“A Black Boy Even Taller than Ron”: Racial dynamics in Harry Potter
by Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D.
Note: An earlier version of this paper was published by BenBella Books in The Psychology of Harry Potter, under the title "Harry Potter and the Word that Shall Not Be Named."
At first glance, the Harry Potter universe seems to have little racial tension. There are a handful of non-White characters, including Gryffindors Lee Jordan, Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson, and Parvati Patil, as well as Harry’s first romantic interest, Cho Chang. Yet, despite providing the non-White characters with racial identifiers (e.g., Angelina Johnson is described as “a tall black girl with long, braided hair” [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 224], and Dean Thomas as “a Black boy even taller than Ron”) [Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 122]), Rowling seems to deliberately give racial status about as much attention as she does hair color. On the other hand, there is little doubt that she uses wizards, Muggles, and house-elves as symbolic racial categories and that Voldemort’s obsession with pureblood status is a very thinly veiled allegory for European and American obsession with racial purity during the first half of the 20th century. The purpose of this paper is to critically examine Rowling’s literal and metaphorical treatment of race in order to understand the series’ underlying racial messages in the context of contemporary scholarship in this area. I will begin with the literal analysis.
The Racial Utopia?
It might seem peculiar that Rowling would go to the trouble to racially identify certain characters only to ignore their racial status for the remainder of the series, but this particular combination of behaviors is characteristic of contemporary neo-conservative racial ideology (Omi & Winant). According to this ideology, race is assumed to be socially constructed and racial justice is pursued via a “color-blind” society in which everyone pursues the American/British dream by “lifting themselves up by the bootstraps” (i.e., a “just world” that rewards good choices and a strong work ethic). “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our [biological or God-given] abilities,” says Dumbledore (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 333), who later reminds Fudge, the Minister of Magic, that what people grow to be is much more important than what they were when they were born (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 708). Accordingly, for neo-conservatives, the belief that race (a biological or God-given characteristic) does not matter is typically grounded in one or both of two seemingly contradictory but actually compatible beliefs—that “we” are all the same (i.e., “humans” or “Americans” or “Muggles”) and that each one of us is a unique person.
The color-blind ideal is so eminently reasonable that it can seem almost objectionable even to question it. After all, who wouldn’t want to be perceived as a unique being? Yet, critics of a color-blind ideology (and there are many) reject it for several reasons. To begin with, they point out that a color-blind ideal, at best, does nothing to curtail the institutional and interpersonal racism that are still experienced by people of color on a daily basis and, at worst, actually works to maintain the racial hierarchy by pretending and acting as though it didn’t exist (e.g., the Ministry of Magic during its denial of Voldemort’s return). In addition, critics of racial color-blindness argue that racial status is associated with cultural experiences (e.g., music preferences, experiences of discrimination) that shape a person’s identity or sense of self. This perspective is well-captured by Dr. Lisa Delpit, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Education & Innovation:
I don’t see color, I only see children.” What message does this statement send? That there is something wrong with black or brown, that it should not be noticed? I would like to suggest that if one does not see color, then one does not really see children. Children made “invisible” in this manner become hard-pressed to see themselves worthy of notice.
To be sure, there is no evidence in the books that any of the non-White characters suffer from poor self-esteem or any other negative state, but there is no evidence to the contrary either. One of the privileges of Whiteness is to deny the impact of race on people’s lives and this privilege is readily apparent in the Harry Potter series. The truth is that, because the stories are almost exclusively told by a White narrator (who notices race but doesn’t examine its impact), through the eyes of White characters (who don’t notice race), we really don’t (can’t!) know anything about the reality of the non-White characters. To see racism, critics of color-blindness argue, it is first necessary to see race.
The irony is that, their statements to the contrary notwithstanding, neoconservatives do, in fact, notice race. They just pretend (sometimes for legitimate reasons) not to. Rowling is no exception. Consider the precise words she uses to describe Dean Thomas: “A black boy even taller than Ron”. This seemingly innocent phrase communicates several important parts of our racial mythology. First of all, it is generally assumed that what we choose to comment on says something about what we consider to be important. In that context, by describing Dean the way she does, Rowling is telling the readers that there are three things that are important about Dean Thomas’s appearance: that he is Black, that he is male, and that he is tall -- in that order. Secondly, it is telling that Rowling chose to describe Dean as “black”, rather than saying that he has “dark skin”. The latter term is objectively neutral, as well as accurate. In contrast, as we all know, no one’s skin is really black (or white). In this context, these words only have meaning to us as racial categories. To use them is to signify implicit acceptance of racial categories. To use them, even in an attempt to demonstrate that there is no racism in the world, is to validate (and acknowledge) the existence of race.
And that’s not all. By describing Dean in this very short phrase as being “even taller than Ron,” Rowling (probably unconsciously) communicates that we can only understand “blackness” by somehow relating it to whiteness. In the past, it was commonplace for non-Whites to be judged based on mainstream (i.e., “white”) norms without any consideration for how institutional racism might influence Black behaviors and attitudes. Thus, for example, Black soldiers were judged intellectually inferior when during WWI they scored lower than white soldiers on a standardized test of intelligence (the Army Alpha) that contained many culturally-loaded questions that Blacks educated in the Jim Crow South were much less likely to answer correctly. Rowling doesn’t do this, of course, but by describing Dean’s height as relative to Ron’s, she does endorse, rather than reject, the idea of a white-centric standard.
The skeptic will dismiss such a reading of “an innocent description,” but Rowling’s portrayal of race is problematic even within the neo-conservative ideology that she stakes out. The problem is that, in a world that seems designed to parallel the demographics of contemporary England, non-White characters barely seem to exist and none occupy positions of authority. This is evidenced by the fact that Cho Chang is the only non-White character who is developed to any degree, as well as by the fact that not a single important adult character in any of the books is a person of color—not even in the otherwise progressive Hogwarts (Kingsley Shacklebolt might be considered a "token" exception). Their absence is conspicuous, especially given that Rowling has worked for Amnesty International and clearly intended to create a multicultural society in which cultural differences, while generally unnoticed, are celebrated when the occasion permits (e.g., Seamus Finnigan’s shamrock-covered tent and other decorations at the Quidditch World Cup). No doubt, Rowling intended to comment on race by focusing on blood status and house-elf rights. Her treatment of these topics provides ample opportunity to examine both contemporary and historical race relations, and it is to these racial metaphors that I now turn.
The Color of Blood
The tendency of some wizards to place a premium on pure blood (that is, on pure breeding) and treat half-bloods and Muggles as second-class citizens is an obvious parallel to our own society’s history of oppression of Blacks and obsession about interracial sex and marriage. A number of characters, including Draco and Lucius Malfoy, explicitly espouse the superiority of pure blood, but this racist attitude is best personified by the portrait of Sirius’s mother(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 78):
Filth! Scum! By-products of dirt and vileness! Half-breeds, mutants, freaks, begone from this place! How dare you befoul the house of my fathers. . . . Yoooou!” she howled, her eyes popping at the sight of the man [Sirius]. Blood traitor, abomination, shame of my flesh.
Contained in this epithet are a number of important ideas: 1.) that half-bloods (i.e., those of both Muggle and wizard parentage) are subhuman and undesirable, and that 2.) their very presence threatens the purity and cleanliness of both their surroundings and those that come into contact with them. Thus, her disgust extends to her son, who befriends and invites the half-blood members of the Order into his house, and by so doing contaminates not only the house but himself. This view is remarkably similar to the beliefs held by supporters of anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, who thought that inter-racial unions would contaminate and dilute the pure White blood and lead to moral degeneracy and ultimately the country’s downfall. While the last U.S. anti-miscegenation law was finally struck down in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), inter-racial marriage continues to be controversial for many people. It is certainly a sign of progress that the contemporary argument against such unions is more likely to be framed as an issue of compatibility than as blood contamination, but no doubt there are still more than a few people who, when it comes to Black-White marriage, have the same reaction as Sirius’s mother.
Rowling makes a strong link between the evil of Voldemort and the Death Eaters and the belief in pure-blood superiority. Throughout her books, all examples of prejudice and discrimination against half-bloods or Muggles are perpetrated by either the Slytherins or Voldemort’s supporters, while each “good” character, without exception, not only explicitly denounces prejudice against half-bloods but behaves accordingly. Thus, Dumbledore hires Hagrid to teach at Hogwarts, despite the fact that he is a half-giant, and when Rita Skeeter reveals his half-blood status, Dumbledore, along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, convinces him that blood status is irrelevant. Similarly, the Weasleys, Sirius, and all members of the Order clearly reject the notion of half-blood inferiority—despite the scorn and disgust such a stance engenders from the pure-blood racists who surround them.
Rowling's treatment of eugenics and race-mixing is well executed. Not only are the specific details accurately rooted in real-world history, but the readers are clearly shown the harm that this extreme kind of racism can cause. That said, taking a clear stance against extreme racism is neither progressive nor controversial these days. It is the more subtle racial messages that require a careful analysis. There are numerous such messages in the Harry Potter books and films, but I will focus on just one here: The stability of racism.
Can Racists Change Their Stripes?
For all the series' emphasis on choices, the tendency to be or not to be racist seems almost entirely impervious to change. Of the many characters in the series who espouse racist beliefs, only Draco may have become less racist as a function of his life experiences, and even that possible transformation is left to the reader’s imagination. Is the depiction of Draco's steadfast racism realistically drawn, especially in the face of consistent evidence against pure-blood superiority? Actually, it is.
Draco's imperviosness in the first six books (and arguably the seventh too) to any information that contradicts his deeply held conviction of pure-blood superiority is consistent with cognitive dissonance theory, which holds that people experience emotional discomfort when their attitudes are challenged and tend to try to eliminate this discomfort by discounting the challenging information, rather than engaging in the more difficult task of changing their belief system to accommodate it. Thus, when Draco’s belief in pure-blood superiority is challenged by Hermione’s obvious intelligence, he finds reasons to invalidate her accomplishments (e.g., she sucks up to the teachers or she studies so much because she is too ugly to have friends).
This is not to say that there would be no hope for Draco in the real world. Racial identity models developed by psychologists William Cross and Janet Helms suggest that emotional, personal experiences that challenge one's beliefs regarding race may create enough cognitive dissonance to inspire real attitude change. Perhaps Dumbledore’s unstinting faith in him in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might inspire Draco to re-examine his beliefs. Or perhaps Harry's choice to reveal to Draco's mother that her son was alive might do so. As usual, Rowling doesn't provide us with the Slytherin perspective, but it's not a stretch to imagine that the intense course of events in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may have provoked Draco's racial growth.
But attitude change need not rely on randomly-occurring life experiences. Psychologists have identified a number of factors associated with creating group-level attitude change (including racial attitudes). If the teachers at Hogwarts want to facilitate more open-mindedness and less prejudice in their students, they could draw on contact theory, but they’d have to proceed carefully. According to contact theory, ethnic and racial group prejudice can be reduced or even eliminated by bringing group members (in this case, half-bloods and pure-bloods) into cross-group contact with each other, but only as long as the nature of the contact meets a prescribed set of conditions. These conditions include 1.) ensuring that status within the group is not dependent on blood lineage, 2.) having ample opportunity to get to know members of the other group, 3.) not behaving according to the other group’s stereotypes, 4.) being required to cooperate with members of the other group, and 5.) having support from the relevant authority.
It is not coincidental that the problem of intolerance of half-bloods seems limited to the Slytherin House, despite the likely presence of both purebloods and half-bloods in all four Houses. In Gryffindor, for example, the students seem completely disinterested in blood lineage, perhaps because all of the above conditions are met. In contrast, none of the necessary conditions are met in the Slytherin House, where the hostile environment toward half-bloods makes them reluctant even to disclose their status. As just one example, "pure-blood" being the password to the Slytherin House Common Room is a clear indication of institutional endorsement of pure-blood ideology, that apparently even Dumbledore (one would assume the Headmaster would have access to all passwords for security reasons) was willing to turn a blind eye to. It is noteworthy that even Snape, the Head of Slytherin, does not readily disclose his half-blood status, much less do anything to promote tolerance or open-mindedness in his students.
The research on contact theory suggests that prejudice against half-bloods in Slytherin would be most easily eliminated if House membership were re-sorted each year, as this would facilitate equal status and acquaintanceship and require cross-group cooperation. Of course, given Hogwarts’s history and tradition, this intervention is not likely to be adopted. Even so, prejudice against half-bloods could be considerably lessened through the creation of a safe, equal-status environment in the Slytherin House. This would require Snape to model tolerance and acceptance and take an assertive stance against intolerance of any kind, including humor. While this is not likely to dissuade the hard-core racists, it will effectively move their belief system outside the mainstream, and consequently, outside of most people’s comfort zone.
It is worth noting that the obsession with blood and lineage is not limited to wizards. Even in the Harry Potter universe, select Muggles are shown to be as racist as any Death Eater. Consider the not-so-subtle undertone of eugenics espoused by Vernon Dursley’s sister, Marge, who, in reference to Harry, remarks in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 27:
This one’s got a mean, runty look about him. You get that with dogs. I had Colonel Fubster drown one last year. Ratty little thing it was. Weak. Underbred.
Much like the Malfoys, Marge Dursley seems invested in “pure blood,” and like them, she seems to endorse the protection of racial purity via both selective breeding and targeted killing. Such attitudes are so abhorrent that it is tempting to dismiss them as fictional evil that could not exist in our world. But they are, in fact, an allegory for the anti-Semitism and racial ideology of Hitler and the Nazis.
The racism of the Nazis and the Death Eaters is easy to identify and poses few moral questions. Contemporary racism, however, is more complicated. To be sure, some racism is still perpetrated by avowed racists (e.g., White supremacists) who strive to promote a racist agenda by intentionally hurting, humiliating, or intimidating non-Whites. But today’s racism is often much more subtle, and unfortunately, it is not only perpetrated by those who are evil or who want to hurt others. Good people, even those with the best egalitarian intentions, can and do perpetuate acts of racism, sometimes without even being aware of having done so (Gaertner & Dovidio). Harry’s and Ron’s indifference to house-elf rights and the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) is a good example. Although Harry frees Dobby and neither Harry nor Ron engages in explicitly racist behavior, their lack of support for S.P.E.W. can be interpreted as an implicit endorsement of elf inferiority, especially given their propensity for actively confronting perceived injustice.
Unintentional and aversive racism may seem hard to study, but psychologists interested in social cognition and group relations have designed a variety of methods to do just that. Perhaps the best known of these is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) an online test measuring implicit attitudes and stereotypes that was developed by Brian Nosek, Mahzarin Banaji, and Anthony Greenwald in 1998. An implicit stereotype, according to the IAT FAQ, is “a stereotype that is powerful enough to operate without conscious control.” For example, if you think that John Walters is more likely to be the name of a famous person than Jane Walters, you might be indirectly expressing a stereotype that associates the category of male (rather than female) with fame-deserving achievement—despite the fact that there is a famous female with this last name (Barbara Walters). This was the finding of one of the first experimental studies of implicit stereotypes, and this tendency was found to be uncorrelated with explicit expressions of sexism or stereotypes (Banaji and Greenwald).
In the race IAT, users are first asked to put positive and negative words, such as “failure,” “glorious,” “terrific,” and “nasty,” into categories of “good” and “bad” by clicking the appropriate key on the keyboard as the words flash on the screen. Then, they are asked to do the same with images of Black and White faces. By having users respond to the prompts as quickly as possible, the test aims to side-step both lack of awareness and cognitive control—the brief, but significant, time lapse we need to give an “acceptable” answer rather than a truly honest one. Consistent with previous studies of implicit attitudes, studies using the race IAT reveal that White respondents tend to show implicit bias against Blacks.
So, what would happen if there was a blood-status IAT and all the Hogwarts students were required to take it? Consistent with their explicit attitudes, Draco and many other Slytherins would show anti-half-blood bias, but what about Harry, Ron, and Hermione? Research with the IAT reveals that implicit racial bias among White respondents is present as early as age six, with ten year olds showing the same magnitude of pro-White bias as adults (Baron & Banaji). These findings suggest that Ron, having been socialized in a wizard society in which there is open racism against half-bloods, probably holds some implicit negative stereotypes of half-bloods, although his friendship with Hermione probably mitigates the bias (remember that implicit stereotypes are not correlated with explicit attitudes). The results are harder to predict for Harry and Hermione, both of whom were raised by Muggles and have Muggles in their lineage. However, some IAT studies (e.g., Margie, Killen, Sinno, and McGlothlin) suggest that although they would show no bias regarding potential friendships, they would be more likely to associate transgressors with purebloods. There is little doubt, of course, that everyone at Hogwarts would show an implicit anti-house-elf bias.
Notably, a lack of prejudice against Muggles or half-bloods does not seem associated with a greater likelihood of supporting elf rights. This is evident in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which even Sirius Black, whose rejection of his family’s obsession with pure blood caused him to run away at age sixteen and his family to disown him and burn his name off the family tapestry (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 111), was unable to see the elves as anything other than servants. Ditto the Weasleys, despite Sirius’s observation that they are the prototypical blood traitors (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 113). In fact, of all the positive characters, Ron seems to be the least interested in house-elf rights and the least sensitive to their plight. For example, when Hermione accuses him of making up his Divination homework, Ron (who is guilty as charged) pretends to be outraged. “How dare you!” he says. “We’ve been working like House-elves here.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 223). Although it may be tempting to dismiss the comment as a meaningless joke, humor can often provide important insight into people’s belief systems. Hermione rightfully raises her eyebrow at the comment, as it suggests that Ron is unaware that comparing an evening of schoolwork to a lifetime of slavery could be considered offensive.
Unfortunately, this happens in our world too. Although many individuals do see human rights as important across a variety of different identity groups, it is also true that advocates for racial equality do not always act as allies for the LGBT and disability communities, and vice versa. The bottom line is that Harry and Ron mean well and clearly have the courage to act consistently in accordance with their convictions, but their views about certain types of oppression are nonetheless narrow-minded. The same is true of Rowling, who seemed to want to create a work of anti-racism, but lacked the racial sensitivity to do so. Like most of us, young and old, Harry, Ron, and Rowling still have some learning and growing to do.
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Thandeka. Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America. New York: Continuum Publishing Inc., 2000.
 In contrast to the non-White characters, none of the White characters are racially identified. Part of the reason lies in the privilege of Whiteness. “As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations” (Lipsitz 1). But like Lord Voldemort’s name, the omission of “The Race That Shall Not Be Named” (Woods 2) signifies more than merely the absence of necessity. Naming “Whiteness” brings to mind various racial discrepancies that affect every aspect of our lives and brings awareness to racial privilege, a process that tends to make White people feel uncomfortable (Kivel 9), even though there is no similar discomfort in using racial identifiers to refer to people of color. To experience this discomfort, I invite you to try Thandeka’s “Race Game,” in which the African-American theologian and journalist challenges White people, for one week, to racially identify other Whites whenever making reference to them (e.g., “my White friend Ron”).
 This is the stance taken by most social scientists interested in race, as well as the official position of the American Sociological Association, whose 2002 statement on race posits that “Refusing to acknowledge the fact of racial classification, feelings, and actions, and refusing to measure their consequences will not eliminate racial inequalities. At best, it will preserve the status quo.”
 This statement is a reasonable summary of the multicultural racial ideology—that race, although socially constructed, should be recognized (seen) in order to validate the experiences (both positive and negative) and cultural differences (e.g., food, music, dialect) that members of racial minority groups may share.
 Racism refers to the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. The emphasis on lineage and blood status suggests that Muggles and wizards can be treated as racial groups.
 A 2001 study carried out by the New York Times and published in the book How Race is Lived in America found that 29 percent of Whites and 15 percent of Blacks disapproved of Black-White marriages.
 One of the practical problems of racial purity that Rowling does not take up is the issue of deciding who qualifies as a “pure-blood.” The term “half-blood” suggests that one parent is a Muggle, but it’s not clear how a person with three “pure-blood” grandparents would be classified. The United States historically solved this problem (and simultaneously discouraged miscegenation) by adopting the “one-drop rule,” which held that a person with even one drop of Black blood would be considered Black.
 The original foundation for contact theory is Sherif’s classic 1954 study on inter-group conflict and cooperation (i.e., the Robber’s Cave experiment). The study is available online (http://psychclassics.yorku.ca//Sherif/index.htm).
 At the very least, we can be reasonably sure that halfbloods are well represented in each House, as we are told that “Much of the wizarding world is actually in this category” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 7).
 Eugenics is the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.
 In a July, 2000 interview with the CBC, Rowling said, “In the second book, Chamber of Secrets, in fact he [Voldemort] is exactly what I’ve said before. He takes what he perceives to be a defect in himself, in other words the non-purity of his blood, and he projects it onto others. It’s like Hitler and the Aryan ideal, to which he [Hitler] did not conform at all, himself. And so Voldemort is doing this also. He takes his own inferiority, and turns it back on other people and attempts to exterminate in them what he hates in himself.”
 Many race scholars and anti-racism activists argue that racism (as opposed to prejudice), by definition, can only be perpetrated in the context of considerable institutional power. According to this definition, people of color in both the United States and Europe can be prejudiced and can commit hate crimes, but they cannot be racist.
 Fyodor Dostoyevsky captured this tendency in his 1864 Notes from the Underground, observing that “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.”
 S.P.E.W. is formed by Hermione after she researched the history of elf enslavement (it goes back centuries), with the initial goal of obtaining fair wages and working conditions and the long-term goal of getting elf representation in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Both Harry and Ron join, but they do so reluctantly and clearly only as a favor to Hermione. Neither they, nor any of their classmates, are actually interested in acting on behalf of elf rights. Ron seems to speak for almost everyone at Hogwarts, including Harry, when he says, “Hermione—open your ears. . . . They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 224). In Ron’s and Harry’s defense, the house-elves do, in fact, often act (and talk) as though they prefer servitude to freedom, but in the real world, there has never been a group of people that liked being enslaved (although slaveholders in the United States certainly made that argument) and in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it finally becomes evident that Hermione’s concerns for elfish welfare were well founded.
 The race IAT (as well as age, sex, and other versions) and associated data can be found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/.
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