Ink and Luce Talk About Racial Issues: “To J.K. Rowling, from Cho Chang”

Ink: Hi, my name is Ink, and I’m new here.

Luce: And hi again, I’m Luce! So recently, Saika brought this video to our attention, and as it turns out, we had a lot of thoughts about it.

Ink: We’re both people of color, which we think may give us some perspective on the issues Rachel Rostad brings up in her video. I’m an African-American guy, and Luce is an Asian-American girl. I’m also a researcher in the social sciences, dealing specifically with issues of race.

Luce: And this is us, on vacation in France:

jackie chan chris tucker

So, to start out with, Rostad argues that JKR put Cho in “the nerd house” because obviously all Asians are nerds. But I disagree, because that only works if you think that all Slytherins are evil, all Hufflepuffs are duffers, and all Gryffindors are Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Ink: Right.rostad ravenclaw

Luce: Cho had to be in some house, and if she’d been put in Slytherin or Hufflepuff, I think there would have been similar critiques based on House stereotypes. Furthermore, the idea that Cho is nerdy just because she’s an Asian and in Ravenclaw isn’t correct in context. Cho’s an excellent Quidditch player, which would place her in an unstereotypical Asian jock category, but Rostad never mentions that in her arguments. In all seven books, including all the times she’s in Harry’s DADA class, I don’t believe we ever see her being scarily intelligent (as that post is permanently occupied by Hermione) or even good at academics.

Ink: What I think is odd about the House thing is that until this video, I hadn’t connected her House to her being Asian at all—well, I mean, I’d heard it before—she’s Asian and she’s bright—and it dawns on me that, besides Luna, at least, she’s the most interesting Ravenclaw. But—you know what’s funny about that? If JKR starts with this character and luna_narglessays “I want her to be a Quidditch star,” the coolest position she could play is Seeker. And she can’t do that if she’s a Slytherin or a Gryffindor, because then JKR would have to find a way to remove her already-established Seekers from their teams. It’s actually to your point—the only House in which she is actually an interesting character is Ravenclaw.

Luce: Or Hufflepuff, but everybody seems to hate them.

Ink: Moving on, I want to discuss the following section of the Rostad piece:

I know, you thought you were being tolerant. Between me, Dean, and the Indian twins, Hogwarts has like… five brown people? It doesn’t matter we’re all minor characters. Nah, you’re not racist!

I don’t get this accusation. There’s some real hyperbole here. The series has several other PoC characters, including celebrities and political figures, like Gwenog Jones and Kingsley Shacklebolt. But she says “Hogwarts,” so let’s stick with that. There are more students of color at Hogwarts than she names, and many more than five. Furthermore, she only names the students in Harry’s year. Five doesn’t seem so few though, given the size of Hogwarts. Is that an unreasonable quantity of students of color?

Luce: You know, there’s actually a great article about the demographics of Harry Potter in which the author analyzed each person in the Sorting list of Harry’s year under the assumption that “these forty children represent the entire British population in microcosm.” If so, then roughly four (10%) of the students in that year should not be of Anglo-Celtic descent. Half of that 10% should be from India, which means two students—Parvati and Padma Patil. One of those students should be black—Dean Thomas. Finally, one of those students should be Asian, and we can see a young woman named “Su Li” on the list. Now, Su Li is a character who is never developed or even mentioned in the books—she’s only on this list. Cho Chang doesn’t show up until the third book. I’m putting words in her mouth, but I think it’s possible that JKR may have been thinking, “Okay, I want to match the demographics of Great Britain, so I have to have an Asian character” and then moved the Asian character to a different year for reasons of her own.

Ink: Okay, so four or five is a reasonable number of students of color, and that assumes that magic is present at the same rate across all ethnic groups. But let’s consider it settled. Point: JKR, for either working out, or stumbling onto, remarkably accurate demographics. Let’s move on to her name.

rostad_changLuce: Well, it’s a fair point. Cho Chang isn’t really a proper Chinese name, but neither is it comprised of two Korean last names, as Rostad correctly apologizes for in her follow-up video. In the Mandarin translation of the Harry Potter books, the translators chose to translate her name as 張秋 (“Zhang Qiu”) (last name before first as in Eastern tradition). Zhang’s a common Chinese last name and Qiu means autumn, so it’s quite a pretty name. “Zhang Qiu” is the way it would be romanized using Pinyin, the system used and taught in mainland China. In Taiwan, which uses the Wade-Giles romanization system, that name would be romanized “Chang Chiu”, which is very close to “Cho Chang” (and which is also the reason that I’ve always thought of Cho as Taiwanese). But I think the reason the name “works” isn’t because JKR researched proper Chinese naming practices, but because she got lucky, so I’ll give that one to Rostad. JKR could have just picked two Asian-sounding names, like Rostad said.

Ink: You know, I don’t think there’s too much more to say there. This is a thing that authors not of a given culture struggle with all the time, right? And I know that JKR was on welfare and didn’t have a lot of resources, but the easy counter-argument is—didn’t she know any Chinese people?

Luce: Yeah, that’s true. Maybe she just thought “this sounds Asian enough, there we go”.

Ink: A friend and I were saying that Rostad’s claims seem overstated in part because of how angry and curt and sarcastic the lines seem, and I think part of that is the art form. This style of poetry goes for the shock value, the cleverness, the wit, the loudness, and so, you know, “me being named Cho Chang is like a Frenchman being named Garcia Sanchez” is the sort of thing that makes the crowd clap and cheer and hoot and that’s the point.

Luce: She even says in her follow-up that she purposefully made that line into a punchline. A punchline which really annoyed me.

Ink: There’s the catch. While the point has to go to Rostad on JKR not doing enough research on names—

Luce: —or asking any Chinese people—

Ink: —if she’s going to expect that of an author, you would expect her critique of that author’s work to do the same sort of due diligence, right? She said that Cho and Chang are two Korean last names, which simply isn’t true. So she’s failed the same due diligence test, if that makes sense.

Luce: It does, absolutely.

Ink: Point against both.

Luce: Agreed. Rostad’s next thing—Cho’s general overemotionality in book five, after Cedric dies—well, the obvious point to make is that it made sense in context. Harry and his friends took the actions they did because they saw their actions as taking place in war (and thus justifiable in wartime), but Cho saw these actions as taking place in a school. And what’s more, Harry and his friends were doing something that was technically against the law at the time. There was no way for Cho to know that Harry Potter was going to be right about everything. But Rostad says in her follow-up that it matters because JKR obviously knew that Cho was Asian, yet she still chose Cho to be the one who didn’t take Harry’s side. Because in the books, not taking Harry’s side is always wrong.

Ink: The thing about that which rings most unfair to me is that that’s not the message that JKR is trying to put across in the books. Opposing Harry may always be wrong in terms of saving the world, but at the end of the first book Neville is publicly honored for doing what he thinks is right in the face of his friends.

Luce: Oh, good point. Good point!

neville_brave_fightInk: So clearly JKR finds some value in two honorable people disagreeing over what has to be done. That happens over and over and over in this book series. That’s not really a fair accusation from Rostad. You know, the thing that makes the least sense to me is “no wonder Harry Potter’s got yellow fever”—I am impressed by the assumption—because he pursues one Chinese girl in his entire existence that we know of. One.

Luce: And later on, Rostad even says that Cho’s just another example of the fetishizing of Asian girls, but I’m not sure how Cho being Asian and a love interest means that JKR turned her into a “tragic fetish”. Harry goes out with Cho, but he also goes out with Parvati, and, obviously, Ginny. He doesn’t “other” Cho, or make comments about her “black hair”, “yellow skin” or “exotic looks”. And Cho as an Asian caricature, and Asians in general being made caricatures of—I don’t think you can apply that to Cho. She spoke perfect English, since she was a native speaker. In the films I think she even has a Scottish accent—cho_ironic

Ink: Yeah, Katie Leung? Definitely Scottish.

Luce: —and, you know, if Cho laughed a lot with her friends, well, a lot of girls laugh a lot with their friends. Speaking perfect English and laughing doesn’t make Cho a caricature in the books or the films. So… that point just doesn’t… it just doesn’t logically follow.

Ink: It’s also perhaps equally well-countered by—you know who laughs more than anybody else in the books? It’s Lavender, it’s Parvati, it’s Padma. In that article we were talking about, they’re even called “The Giggling Girls.” So unless there’s a simultaneous stereotype about South Asians being giggly… you know, I don’t think that those—I personally think that these are only problems you find if you’re particularly sensitive to them, but—I guess the question is, should we care? Should an author care about their Asian female character giggling? Should an author care about their Asian female character dating a white male character? Can that never happen? When is it okay?

Luce: That discussion comes up in a lot of different fandoms. I wrote a post about Martha being the first black companion, and then Saika pointed out that she wasn’t, because Mickey also counted. But here’s the thing: when the Doctor constantly dismissed Mickey for being stupid, I understood that as just Mickey being stupid, I didn’t think the Doctor was racist or that Doctor Who was a racist institution. But when Martha, the only other black companion, was also constantly dismissed by the Doctor, that did smack of racism to me because of the Doctor’s previous attitude towards Mickey. And so the same thing applies to your point about Asian characters—if you have one Asian character who is giggly, or who dates a white guy, I think that should be thought of as okay, or at least not explicitly racist. But if you have five Asian girls and they’re all giggly and they all date white guys, then you have to start thinking about what you’re implying about Asians.

Ink: You know what we’re not thinking about? We’ve touched on it a couple of times—there’s a bunch of presumptions that are made of Cho, like about her English, about her giggling, which kind of unravel when you think about the fact that we have literally no idea what her relationship with her Chinese ethnicity is. We have no idea what her relationship with her parents is, what her relationship with her traditions and the Chinese language is like, and this is only about her English and her giggling—so we have to decide where this idea that Asian females are giggly comes from. Is it an Asian culture thing? Because if so, it’s invalid because she was raised in Scotland and we don’t know if her parents were first-generation or—we don’t know any of that.

Luce: Right. Basically, I think Rostad brings up good points but—in your words, they’re misdirected, but accurate. They’re good issues to think about, both story-wise and storytelling-wise, but they’re not particularly thought through and the way Rostad argues them makes them seem more incorrect than they are, just because of the inherently argumentative slam poetry medium in which she presents them.

Ink: The name thing is legitimate to a point, and kudos for asking tough questions, but the conclusion that we come to is that we’re not convinced.

Luce: Let’s wrap up here for the day—wait, what are you drinking? ‘Cause I’m drinking tea.

Ink: Well, I was drinking tea, and now I’m drinking a diet Sierra Mist. Wait, look at this teapot I have, isn’t it adorable?

Luce: Do you use it for actually making tea or do you just keep it around to look pretty?

Ink: Um, you know, I hate to say this, it always makes me sound really pretentious, but yes. I overwhelmingly prefer loose-leaf tea to teabags.

Luce: Sure, that doesn’t make you sound pretentious at all, Remus Lupin.

Ink: Sounding pretentious is something I worry about a lot.

Luce: Cheers.

Ink: I raise my diet Sierra Mist to you.

Read Part 2 here!

10 thoughts on “Ink and Luce Talk About Racial Issues: “To J.K. Rowling, from Cho Chang”

  1. You guys talking about Martha there for a second got me thinking: Martha is not really presented as stupid or weak. Mickey is, but how would you act if a whole bunch of aliens stole you and then this 40 year old biker turns out to be a time traveler and your girlfriend pretty much dumps you for him? Martha is presented as the strongest doctor at the hospital and in the “turn left” episode she’s the one who sacrifices her own life for her fellow doctors. She proves she’s intelligent and she truly is strong for leaving the Doctor on her own accord. It’s just the doctor being a dick to her after Rose is trapped in a parallel universe in season 3.
    What did strike me as a bit off is her ending up with Mickey at the end of season four when at the beginning of season four it was established that she was engaged to a doctor who happened to be white. What happened there?

    • You know, I honestly have no idea what happened there. There was no development to the Martha and Mickey relationship and the whole thing came off as an afterthought. I think there are legitimate reasons the two of them could have fallen in love, but the show doesn’t actually show us any of those reasons. Without that development, without that backstory, it almost seems as if the writers wanted the only two companions of color to get together, doesn’t it?

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  7. Although there may be interpretive difference between the technicalities of the instances in HP she is referring to, this criticism still strikes me in my heart. Why? Because the issues she’s talking about within Harry Potter are still a spectrum of the problems Asian women and other people of color face as always being secondary characters in fictional entertainment.

    She intertwined the common portrayals of Asian women in fiction and entertainment with the real life experiences of Asian Women and their implications of the “learning” of their public identity through seeing their fictional representations being tokenized and their race being exaggerated or “exoticized” as one of the most important reasons of their role and inclusion.

    As a hetero cis Asian American women for some reason growing up, I thought white men were the epitome of attractive. I hated my self for being Asian. I did not understand why and I did not understand I was wrong until I began examining how people of color, value, and attraction is portrayed in our dominant sources of relations. So even if there are disagreements with her arguments, she’s doing a great job breaking down stereotypes and criticizing the method of tokenization, being fetishized, lack of authentic and redeeming representation, and the discussing of the many other problems that face Asian American women like just by speaking her thoughts on forms of her identity.

  8. Cho (조): Korean surname
    Chang (장): Korean surname

    I don’t see how Rostad was wrong about this.

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