Ethnic and Racial Diversity in Harry Potter

22 Jan

I make no pretence that any of this is original. It grew out of a conversation I was having with a friend about authorial politics vs. the unavoidable implications of their settings.

One of the fundamental problems with any rational analysis of Harry Potter is that much of the series isn’t rational. Large parts of the Wizarding World don’t seem to make much sense, even when viewed as a quasi-medieval society rather than a variant on modern Britain. The simple fact that magic has remained a secret from the vast majority of Muggle society – even ‘now’ – implies that wizards are both extremely proactive in hiding themselves and extremely rare. These points are both supported by the books.

Let us consider, for a start, the problem of getting nations that have interests in common to cooperate. It isn’t easy, not in the real world. And yet we are told that wizards remain hidden on a global scale – and not just wizards, but dragons, goblins, giants, centaurs and many other outright non-human beings. This requires a degree of international (magical) cooperation that may be the greatest piece of fiction in the series! Indeed, while witches might have been hunted across Europe (with reason, in the series), other societies respected their magic-users and their wizards couldn’t be expected to abandon their traditions and go into hiding without some fairly strong incentive.

This leads to three separate possibilities:

First, there were no non-European wizards, save for the occasional muggleborn. European Wizards followed European Muggles as they swept the globe, setting up satellite communities near Muggle colonies. The handful of muggleborns they discovered were abducted and assimilated. Over the years, these cultures indulged in a little cultural appropriation to give themselves a separate character to their homelands.

Second, European Wizards made a major magical breakthrough (the wand?) that allowed them to invade non-European magical settlements and force them to go into hiding. Groups that agreed to surrender were offered a seat at the table, groups that insisted on fighting were brutally crushed. The British campaigns against the Thugs in India, for example, might have been targeted on rogue magic-users as well as barbaric … well, thugs. Over the years, the newcomers integrated with the original population, a process made easier by the Wizarding World’s general lack of racism (at least racism directed against human wizards.)

Third, there were non-European communities that accepted the European belief that wizards needed to go into hiding and worked to make it happen.

Call me a cynic, but I would bet on either one or two.

Now, coming to the issue of Wizarding Britain.

It is a terrible mistake to assume that the racial and ethnic characteristics of the general population are automatically mirrored in a smaller subset. The Amish, for example, are generally white; British Muslims are (roughly) seventy percent East Asian (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis). By this standard, the Wizarding World would count as a small – very small – subset of the population.

In Harry’s year in Gryffindor, there are ten pupils: five boys and five girls. Assuming this number is matched by the other three houses, there are forty pupils in Harry’s overall year and a total student population (40*7) of 280 at Hogwarts. If we therefore assume that wizards, on average, live around 100 years, we have a rough total of 4000 wizards in Wizarding Britain. The Wizarding World includes a number of others – homeschooled wizards, werewolves, squibs, etc – so we may as well assume that the total overall population is around 5000 in all.

On one hand, there was a major war going on when Harry was born and, proportionally, the losses inflicted on the magical population were probably quite high. But, on the other hand, it’s quite likely that the population of the Wizarding World remained fairly stable for centuries prior to the war. The combination of magical birth control and female emancipation probably played a major role in ensuring that the average birthrate was (barely) enough to keep the population from falling sharply.

Indeed, most of the pureblood families we see in the books have only one or two children (the Weasley family is perhaps the only major exception). Draco and James Potter, for example, were both only children, while Sirius Black had a single brother. I can’t recall any mention of a family larger than three children, save for the Weasleys.

This – and a few other factors – have interesting effects on the Wizarding World.

First, nearly every witch and wizard in Britain goes to Hogwarts. Wizarding Britain is thus more of a large town than a giant community. Everyone will speak the same language. The in-jokes will not change. Culture will be near-universal, with no room for smaller subgroups. There will be very few true strangers in Wizarding Britain. Even if you don’t know someone personally, you’ll know someone who knows them. Indeed, all the students at Hogwarts will probably know everyone in their age group and (probably) two or three years in each direction.

This may not be an advantage. People like Hermione – who has a remarkable talent for putting peoples noses out of joint – may find their reputation follows them after they graduate from school. Something like this may have bedevilled Professor Snape.

Second, most witches and wizards will probably marry other witches and wizards. Non-wizard marriage (i.e. to Muggles) is socially discouraged, even if it isn’t formally banned outright. (Even the Weasleys, the most tolerant pureblood wizards in canon, don’t marry outside the magical community.) Such marriages may not even last, once the secret is revealed. Indeed, the demand for secrecy may well ruin such matches before they can even begin.

What this means is that Wizarding Britain is a relatively small community with a relatively small influx of new blood.

We know from canon that Wizarding Britain is actually subdivided into purebloods, halfbloods and muggleborns. Purebloods must have four magical grandparents – ideally, they should also be able to claim a pure linage going back as far as possible. This actually provides a strong incentive to marry within the community, rather than embracing new (or non-magical) blood. Harry and Ginny’s children will count as purebloods, but Ron and Hermione’s children will not. (Note that Ron is the only known member of his family to marry a muggleborn.)

(The disadvantage of this, of course, is that inbreeding will become a serious problem sooner or later.)

Simple logic tells us, therefore, that there will be relatively little racial diversity amongst the older purebloods. There is no suggestion that the vast majority of purebloods, particularly those of older families, are anything other than white. Nor will there be much ethnic diversity, in the common sense. Everyone who enters Wizarding Britain will have gone through Hogwarts and picked up much of the local culture.

There’s an additional point here that may have shaped Wizarding Britain. Wizards have a huge superiority complex – and, for much of the last thousand years, they would have been right. I suspect that Wizarding Britain’s standard of living was vastly superior to Muggle Britain until comparatively recently. Muggleborns may have had no inclination to rock the boat because they had it much better, amongst the wizards, than they did at home.

How, then, to account for the known non-white characters?

It’s possible that the Indian twins and Cho Chang (the name isn’t actually Chinese) are the daughters of purebloods from India and China respectively. They would probably be counted as purebloods, even if their parents and grandparents weren’t native to Wizarding Britain – I would guess they’re actually second-generation immigrants, given that they don’t seem to be that culturally different to the rest of the students. Dean Thomas is a halfblood – presumably, his mother was black. Kingsley Shacklebolt is the only one who doesn’t seem to fit in – although, again, he may be the descendent of immigrants.

The people who accuse Rowling of portraying an all-white world, without much ethnic and racial diversity, are wrong. The (largely) white population and complete cultural hegemony of Wizarding Britain is an artefact of its social system.

16 Responses to “Ethnic and Racial Diversity in Harry Potter”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard January 22, 2017 at 2:44 am #

    As Chris knows, I was never able to get into the Potter novels so I don’t know the “explanation” given to why the wizards needed to go into hiding.

    The average wizard would seem to have little reason to fear attack from a non-wizard (or groups of non-wizards) in earlier times.

    Admittedly, if they were few in number and were out-breed by non-wizards, that may have been a factor.

    A death of one wizard might been seen (by the wizards) has being more threatening than a death of one non-wizards would be seen by the non-wizards.

    Still, it seems strange that the wizards would be unable to set themselves up as nobility/royalty in Europe or elsewhere (assuming that they were non-European wizards).

    • sjallen343 January 22, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

      My personal explanation has always been Superman. Bear with me here… On the surface he’s invincible, but dig a little deeper and it isn’t too hard to find a way to kill him. The wizards in the Potterverse? All too easy, even thousands of years ago. You can bet that muggles would have hunted wizards down. Can’t see a reason they wouldn’t or couldn’t have. This quote sums up mankind nicely; “I don’t know what that thing is, but lets kill it just in case.” Even the Big Bad Guy doesn’t pose that much of a threat when you stop going at him head on and start properly planning his murder. I get it, these are children’s books and most people don’t teach their children about tactics or read The Prince at bedtime (for some strange reason), but their magic system is insufficient to stop a determined muggle.

  2. William Ameling January 22, 2017 at 6:23 am #

    I seem to remember in the Half Blood Prince (book 6) when Dumbledore was trying to get Horace Slughorn to come to Hogwarts that Slughorn said that he had trained Regulus Black and all of the Black family except for Sirius who had died recently (this was just after the end of book 5) and that he would have liked to have had the complete set.

    Also there are apparently enough wizards to support enough professional Quidich teams to have some form of a competitive league, after they graduate from school. Also remember in Goblet of Fire (book 4) there were enough teams on a worldwide basis to support a World Cup competition for a long time (I forget how many but I think it was at least the 500th or 600th World Cup). Plus I think that the stadium held over 100,000 people in the audience.

    Plus of course the other two schools of magic involved in the Tri Wizard Cup from Goblet of Fire

    I think that Narcissa (Draco’s mother) and Bellatrix were sisters from the Black family. We do know that Lilly Potter was muggle born like Hermione, but we know nothing of James Potter’s mother and family, or for that matter about farther back in the Black family, except that one of them was a Headmaster at Hogwarts who was unhappy about the Black family line/Name (i.e. the male lineage) dying out. (He was one of the pictures in Dumbledore’s office).

    Also the Ministry of Magic seemed to have a fairly substantial workforce, several hundred at least, with a number of departments.

  3. Andrew Jones January 22, 2017 at 6:27 am #

    Thing is…while wizarding seems to be hereditary, I’m not sure it’s genetic or tied explicitly to mystical bloodlines. Muggleborn appear to be spontaneous, and they’re way too common for it to be a random mutation. If genetic, muggleborn would have to be the result of wizarding lines so weak as to have fallen out of the magical world and been forgotten by all parties, combining again by chance.

    Some options:
    Muggleborn are the result of weak lines combining to create a offspring with all the genes/mystic bloodlines needed to be a wizard.

    The mystic forces that create wizards tie to bloodlines and branch through family trees, but when new bloodline forces become available, they grab a random infant. The bloodline forces may be magical symbiotes, themselves propagating with other bloodlines through the wizarding community.

    Directed evolution. Muggleborn are mutations, either genetic or mystic, but it’s not random.

    Wizarding fetuses are exposed to something at extremely early ages. Nearly every child of the wizarding world receives this exposure, but very few muggles do at the point of development that it would matter. The exposure is ubiquitous in the wizarding world, as even the wizarding world isn’t aware of it…it just happens.

    Wizarding parents are teaching something to their children that enables magical talent. This teaching is unconscious and occurs a particular stage of mental development, altering the child’s frame of reference permanently. The “lesson” is being constantly delivered in the wizarding world, but almost never to muggles.

    It’s clear that wizarding passes from parent to child, but how that happens is up for question. Wizarding could be some sort of fetal-memetic virus or a self directing force that spawns into the children of its hosts. That’s not an exhaustive list, but I’m probably over thinking it anyway.

  4. William Ameling January 22, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    I checked the Movie. it was the 422nd Quidich World World in Goblet of Fire.

  5. PhilippeO January 22, 2017 at 7:52 am #

    the problem is 1) Harry potter was originally children book, it targeted to middleschooler in Britain, its show very simplified British society as seen by children 2) Rowling is extremely bad at math, it show Hogwart students as 10 x 4 x 7 = 1000 several times when Hogwarts has ceremony/quidditch match.

    any attempt to make Wizarding society coherent and workable is thus bound to fail. in fantastic beasts a single vacationing wizard family is able to use memory spells on entire beach to delete memory of dragon watching. Such imbalance of power thus show helplessness of muggle compared to wizard, there are no need to hiding, the purpose of hiding is simply so children reader have alternate fantasy place to enjoy without going fully as fantasy like LOTR.

    • georgephillies January 23, 2017 at 2:22 am #

      Readers interested in muggles attempting to deal with wizards may find of interest the tragically incomplete fan fic Harry Potter and the Natural D20.

    • chrishanger January 23, 2017 at 3:20 am #

      There’s an odd contradiction there.
      On one hand, you have a society with a vast superiority complex …
      … And yet, it also feels it needs to hide.

  6. Vapori January 22, 2017 at 8:57 am #

    JKR was never realy that good, with Numbers it was a nice story But I wouldn’t give to much about the background. I seem to recall some more facts, as I was a pretty hardcore fan, wen I read the books, Like 10 years ago.

    Would likely be the info related to mostly to the topic.

    Well, for how magic powers are heritable and still surface that often in muggle. There were multiple possible ways were fandom came up with, but JKR never stated them herself.

    Magic was surly not restricted to just Europeans as Japanese African, and naitive south american mages were mentioned during the book. For Excampe the referee in the final match of the quidich world cup was from Egypt and Rons oldest brother worked there as a cursebreaker.

    Also, it was forbidden to import flying carpets from Arabia.

    And as stated, the Worldcup was watched by 100000 people. But Since wizards have no TV’s an other long range Broadcasting means, So all interested who could afford it watched it in the stadium.

    So, there might be a global magical population of around 200000-500000.

  7. Ian January 22, 2017 at 10:41 am #

    Good article with some thoughtful pieces.

  8. David Graf January 22, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    For a different take, I would suggest that there was a war between wizards and muggles for supremacy which ended in the muggles’ favor with the rise of science. Incidents like the Salem witch trials were just the “mopping up” of the influence in wizards in our world. Having been defeated decisively, the wizards now live in reservations where the Muggles are for the most part able to keep them from interfering in our world.

  9. shrekgrinch January 23, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

    Rowling herself said not much of it made any sense.

    Take the economics – which were REALLY messed up:

    It seemed that approximately half of the population worked for MoM. I couldn’t figure out how the tax base could possibly afford it. Let alone the economic crowding out effect it would have on the private sector. Since Muggle money was magically reproducible, it made more sense for wizards to do that and live high off the hog from the Muggles while not working for gold and thus not paying taxes to support MoM. Thus the Weasley’s near impoverishment doesn’t make any sense.
    And hoarding gold in vaults at Gringotts didn’t make much sense either. That would mean an effective negative interest rate as the bank would be charging fees to securely hold that money for people. Which meant that Harry’s fortune from his parents was probably larger when he was born and less when he got access to it.

    Just have to remember that these were children’s books filled with all kinds of plot holes and inconsistencies. Like why didn’t Harry in GoF just use the summoning spell to snatch the dragon’s egg in the first trial while using it to summon his broom to fly over the cursed hedge and find/snag the trophy in the third trial? Because Rowling could afford to screw up such things things for kid novels, that’s why.

  10. Conrad Bassett Jr. January 29, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    Here’s my take on diversity in the wizarding world. I’m using talk to text so bear with me if I make any grammatical errors. Magic historically speaking has been a concept all over the world so it doesn’t make logical sense to only Europeans developed magic . Ancient mysticism today came up from Africa through Asia and into Europe. For in the Western Hemisphere in Native American mysticism came from Southern tip of South America up to North America. That being said the most plausible hypothesis is your option three. There had to be a sort of purge, that frightened the magical community worldwide. While individually wizards were powerful, they weren’t invincible. Humans have a habit of overcoming adversity. Ordinary humans may have found a way to find and kill fledgling magicians as well a way to kill the moderately powerful. Facing extinction on a global scale may have caused them fade from the world of man, developing strict codes of secrecy, and in time working with the world’s governments to keep their existence a secret in return for concessions that benefit the world.

  11. bexwhitt February 1, 2017 at 11:36 pm #

    Having thought about the wizarding World JKR lays out, it doesn’t really work, but like all books it doesn’t really matter if the tale told is gripping.

  12. Lodrik February 5, 2017 at 11:31 pm #

    Magicans have to sleep, have to eat and its simple enough to kill them directly. Aditionally magicans have a low birth rate or tend to duel to the dead. Hagrid stated in the second book that most wizards are halfbloods and Hermine said the same thing about the dead-eaters in the sixth book. They ARE the racists so thats telling.
    I suppose muggles knew about magicans in the past and magicans had the duty to protect them (muggles cant fight dragons…) While we know about purges (the witch hunts, the inqusition and all that), a high “natural” deathrate seems really likely to me. The wizards fought against pritty much anything, they still seem disliked and its hinted that they spellbound the house-elf into the docile slaves they are now.
    Many “magical” users in other parts of the world didnt have a family. A simply example are shrine maids or shamans (in some clans). The inbreeding of european magicals should also have far better success to keep the magical powers active over the generations.

    Regarding the secrecy: Many, maybe most states today wouldnt accept wizards to live without controls. And they would not accept the control solely by MoM. I cant see north koreas state leaders accepting some wizard coming by “magic exists, leave us alone and have a nice day” (thats the british deal).
    The books say about this only that the wizards dont want to deal with all the issues muggles would push on them (Hagrid in book one). The big problem is that muggles keep dying because of this. All the time. Climbing accident is the new term for dead by giant – you guys didnt know that? Muggles CANT know giant live in some valley; well, the magican doesnt give a fuck… The magical world is full of dangers and to reveal themselfs to the muggles would mean the magicans would have to take real responsibility instead of concealing it.
    Honestly, they gain nothing from revealing themselfs because of this and it would make the job harder.


  1. Boarding Schools Are Evil - SuperversiveSFSuperversiveSF - January 9, 2018

    […] It wasn’t just education, you see. It was everything from social attitudes and manners to language and everything else one needs to fit in with the aristocracy. An Oxford ‘Old Boy’ would have something in common with every other ‘Old Boy.’ He’d see a Cambridge student as an equal, even if they attended different schools. He wouldn’t say that of someone who attended the local comprehensive. Classism has always been a powerful aspect of British society. Indeed, you could argue that this is also true of the fictional Wizarding World. Everyone goes to Hogwarts or faces immense social exclusion. The students may be ethnically diverse, but they are not intellectually diverse. […]

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