Friday, March 18, 2016

Whitewashing Wizards: Thoughts on JKR's New Promo Stuff

I've had a lot of people either PM or tag me openly on Facebook about the new bits from J.K. Rowling on Pottermore. I was asked for myriad reasons, no doubt. Of course, because I love anything Harry Potter, but because of that along with the fact that I'm a known advocate for indigenous rights in my social circles. Search the tag "indigenous rights" at the bottom, here, and you'll get some blog posts that at least have a large chunk about something related to the topic, if not are entirely about it. And the big hullubulloo about the supplemental materials released as promotion for the upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,  has centered around... well, how crappy the blurbs apparently are, apparently. I saw the "trailer" for them, and at that point, knew I needed to read the things before making a decision. 

Since it shows an indigenous man in a loincloth (groan) turn  into an eagle (groan), and mentions "skinwalkers," I figured there would be  a lot to dissect. Now I did read Dr. Adriene Keene's response to the trailer, but after that, I avoided any other "reviews" of any of the stuff to keep myself as fresh as possible. (Note: It's no coincidence she and I were both a little annoyed about the mostly-naked dude and the eagle- both are rather stereotypical, overused tropes about indigenous people; according to popular culture, all Native American men run around with only their front junk hidden, and we're all into eagles, eagles, eagles! (I even once had a white person try to posit to me that having the bald eagle as our national bird is somehow a homage to Native American culture....)).

So anyway, I've finally read the things. A few times. Because they're bloody short- seriously, just a few pages in MSWord, I would think. So, lovelies, here are my thoughts, and they aren't specific to the indigenous thing, either, because of a few things, like my feminist nature and my knowledge of American cultural history, my understandings about human nature, and... my basic reading comprehension skills.

I know I get snarky sometimes here. I would just have you read Dr. Keene's last paragraph before the comments in the piece I already linked; she uses one of my favorite quotes from Anita Sarkeesian, my biggest girl-crush ever. I love the Harry Potter universe; doesn't mean I can't acknowledge its flaws. And be a little funny in the process. 


I want to start out by noting a STUPIDLY HUGE contradiction in the "narrative" being presented, here. We know from the original books, and it's reiterated here, that witches and wizards can be born into non-magical families. "[European magical folks deciding not to relocate to America] meant a far higher percentage of No-Maj-born witches and wizards in the New World than elsewhere. While these witches and wizards often went on to marry and found their own all-magical families, the pure-blood ideology that has dogged much of Europe's magical history has gained far less traction in America." But then... there's a whole bloody section named after a law that makes it illegal for magic and non-magic people to associate. "Rappaport's Law," is what it's called. Ok? So... how does that work? Wizards aren't as obsessed with pure-bloodedness in America, but it's illegal for them to be around non-wizarding folks? What happens to the witches and wizards born into non-magical families? Are they forced to give up any family they used to know, or are those relations "limited to those necessary to perform daily activities"? This "Rappaport's Law" thing makes zero sense; a law like that would lead to lots of inbreeding in the American wizarding community. I could see it leading to witches and wizards becoming "Scourers," the mercenaries of wizarding blood that went after their own kind (and proportedly spearheaded the Salem Witch Trials), not see it going over well. And it's reiterated that the law is in full force into the 20th Century, so I'm kind of at a loss. I can only guess that Rowling was trying to present American wizards and witches as a bit more forward-thinking when it comes to "blood," but then forgot about it for the sake of something important for the movie.

But this is entirely ignoring race relations in the US. And this really needs its own section, so I'll table that for a moment.

Second contradiction: And this has more to do with the mythos created in the original books being messed with. Aside from the atrocious "No-Maj" (oh wow... Americans are dumb, yeah, but would they really come up with something that ridiculously awful?). Rowling goes into a lot of specifics about the four wand-makers in the United States and notes how three of the four always used the same core for their wands. But part of what made Olivander's wands so good was their diversity; one could argue that it wasn't really that his wands were better per se (although I'm sure yeah, his were pretty good in their own right), but that, as he said, the wands picked their users, so his vast supply that was so wide in range was able to cater to a wider range of customers, getting them a "better wand," relative to if they were presented with a bunch of wands that were more alike than different. Because it was presented as if every aspect of the wand matters: length, weight, core, wood. So this bit in the stuff about America confuses me. Do American witches and wizards know what kind of wand they want before going to the appropriate maker? Or do they go from shop to shop, sticking with the wand that does the whole "WHOOSH!" thing Harry experienced? 

The wand thing also really hits hard at the white-washing going on, so this will also be tabled until later. 

Third. The name  of the gorram organisation running the wizarding government in the U.S. itself shouldn't be what it is. The Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) was founded in 1693. And sure, Rowling acknowledges that this was "around a century" before the U.S. government was formed. But that's the catch: Until the American Revolution, 80+ years after MACUSA's founding, the "states" weren't "states," but rather coloniesThey wouldn't have been "United States" in 1693. Like... She's British, how can she get that one wrong? 

Now okay, maybe they changed the name after the American Revolution? But that's not how it's presented, so.... yeah...

Fourth, and somewhat minor, the two presidents of MACUSA that get named are both women. Again, I feel like this is more Rowling trying to show the wizarding community as "progressive," but this kind of flies in the face of human history- or at least European and WHITE, which again, must be tabled. But suffice it to say, I find it more difficult to believe that at a time when women weren't even allowed to read writ large, wizards would have one as the first president of their organization. I like the idea, but I just find that brick way too hard to swallow. 


Yeah, I ain't entertaining the idea of this "No-Maj" thing. So I'm calling the incident that led to Rappaport's Law "Muggle-Gate." Because that's how I do.

So this whole thing is basically a sex scandal involving the daughter of an Important Wizard and a Muggle descendant of some Scourers. Dorcus, who I am going to assume is a squib (a person from a wizarding family with a low aptitude in magic), is presented as a shallow prat. But I have to say, if she had done badly at the wizarding school, Ilvermorny, she was probably ostracized and an embarrassment to her prestigious family, so it's understandable if she fell back on what society at that time would tell her was important: her femininity. Her looks seem to be the only good quality she has, from what we're told- she focuses on her hair (and partying) before the scandal, and has only "a mirror and her parrot [as] her dearest companions" once she gets out of prison, and she's described as being "as dim as she was pretty." So she gets duped into sharing secrets with a Muggle Scourer that plays on her weakness- I'm adding a lot  into here, but I would guess part of the "courting" involved her telling him about how poorly it went at Ilvermorny, so he would know her confidence was low and she was vulnerable. A little flattery here, a question there... The man, Bartholomew, is never described very negatively- descriptions about his beliefs are presented, and those are obviously supposed to be bad, but he is never criticized directly or even seems as blatantly judged as Dorcus;  her name even is said to be equivocal to "nitwit" in the U.S. wizarding world centuries later. She's "dim," but there isn't a single adjective used about him. What about "sneaky" or "duplicitous" or "underhanded" or "rapscallion"?

This whole thing feeds into the misogynistic structures Western society and culture is/are built upon. The idea that it's a woman's fault there's evil in the world (Pandora, Eve). How there are so many insults that are feminine, but none that are strictly masculine in the English language. The idea that a law about segregation started because a woman fell for a man  with duplicitous goals is so fucked up I can't even. Not only is it ridiculously... bland... and overdone, but yeah. It's sexist on premise. Why did it have to be that? Why couldn't it be any of a number of other things? Here, Rowling, I have a few for you, on the fly, that are far less insulting to your own gorram gender:

1) A sibling of a witch or wizard born into a non-wizarding family turned on their magical family member. (This would also, perhaps, lend itself to explaining how the fuck magical kids in non-magical families lived... because as I said before, this law makes no sense.) Like how Petunia obviously resented Lily- take that further and turn it into a huge thing. Super drama points if maybe the angry sibling didn't realize it would lead to murder and goes down trying to save some wizards.

2) A Scourer born with just enough magic to squeak by infiltrated the wizarding community and spearheaded some kind of massacre. Like maybe they were a kid sent as an insider to Ilvermorny, and they let in a pack of Scourer adults, and then a bunch of students were killed overnight or poisoned or something. Or they went to Ilvermorny and paraded as a cool person and ran for office in MACUSA and fucked it up from inside like HYDRA did S.H.I.E.LD. Or maybe a team of kids are set up by their Scouring families to do it so it really is more like HYDRA- they scatter themselves all over MACUSA and somehow get revealed.

3) A kid witch or wizard (gender doesn't matter, just sayin') from a magical family is best friends with a kid at school or around town or on the next farm or whatever that, unbeknownst to them, comes from a Scourer family. Scourer kid's family figures it out and kills the wizarding kid and their family after gaining their trust. Or just the kid, so the wizarding parents go after the  Scouerers with backup from MACUSA and it's decided Rappaport's Law is the only way to prevent something like that happening again. 

4) A witch or wizard turns Scourer and willfully gives away the secrets Bartholomew got out of the unwitting Dorcus. I could see this in visual form, the wording of Rappaport's Law being recited (by  Rappaport herself, probably) as the traitor is being executed and signs are being put up in wizarding taverns and stuff.

Needless to say, I doubt Hermione would be pleased with that whole thing. 

Whitewashing: Wording

I'm starting with the smaller quibble. I appreciated that the opening paragraph of the first blurb was about how European and African (no Asian?) magickers knew about American ones before colonisation. The trouble is, Rowling still calls North America "the New World" four times after denouncing the idea that the western hemisphere was "new" at all! I know that "what would become the United States" is a lot, but this specific contradiction is very subtle white-washing. The little phrase "New World" obliterates the rich histories of the myriad Native American peoples on the western continent by implying the only perspective of any importance is that of settlers and colonisers, of white conquerors and thieves. The "New World" was new to them, not to the people already living there; calling it the "New  World" devalues the very existence of indigenous people. 

Whitewashing: Segregation... and Slavery?

I almost think Rowling invoked the Rappaport's Law thing as allegory for segregation in the United States. It  kind of works, but as I said before, it falls apart because of the fact that magical kids pop up in non-magical families all the time. Black babies aren't born into white families without notice (i.e.  someone needed to have an affair to make a mixed baby; magical babies appear like magic) (baddum-SWISH!). Honestly, I had thought the "mudblood" stuff had covered the race thing, and this stuff shows up now. So what leads to it ending? I mean, do they have their own Civil Rights Movement? And what would that look like? Because sure, I do think it's a violation off basic Human and Civil rights to dictate whom you can be friends or lovers with, but magical people aren't being prevented from doing anything else. THEY CAN STILL DRINK, FOR FUCK'S SAKE. Not that alcohol is the most important right, but  the only way I could see a "movement" like that being at all successful is if they frame it in the language of love and togetherness. I mean, if American wizarding families are anything like British ones, they'd probably be around only magical people a lot of time by default, anyways, not as a result of any malicious governmental restriction.

And another reason I can't quite buy that it's intentionally parallel to real segregation is that the closest to any mention of slavery is the "trafficking" of bodies practiced by the Scourers. But it was mentioned that African magical people knew about North American ones, so... Were African wizards traded in the slave trade? Is magic how some slaves escaped? Did MACUSA take an official stance on slavery? Probably not... House elves are definitely slaves. Remember this guy?

So were wizarding folks on the Confederate side during the Civil War? The lack of discussion of slavery is itself a type of white-washing, in the sense that this extremely dark portion of U.S. history isn't brought up. When giving the "history" of something that was happening at least alongside something so horrific, said horrific thing needs mentioning. And hashing out. Which relates to genocide against indigenous people, but....

Whitewashing: Pan-Indianism

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assert that when asked about the basis of the legends about skinwalkers, your average Joe Schmoe would probably say it's a "Native American" or "Indian" thing. I don't even remember  where I heard it as a younger version of myself, but I've known that it's specific to Navajo culture, though, and for some time. And while I do not presume to know more than that, I do know it's not "Native American," as it's presented in these little blurbs. This is the same bullshit that goes with the loincloth and the eagle I brought up before, because the loincloth and eagle speak to archetypes of indigenous people that are rampant in popular culture. 

The Skinwalkers are presented as "Native American," and any magic that came from North America itself is always discussed in blanket terms, attributed to the "Native American wizarding community." As such, without actually saying it overtly, the message is that every single tribe practiced magic the same way. That every tribe used the exact same plants and herbs in the exact same ways, transfigured in the exact same ways, etc. That the indigenous people of North America were all one people, with one distinct culture, one history, one experience.

This relates to why Tonto was so problematic. It's the idea that some sort of "Pan-Native American" culture is a thing. It manifests itself in movies like The Lone Ranger or even Wayne's World 2, in costumes, in the broken language used by indigenous people on TV and in film. It's much like  how white people talk  about "Africa" when they really mean "Eritrea" or "Kenya" or "South Sudan," but will delineate European countries without hesitation. It's dehumanizing. It paints a generic streak that blends  and meshes all of the rich, beautiful, unique histories and  cultures of all of the different, individual indigenous cultures spattered throughout the Americas. 

Whitewashing: Noble Savages and Cultural Appropriation

I'm going to kind of dart around the writings here, starting with the idea that "the Native American wizarding population" was "generally welcoming and protective of their European brethren" when European wizards wanted to flee Europe and "hide out" with the natives in the "New World" (see  what I did there?). So these white people would apparate over to American soil to hang with the natives, and then what? Did they "go native," as they say? It's a good thing  all of the indigenous people were so bloody nice, eh? I'm not saying I would have preferred Rowling painting a picture of nothing but hostile relations and blood because the indigenous people were out to kill anybody, but it also speaks lowly of her understanding of them as strong people to think they would just take in any random  white person that came a-knocking, especially after a few decades of dealing with the lies and deception of white people. It couldn't have taken long for word to spread among tribes that white people couldn't be trusted, and if British witches  and wizards are still at least marginally loyal to Mother England, why assume indigenous witches and wizards in North America wouldn't be loyal to their own tribes? Yet another brick I can't swallow: I just can't buy into the notion that all indigenous witches and wizards would be so open to letting white witches and wizards become members of their tribes. 

And how long did this "friendly" exchange last? How many indigenous people had to die before the tribes finally stopped letting any ol' white "mage" in? 

Whitewashing: Wands and Wizarding Indian Boarding School

And the way wands were discussed just  really, really bothered me. The implication with all of that stuff  about wands was  that indigenous people were "primitive" and it took white people's intervention to "civilise" them. Like they had all this  power and potential, and had had it for centuries on their own, but they didn't tap into it "properly" until the white people showed them how via the use of a wand. And it gives no room for the idea that maybe indigenous people didn't need  wands because they weren't doing with their magic the stupid shit white people do with their own. The wands are presented in a way indicating they're the "right" way to go, like they were "necessary" or something, as if there is even a "right" or "necessary" way in the first place.

Importantly, the one time any individual tribe is mentioned is in relation to wand-making. Shikoba Wolfe is presented as of Choctaw descent and one of the best wandmakers in the US. I see this as an indigenous person getting caught up in European capitalism that has to sell artifacts of cultural value to white people to subsist. A bunch of white people buying his wands because of the "intricate carvings" and thinking they're cool, like the hipsters wearing feathers in their hair and silver necklaces shaped like feathers with turquoise beads. This man's culture was Europeanized, to the point he made a living selling the thing the Europeans forced on his ancestors. 

Because then... then it gets mentioned that wands are required at Ilvermorny. So if students were required to use wands at wizarding school, that means indigenous kids were forced to practice magic like white people. In other words, their culture was being forcibly removed by an institution masked as a place of "learning." You know what that reminds me of?

That's Stewart Indian School. I've mentioned them before- they closed THE YEAR I WAS BORN, and it was one of countless "schools" around the country where indigenous students were taught, essentially, how to be white. And by "taught," I mean "forced." Here's another:

This one is Tulalip Indian School, in the very state I live in now, Washington.

As a small aside: I was staying at Stewart Indian School with my Girls State group the summer before my senior year in high school, at the very time the fourth Harry Potter book came out; long story short, our campsight  had to be evacuated, and this was the closest place that could accommodate a big group like ours. I remember freaking out because I was afraid Barnes N Noble would sell my copy of The Goblet of Fire that I had reserved because the release date was during the trip; I was at first more concerned about that book than the fact that I was staying in a former institution of cultural genocide. Once I realized what was going on, I had a mini-meltdown. 

Without realising it, by making so many passing assertions about wands and indigenous people in her blurbs about history in North America, Rowling is presenting the wizarding world as being equally culpable in committing cultural genocide against the Native American tribes in North America. Say the tribe used the magic as part of their religious belief- well, once they got to Ilvermorny, that would be (sometimes literally) beaten out of them, since British and French witches and wizards have no spiritual basis for magic- it's all fact and experimentation. It's not faith; it's the coldest kind of science.

And I say "coldest kind of science"  because I think there's plenty of space in science for faith- lots of our most groundbreaking scientists were people of faith. Magic, as it's presented in the first books, isn't about belief, really (although a case could be made for how a Patronus works). 

And what if the indigenous kids brought a different way of using herbs that could be found in both places? Either one of two things would happen. Either 1) They would be admonished for doing it as their ancestors taught them; or 2) They would be taught it in the classroom by a white teacher that's presenting it as if white people had come up with that method, and then would be admonished if they tried to point out it came from the indigenous people. And if they had another way of doing something, it would be taken away from them at Ilvermorny.

There's no mention of the persecution and relocation of indigenous people in any of the blurbs. And that is the entire basis for which white people settled this damn continent. Even if it was witches and wizards mostly riding the coat-tails of the Muggles, by not stopping the atrocities, they were party and privy to them. 

Closing Thoughts and Disclaimer

I think one HUGE qualifier to remember is that, again, this is  just a few pages of text. A vast number of the things wrong here stem from how there isn't enough information to answer the questions brought up by the information that exists. It's a lot of errors of omission. However, I do have to say, the things that were specific even seemed to be problematic, too- Mugglegate, wands, Skinwalkers, etc. I would like to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt and have faith that, were she to write a full History of Magic in North America, it would give a lot of meat to the skeleton we have. And I suspect that anything specific in the blurbs is important to the upcoming film. Unfortunately, most of the issues with these bits won't be answered by the movie- I mean, for one thing, only one person seems to be of color, and while she may play a part in discussing slavery  and stuff, unless she's supposed to be of indigenous and slave ancestry, it will leave most holes empty. 

And it's obvious that this stuff was all slapped together in a few hasty  sittings. Was there an American publicist involved? Probably not. If there was, it was probably a stodgy white dude that doesn't ever think about race or gender issues. That probably thinks of his ancestors as "native." Or maybe everyone was so hurried in getting this done, their main concern was getting the bits needed as specific promo for the movie out and they didn't even stop to think about anything else regarding the pieces.

But understand, I harbor no ill thoughts or feelings toward JK Rowling. I'm disappointed, sure, but I don't think in any way she intended to be hurtful or offensive, and I would believe that she didn't realize a lot of this even could be problematic because she's from a country with a very different history. It was, honestly, a kind of naivete on  her part. I can forgive that. I haven't seen anything about her apologizing or explaining what happened (and how it went so bloody wrong), which  sucks. But I would forgive her if she owned responsibility.

Sigh. Not really sure how to end this. Here's a picture of a unicorn puking up a rainbow.

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