When I need to get fired up I watch slam poetry – it’s the closest thing to a bar fight I’ll experience. On what was probably a Sunday afternoon I watched a slam poem by Rachel Rostad titled To J.K Rowling, From Cho Chang. She spat memorised lines to the audience full of wit and badassery – ‘Between me, Dean, and the Indian twins, Hogwarts has like five brown people!’
As a white girl I have the unearned privilege of being able to find myself in the culture I exist within. There’s no lack of representation when it comes to my skin colour – in film, TV, books, or Hogwarts. But that’s why there’s a flaw in me pretending that Hermione (as she’s traditionally presented) does leaps and bounds for intersectional feminism, or that the sideline existence of Cho Chang makes the series as accessible to Asian girls as it is to white girls.
What our good old Harry Potter is lacking is diversity. It’s there, don’t get me wrong, but diverse races, genders, sexualities, and disabilities are scattered sparingly among side characters.
Note: Hogwarts is a place I go, sat in the cushioned corner of my bed with warm socks and a trusty bookmark. Of course I’m invested in the words and the characters, but part of growing up and not being a crappy person is acknowledging the flaws of a wizarding world devoid of diversity. And unfortunately in this work of fiction, dragons are more common than people who are gay.
However, hand Hogwarts to the internet and they’ll do wonderful things.
As both Harry and Hermione’s ethnic backgrounds were never given solid footing in the text, Cyberspace pounced on the opportunity to change it up a little. And why not, really?
Hermione is known for her bushy hair, so when fan art depicts her as black, I get it. When Harry is depicted as middle-eastern or Indian, his green eyes striking and his black hair perfectly out of place, I get it. When someone writes erotic fanfiction between Sirius and Lupin, I get it, because those two flirt all the freaking time.
Whether this was J.K. Rowling’s intention is irrelevant – it’s up to the reader. Hermione is black, she’s Emma Watson, she’s that celebrity you’ve fan cast in your head. She’s fictional and she can change.
That’s why the online reaction to the lack of diversity in Harry Potter is so great. It’s not an attack, it’s a reconstruction.
No, it doesn’t change the fact that Cho was fitted with stereotypical characteristics that did her, and girls looking to relate to her, a disservice. It doesn’t change that only a handful of characters weren’t white. To many, the few diverse characters within the series seemed to be token side characters dropped in to fill a diversity quota.
We need diverse books from the get go. As grateful as I am, readers shouldn’t need to do a literary post-mortem to correct whitewashing.
Harry Potter is still a wonderfully written story about wizards, but great things can be flawed.