Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

J. K. Rowling’s retroactive racism

Jerry Stratton, June 14, 2016

Chipmunk Hermione: Drawing by an unknown artist of Hermione as described by J.K. Rowling: big teeth, frizzy hair.; Hermione Granger

This is the closest image I could find to how Rowling describes Hermione in the books. Consider this with the skin tone altered to black. (unknown artist)

It is usually a bad idea for a writer to get into an argument with their readers en masse. In their zeal to defend their work, they have a tendency to argue too much, and reveal more than we wanted to know.

Recently, J. K. Rowling became angry at what she calls “a bunch of racists” and “idiots” who never pictured Hermione as black. If this were just a defense of a good actress, that would be fine. But in arguments such as these, the author often goes too far.

Rowling, for example, quotes her own work as having always left open the possibility that Hermione was black, tweeting the “canon” physical characteristics that prove it:

Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione 😘

Alice Vincent in the Telegraph goes on to say that:

Rowling never described Hermione’s race in the books, but only that she had “bushy brown hair and brown eyes”, as well as very large front teeth.

This is true, but not the whole truth. In the first book, Hermione didn’t just have large front teeth. She was full-on buck-toothed. Sort of resembling a chipmunk, according to the other characters in the fourth book.

So I’m guessing most readers chose not to think Hermione was black because they didn’t expect a modern writer to resort to stereotypical descriptions straight out of early comic strips. A writer who wrote those descriptions and explicitly made their character black would have come under fire for racism.

And in this case, that fire may well have been justifiable. Rowling has some serious issues with racism if she always meant Hermione to possibly be black. In The Goblet of Fire, Hermione undergoes magical alterations to remove the stereotypical racial characteristics that Rowling now says show Hermione as possibly black. First, Hermione has Madame Pomfrey shrink her teeth so that they are permanently “normal”1. Then, when going to the ball, Hermione spends hours using liberal amounts of Sleekeazy’s Hair Potion to straighten her bushy hair.

The movie doesn’t do this scene justice. In the book Hermione became practically unrecognizable because she literally changes her appearance: “she didn’t look like Hermione at all”.

She went from looking mediocre at best to stunningly beautiful.

What’s egregious is that if Rowling always meant Hermione to include the possibility of blackness, then the book also makes clear that jettisoning her blackness made Hermione beautiful.

I want to emphasize that I think the play’s producers are perfectly justified in choosing who they think will do a great job in the role regardless of skin color. Until Rowling jumped into the fray there was nothing in the books to make it a bad idea for anyone of any skin color to play Hermione. The movie producers had already chosen to jettison the buck-toothed version of Hermione2 and skin color was less important than those features to Hermione’s character3.

But as out of order as the play’s critics are in criticizing the actress, who will probably be a great Hermione, Rowling has no right to call anyone else racist for not accepting her apparent stereotypes. At least some of Rowling’s readers were probably giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming she wasn’t a racist herself.

Update: Emma Oulton has some well-written thoughts on the matter, too.

  1. Malfoy had cursed her by exaggerating her already exaggerated teeth; Madame Pomfrey used magic to return them to normal size, and Hermione chose to “let her carry on a bit” until they were less than their original size.

  2. Thank God they did, or Rowling would have just retroactively dressed Emma Watson, in those first four movies, in the worst kind of cartoon blackface.

    They originally planned for Watson to wear false teeth, and she even wore them in the first scene filmed—the last actual scene in the movie—but quickly gave up on the idea. And then edited that one scene so as to minimize the visibility of the false teeth.

  3. Until Rowling made these statements, I assumed that Hermione was really just a stereotypical nerd.

  1. <- Black as a jet
  2. Broken but Unbowed ->