What White People Can Learn from Harry Potter About White Supremacy
“I’ve been able to see them ever since my first day here. Don’t worry, you’re just as sane as I am.” Luna Lovegood to Harry, about the Thestrals, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
It’s no secret that fiction often unearths truths from which we can draw important, critical insights about our individual and collective histories. In both a search for such truths and an effort to escape our current political realities, I recently revisited my favorite installment of the Harry Potter series: The Order of the Phoenix. As a social worker and trauma educator, I have always been drawn to the useful symbolism surrounding the trauma narratives displayed in Book V. I first read Order of the Phoenix in college, appreciating its myth of the troubled hero. What I did not realize upon the time of its publication was that a narrative so eerily resembling the world’s recent past would also foretell the defining moments of the U.S. in 2017.
Amid these attempts at momentary, literary escapes from the current political landscape, I have caught myself searching for answers about what I, as part of white America, will not and cannot see. Even those of us who have naively declared ourselves allies to communities who have faced intersectional oppression may have recently learned that, to declare such a status for ourselves is to lose it entirely. We shouldn’t be declaring anything; we should be searching, and inquiring.
Such an inquiry isn’t supposed to reveal answers for us, or solutions. We can only hope to find ourselves confronted by signposts that point us further down a path of critical inquiry into our histories and ourselves. And these signposts might be more readily available to us than we think — especially in our favorite stories.
For example, many have already drawn comparisons between Delores Umbridge and “Secretary of Education” Betsy DeVos. Left-leaning social media regularly refer to Donald Trump as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” The comparisons are so easy to draw that one wonders if there’s a copy of Order being used as a playbook in the Oval Office. But it’s been too easy for me, as a white millennial ciswoman, to identify with the heroic dimensions and struggles shared in my favorite myths and stories. It’s harder to decipher the reflections of us that might implore us to change, and to be better. This has been true for me — at least, until I revisited Order of the Phoenix.
One passage came into focus for me in a new way this week that left me awestruck, and ashamed. In it, Harry has discovered for the first time that the carriages charged with transporting him and his classmates to Hogwarts are not, as he previously believed, enchanted, self-driving vehicles. Instead, Harry realizes that fearsome, yoked beasts are tethered to the carriages and pulling them to their destination — Thestrals.
But these creatures are not new to Hogwarts; rather, it’s explained that most wizards and witches can’t see them, and up to this point, neither could Harry. What accounts for this change in Harry’s perception? Harry’s revelation, we’re told, is due to a recent and deeply formative encounter with death, trauma and grief.
Contrary to his former construction of reality, Harry has entered into a developmental plane of knowing that allows him to see and appreciate what was previously imperceptible to him. He has opened into the dimension of awareness universal to the human experience of loss. Luna Lovegood, a peer with a longer history of this sort of sight (and insight), reassures Harry that what he sees indeed exists, but that her awareness predates his. “I’ve been able to see them ever since my first day here. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.”
We learn here that, quite literally, the agents performing the labor of delivering Harry to his destination have actually been living creatures, simply rendered invisible to Harry throughout his time in the wizarding world. The rich layers of meaning that Rowling makes available to us cannot be understated. Indeed, only after the cutting shock of grief is Harry able to appreciate that which has carried him all along. And grief is not just the offspring of loss; it is also the midwife of insight, which bears necessary truths if we’re willing to stand present at its birth.
This is true for individuals and for nations as a whole people. It is true for personal losses and for collective wounds left unhealed. This passage in particular struck me because it resembles so many conversations I’ve fumbled through in my own unlearning about my complicity in white supremacy. Most recently, I remarked to a friend about my outrage and utter dismay about the recent events surrounding Charlottesville, DACA and Title IX. I asked a stupid and harmful question, which was “can you believe this?”
My friend, much more gracious and awakened than I, looked me square in the eyes and said “Yes.” She, identifying as a queer woman of color, then told me what is true: “I know that this is coming as a shock to you, but this reality isn’t new for everyone. You’re just now starting to see what I and folks in my world have been trying to tell everyone for centuries. It’s not crazy that you’re seeing this. It’s the least crazy way to see things, because it’s as they are.”
History has a way of presenting itself to us with the halo of a ghost rather than the breath of the living. We treat history as past, rather than a portent of the future, despite the ways in which history, itself, has proven to move cyclically through human existence. I’m writing this not as a confessional of the sins of my whiteness (which are many) or as an attempt to absolve myself of liberal guilt, or to perform an act of ally theater(1). I’m trying to point to signs and to give myself permission not to deny them when they reveal themselves in an era that could make or break our collective future.
It’s tempting, in my whiteness, to seek a momentary escape from the barrage of inhumane actions by the leaders of the United States right now. Many of us white folks find those escapes in fiction and film, including with Harry Potter. But it is also our responsibility to be willing to see ourselves and our histories in the unflattering light in which our escape plans may cast us.
This is a painful but necessary process. Why would anyone wish to take a hard look at the traumas we’ve inflicted upon the true, forgotten founders and stewards of this land when, in truth, we white people are so ill-equipped to bear witness and atone for it? Because, although many white folks have enjoyed the privilege of generational wealth, access to some amount of education, and more patience than we deserve from communities against whom we’ve repeatedly exercised unspeakable injustices, we remain embarrassingly, deliberately indifferent to the voices who have bravely proclaimed these injustices.
Perhaps we can’t bear to watch our own history gasping in our faces as the horrors of “the past” begin to appear with it, out of the ether. White Americans — including the well-meaning, hard-working, liberal, honest U.S. Americans who may be quick to exclude themselves here — have had the benefit of choosing our own origin stories. That is, how we got here today, and what meaning we wish to make of that. In 2017, we continue to spin self-serving fictions that deliver us from our own evil. It’s time to write a new story.
(1) Much gratitude and credit to Black Girl Dangerous, the writer and space that framed the concept of “Ally Theater” for those of us most vulnerable to performing it.