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Race and Blood Purity in the Harry Potter Series
An essay for Anthropology 101, discussing the series' sophisticated treatment of adult issues
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is perhaps the most successful children’s book series ever conceived, but it also contains some very adult themes. As the series is somewhat long and complex, I have chosen to focus on one of these themes, perhaps the most prominent theme in the entire series: the issue of race. The thorough and serious treatment of this issue is surprising in a series of children’s books, raising issues like the social construction of race, the language of race, the ineffectiveness of race as judgment of a person’s worth, and racial discrimination, all of which I hope to touch on in my response. In order to adhere to the three to four page limit and to the definition of anthropology, I will limit discussion to humans, omitting fictional species, such as giants and house-elves.
Race is treated in a very unique way in the Harry Potter series. Though Harry has many classmates of minority race, such as Dean Thomas, Cho Chang, and Padma and Parvati Patil, skin color and other visible physical characteristics are never an issue, nor is nation of origin. Instead, wizards classify themselves by “blood status,” or the “purity” of their wizarding heritage. In the magical world, a person is either a “pure-blood,” with all-wizarding ancestry, a “half-blood” with mixed magical and nonmagical ancestry, a “Muggle,” a non-magical person, a “Muggle-born,” a witch or wizard born to non-wizarding parents, or a “Squib,” a nonmagical person born to wizarding parents.
Rowling has invented five fictional “races” organized on the supposedly biological basis of magical blood. This is a good example of race as a cultural construct. In the Muggle world, race has absolutely nothing to do with magical ability, as Muggles are oblivious to the existence of magic. Instead, race is determined by a number of factors, which vary by region, such as parentage in the United States, phenotype in Brazil, and descent from certain castes in Japan (Kottak 64-71). If wizards place any importance on these factors, it is not displayed in the books. Instead, wizarding culture gives us a fourth example of culturally specific racial classification.
It is evident from the beginning of the series, when Harry first encounters Draco Malfoy, that this racial classification is of great significance in the wizarding world. Draco, an arrogant boy from a privileged, “pure-blooded” wizarding family, looks down on those of less “pure” descent, saying, “I don’t think they should let the other sort in [to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry], do you?” (Rowling,Sorcerer’s Stone 78) Later in the series, Draco introduces the term “Mudblood,” a derogatory term for Muggle-borns which literally means “dirty blood,” as an insult to Harry’s friend Hermione. As their friend Ron later explains, “There are some wizards—like Malfoy’s family—who think they’re better than everyone else because they’re what people call pure-blood” (Rowling,Chamber of Secrets116). In this way, the relationship between certain elitist pure-bloods and Muggle-borns is much like that of majority Japanese to the stigmatized burakumin. Both burakumin and Muggle-borns are considered to be of “unclean” blood and are discriminated against, and both majority Japanese and pure-blooded wizards would consider these “unclean” minorities unsuitable marriage partners (Kottak 67-69).
The racism of pure-bloods is so evident in wizarding society that it even permeates the language. The very term “pure-blood” has a much more positive connotation than “half-blood,” or worse, “Mudblood.” The word “pure” implies cleanliness and virtue and suggests that the addition of outside elements would somehow constitute contamination. In contrast, the word “half” implies incompleteness or lesser value, and the word “mud” can be defined as filth, muck, or dirt. Thus the implication is that half-bloods possess a contamination, causing them to be lesser people, and that Mudbloodsarea contamination. Other, less obvious implications are made by the terms “Muggle” and “Squib.” According toWebster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, “muggle” was originally 1920’s slang for “a marijuana cigarette” or “a common person, esp. one who is ignorant or has no skills.”Webster’sdefines “squib” as “a firecracker broken in the middle so that it burns with a hissing noise but does not explode.” Thus Muggles and possibly Muggle-borns are labeled as incapable and ignorant, and Squibs are branded defective.
Although the language she has created is extremely racist, Rowling herself portrays the different wizarding “races” fairly equitably. While some pure-bloods, as previously mentioned, are prejudiced and discriminatory, others are very accepting. One example is Ron’s family, the Weasleys, who become a surrogate family to Harry, who does not get much affection from his biological relatives, the Dursleys. The Weasleys are poor, friendly, and accepting, in contrast to other pure-blooded families, like the elitist Blacks and Malfoys, who are wealthy and prejudiced. The epilogue of the final book even shows Ron married to Hermione, a Muggle-born (Rowling, Deathly Hallows 755). Hermione and the aforementioned Dursleys are also a good example of Rowling’s equitable portrayal of race. The Dursleys, cruel, ignorant, and closed-minded, fit the 1920’s definition of a muggle fairly well. Hermione, however, is remarkably brilliant, the antithesis of “incapable and ignorant.”
In spite of these examples of individuals who defy the stereotypes associated with their race, there are many in the wizarding world who believe in racial stereotypes enough to side with Lord Voldemort in his quest for, “purification of the Wizarding race, getting rid of Muggle-borns and having pure-bloods in charge” (Rowling, Order of the Phoenix 112). Eventually, in the seventh book, Muggle-born persecution becomes mainstream and is enforced by the Ministry of Magic. Anti-Muggle pamphlets are circulated, a Muggle-Born Registration Commission is formed, and a mass roundup of Muggle-borns begins, with those of “impure” descent imprisoned on the grounds of committing the imaginary offense of “stealing magic.” The parallels to Nazi Germany are eerie and unsettling, particularly in the unusual context of children’s fantasy literature.
The situation in the book is made even more disturbing by the minority being persecuted: people of nonmagical descent. That includes all readers of the series, along with every other person on earth. TheHarry Potterseries forces people, no matter how prejudiced themselves, to look at the persecution from the victim’s perspective, because in this story, the minority being persecuted is not the Jews, the Gypsies, the Tutsis, the homosexuals, or any other ethnic group with which some readers may not identify. Instead, it is us, every human being, since to my knowledge, none of us are actually magical. When the minority is everyone, everyone has to sympathize.
In conclusion, the Harry Potter series, in addition to being entertaining and captivating, is an excellent commentary on real, pertinent issues, particularly race. Rowling has created a fictional world with fictional races, classified not by physical appearance or descent from a particular caste, but by a combination of magical ability and wizarding lineage. She has constructed language which reflects the racial prejudices of some of its speakers and shown those prejudices to be false, just like many prejudices in real life. Finally, and most powerfully, she has created a situation which forces the reader to look at the persecutions of a racist regime through the eyes of its victims, an impressive achievement for any series, let alone one shelved under images fromFrog and Toad at Barnes and Noble.