Books, Musings

Is White the Norm? (A Hermione Granger Discussion)

I’m a little late to this band wagon, because I didn’t notice the whole hubbub until really late last night.  Those who follow my twitter will already know my thoughts on this and a few of the things that I want to discuss today.

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I am going to say before I get further into this post that tomorrow afternoon Gretchen and I are going to make a video discussion of this topic but I am writing this post to bring my ideas together before we do that.  We are going to live stream it so if you want to join us I strongly encourage you to do so. (video will be here when it goes live)

Now, this post is going to center on the idea of whiteness as the norm in our society but the discussion tomorrow will hopefully go into other things including the blood politics in the book as metaphor for race and whether or not “open to interpretation” is a valid argument in general.  Please look forward to that.

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I think it is important before I start this discussion to say that I am white.  Not only that, I am ginger, which is probably the whitest white I can possibly be.  I grew up in a town that was predominantly white and by predominantly I mean 98% white.  So little diversity I have been looking into anthropology articles discussing how segregation is still happening.  It is mandated but all over the country certain cities and towns have clear denominations of race in certain areas.  What I’m getting at, is that there were not many examples of POC while I was growing up in real life. Those that I saw were on television, in movies, in magazines, etc. but not really in books, there are not an over abundance of those.

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It is going to seem disjointed at first, but I think one of the things that I remember from childhood that I think effected my view of Hermione the most was Tyra Banks role in Life Size.  The film came out in 2000.  I watched it on Disney Channel as I did for most of those Disney Channel Original Movies most millenials love so much.  I was six years old.  I remember thinking how beautiful she was, and in particular how beautiful her hair was.  Her character was meant to be a “gender bent” barbie doll.  I remember thinking she was so much prettier than an actual barbie, she looked like a real person.

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It was shortly after watching that film that my Dad started reading the first Harry Potter book to me before the first film would come out a year later.  I pictured Hermione similar to how I pictured Tyra Banks in that film.  I think because I loved the way her hair was curly and voluminous when she first appeared.  Now her hair wasn’t unruly or bushy by any means, and yet I still associated Hermione with her for some reason.  Some would argue this is a terrible association because Tyra’s character was such a ditz in that film and Hermione’s main character descriptor is that she is so smart.  I cannot tell you what my six year old self did to associate these two characters but I did, and while its a stretch, it was fifteen years ago and I was a child.

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What I’m trying to say is that I imagined Hermione as a WOC from the very beginning.  Before the film came out.  When the first film came out I was slightly confused by the fact that Hermione was this white girl.  I think that after that point so many people could never imagine those characters as anything other than the actors who portrayed them.  It is so easy to imagine someone you have seen before.  I mean I was imagining a tiny Tyra Banks after all.  However, I cannot say, and I do not think, that this idea of Hermione as white is solely because people were imagining Emma Watson.

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In reality more people simply imagine characters as white if race is not explicitly given to them, and even, at times, when it is explicitly given (I’m thinking of Rue in the Hunger Games here).  Hermione’s skin color was never described.  Which means her race was open to interpretation yet so many people so vehemently think that she is white. One of the best discussions I’ve heard on this idea of whiteness as norm was given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s during her Ted Talk: The Danger of a Single Story.

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There is this propensity in our society to create a default that is the norm.  So often it is this white middle aged man.  When talking about women it is still white.  I asked in one of my classes how one reads a character when something isn’t specified.  I think in that case it was the gender.  Most people imagined the gender of the character as their own if they are not able to intuit it from the writing or are not told explicitly.  I do not think that happens when it comes to race.  I think because their is this idea that the norm is whiteness most people will imagine a character as white until told otherwise.

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Whether Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is right and this is a result of only reading or being exposed to stories that have white protagonists, or because the film came out and is swaying people’s image of the characters, or because of some other racist reason that protagonists of main stream stories can only be white unless explicitly telling of the nonexistent “black experience” the fact of the matter is that most people imagined Hermione as white and now that there is going to be a representation that is outside of their own, they are upset by this.

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This same outrage was expressed with the release of Go Set a Watchmen by Harper Lee.  The outrage that Atticus could be anything other than a warrior for social justice, forward thinking for his time, a person to look up to who is faultless was unimaginable.

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Yet my six year old self had to sit in those films and see something outside of what she had imagined, and I’m sure there are others who did as well.  I don’t think we would have been able to make an argument against that casting though.  It is perfectly alright to read whiteness into a character, but to read blackness is still somehow viewed as degrading.  Which is an entirely racist idea.  It isn’t explicitly racist, no, but it is racist nonetheless.

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I think that having a representation of Hermione as a women of color is going to be amazing even though I’m sure I won’t be able to see it myself.  Tomorrow Gretchen and I will go into more depth about a bunch of different things on this topic, I don’t want to say too much now but I wanted to sort of discuss where I am coming from and get a few of my ideas about this topic in order.  I’m not sure if I actually managed to do that or if I just rambled at you a bit.  I think this is a great thing.  I look forward to hearing other peoples discussions.  If you want to hear some other discussions on this topic I would recommend Rosianna’s and Rowan’s who both touch on this topic and more in regards to Hermione.  There are countless great articles and tweets.  Do some research guys, it is an important discussion.

 

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