This isn’t the first time that J.K. Rowling has had to answer for messing up matters of identity, race and culture. Over the years, fans such as myself have been able to use numerous positive social messages she did get right in advocating for social change. For that, I will be eternally thankful for the power of the Harry Potter series. In many ways, those books are life changing.
At the same time, we, as fans, have challenged issues we saw, such as the lack of diverse representation in minorities, such as the LGBTQ+ community or ethnic or cultural minorities. We wanted more representation. But, of course, we didn’t want it at the expense of having J.K. Rowling appropriating the other cultures.
For me, circumstances like this are really upsetting. The Harry Potter world has had such a huge impact on my life in a lot of positive ways. It can be hard to reconcile a series that has been so positive for me, and an author I admire a lot, to understandably very problematic and negative issues that I feel compelled to do something about.
As much as it might upset me on a personal level, it’s also not ok on a higher social level either. The greater social concern is by far the most important factor in the issue of JKR’s appropriation of Navajo culture.
I’ve been made aware that colonization and appropriation in the UK is not always understood as comprehensively as it is here in North America, but I’d be sad if that were JKR’s only excuse. And, of course, I’m in no way wanting to imply that that applies to everyone in the UK (I know for a fact that it does not). In addition, I would have thought (or idealistically hoped) that someone like J.K. Rowling would have been at the forefront of understanding those problems. At the very least, she is uniquely positioned to be able to inform on these issues and make a really positive impact through positive, reaffirming representation and diversity in her writing.
Responding to a question on Twitter, Rowling said that “in my wizarding world, there were no skinwalkers”, with the legend created by those without magic “to demonise wizards”. – JK Rowling under fire for writing about ‘Native American wizards’, Alison Flood, The Guardian
By talking about real-life cultures then saying it didn’t exist in her wizarding world / existed differently and, from there, using that as a reason to use a “cool” part of the Navajo nations culture to suit her purposes is basically a prime example of exactly what cultural appropriation is. I’m sure she meant to try to clarify her intent here, but all I’m seeing is that she doesn’t really understand what appropriation is. In addition, the author of the article (Alison Flood) is rightfully pointed out that there is no singular Native American culture. There are many indigenous nations in North America with diverse cultures that shouldn’t be lumped together as one any more than the same can or should be done to diverse Europeans ones.
I don’t want to get to far into the specifics because I prefer to defer to the knowledge and experiences of aboriginal people when it comes to their cultures and concerns. With that said, I would like all of my readers to consider reading the article if you didn’t read it prior to reading my post and going from there.
In the meantime, issues like this are understandably problematic and can reiterate trauma, racism and other awful things. As a fan activist, I want to do something about it and that’s why I am writing this post. I am hoping that J.K. Rowling will do the right thing and make amends.
What I think needs to happen is that JKR needs to issue a real and sincere apology with plans to correct her error. I think she needs to consult with the people who are from the nations that she’s writing about, starting with the Navajo nation. I am sure that there are many people in many nations who would practically donate a kidney (not literally of course) for the opportunity to collaborate with someone like JKR and they would be able to help her be more culturally aware and represent their cultures in the wizarding world better. She could also use this as an opportunity to lean about current issues like colonization and appropriation. The colonizer’s / Western cultures don’t get to decide when history doesn’t matter or is “truly in the past”, especially when it is still so relevant today and that’s something I think JKR needs to understand if she doesn’t already.
Representation and diversity is so important in popular media and I do believe that there are ways to do so that are culturally appropriate (not to be confused with appropriation). I would absolutely love to see aboriginal people represented in Harry Potter’s wizarding world but not in the way J.K. Rowling made a mistake with and not if it means the cultures have to be appropriated (because, seriously, they don’t need to be). Fortunately, what J.K. Rowling’s controversial bit of writing is currently published online, which means it can be fixed. She can learn what she needs to know (which, frankly, she should have taken the time to know to begin with) to understand and respect aboriginal cultures in her writing from the right people and make amends. I really hope that if she realizes how important this is to us, then she will listen.