Is It Racist?

12 Jun

Given her friendship with Gordon Brown and ties to New Labour, it is hardly surprising that JK Rowling has picked up the bad habit of accusing those who disagree with her of being racist. The casting of a black actress as Hermione in the new stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has caused dissatisfaction for many fans who have a clear image of the character, which is of a white, middle-class girl who will grow into a white, middle-class woman, for whom Emma Watson was a good fit. Fans (and I’ll include myself here) would be no happier if she were portrayed as American or a natural blonde. A similar reaction can be found in the portrayal of MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin as a blonde in the Sky 1 series – nobody has yet levelled accusations of racism against blondes there, at least.

Really, it’s a compliment to the authors that they’ve so vividly brought a character to life in millions of imaginations and lashing out with nasty accusations at fans having for the temerity to love the characters they’ve created is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem isn’t so much the dubious casting; it is, after all, fiction, but the fact that disagreeing with the decision should spark such an offensive and over-the-top reaction is ridiculous. Except that such overreaction makes perfect sense if we realise this isn’t about the fans or diversity, but about white liberal guilt. JK Rowling is reacting to her own failure to make the series more diverse by lashing out at anyone who reminds her of the fact.

If only she had access to a time turner, she could go back in time and make Hermione black. There is, after all, no reason why the character couldn’t have been – unlike Harry and Ron with their connection to ancient wizard families and a stereotypical middle class English family, there is nothing about Hermione that dictates the characters race. Unfortunately, rather than having an unknown character that could be altered without issue, as happened, for example, to the title character in the Angelina Jolie movie Salt (originally male), she waited till Hermione had been established across seven books and eight movies and her appearance had been solidified in fans’ minds.

As I’ve said before, there’s also something patronising about this trend for trying to make established white characters black, as if no black character could conceivably be popular without white actors to lay the groundwork.

There’s absolutely no reason why new lead characters, whether inspired by existing ones or wholly original, cannot be created who are non-white and not the usual crop of caricatures. Besides the presence of BAME populations in the UK and USA that would allow for non-white secret agents, wizards, etc, within a Western context, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a film or novel about a Kenyan agent in the mould of James Bond or a wizarding school in India (although, perhaps best left to writers from those cultures, especially given the recent accusations of ‘appropriation’ levelled against the oh-so-politically-correct Ms Rowling).

One might also wonder why JK Rowling didn’t just create a new lead character for the play or for a follow-up series who isn’t white? This would have assuaged her apparent unease at not doing so earlier, and encouraged fans to adopt such a character as a favourite, rather than creating unnecessary tension involving race.

Perhaps, cynically, the entire episode is no more than a publicity stunt, knowing that fans would object to significant changes of any sort, whilst allowing maximum controversy compared to Agatha Raisin’s hair colour. I hope not, as this would be both an insult to the actress and a particularly vile trivialisation of a genuine issue.

It really is time that those authors who wish to see greater diversity in fiction started introducing new BAME characters in their own right and not as some sort of lazy afterthought or in the form of racial caricatures. There is a place for such characters, but hijacking Hermione isn’t it.

For a magazine that is working to create just such diversity, visit Black Girl Magic.

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