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.
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.
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.