Harry Potter and the Ethnographic Refusal

To what extent should people explain their culture to outsiders?

Tsegi Canyon Navajo National Monument Arizona. By ROSHAAN Tahir

JK Rowling periodically releases short pieces of writing on her Pottermore site that build upon the Harry Potter world.  She has recently published information on wizarding schools around the world, such as Uagadou in Uganda or Mahoutokoro in Japan.  Its a clever way to engage fans from all over the world, bringing a little bit of the magic to those who might not readily see themselves reflected in Ron, Hermione and Harry.

But with her ‘History of Magic in North America‘ JK Rowling appears to have become unstuck.  Her attempt to integrate the Native American community into her world building has drawn criticism… not least because she lumps the myriad tribes and Nations together under one ‘Native American community’ catch-all.  

Rowling has not been overtly racist—it’s not as if she calls the Native Americans ‘redskins’ or depicts them as savages. Indeed, she has even been mindful to avoid colonial language when discussing the history of the American continent.

Unfortunately, her attempts to integrate her stories with Native Americans are trite, cliched and even dangerous, according to critics.

Dr Adrienne Keene at the Native Appropriations website provides a detailed critique.  She notes that even though this is fiction, the Harry Potter author’s depiction of the native cultures of America nevertheless feeds on common, real-world misconceptions.  Those of Native American heritage find themselves in a constant battle against such misinformation, and Rowling’s lazy world-building seems to be working against that.  For a book and film world that is as popular as the Harry Potter series, this matters. It might be the first time many children hear about the existence of Native American culture. It would be a shame if yet another generation grows up assuming that the sterotypes are all that those cultures amount to.

In the comments to the article, a few people point out that Rowling would have received greater vilification had she omitted the Native Americans altogether!  This is probably true, but the representational choice offered to marginalised groups cannot simply be between ‘nothing’ and ‘wrong’.  The author could have done more research, consulting with the people who know about this and to whom this matters profoundly. It does not appear to be JK Rowling’s style to open up the Harry Potter world to other authors, but a series of collaborations would have been another approach.

Dr Keene’s post raises an additional issue: to what extent should people explain their culture to outsiders?  She writes:

So, this is where I’m going to perform what Audra Simpson calls an “ethnographic refusal,” “a calculus ethnography of what you need to know and what I refuse to write in.” In her work with her own community, she asks herself the questions: “what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?”

I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.

The comments on this aspect are very interesting too. The idea of the sacred is invoked, and also the notion that refusal to share the myths and stories with outsiders is the only way to preserve the culture.

This idea brings problems of its own.  To begin, perhaps the idea of cultural integrity is itself a myth? “Purity is incestuous” said Hanif Kureishi. Preserving certain myths and stories for a small circle of people could actually guarantee their irrelevance.

Conversely, sharing the myths and their meanings with everyone else does not necessarily mean they will become diluted by the dominant culture.  Perhaps instead the reverse will happen, and the majority will be changed—for the better—by the minority.

I accept that this is a view that comes straight out of a majority culture.  But that does not necessarily mean it is invalid.

Another question is who should define who is in a group, and therefore permitted access to its stories; and who is out of the group and barred from deeper knowledge? Keene and the commenters complain at the constant demands from outsiders that they explain and justify themselves:

No one has the inherent right to demand to know the private worlds of any individual, or group, just because they decide that they want to know.

I think that anyone has the right to ask, even if their request is rebuffed.  The myths of the Navajo or the Cherokee are parts of human history and therefore part of my culture as a human being. Why limit the knowledge and the value to just people within the group? Do we grant the right to know only to the Navajo and exclude the Cherokees? Or do we allow access to all indigenous people, to the exclusion of those of European immigrant heritage? Or maybe all North Americans allowed, but not those hailing from other continents?

On this side of the Atlantic, the impending referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is an excellent reminder of the various circles of identity we all have: it’s possible for someone to be a Londoner, English, British, Indian, European and Human, and to be proud of (aspects of) all those histories.

Why can’t I engage with other human stories too?  If a white man from the UK hears the full, ancient story of the Navajo ‘skin-walkers’ (which, at least according to the Wikipedia page, is fascinating in its moral ambiguity) why can’t he take it on as part of his culture, his moral compass, his human identity?

Great art, and in particular great literature, can make this happen: Finding universal lessons and human truths in the highly particular stories of people who exist in a given place and time.

By this measure, JK Rowling’s short ‘History of Magic in North America’ fails.  But I do not think that this failure means other writers should not explore the stories of the Navajo and other North American cultures, in the hope that readers around the world will appreciate and celebrate them.

5 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Ethnographic Refusal”

  1. “”By this measure, JK Rowling’s short ‘History of Magic in North America’ fails. “”

    It seems a silly way to measure things. You don’t seem to have even read the piece in question before passing judgement.

    Do you normally think that subjects of writing deserve a Heckler’s Veto by default? Or only when they are of a specific degree of ‘marginalized’?

    1. Who said anything about a veto? The subjects of writing certainly don’t have a veto, heckler or otherwise. But they certainly have the right to complain if they feel that they have been misrepresented or that the writing impacts negatively upon them.

      And yes, of course I read the Rowling piece! I too felt it was a bit ‘off’ – simplistic and obvious. Dr Keene’s critique crystallised my unease.

      1. It seems remarkable that no one has ever considered prior depictions of native american people to be “off” until some academic decided to whine to the press about it.

        Somehow ‘Last of the Mohicans’ was still taught in High Schools, and Disney’s ‘Pocahontas’ avoided censure for decades.

        My point was simply to note that you seem to have taken nothing into consideration except the complaint of a single individual, and determined this to be significant of the view of an entire racial-minority. Certainly individuals are free to complain. That you seem to treat it more seriously than any attempt at critical review of the work itself is what is notable. Simply announcing a racial grievance does not by-default discredit other people’s work.

        Do I really think JK Rowling deserves more critical analysis? No. Its kiddy fodder. I don’t think kiddy-fodder should be obligated to ‘celebrate’ world cultures any more than Zorro should be required to be less-Spanish and more Mexicanish, or that Gimli the dwarf’s scottish accent should be considered a class-distinction.

        1. no one has ever considered prior depictions of native american people to be “off” until some academic decided to whine to the press about it.

          John, this sentence reeks of what the social justice warriors call ‘privilege’. Native American communities (plural) have been complaining about their depiction in mainstream popular culture since forever. Unfortunately they are only being heard by the rest of us now due to the platforms offered by new technologies. That you have not come across these arguments before now does not make them new. They are very, very old.

          Adrienne Keene is not ‘whining’ to the press. She studies this stuff. It is literally her job to write about cultural appropriation and make a case for the damage it can do to Native American cultures.

          Its also simply wrong to say I have taken nothing into consideration other than Dr Keene’s post. I’ve considered what (little) I know of Native American culture, what I know of the wider history of what can only honestly be described as a genocide of the Native Americans, what I know about the mechanisms of power and the practice of literature. It’s not all footnoted in the blog post, but it is just a blog post and all I’m really doing here is noting the academic phrase ‘ethnographic refusal’ which I hadn’t heard about before.

          Nor do I accept the term or Keene’s use of it her uncritically. The subtitle of the post is an open question, not an assertion one way or the other. I think invocations of similar terms are often used as a reason to censor. As a free speech activist and amateur scholar, that’s my interest in the term. Keene and her community do not get a free pass in its use just because they are a minority.

          That said, I think her writing is strong and persuasive enough that I accept her use of it here. Did you read Keene’s piece, I wonder? She’s not simply asserting something, but trying to explain to outsiders why the article not only offends but (in her view) does wider harm. Again, she’s blogging too, and so not all the footnotes are there for you. But on the other hand, there are way more than 140 characters in that post: it is a critical response to the work, and one that I found persuasive and credible.

          I also disagree that Harry Potter is ‘kiddy fodder’. Sure, lots of children read it but then those children do have a tendency to become adults, and what culture they consume will influence the art they create and the society we become. And of course plenty of adults read the books too. Its a literary and film franchise that is one of the most popular and high earning in history. It is unquestionably becoming the bench-mark for every other fantasy and fairy tale, and redefining all manner of historical terms that had their roots in many cultures and superstitions. So one could even argue that critical analysis of JK Rowling is the most important kind of analysis there is.

          Finally, no-one is obliging Rowling to ‘celebrate’ minority cultures. By integrating those into her work she is attempting to do that herself. As I wrote in the OP, this situation is particularly sad because Rowling has made an attempt not to fall into the very worst and racist tropes regarding Native American cultures. But, as Keene points out, she has still generalised, stereotyped, and offended. The writing fails on its own terms, not mine.

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