Rowling loves ‘Black Hermione’: How 'white gaze' still dominates race perception in popular literature

How does one visualise a particular character when reading a book?

Some authors provide an elaborate description of the characters' physical features, some others leave attributes to the reader's imagination, but very few authors explicitly mention the race or skin colour of a particular characters, unless it's essential to the plot. However, in a majority of popular western book series, audience tends to visualise protagonists as white, as is evident from on-screen adaptation, book covers or even fan art on the internet.

The lead actors for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Twitter/Pottermore

The lead actors for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Twitter/Pottermore

JK Rowling's bestselling Harry Potter series is a good example of how it is assumed that, despite no specific mention of it, the protagonists are white. It was partly because the books were set in Great Britain and partly because the film adapataions cast white actors in the roles of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).

So when it was announced that Swaziland-born actress Noma Dumezweni would play the role of Hermione Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to be staged in London, it comes as little surprise that users pointed out the actress' skin colour. It should be noted that Hermione Granger has often been described as an 'intelligent witch with bushy, brown hair' and there has been very little mention of her race.

Dumezweni won a prestigious Olivier Award, which recognise the stars of London theatre, for her role in the play A Raisin in the Sun. She has also appeared in British TV shows Shameless, Doctor Who and Eastenders.

However Dumezweni received support from the creator of the series as Rowling praised the casting of a black actress to play the wizard's sidekick.

Rowling gave her seal of approval in a tweet, after numerous fans on Twitter asked her about the casting of 'Black Hermione'

But, some other Twitter users pointed out lines from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in which the character's "white face was sticking out from behind a tree."

Overall, Dumezweni's casting was largely received positively by fans.

The Harry Potter series has been among the few book series that has enjoyed a decent racial representation with characters with characters of Asian (Cho Chang) and Indian (Parvati and Padma Patil) origin, as well as prominent African-origin characters (Dean Thomas, Kingsley Shacklebolt). To have Rowling speak up about the issue again should motivate people to be more inclusive in literature.

This is not the first time that the casting of a racially diverse actor has prompted questions, and often backlash, from fans.

Back in 2012, when the casting for Suzanne Collins' dystopian fantasy novels The Hunger Games was announced, fans had voiced their displeasure because the characters of Cinna, Thresh and Rue are played by black actors, despite the fact that both the District 11 tributes Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) and Rue (Amandla Stenberg) were described in the books as having "dark skin" while Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) was said to have short brown hair. Again, the race of the characters was never explicitly mentioned in the novels, and they were set in a fictional, future society of Panem, which left such details to the imagination of the audience. The fact that people imagined all the characters as white says a lot about people's expectations from books.

Which brings us to the contentious topic of racial diversity (or lack thereof) in major book series. An earlier Firstpost article about 2015 Booker Prize Winner and Jamaican author Marlon James' upcoming books discussed the issue, says: "Be it in the books or in the onscreen adaptations, very few pieces of literature have protagonists belonging to different races. Be it the epic fantasy Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or even Game of Thrones, most popular fantasy-based fiction tends to be derived from European myth and have European (read: white) characters."

"I realised how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings," James said in an interview with Man of the World, where he also described his next project as a 'African Game of Thrones'.

The controversy over racial representation extends to more than literature. In October, we saw #BoycottStarWarsVII trending on Twitter after people decided they were angry about the casting of black actor John Boyega as Finn, one of protagonist in Star Wars: the Force Awakens. They even claimed the film was promoting “white genocide” and called director JJ Abrams a “Jewish activist”. And they also claimed that the cult film franchise is apparently 'alienating core audience of young white males'.

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Updated Date: Dec 24, 2015 13:53:52 IST

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