“I’m surprised all the Mudbloods haven’t packed their bags by now,” Malfoy went on. “Bet you five Galleons the next one dies. Pity it wasn’t Granger…”
Let’s start with a history lesson. In the aftermath of the Great War, Germany was in complete disarray. Forced by the other nations of Europe to pay reparations, the value of the German Mark plummeted to the point where it was hardly worth the paper it was printed on. Even as the economy stabilized over the next few years, resentment over the rules laid out by the rest of Europe in the Treaty of Versailles grew and became conflated with a simultaneous rise in anti-semitism. Germany got a bum deal, the economy was still struggling, and the Jews immigrating from other parts of Europe were to blame – or so the rhetoric went. Then the Great Depression hit, and with it, gasoline was poured over these embers of hostility. These whispers of racism became shouts and the War to End All Wars suddenly found itself on the road to a sequel.
After the Second World War ended, the Allied powers convened to find a way to ensure that the mistakes made after the Great War could not be made again. This time we had to be certain that there would not be a World War III. Part of this plan was the establishment of the European Union: a collective of nations with common agreements for trade, mobility, and laws to ensure a cooperation between Europe and prevent any one country from taking up a campaign of extreme nationalism.
On Friday morning, the United Kingdom, led by a campaign of extreme nationalism, voted to break away from the EU.
Now, let’s move on to a more recent bit of history. In the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the role of Hermione Granger was given to Noma Dumezweni, a black actor. The internet, as per usual, collectively lost its minds. Since you’re here, reading this article on a site that generally covers news on the geekier side of the pop culture spectrum, you’ll know this is nothing new. Any time a character who is generally depicted as white is cast as a different race or ethnicity, fanboys come crawling out of the woodwork like cockroaches, spewing racist comments under a banner of maintaining the ‘integrity’ of the source material. It happened with Heimdall in Thor, it happened with the Human Torch in Fantastic Four, it happened when The Force Awakens broke the series’ trend for lily-white casting, and on and on it goes.
We could have the standard talk about why all of this is ridiculous, why it actually benefits everyone when these white-by-default roles (i.e. when race has no bearing on their character) are given to actors of color, but this situation is different. In this case race is deeply important to who Hermione is as a character and her function in the story and themes of Harry Potter. She’s just been depicted as the wrong race up until now.
When discussing the themes of racism in the Harry Potter stories, it’s important to acknowledge the subtle differences between racism in the U.K. as opposed to the way it manifests in the United States. In the States, while those of us descended from white, European immigrants have generally been shitty to people of other races, our history of racism is largely defined by the specter of slavery and the Native American genocide. In Britain, it’s a bit different. Racism from a British perspective has a lot more to do with the spread of the British empire and its colonization of other regions of the world. At its height, the British empire had footholds in virtually every corner of the globe. They would invade foreign lands, proclaim them as their own, and plunder their resources for the benefit King and Country. But what of the native inhabitants of these British colonies? While relations between the white settlers and the indigenous peoples of the British colonies were tense at best, the native peoples were technically considered subjects of the British Empire. Even so, they lacked the privileges of full-fledged citizens. British colonists could come and go as they pleased while the natives of these colonies were stuck having to cope with the British dominion of their homes.
This changed after World War II. The United Kingdom found itself in need of workers to help rebuild the nation’s resources after the devastation caused by the war. To this end, they passed a bill that clarified that anyone born or naturalized in the U.K. or one of its colonies was considered a British citizen and would be allowed all the privileges that that implies. This decision led to a massive influx of people from the British colonies – primarily South East Asia, Kenya, Uganda, and the Caribbean – changing the demographics of the U.K. dramatically, and forever altering the relationship between British natives and their brothers from the colonies.
Britain was an empire that prided itself on enlightening the dark corners of the world. The people of the United Kingdom were superior, and they had a duty to spread their influence to the ‘primitives’ that populated the rest of the globe. When that distinction was formally removed, and the people of the colonies were actually invited into the heart of the empire, the ‘purity’ of Great Britain was threatened.
A society that believes themselves to be somehow superior to the rest of the world feels threatened when some of these outsiders are invited in. Is any of this sounding familiar? The tensions between magical folks and muggles in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World are explicitly a metaphor for British imperialism versus immigration, and at the heart of this metaphor is one Hermione Granger.
Hermione Granger, a witch born of muggle parents, is an immigrant to the wizarding world. Despite regularly being recognized as the brightest witch of her age, she faces bigotry and discrimination based on her heritage. She’s subjected to insults and slurs – sneered at by those in the wizarding community obsessed with ancestral ‘purity.’ But what’s perhaps even worse is that there’s a backhanded aspect to even the compliments she receives. Even the more magnanimous members of the wizarding world express surprise that she, a muggle-born, could possibly be as skilled as she is. Look at this primitive do tricks! isn’t she clever?
Beyond that, there’s a very clear sense, especially early on, that Hermione is overcompensating in an attempt to make up for this perceived disadvantage. The reason she comes across as – as Snape would say – an insufferable know-it-all is because she’s deeply, deeply insecure about her muggle heritage. She knows the stigma she has in this world, and she wants to do everything she can to overcome it by being as learned as she can possibly be. It’s easy to dismiss Hermione’s bookishness as a mere personality quirk, but when you really explore the implications, it’s clear that there’s a tragic aspect to her perceived need to consume every bit of knowledge about the wizarding world she possibly can. Unlike Harry who can coast on his legacy, Hermione doesn’t have that luxury. She doesn’t want to be left behind.
Since this is kind of a big year for Harry Potter – what with a new movie, a new play, and the opening of Wizarding World at Universal Studios Hollywood – I’ve been re-reading the books. This time, though, I decided to try an experiment. In light of the casting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I made a point to picture Hermione as a black woman. I was fascinated by how much recasting the character in my head totally changed my reading of her. It wasn’t as though I was unaware of the racial subtext that informed the character previously, but by seeing her as a black woman, that aspect of it came screaming to the fore. Subtle nuances of how Hermione reacts to her status as an outsider (like her aforementioned bookishness) became much more apparent.
Hermione’s story is the same kind of story you might hear about a black child who is accepted to a primarily white private school. Just because she’s been given this opportunity doesn’t mean that life is going to easy for her, if anything it only further stacks the odds against her. There will be more people watching her, more people expecting her to fail, and so she has to work twice as hard to integrate into this new society to prove she is not defined by her heritage. Prove that’s she’s just as much of a ‘real’ wizard as anyone else. There’s a sadness there that I never quite picked up on, and it makes her arc throughout the series that much more heartening. When it was revealed that Hermione chose to keep her last name after marrying Ron, I was verklempt. Where once she was a girl who was deeply insecure about her Muggle heritage, she matured into a woman who refused to abandon it.
There’s also another interesting wrinkle. A major aspect of Hermione’s character that, while omnipresent in the books, never amounted to much when reading her as white, suddenly gains huge thematic weight if she is black. Her hair.
In the text, Rowling frequently remarks on Hermione’s frizzy, unruly hair. It’s one of her defining physical features in much the same way as Harry’s scar or Ron’s ginger hair. It gives you a picture of what she looks like, but doesn’t mean much beyond that. Not so if she’s black. For black women, there’s a major stigma concerning their hair – natural hair is considered less beautiful or sophisticated than the so-called ‘good hair’ that’s largely influenced by white, European styles. In Goblet of Fire, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione all attend the Yule Ball, Ron notices for the first time how pretty Hermione is only after she has straightened her hair. I was floored. What once was just an indication that Ron was a shallow, teenage boy suddenly becomes a much more pointed statement. Racism manifests not only as open hostility from the likes of Malfoy and his cronies, but also in small, unconscious prejudices held by the people closest to her.
In fact, the entire romance between Ron and Hermione gains all kinds of added dimension if Hermione is black. Consider Ron’s family. The Weasleys are one of the few wizarding families left in Britain that are truly ‘pure blood.’ The Weasleys, to their credit, tend to downplay this fact and share none of the deliberate bigotry espoused by other pure blood families like the Malfoys, but there’s still an isolationist quality to them. The Weasleys are defenders of muggles in theory, and yet they’re woefully ignorant about muggle life and culture. Arthur Weasley is bemused and fascinated by such eccentric and exotic inventions as the rubber duck. While no ill will is intended, the Weasleys’ perception of muggles is still filtered through a lens of wizarding exceptionalism, and that carries all the way down to Ron.
In Philosopher’s Stone, Ron, much more so than Harry, is irritated by Hermione and her bookish, know-it-all qualities. While the fact that Hermione is muggle-born never comes up – and Ron would almost certainly deny it – it’s not a terribly large leap to interpret Ron’s initial resentment for Hermione as having something to do with ingrained, unconscious prejudices. Again, while the Weasleys don’t consciously hate muggles, they hardly respect them either. Muggles and their culture are amusing curiosities. Isn’t it quaint how they find ways to make due without magic! For Ron, the idea that a muggle-born is proving to be not only smarter and more talented than him, but also making a big show of displaying it, well, that might just get his goat. We know from later stories that Ron has a tendency towards jealousy – his brooding over Harry’s entry into the Triwizard Tournament and his suspicion that Harry and Hermione are engaged in a secret romance come to mind – so it only makes sense that a germ of jealousy might have informed his initial dislike of Hermione. However, as the relationship between these two characters evolves from irritation, to friendship, to attraction, to love, Ron slowly learns to get past his prejudices and accept Hermione for who she is. Still, there are constant speed bumps along the way. Unlike Harry, who has lived with muggles his whole life, Ron has trouble understanding Hermione, and coming to terms with his own infatuation with her. While Ron’s posturing relationship with Lavender Brown and his previously mentioned revelation at the Yule Ball play out as standard teen romance tropes, the fact that Ron – a pure blood wizard – is having such a hard time reconciling the feelings he has for a muggle-born witch is a crucial detail to keep in mind. Even the best, most progressively minded of us have to make a concerted effort to reject ingrained, societal prejudices and racism.
But Ron does finally learn to accept Hermione. It takes seven years, and a selfish act of abandonment, but he finally comes to terms with his feelings, accepts his failings, and fully commits himself to her, no holds barred. It’s an arc that’s not all that different from the challenges that couples in mixed-race relationships might face, especially if one partner comes from a more sheltered or isolated background (remember Ron doesn’t even know how to use a telephone). Having the Ron/Hermione relationship literally be mixed-race only serves to render those qualities in sharper focus.
Now, generally I think it’s ill-advised to take a metaphor and make it literal. By doing so, you run the risk of talking down to your audience, and cutting off avenues of interpretive possibility. Elsa does not need to be literally gay. Furiosa needn’t have been literally raped. These metaphors work just fine on their own. That being said, adaptation is a form of interpretation. You’re consuming the text and processing it through your own perspective. As long as you can justify your interpretation within the context of the text itself, the possibilities for mining new meaning from stories are virtually endless. And it’s important to note that every visual depiction we’ve seen of Hermione – be they illustration, film, or theatre – is nothing more than an interpretation of Jo Rowling’s original work. Rowling never explicitly defined Hermione’s race or ethnicity, leaving it up for each individual reader to interpret it however they choose. In the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, director John Tiffany has chosen to interpret Hermione as a black woman. If anything, it’s a far more interesting interpretive choice than we’ve seen before, using race to call attention to aspects of the character that already existed in the original text. It’s not unlike Hamilton’s choice to recontextualize the American Founding Fathers as people of color to highlight the way their story parallels more modern revolutions like Black Lives Matter.
So too does this decision become timely when you consider that Britain is in the midst of an upheaval at the hands of isolationist, nationalist instigators. The lessons of World War II are being ignored as Europe once again threatens to plunge itself into chaos. Meanwhile immigrants – immigrants the likes of which Hermione has always stood in for – find themselves facing ever increasing hostility from people who see themselves as ‘true’ Brits. But of course, it’s not just England either. Across the pond, in the wake of the worst mass shooting in American history, one of our presidential candidates issued a speech wherein he argued that every single Muslim was complicit in terrorism. This racism fueled by fear that lies at the heart of both the ‘Brexit’ campaign and Donald Trump’s presidential bid are nothing if not pointed, so perhaps it calls for our social commentary to pointed as well. Because Hermione’s story has always been about race; she’s always been an outsider – an immigrant – but she’s never let the hatred or ostracization she’s faced defeat her. The fact that people feel compelled to spew racism and hate over the fact that she’s being played by a black actor only goes to prove how tragically vital this story still is. Like it or not, Hermione is black, Noma Dumezweni is Hermione, and both of them are true Brits.