J.K. Rowling recently reignited the Potterite shipping-wars by saying that she should never have coupled Ron with Hermione.
Among the things she apparently doesn’t regret putting into the world’s most widely-read/seen Fantasy franchise of recent decades are the following:
- Gold-obsessed Goblin bankers with big noses and a nigh-communistic inability to comprehend or respect ‘human’ notions of private property.
- A race of willing slaves with brown skin, huge rolling eyes and ‘pickaninny’ speech patterns.
- Giants who are born savage and thick, and who live in ‘primitive’ tribes.
Lest it be thought that I’m singling Rowling out for special snark, let me broaden this out immediately. The SF/Fantasy genre, as a whole, contains a discourse of race that represents a peculiarly insidious reflection of racial ideology. Race pervades these genres as a category. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is full of different ‘races’. The world of Star Trek is full of different ‘races’. The world of Doctor Who is full of different ‘races’. Just think how often we are assailed with ‘races’ in Fantasy that can be told apart by both physical characteristics (the blonde hair of the Thals, the crinkly noses of the Bajorans, etc.) and apparently inborn social characteristics. The Doctor pronounces the Jaggaroth “a vicious, callous, warlike race” (my emphasis). A social trait (the tendency to make war) is thus ascribed a racial origin. And the ones I’ve mentioned are just some of the best known and most mainstream.
Let’s look at another extreme example, which shows a particular kind of Fantasy worry about race:
There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today—I don’t know how to explain it, but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ’em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shrivelled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst—fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate ’em—they used to have lots of horse trouble before autos came in.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow over Innsmouth, written in 1931.
This is particularly interesting because the story is about ‘race-mixing’, expressing Lovecraft’s bigoted horror of ‘miscegenation’. But he wasn’t writing in a vacuum. He was a product of the late-19th and early-20th centuries… and, indeed, being a man stolidly stuck to the past, he was also a distillation of much of the American 19th century.
The American 19th century was a period of intense construction of race and ‘races’ as a social category (which is what ‘race’ is with reference to human ethnicity; as a biological idea it’s essentially meaningless). To quote Richard Seymour:
Historically, the act of oppression that produced the category of race preceded the systematic pseudo-scientific classification of human variation along racial lines. This was true, according to Theodore Allen, in Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy, and it was true in colonial America. What happened first was that a group would be singled out on the basis of some characteristic or other, and excluded from the normal citizenship rights enjoyed by the rest of society no matter how poor. Then, that group would be racialised – a process known as ‘race-making’. As David Roediger points out, this was a very efficient way of stratifying labour markets – colour-coding them, dividing them, making them politically more manageable, and increasing the rate at which it is possible to exploit them. In the history of US industrial relations, ‘race management’ is thus a prominent strategy.
And once this process begins, it doesn’t simply stop and ossify. It transforms in response to new political developments. So, new immigrant groups to America such as European Jews, Italians, the Irish, Poles, Hungarians, etc., would always be initially racialised. But as they consolidated their position in civil society, improved their bargaining power as labourers, and achieved political representation, they became ‘white’.
Look at this positively Lovecraftian bit of racial pseudo-science:
The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair; and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.
U.S. Army Surgeon Robert Bartholow, 1858.
Could almost be a quote from Innsmouth. But Bartholow was talking about the Mormons. The idea that the Mormons represented, or were giving rise to, a ‘new race’ arose from the social practice of ‘race-making’ and was justified with reference to the ostensibly degenerate breeding practices involved with polygamy. Note how Mormons are no longer considered a racial category. Instead of remaining isolationist, the Mormon Church integrated itself into American capitalism.
This is how such acceptance tends to be achieved in SF/Fantasy too. The Doctor accepts the Thals as people because they prove to share ‘our’ moral concerns. The return of the king entails the alliance, by marriage, of humans and elves… though, of course, such inherently evil races as the goblins and orcs remain outside this integration. In Rowling’s last Potter novel, her lumpen Potterdammerung, the house elves are integrated into the fight against Voldemort, with Kreacher becoming acceptable when he leads the other house elves against Voldemort, crying loyalty to his former master.
Notice, also, that Rowling links race-mixing to social integration. On the surface, this is the exact reverse of any fear about ‘mixed blood’. Hagrid is the product of a union between human and giant that would’ve horrified Lovecraft (and probably have given Martin Freeman an excuse to make another rape joke). On the other hand, Hagrid’s acceptance as a ‘human’ (despite his ‘mixed-ancestry’) is both nowhere near as important within the novels as the acceptance of muggleborns or half-blood humans, and is also linked to his utter passivity and subservience… his integration into the social order.