Back in 2016, the Olivier Award winning British actress Noma Dumezweni hit the headlines when she starred as Hermione Granger in the original West End and Broadway productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Her incredible performance gained the attention of ‘Potterheads’ and theatre lovers far and wide and even earned her a second Olivier Award plus a Tony Award nomination.
But despite her obvious acting ability, killer performance, and author JK Rowling’s declaration that she was the best woman for the job, there was an unfortunate amount of racist backlash thrown at both Dumezweni and the Harry Potter institution.
While most Harry Potter fans were thrilled to see a woman of color cast for Hermione’s role, JK Rowling told the media,
“I had a bunch of racists telling me that because Hermione ‘turned white’ – that is, lost colour from her face after a shock – that she must be a white woman, which I have a great deal of difficulty with. But I decided not to get too agitated about it and simply state quite firmly that Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.”
It seems that, unfortunately, some people just couldn’t get their heads around the idea that Hermione Granger could be played by a black actress. And this racist discord seems to stem largely from one place; white assumption.
What is ‘white assumption’?
White assumption is assuming that every character in a book is of European ethnicity unless otherwise explicitly stated. And while most of us don’t even realize it, it’s rife across America and the western world in general.
It’s not only white people who operate on a ‘white assumption’ basis. In a country like the US, where over sixty percent of the population is white, many people of color also admit that when there is no description of a character’s physical ethnic appearance, they might also assume they are white.
But isn’t it time we challenged our white assumption in literature?
In the case of Hermione, the jury is still out as to whether JK Rowling envisaged a white girl when she dreamt up the character. There is very little in the way of physical description throughout the series. The most we can gather is that she has “frizzy brown hair” and is prone to “blushing” on occasion, an affliction that those of us with lighter skin are more prone to. Still, this is certainly not definitive evidence that she is of full white ancestry.
And if you’re still not convinced, you can hear it from JK Rowling herself. In response to all the haters out there, she tweeted,
“Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione. 😘”
Black Hermione is nothing new
It’s also worth pointing out that the idea of a black Hermione Granger has actually been floating around for years now, especially in the world of Harry Potter fan fiction. Her character has been frequently portrayed as a woman of color in the countless fan fiction stories on the internet; a quick google search for “Black Hermione fan fiction” brings up a mammoth 9,820,000 results.
Alongside the written adaptations of a black Hermione, there’s also an overwhelming amount of fan art depicting her character as a girl and woman of color.
Why can’t Hermione be black?
The overriding point here is that it shouldn’t matter what the author’s original conception of Hermione’s race was; black or white, when it comes to casting a new adaptation of this epic series, there are absolutely no rules that need to be followed.
No matter what color her skin is, Hermione’s personality, her journey, her actions, and the story as a whole are not going to change. Her character, according to Rowling, was born in England on September 19, 1979. Growing up in the UK myself throughout the 80s and 90s, I can attest that it was, and still is, a very culturally and ethnically diverse country. So surely it’s only right that this magnificent series celebrates and reflects that diversity?
How do we overcome white assumption in literature?
Assuming that a character is white when there is no physical description to suggest otherwise is something that many, if not most, readers in white-dominated societies are guilty of.
This applies across all genres of literature, but it’s even more irrational in genres like fantasy and sci-fi, where the setting isn’t necessarily one that reflects the real world; for example, stories that take place with human characters on other planets or in far-off dystopian futures. There’s absolutely no reason to imagine that these worlds would have a similar white majority demographic to that of the US and other western countries, yet, for some reason, many of us unwittingly do. And so, unless the author explicitly spells it out, there is a tendency to automatically picture Caucasian faces when we envisage the characters.
But it’s not just the readers who are to blame. In western literature, many white authors are guilty of perpetuating this white assumption. Some of the best-selling books of our time neglect to describe the physical ethnic features of a character, unless they are a person of color. This only reinforces our built-in bias and cements white assumption into the storyline.
I’d like to challenge white readers in particular to explore more books written by authors from other parts of the world, where the settings are not predominantly white. When the shoe is on the other foot, you may find the reverse of white assumption at play. Characters with European ancestry might be clearly identified and singled out. On the other hand, the rest of the cast will need no introduction.
By consuming more world literature, we can begin to challenge our white assumption and become more aware of the patchwork of races and cultures around the globe and at home.
No matter what race JK Rowling envisioned Hermione Granger to be in the original Harry Potter series, we thought Noma Dumezweni did an incredible job of portraying this well-loved character in the stage adaptation. She was clearly the best actress for the role, and we hope you agree. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
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