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Answer by Monika Kothari, abecedarian:
I love this question! To begin, let's just take a few moments to interrogate the general assumption that Hermione is white. Is there any definitive evidence of her race? Is Hermione white because Emma Watson is white? Is Hermione white because she appears to be white on some of the book covers?
In my opinion, both of these depictions are the artistic interpretations of filmmakers and publishers and no more canonical than other fan interpretations. (As it is, people disagree about whether Emma Watson actually looks like the Hermione from the books.) Simply put, there is not enough textual evidence to indicate that Hermione is necessarily white. She might be white, or she might not white, but we don't have information to reach either conclusion. Thus, both interpretations are valid, but I'm going to make a case for why it matters that readers be allowed to view Hermione as black, or biracial, or another minority.
Most of us assume that Hermione is white because she is never presented as a racial other. In Western culture, white is the “neutral” race. Rowling is silent about Hermione's race, and we interpret that silence as default whiteness. Of course, by that logic, Rowling's magical society is blindingly white. Harry is white, Tom Riddle is white, Ron and the rest of the Weasley clan are white, Dumbledore and Snape and pretty much all of the Hogwarts professors are white, Sirius and Lupin are white, Neville and Luna are white. There is a handful of Hogwarts students that we generally accept as nonwhite: Cho Chang, Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, Dean Thomas, Blaise Zabini, and Parvati and Padma Patil. All of these characters were either explicitly described as nonwhite, or they have “foreign” names that mark them as nonwhite. For example, Cho's race and ethnicity are never mentioned, yet we don't assume that she's white. Why do you suppose that might be? (Note that Lavender Brown's race is a point of confusion. Rowling was similarly silent about her race. She was portrayed by a black actor for the first few films—until she had a major speaking role, and was recast as white. This recasting only further underscores how unreliable the films are as evidence for a character's race.)
The only other explicitly nonwhite character is Kingsley Shacklebolt, the eventual minister of magic. (To me, this is the equivalent of stuffing a legal drama with white characters and casting the trial judge as black. He's an underdeveloped black authority figure, not uncommon in popular culture.) Thus, the wizarding world appears to be a post-racial and colorblind society, one that welcomes people of all racial backgrounds. But it's also conveniently a system in which nonwhite characters are relegated to interchangeable and replaceable background roles, with minimal development and no individual character arcs.
So why is all of this important? Well, let's remember for a moment that at bottom, Harry Potter is a story about race and the dangerous myth of racial supremacy. The distinctions between pure-blood, half-blood, and muggle-born witches and wizards are basically racial. Within magical society, Hermione and several other characters belong to a maligned minority group that faces racialized hatred. For example, Slytherin students sling racial slurs like “mudblood” at her, and the Death Eater regime later collects information about the identities of half-blood and muggle-born students, presumably to marginalize and persecute them.
I realize that the fact that Hermione is coded as a racial minority in the wizarding world doesn't mean that she actually is nonwhite. Sure, there are muggle-born students that are white. But Hermione is one of the few we deeply care about: The subtext is there, and I think it's reasonable for readers to make that leap. She's a social justice activist, and she pushes back against the enslavement of house elves. I think this interpretation adds a layer of depth and socio-political complexity to the story. More importantly, Hermione is a smart, interesting, and good character, a main character with major development—qualities rarely afforded to minorities in Western literature, much less minority women. At the very least, I hope it's understandable why it might be meaningful to some fans to imagine her as nonwhite. A story about racial hatred and oppression, in which zero major characters are actual racial minorities, would be a bit strange, would it not?
As for the lack of textual evidence, I reject the “white by default” theory. So let's consider the reverse: that Hermione is not white unless described as such. It's been a long time since I last read the Harry Potter books, but I don't think that Rowling is ever explicit about Hermione's race. Hermione's most prominent physical features, as far as I can recall, are her “bushy hair” and slightly buck teeth. Both of those features are race-neutral. (As a child, I wasn't sure what “bushy hair” was supposed to be, and I read it to mean black hair. In fact, I assumed that Hermione was black for many years, until Emma Watson was cast. I think that my experience alone—the experience of one child—is enough to indicate that Hermione is not necessarily white.)
Rowling may have imagined Hermione as white—indeed, she probably did. But it's not clear to me that authorial intent, without textual support, should matter in settling this question. Rowling has waffled on a lot of character and plot details postpublication. For example, she stated that she regretted pairing Ron and Hermione as a romantic couple. (Fan went nuts over that.) She also announced that Dumbledore was gay after releasing the final book, but she never stated that any other character was queer-identifying. Does that mean that there are no other queer characters in magical society? Should we assume that all the other characters are necessarily heterosexual and cisgender? I certainly hope not, especially considering that Dumbledore's first (and apparently only) romance ended in tragedy. (Come on guys, we need more happy stories about LGBT people!)
Similarly, even if Rowling conceived of Hermione as white, I don't think it should matter. I'll note that I really do like Rowling, at least based on what I know of her. She seems like a lovely person who does a lot of good charity work. I don't mean any personal slight against her, but let's be honest, she doesn't really treat the racial issues in Harry Potter with depth or nuance. But on Twitter, Rowling has favorited a number of fanworks that depict various characters, including Harry and Hermione, as black, suggesting that the author herself doesn't believe that Hermione is necessarily white.
I firmly believe that Hermione's race is ambiguous—and why shouldn't fans see her as black or biracial or Hispanic or Asian, if it's meaningful for them? There is no dearth of white protagonists for white readers to identify with. Nonwhite characters are so underrepresented in fiction as it is, that sometimes minority readers need to find kinship where they can. Junot Diaz talks about why such representation is important:
You guys know about vampires? ... You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?" And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.
There is a long cultural tradition of reinterpreting minority characters as white. Consider, for example, the casting of here.) Reinterpreting a previously white character as a minority is not the same thing. Writing Spider-Man as Miles Morales, a black or Latino young man, doesn't deny white people cultural representations of themselves. It doesn't undermine white power in society. Instead, it empowers young people of color, who have few other opportunities to see themselves reflected as heroes in literature and popular culture. And the same principle holds when fans interpret Hermione as nonwhite.or any Western adaptation of Japanese anime. This practice is harmful, because it further diminishes the few representations of nonwhite characters in Western media. (I talk a bit more about this phenomenon
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