t there? What I mean is I am an American because I was born in the US, but I identify myself by both my background and where I was born (Mexican-American). Just wondering.

    I tend to agree with you about needing everyone to write diverse characters, but I do believe there is more of a need for diverse authors (and agents, editors, publishers) because if the publishing world remains largely white, just having them write about PoC characters doesn’t make the publishing world diverse. Great post! I think this is my favorite Potterhead July post so far 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. aentee @ read at midnight says:

    This was such a lovely post with a wonderful personal touch, and one I can definitely relate to. Nowadays, when people ask me where I am from, I answer ‘New Zealand’ just to annoy them – because I am petty like that. I will not indulge casual racism.
    I am saddened by the response to the Cursed Child casting news! This is what happens when people decide to whitewash everything ever.
    Thank you so much for participating in Potterhead July and contributing your thoughtful post!

    Liked by 1 person

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