White Guilt, Paranoia in Science Fiction

Themes of colonialism and racial oppression are extremely popular in the genre of science fiction. It makes sense; like all fiction, authors of sci-fi often use tropes of the genre to explore real issues in the world. However, when it comes to white authors, colonialism and oppression only seem to be real within the realm of sci-fi, but never in the real world. It’s a odd situation where these authors are able to talk about oppression in real and nuanced ways within their stories, but fail to see how these are not just allegories for the past; the things they write about have been and are still happening. I’ve noticed this in plenty of the sci-fi that I’ve consumed throughout the years, but the recent release of “History of Magic in North America” on Pottermore brought up the subject again.

Often in sci-fi authors create allegories for oppression, and with white authors we tend to get only this rather than accurate depictions of oppression we already deal with. In these particular stories, somehow by the time humans come into contact with aliens, or the apocalypse comes, we have already solved all of our issues with racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In The Hunger Games, there are no racial prejudices as the Districts of Panem (set in post-apocalyptic U.S.) fight against a tyrannical government. We don’t know how long of a time there is between the demise of the U.S. and the founding of Panem, but suddenly the descendants of the country are all “colorblind,” with other systems of oppression taking the forefront. However, just like in the present, when societies are “colorblind,” it often means that they are white by default. It’s been a long-standing issue that many science fiction stories set in the future have no or few people of color, inadvertently suggesting that the issues with racist systems of oppression have been eradicated because the differences have been made invisible or the people bearing that difference somehow no longer exist. Instead of discussing real world systems, the exploration of the real world tends to be extrapolated and exaggerated through contact with aliens.

Aliens play different roles depending on the story, but often colonialism is a theme regardless. Sometimes the aliens are stand-ins for people of color, and are depicted in an Avatar-esque way where they are fighting against the oppressive (white) human race, or in a District 9-type way where they arrive on Earth only to immediately be quarantined and heavily policed. Other times–for example in Doctor Who, War of the Worlds, or even The Avengers and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe–they are stand-ins for white colonizers, showcasing the fear that someone will come and oppress white people the way they have people of color for centuries, or perhaps even demonstrating some guilt over the systems of oppression that have been created. The question “what if what we did to others happened to us?” colors these stories. From space exploration to dystopian narratives, the problem is often that the white protagonists are being treated like marginalized people in the real world are treated all the time. Only when it’s happening to them does it spark sympathy, but ironically it doesn’t help these authors to see the real effects of these real oppressive institutions their stories are based on. For them, these stories land neatly in the realm of fiction or the past; there’s no way anything like this would happen in the real world in the 21st century.

This inability to truly examine our present society and the ways it perpetuates systems of oppression also makes it difficult for these authors to write the “Other” in any other way than the allegory. Clearly, it is much easier to make up species and new systems of oppression than to deal with the very real ones that the authors may be culpable in. This was one of my main frustrations with the “History of Magic in North America” installation.

Harry Potter is a story about blood status, bigotry, hate, oppression, and more, but somehow these complex ideas about race and oppression within the story only work as an allegory to the past, namely the World World II era. It’s no secret that Voldemort and his Death Eaters are based on Hitler and the Nazis. The ideas around blood purity and the murder of Muggles clearly parallel to the atrocities committed by Hitler in the Second World War. But, unfortunately, the things that happened there also happened to other people throughout history, and those effects are still being felt today. While I am not Jewish, I still identified heavily with the fight Harry, Dumbledore’s Army, the Order of the Phoenix, and the rest of the Wizarding World were fighting. The language Voldemort was using was also very similar to language used by white people in dealing with chattel slavery, the genocide committed on Native Americans, and the colonization of almost every non-European country in the world. These things—or the effects of them—are still going on now. We are unable to live in a post-colonial, post-racial society because the systems created during these horrible times still live on today.

This is why “History of Magic in North America” was so disappointing; like many stories in science fiction, the allegory to racism and intolerance were very clear and well-done in the original Harry Potter series. But the writing in this recent series on Pottermore demonstrates a lack of understanding of these issues as they exist in the present day. Not only do they fall into stereotypes about Native American people and communities, they also make invisible the horrors committed on people of color throughout the history of America (particularly the U.S. from these writings) from the 17th century and beyond. Not only is this problematic for the representation of people of color, it also misses an important opportunity to draw on and acknowledge the similarities between what was happening in the (real) Muggle world and what happened in the Wizarding World.

Rowling ran into a problem when she decided to move her story to the U.S. Our history is one where you can’t really ignore the racialized hatred the country was founded upon, and connections to the persecution of wizards and witches by Muggles and the allegory of Muggle-born prejudice don’t work as clean cut as she made it work in her original series. She has European wizards moving to the “New World,” as if they would not be culpable in any of the racialized atrocities that are committed during that time. This is why I didn’t—and still don’t—believe Rowling when she tweeted that wizards respected each other regardless of race or skin tone. While wizards did tend to isolate themselves from Muggles, especially after the International Statute of Secrecy, they still lived in a similar environment to the Muggles they were with. As we talked about on our latest bonus episode of #WizardTeam, the European wizards fleeing persecution and coming to the “New World” didn’t join the preexisting Native wizard communities they had already known about; rather they joined and replicated the European Muggles who came and colonized America. They came as settlers and colonizers rather than as friends and immigrants. Race plays a huge part in that. “History of Magic in North America” doesn’t even touch the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and African wizards who may have been brought to the Americas and forced into slavery, or even the Muggle-born black wizards who may have been born into the institution. Instead, it takes the easy way out and insists that the wizards who came over to America were completely separate from the Muggles despite most of them being Muggle-born, as a way to erase the guilt of the Wizarding World for allowing these horrors to happen.

In an attempt to not deal with the controversial and terrifying history of America, the story skirts around it as much as possible, making it clear that not only is Rowling not willing to truly delve into our history, but that it is much easier to easier to create allegories for racism in a separate environment. However, those allegories fall flat when set in a society where racial issues are at the forefront and deeply ingrained into every fabric of that society. And while I understand the need for and the importance of them within the science fiction/fantasy genre, when used in this way, they seem more like some combination of white people feeling guilty about the things they have done to people of color and paranoid that the same thing will happen to them. Because of these feelings, they ignore what is happening, and in doing so the stories fail no matter how much they cloak the erasure in fantasy and magic. This comes up in more than just the recent writings on Pottermore, but it is something we should really keep an eye out for; these stories can’t boast a “colorblind” utopia while they really don’t interrogate the horrible history and institutions that continue to be in place. Not only is it damaging for readers who live everyday in these oppressive environments, but the story is no longer believable when set in a contemporary world. You must confront these issues no matter how uncomfortable they are.