By Colleen O’Brien Curriculum Specialist/Writer
Today, as millions of people rifle through freshly minted copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to discover the identity of this mysterious new character, I can’t help but imagine this prince as biracial rather than "half-magic."
Under the erroneous impression that J.K. Rowling’s latest installation included a "half-breed prince," I first balked at the title.
"Half-breed" — akin to mongrel, mutt or half-caste — flies around as a jab at biracial people more often than "half-blood."
You can purchase a canine parody T-shirt with the caption "Hairy Pawter and the Half-Breed Prince." Numerous posts on Harry Potter websites also slip between "-blood" and "-breed." I’m not the only one to make the leap.
In J.K. Rowling’s world, half-blood means "half magic." But the term — reflecting a dichotomy between magic/powerful and mundane/helpless — implies a hierarchy. This "magic" hierarchy directly resembles racial hierarchies.
Racially speaking, a "half-blood" could be a person with parents of differing races, such as one Asian parent and one white parent; in this case, not being "pure-blood" can diminish certain rights and inclusion in the community.
Even in the world of magic, the term "half-blood" implies that one half does not mingle with the other. Half-bloods come from two different worlds, and the idea of these bifurcated worlds conjures images of racial segregation.
These inflections of the language of race still make me cringe. Why does the magic metaphor emerge from a language of racial difference? And what do the millions of readers do with these metaphors?
Revealing to reject
Psychologically, children’s literature equips young people to cope with complex questions and negotiate difficult issues that might otherwise overwhelm them.
The obvious, and highly imaginative, cultural differences that pop icon Harry Potter presents offer the opportunity to discuss other-ness with children. For example, we might ask children in what other ways people can be "magically mixed." Would biracial children identify with this term?
In terms of magical powers in Harry Potter, someone of "pure blood" is better than human. Non-magic people are mere "muggles," completely oblivious to the world of wizards and spells. Pure blood, if you’re magic, also reigns above "half-blood" in the hierarchy of power and status.
But author Rowling lets us know that demands for "purity" in bloodlines come from evil people. Harry’s foe, Draco Malfoy of the Slytherin House at Hogwarts, has a great deal invested in policing "purity," while Harry’s friend, Hermione, is the daughter of muggles. This works beautifully as a race metaphor; Hitler, after all, also advocated racial purity.
Rowling does children a favor by referring, metaphorically yet explicitly, to the hierarchies of human value that institutionalized racism conceals in the "real world." The good characters, like Harry, reject this hierarchy.
Rowling’s fans understand that the term "muggle" can be derogatory. "Mudblood," another scornful term in the books for wizards or witches with non-magic parents, resonates with Aryan terminology for people of color.
Consider another metaphor in the Harry Potter series: An e-mail recently reminded me that the goblins — with hooked noses, an obsession over money and mysteriously shifting relationships with the power structure — resemble archetypal stereotypes of Jewish people. Rowling draws heavily from the British novel tradition, and these gothic figures serve as excellent examples of how hundreds of years shaped our thinking about racial difference.
A world of opportunity
Imagine the opportunity this literary phenomena affords those invested in anti-racist teaching. A world of magic, one that already has captured attention worldwide, invites us toward another step.
Do we want to be like the muggles, oblivious to the world around us, or do we want to enter the (sometimes equally elusive) world of race relations and social power dynamics?
Race is as ubiquitous in our world as magic is in Harry’s, and the novels present the connections between the two quite frequently.
Naming and labeling in the Harry Potter series mirrors a wealth of etymological and mythic sources as much as it reflects the everyday struggles young people encounter with name-calling and stereotyping. Rowling’s characters open the discussion about both. In making archetype and myth new, Rowling asks her readers to search for the qualities, good and bad, that make us fundamentally human.
In an age when many people believe racism no longer exists and equality reigns, the Harry Potter world resonates with the stereotypes and power dynamics many do not discuss in everyday life.
The marvelous world of Harry Potter affords us the opportunity to draw parallels with our own lives and reveal, once again, the dynamics of power and bias dividing us. Perhaps, for once, this revelation will result in an ongoing commitment to change.
Wouldn’t that be magical?
This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.