By now, you all have probably heard about the extremely white cast for the upcoming movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is extremely disappointing for those of us who were hoping that the film would have more diversity, as we certainly thought that a film set in 1920s New York would have at least a few characters of color. Alas, that was not the case, but apparently enough people have complained about this issue that producer David Heyman felt the need to speak out about the issue.
Like all of Jo Rowling’s works, [Fantastic Beasts] is populated with a variety of people and that will be the same in this series over the course of the films. There will be people of various types of ethnicities. In New York in the 1920s, there was a segregation between white and black, the neighborhoods were largely separate, and that is reflected in [the film]. But the wizarding world is a much more open and tolerant society where people of color and different ethnic backgrounds exist harmoniously together. There are people of color filling this world in an organic way.
There is so much about this comment that disappoints me that I barely know where to begin. That outrage aside, there are several issues at play here that need to be discussed.
My first issue is that Heyman claims that JKR’s work has always been diverse, but we already know that not to be true. Yes, there were people of color in the Harry Potter series, but there were very few and all of them were side characters who barely had anything to do with the plot. It would be nice to finally see some people of color take center stage in the expanded Harry Potter universe, but alas, that seems to be a pipe dream. It seems that diversity in the Harry Potter universe will be limited to some people of color in the background, but never in the main story. JKR’s response to these criticisms via Twitter didn’t leave me any more satisfied.
Really, Mrs. Rowling, is that the response you are going with here? Where are they, then, because unless the studio is hiding a Black guy somewhere the entire cast looks about as white as the upcoming Gods of Egypt movie. Now if JKR means “not everyone is white” in the sense that you will see people of color pop up here and there, then she’s probably correct. But if she means that the main cast isn’t all white then I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see some evidence of that, because IMDb paints a very different picture.
There is another issue I have with all of this and that once again involves intersectionality in the Harry Potter universe. Let’s look at just one small part of what Heyman said:
In New York in the 1920s, there was a segregation between white and black, the neighborhoods were largely separate, and that is reflected in [the film]. But the wizarding world is a much more open and tolerant society where people of color and different ethnic backgrounds exist harmoniously together. There are people of color filling this world in an organic way.
Okay, yes; people are awful and segregation existed. I do have some issues with diversity in the United States (even in the 1920s) being boiled down to just white and Black, but other than that, this statement is accurate. But what really confuses me is the assertion that the wizarding world is more tolerant of people of color. This just baffles me, because I feel like the entire world of Harry Potter would look very different if there wasn’t at least some discrimination against people of color. If white wizards weren’t just as bigoted as white Muggles I certainly think things would be different. First of all, you have Voldemort as an example who didn’t, to my knowledge, have any followers who were people of color. I mean the dude only had about three women in all the Death Eaters too. And I had always assumed that was partly due to racism and sexism on Voldemort and the Death Eaters’ part. Secondly, even if we assume that all pureblood wizards don’t discriminate by race (which just seems so unlikely considering how hateful they are about everything else), there have still been Muggleborn and half-blood wizards since at least the time of the Founders, and you would think that at least some of them held similar prejudices thanks to Muggle society. We know at the very least that Muggleborns of color would have to deal with double discrimination from both wizards thinking their blood is inferior and from white people thinking their race is inferior. So even if wizards really don’t discriminate by race, you can’t claim that no wizards deal with race discrimination.
And finally, even if wizards don’t discriminate against someone’s race at all, they are at least horribly complicit in the racist systems Muggles have developed. For example, if wizards truly cared about being more tolerant, then they would have been helping Muggles who were being discriminated against. Okay, maybe we can assume pureblood wizards wouldn’t, because they don’t like Muggles (at least that’s how it is in England; for all we know things are a little different in other parts of the world). But what about a African Muggleborn wizard living when people were kidnapping Africans and forcing them to be slaves? Wizards are significantly more powerful than Muggles. I can’t help but feel any African wizards could have tried to stop this; at least some had to be sympathetic enough to Muggles to try.
A few Black wizards attacking European ships coming to Africa would have probably been enough to end the slave trade, unless other wizards were trying to stop them, or unless all wizards, regardless of blood status, just ignored what was happening to the Muggles. Slavery, colonialism, imperialism, segregation, and other forms of racism and xenophobia—I can’t help but think things would look very different in the Muggle world unless wizards weren’t just as racist as Muggles. And honestly, I find the idea that wizards (at least those who weren’t pureblood) not helping the Muggles who were being discriminated against more farfetched than the existence of dragons, especially when it comes to wizards and Muggles who were the same ethnicity. Heck, I’m not a race the Nazis would have hated but if I lived during WWII and I could Apparate then you bet that I’d have Apparated into a concentration camp and freed people. With, I might add, very little risk to myself, because if I got caught I could just Apparate away again. Some may argue that the wizarding community has very little awareness of what’s going on in the outside Muggle world, but there’s a reasonable limit to that blindness and that’s not even taking Muggleborns into account.
Furthermore, it’s kind of hard to believe that wizards aren’t racist when there are so few people of color featured prominently in anything Harry Potter-related. This is the problem with utopias. It’s hard to write one when you don’t live in one and are influenced by the flaws of your society. The Harry Potter universe could have gone the Star Trek route, and that seems to be what they are trying for, but in Star Trek the whole world was united and the only prejudices that still existed were mostly against aliens. In the Harry Potter universe wizards discriminate against other wizards’ blood status and economic status, as well as against those of different magical species, and against all Muggles. I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t be susceptible to the types of discrimination Muggles hold. For me to believe that, I think I need to take a World History of Magic class to understand things better, because right now it seems unlikely. Maybe it would be more believable if we could actually hear about some of these issues from actual wizards of color, but it doesn’t seem like we’ll have that opportunity in the Fantastic Beasts movie.