Sirius black

Discussion: Representation of Equality, Discrimination and Prejudice in Harry Potter

Harry Potter has formed an integral part of our generation’s psyche, contributing subtly and not-so-subtly to the way we think, and the we way we feel. What is the influence of growing up reading the series on our approaches to social prejudice and discrimination?
According to a new study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, young people who’ve read the Harry Potter series — and identify with the main character or protagonist — are less likely to be biased or prejudiced against minority groups.
Researchers examined 34 Italian fifth graders in the very first study, who filled out a questionnaire about their attitude toward immigrants. They then read excerpts from Harry Potter books over the course of six weeks, focusing mostly on parts that had to do with prejudice or bigotry. After reading the books, they then answered the questionnaire about immigrants again, and showed increased empathy toward immigrants — especially if they also identified strongly with the main character, Harry.
In the second half, researchers examined a group of older college students in England, and their attitudes toward refugee groups. They found that reading the books had a similar effect on college students. “Harry Potter book reading was positively associated with perspective toward refugees only among those less identified with Voldemort,” the authors wrote. “Perspective taking, in turn, was associated with improved attitudes toward refugees.”
Further analyses discuss the general representation of the things that lead to prejudice and discrimination in the Potter verse, viz.  ignorance, indifference, insecurity and intolerance. 
At its most basic level, there is the split between the wizarding world and the Muggle world. within the wizarding world there is the emphasis on blood status: as Aunt Marge says in The Prisoner of Azkaban It all comes down to blood, as I was saying the other day. Bad blood will out Prisoner , 26). Thus, the pure-bloods represent the wizarding aristocracy; the half-bloods are next in the pecking order (and it is interesting to note that each of the Abandoned Boys – Snape, Voldemort and Harry – are half-bloods); and at the bottom of the social hierarchy are the Muggle-born witches and wizards – infamously referred to as mud-bloods by the (seemingly) evil Draco Malfoy, and including the incomparable Hermione, the cleverest witch of her age Prisoner , 253). Though what is clever about the series is the way J.K. Rowling portrays the notion of blood status and shows it up for what it is – meaningless.
In addition to the above, there are many other social gradations: squibs (non-magical folk born to magical parents); magical Non-humans such as elves and goblins; magical creatures; and so on. As suggested above, these are easily described and the lessons learnt are readily outlined. Equally clear is the prejudice and discrimination of the Ministry of Magic, especially, though not exclusively, when under the control of Lord Voldemort. Here again the links with totalitarian régimes, most notably Nazi Germany, are easily made.
Inequality and social discrimination are often directly addressed in the books, be it with regards to Muggle-hating, disrespect of muggle-borns,  societal acceptance of half-humans, or the oppression of non-human magical creatures.
Sometimes the story explicitly tells us to challenge stereotypes, as when Hermione organizes the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.). Jokes about “spew” and Hermione’s do-gooder naivite abound in the early books, but by the end it’s clear that Hermione’s basic sense of justice is crucial in order to mobilize all humans and magical creatures against Voldemort. The transformation of Kreacher in Book 7 is an excellent example: Harry must learn how to speak respectfully to him in order to win his allegiance.
This is why Dobby, the liberated house-elf, is so crucial to the emotional core of Book 7, and to Harry’s final shift from a self-centered approach to one that realizes that the battle is much larger than him.Part of standing up against discrimniation means defending intermarriage and standing up against bigotry. Some of the central heroes of the book are “mixed” or part of mixed relationships: Harry’s mother is a Muggle-born witch, Hermione herself is Muggle-born, Hagrid is half-giant, half-human, Lupin, a werewolf, marries Tonks from the “pure-blood” Black family.By the end, Harry, Hermione, and Ron reject racist and discriminatory ideas about “pure-blood Wizards” and stand for the rights of Muggle-born witches and wizards and Muggles as a whole, but also for the equality of other magical creatures, like elves, goblins, and centaurs, and werewolves.
In challenging Voldemort and his Death Eaters—who conduct pogroms against Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards when they come to power—the books expose the ways in which they twist terminology to suit their needs. Folks from old, wizarding families who help Harry, like the Weasleys and Sirius Black, are called “blood-traitors.” Under Voldemort’s regime, anyone can be labeled as a traitor at any moment, and locked away in the prisons of Azkaban or killed.
This reminds us not only of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany and Russia or the anti-black racism of the US (the Death Eaters are hooded like the KKK) but also of the false detentions and imprisonments after 9/11 of Arabs and Muslims, not only in Guantanamo but also Brooklyn and Paterson.
It’s important that Voldemort and his followers do not create the idea of bias but build upon existing prejudices in the wizarding community. A prime example of this is the attitude of Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic towards Muggles and non-wizard magical creatures before Voldemort takes over (centaurs, goblins, elves, etc). When Harry first enters the Ministry of Magic in Book 5 he is critical of the statues there that represent witches and wizards as being superior to all other creatures.
The rot that Voldemort represents, therefore, is not a threat from outside but one from within the society itself.
An interesting approach to the Harry Potter series, beloved and enduring, and its effects on its generation’s thoughts and actions.

Additional reading: Magical Minority: Social Class and Discrimination in the Harry Potter series


Molecular Biologist, Write. Schooling in Equality.

'Discussion: Representation of Equality, Discrimination and Prejudice in Harry Potter' have 4 comments

  1. September 23, 2014 @ 10:10 pm Hari

    Harry potter has been and will always be an integral part of my life and this is a completely fresh perspective, the article does open new avenues of discussion regarding discrimination.
    Good job Gayatri!


  2. September 24, 2014 @ 11:23 am Deepika Sreedhar

    Good read, Goo. Brought me back to the days when I vicariously experienced some of Hermione’s anger when she fought for house-elf rights, while everyone else only laughed at her attempt for being needless and largely unsuccessful. And then, vindication at the end of the series when they realize how much it mattered! Felt good.
    The big takeaway from the “ten most influential books” forward going around on FB was that most books mentioned were those that people’d read as children — since those stories tend to be more black-and-white in terms of characterization and have clearer morals that tend to stay with us and inform us as we’re growing up, while most adult novels don’t go out of their way to moralize or influence.


  3. November 9, 2015 @ 2:46 pm Yvonne Rujawitz

    This is a topic which is close to my heart… Best wishes! Exactly where are your contact details though?


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