What Harry Potter Taught Me About Diversity

I wrote this fan-mommy blogpost ten years ago (2005!). Way back, before I thought of myself as a writer and certainly way before I dreamed of being published. I opened it up today in a fit of nostalgia induced by all the hullabaloo over Harry and Ginny’s oldest starting at Hogwarts. The awkward turns of phrase notwithstanding, I loved remembering some of the wonderful reasons why I love this series so very much. But most surprising was the fact that I had forgotten about the diversity metaphors in there.

Enjoy…

Last week, for the second time in my life as a mother, I completely neglected my children for two entire days. The last time I did this was when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out; and I have no doubt that I will do it again when the concluding book in the Harry Potter series comes out in a few years (oh please let it be soon). After all, real life has no place in your mind when you are off adventuring with the most trouble-prone adolescents in all the Wizarding world.

The Wizarding world, by the way, isn’t some fairy tale world from a time long-long ago and a land far-far away but it is this very world we live in. In fact, your strangely-dressed neighbor who refuses to buy a cell phone and doesn’t own a computer could be a wizard. You see, wizards don’t need technology like we do, they have magic. They just have to work very hard at Wizardry school to hone their magical skills and make them usable. The Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, even with its cozy common rooms, accomplished teachers, and a wizarding genius for a headmaster, isn’t all fun and games. In the Wizarding world, much like the real world, great power often spawns great evil. But wait, even the greatest evil is no match for courage, loyalty and love, which are, after all, even more powerful than magic. Who can resist the spell of a story based on a concept so magically simple?

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m not in any way unique, when it comes to my love for this meticulously constructed and engagingly told saga of Harry’s fight against his parents’ killer, the evil Lord Voldemort. We’ve all heard of the unprecedented gazillion copies The Half-Blood Prince sold, even before it was legal to open the mountains of boxes that lay stacked up in bookstores the world over. I have friends who stood in lines at midnight with lightning bolts painted on their foreheads, and cousins who took the book along on their honeymoon, and even read it there.

Our local library did an all day reading relay of the six-hundred-and-fifty-two pager, and I haven’t picked up one single magazine over the past fortnight that hasn’t carried an article gushing about the mania that has swept the muggle world. Despite the millions of dollars spent on marketing the movies, the popularity of the books continues to grow across generations and nations. This is a fact that gives me hope both as a reader and as a parent who believes that reading is the best possible hobby you can nurture in your children.

My friends and I often discuss what kinds of books we should encourage our children to read. We want something fun that they won’t want to put down, but also something that teaches them meaningful lessons and values. Sales figures have proven beyond doubt that children of all ages are completely enthralled by the story of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s friendship. But the really good news is that the story also exemplifies the very values I look for in books for my children, without boring them to death or talking down to them while also giving flight to their imaginations.

At the very minimum, this story teaches valuable lessons about loyalty, courage, and friendship. Our friendships as children dictate to a large degree what kind of social beings we become as adults. Childhood friendships teach us how to love and to trust. They give us our first exposure to the delicate business of relationships with all their give and take. Harry, Ron and Hermione always treat each other with respect and sensitivity while still being completely amused by each other’s quirks. They trust each other completely and never give each other reason not to. They are honest and communicative without being harsh or hurtful, a lesson most adults would do well to learn.

The other age-old lesson the three friends teach by example is the importance of making the right choices and of always choosing good over evil, and right over easy. When Harry first starts at Hogwarts, he chooses courage over ambition and ends up in Gryffindor house instead of Slytherin house, which has traditionally produced the most powerful wizards for centuries. He chooses to befriend the funny and endearing Ron instead of the haughty and well-connected Draco Malfoy. Over the span of the first six books, Harry, Ron and Hermione are repeatedly placed in situations where they have the choice to either fight for what they believe in or to flee. The choices they make are precisely what make these books worth their weight in gold. And not goblin gold either.

However, the most relevant lesson lies within the very dark and murky realm of prejudice. Prejudice and discrimination and the resulting hatred add up to possibly the largest and most universal evil that faces us today. We no longer live in isolated homogenous communities. We are constantly faced with people who have completely different appearances, habits and beliefs from us. It is easy to get caught up in the Those People syndrome and to want everyone to think, act, and even worse, look just like us. Almost all the strife we can find in our world comes from our conviction that our beliefs are superior to those of others. The Harry Potter series places prejudice at the heart of all evil. Lord Voldemort and his band of dark wizard cronies all claim to be purebloods on a mission to rid the Wizarding world of wizards born to muggles, or non-wizards. The message is clear: the bad guys are the ones that harbor prejudices and hurt people based on birth, and the good guys fight for a world where everyone is equal and only ability counts.

At a less extreme level, seemingly weird children are accepted into the fold of friendship for their real character and not rejected for their weird hats and over-the-top personalities. Clumsy characters turn out to be strong and dependable, and brilliant nerds aren’t entirely unpopular. What’s more, money may bring power but it cannot bring happiness nor does it make people generous. Ron’s very close-knit family may have a hard time making ends meet, but their hearts are large enough to let in an orphan stranger and make him their own.

There are those that argue that the books are too dark and that the evil elements are defined too vividly. But therein lies the point. A story about good versus evil cannot leave evil undefined if it wants to highlight the strength of good when it defeats evil. Keeping children away from this story because Lord Voldemort is dark and scary, is like keeping children away from the Ramayana because of Ravana. It is completely missing the point.

Love, loyalty, courage, making the right choices, and believing that everyone is created equal are all values I would love for my children to learn. And along the way if they whoop for joy at a game of Quidditch and take off on their brooms to a world where children have the power to defeat monsters, I’ll go along with them. Especially, if it also takes me back to my childhood when I felt friendship in my gut and not in my head and a good book was pure magic.

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