The Perception of Race in Literature & Media – The Effects of the Default White

Race relations and the way we as readers and consumers view people and characters in literature and the media have a significant, and often subconscious effect on our lives. Growing up, everyone is exposed to a great deal of stories, novels, and writing, and often times, the stories we read and the characters we read about can have an impact on ourselves and our state of being. The “Harry Potter” series, for example, is a franchise that has had a huge impact on people all over the world of all different ages, ethnicities, and races. The characters and messages presented throughout these novels have shaped the way many around the world understand and view their surroundings, and furthermore, many also may even identify or empathize with the characters in the series. However, with the recent release of the cast list of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which is a play and a sequel to the Harry Potter series, there has been a large outcry in regards of the decision to cast a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, to portray the character of Hermione Granger, who was played by Emma Watson, a white actress, in the Warner Brothers movie portrayal of the book franchise. Most critics of the casting decision cite their disapproval through the fact that nowhere in the novels was it explicitly stated or specified that Hermione was black. This argument perpetuates the idea of the “default white” character – the assumption that a character is white until otherwise explicitly stated. In other words, it is the idea of “white until proven black,” and this phenomenon is the fault of not just authors and consumers, but the product of the way society works in general.

One of the main sources that creates and supplements this phenomenon that I see here is the fact that authors themselves do not provide enough accurate representation in their novels, and they keep character descriptions vague in order to leave it up to interpretation of the reader, thus relieving themselves of any kind of blame when accused of not having minority representation in their works. This is concerning not only because authors push the blame from themselves onto the readers, but also because of the idea that “black doesn’t sell,” or “black doesn’t travel,” which is essentially the phenomenon that movies, literature, and other forms of media are not as successful when people of color are cast as main characters. This belief is extremely damaging in that it makes young people of color who are taking in this media believe that they and their race are not good enough for the white washed norm.

Although J.K. Rowling is one of the most widely renowned and respected authors, and, personally, the Harry Potter series was an integral and truly magical part of my childhood, I have to criticize her also for passing off the responsibility onto her readers. This tweet, specifically the last two sentences, perpetuates this phenomenon immensely. “White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”

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On one hand, it is great to see a content creator being so accepting and open-minded about their own character. When Rowling states that white skin was never specified, she is allowing the race of Hermione to be up to the reader’s interpretation. YouTuber Josh Sundquist made a video (which is linked at a specific time in order to emphasize his point) in which he states his belief that it is actually rather effective for an author to leave race open to interpretation because it allows the audience to define a character however they choose, and many agree with the sentiments Sundquist expresses in his video. However, I disagree, and feel that this concept can be detrimental in itself. The idea perpetuated behind this tweet is that J.K. Rowling didn’t say he/she wasn’t black, non-white, gay, straight, etc. However, this trend of race, sexuality, and minority groups being treated as an afterthought is extremely concerning. It is simply unfair to continue making “white,” “straight,” and the “majority” the default, and by not specifying the race of a character, authors truly do play a huge role in this phenomenon.

The other problem with this situation is that the reader or audience, when given no contradictory context clues, immediately and unconsciously assumes that a character is white. Furthermore, even when given descriptions that fit that of a non-white person, many still see the character as white when envisioning him or her. Rue, a character in The Hunger Games series, was described in the book series by Suzanne Collins as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” However, when 13 year old Amandla Stenberg, a black actress, was cast in the franchise movie as Rue, there was a great deal of public audience backlash against the casting decision, as shown in the following tweets.

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In addition, Hermione has been portrayed as black for quite some time in fanart, particularly on Tumblr. However, many interpretations of Hermione as a person of color, even before the release of the decision to cast a black actress in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” were met with similar backlash, as seen on this Reddit thread, that the casting decision of Rue brought up.

In looking at Nella Larsen’s “Passing” and Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” the races of the characters in both novels were explicitly stated for the audience, most likely because race and its issues were highly emphasized throughout both the books, and the characters’ races and ethnicities were driving points of the plots. In comparing Rue from The Hunger Games to Clare Kendry in “Passing,” a connection can be drawn between the two in that both are, in a sense, passing for another race, but in very different ways. While Clare as a character consciously throughout the novel makes the decision to pass for white, Rue similarly passes as white, but subconsciously, amongst readers. The concept of Hermione as a character is in the same situation. Readers will assume that she is white, making the concept of passing relate to the “default” character in modern literature. This is conceptually quite interesting in that while Larsen intentionally creates the dichotomy between the two racial identities, that line becomes blurred in the situation with Rue and Hermione, and this idea of “passing” is actually instead in the minds of the readers subconsciously due to socially ingrained ideas, rather than being placed by authors.

At the same time, however, perhaps it is unfair to completely pass off the blame of this racist phenomenon on simply content creators and consumers, which is why I think societal norms are at the true heart of the problem. In looking at character tropes, an interesting one that sticks out and is highly related to the topic of race in literature is the everyman trope, which Wellek and Warren in “Theory of Literature” define as “the typical or ordinary person, an actor who is seen as the image of every man.” TV Tropes states that this is a character the audience can identify or empathize with, and some examples of the trope are Jim Halpert from “The Office,” John Watson from “Sherlock Holmes,” and “Ted Mosby” from “How I Met Your Mother.” Continuing with this trend, every character on any list of the everyman trope that I have seen has been white, straight, and male. It is concerning that this is the kind of person that society has forced the public to easily identify with, that this is the only kind of character we think anyone can relate to and empathize with. It raises serious questions about who we believe deserves empathy and who consumers see as relatable. This default assumption of whiteness in literature is hard to shake off due to the societal expectation and ingrained subconscious belief that it is only white characters that we can empathize or identify with. This default assumption is further extremely damaging because of the negative effects it has on minorities in the world today. Due to the connotations of the “every” man concept, as a person of color, I am viewed as the “other” man. I am, through TV, literature, and media, constantly reminded that I am not seen as “normal.” The people around me, because of what we have been trained to see, also think of the default person or character as, essentially, a white male. In this regard, I am immediately marked as the other, not fitting into society’s norms, expectations, and desires.  

As a reader and media consumer, I can firmly and surely say that I would love to see more minority representation in literature and the media. The fact that the default assumption that characters are white is so widely recognized and understood now is, I believe, a stepping stone to make a difference. Authors and content creators should actively create characters of color instead of shifting off the responsibility to the audience. The audience should, in return, be open-minded to the prevalence of people of color in the media they consume. After all, people of color are the norm and should be considered so. We are people, we are humans, and we are everywhere – why shouldn’t we be in our media?

Works Cited (for sources not directly linked) :

Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Introduction. Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949. 4-7. Print.

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