I just finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and, again, I loved it. Hogwarts is a beautiful world I can escape into, and like any good book, I learn something new about myself and the world I actually live in every time I come back to it. Sometimes, I learn something I wish I hadn’t. I now better understand what I didn’t before about my own privilege, and lessons on my own implicit bias are not easy to absorb. I am white, raised in the south where even having 1/32nd of slave ancestry would cause my birth certificate to label me as black. From my birth, I have had advantages, many of which I’m only now beginning to understand. When I first read book one, I didn’t grasp that I lived in a world that catered to me. Though I still have much more to comprehend, this time I caught J. K. Rowling’s implicit bias as the author and my own as the reader from years before. Up until the last chapter which I can’t discuss, understandably, due to a desire not to spoil the ending for any new readers, I’ve seen only one reference to skin color. When I first read this in high school, this reference didn’t stand out to me as a form of othering. It was perfectly normal for a black person’s skin color to be named and mine to be assumed.
“Thomas, Dean, a black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table.”
Other characters are referred to as pale, but I don’t remember reading the adjective “white” applied to any of these characters. I perceive this to indicate that Rowling subconsciously intended for her audience to infer that all characters were white, like her, because no other character has their skin color identified so blatantly. This sentence is already problematic by itself, but in context, it borders on obnoxious, if not outrightly so. Because skin color is not described in other situations, this one sentence suggests that Rowling was attempting to be diverse by making one token character black. Had she left this one sentence out, she would have arguably succeeded in the diversity she was attempting. By leaving skin color unidentified, she would have left it to the interpretation of each reader. Even the word pale is subjective, because color is a spectrum. Instead of being inclusive, she othered badly, because that one sentence shows that when she was writing, she didn’t catch her own bias. When she did become aware, she felt that adding the word “black” to one lone character would somehow absolve her of having not truly thought about diversity in the first place. If she understood intentional inclusion, she wouldn’t have identified Dean as black, but instead left him to be a character who joined Gryffindor and loved Quidditch. If skin colors were mentioned when describing other characters, it might have been inclusive. Because only this one character is described as black, Rowling demonstrates a trait that many white people have- a willingness to view skin color as an adjective to describe everyone but themselves.
Implicit bias is rampant in literature. It’s not excusable, but Rowling isn’t terribly unlike her peers. I don’t believe this one badly worded sentence is enough to toss out the whole book. I do believe this one sentence deserves to be discussed and I believe children should be taught to identify bias, their own and that of others. We all have bias. The more we understand that we have prejudices the more we’ll be able to work towards undoing them. I’ve probably written with bias I’m not aware of in this post. I don’t expect anyone to be free of prejudice, because we’re human and we’re just crappy sometimes. But, I do expect us to try and change when we realize we screwed up. We can always try to be better tomorrow than we were today.
I hope I haven’t unintentionally convinced you to avoid purchasing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even with the painful reminder that I can’t escape racism even in a fantastic children’s book, I’d still recommend this work to anyone, young or old, who wants to live in another’s adventure for a little while. As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you’re not interested for yourself, please consider donating a copy to Kids Need to Read. Nathan Fillion was one of the founders of this book charity and it makes my geekling heart happy.