Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For the second part of Episode 2 “Failure of Representation: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom”, we discussed the following texts.

Fan podcast – Episode 21 of The Gayly Prophet “Clearly, Hermione is Black: An Interview with Prerna Abbi-Scanlon and Tahirah Green” 

Recommendations from the podcast:

The Shoebox Project, a prequel starring the Marauders which is also super queer and which I now must read. 

The Mary Sue article about characters of colour in Harry Potter. 

Of the two hosts of this podcast, Lark Malakai Grey who is (presumably) white announced that he wasn’t going to be a part of the episode since he would rather it include the perspectives of people who aren’t white. Jessie, the black co-host, interviewed two fans of colour. 

There really need to be counselors offering therapy in Hogwarts! And in the magical world in general. There’s so much trauma – generational trauma too. As Jessie says, the way people seem to deal with their trauma is just lock it away in the Pensieve – super healthy coping mechanism!

Some fans seem to already imagine Hermione as black (including Taherah and Jessie). I wonder if this has anything to do with the sort of environment and conversations you grow up with. As with intersectionality, black people seem to be actively highlighting their perspectives, and working collaboratively with other black people (for example, a network of black podcasters) who offer counter-narratives and respond to the erasure and misrepresentation of their perspectives (Black Girl Nerds is an example of this – their recap of Game of Thrones, a white show which they watch through the lens of the two black characters). Is there a lack of collaboration among other marginalised non-black groups? I want there to be an Indian network! I’m just not aware of others, though they may of course exist. Black people in the US seem to be leading the way with things like intersectionality and solidarity networks. They also inspire others around the world – the Black Panthers and the Dalit Panthers. Is this a product of slavery and dehumanisation? It’s been happening for many generations.

A colonised mind means that you don’t even know what’s possible until you get out of your bubble. This may be physically but could also mean just intellectually through the internet and fandom. In my experience, both provide access to diverse perspectives and make you look at your own culture in such interesting, new ways. Technology and social media allow more marginalised fans to create and share their own media – like the fan podcasts we’re listening to. I now see how Sorting into Hogwarts houses has race, class, caste parallels in the real world. I’ve changed my mind about Sorting based on Paru’s point from our pilot episode and listening to other podcasts since then. All the houses should interact with each other more, sit together and have opportunities to befriend each other. An interesting idea I heard was that students should spend different semesters in different houses and embody the different characteristics the house celebrates and learn about the history and attitudes. How cool would it be to have people more open to learning about cultures which aren’t their own in ways which help them understand it deeply and not just superficially?

Racebending Harry as Indian offers opportunities for exploring the impact of imperialism. How did James Potter, an Indian (according to some parts of the fandom), get to the UK? Interesting possibilities to explore – why are there so many black and brown people here? What does the Commonwealth actually mean? Destroying the economy of the countries you colonised, these countries still suffer from the impact of the Empire while the former Empire is still profiting from both historical measures as well as current ones (museums and tourism). This needs not just fictional but also real-world history lessons. While reading Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, the authors propose that students in the UK largely haven’t learned about the Empire and the effects it had and continues to have. This gives people a skewed sense of self and a feeling of superiority over others (Germany makes it a point to learn about their role in the Second World War). Even in India, we learn history in such an abstract way. We’re not taught about the ongoing damage caused by the British policy of divide and rule. 

Prerna mentions that young people often lose themselves in books and media – especially those who feel like they’re on the margins of the society they live in for whatever reason. This definitely reflects my own experience. Thanks to Rowling’s current conversations, Prerna realised that authors don’t always take care of the characters and you can think and demand differently.  The Harry Potter text is still very important to me because it got me through a difficult childhood. I’m even going to watch The Cursed Child in a couple of weeks even though I disliked the play script. But what I truly value now is the fandom conversations and community. I learn so much from these discussions and I’m so glad I discovered fan podcasts last year and get to do my project on something I love. 

I love the meme about rewriting the book titles from Hermione’s point of view. This is also something I realised in fandom – how important she is but how the emphasis is still on Harry and how the entire series is narrated from his perspective which might be much narrower than we believe. 

Parvati and Padma aren’t fleshed out at all. There is no depth to characters of colour. Two things which outraged the desi Potter fandom – the name Panju and the twins’ ugly Yule Ball dresses. Total tokenism. Much like the name Panju, there have been critiques about the name Cho Chang which apparently doesn’t quite make sense – it appears to be a mishmash of Chinese and Korean names. Relatedly, does the snobbery/scepticism about Divination privilege Euro-centric magic? It reminds me of the backlash against Rowling’s appropriation of Navajo traditions in her Pottermore article about North American magic.

Someone on the podcast wished that the Potterverse was expanded so that stories could be told from the perspectives of the characters of colour in ways which actually include their diverse ethnicities. I love this idea and want to actively look for examples of it within fandom. How would the books look like from these different perspectives? Would there be a more explicit questioning of institutional oppression since they might have experience with it? It’s not like the era before Voldemort’s (second) rise to power was great – oppression against house elves, giants, werewolves, anti-Muggle sentiments. Does this change in a post-Voldemort world?  It also reminded me of this more irreverent comic on Black Girls Create.

Prerna points out that Rowling takes credit for diversity after someone else brings it up thereby retconning diversity to make up for absences and blind spots. What would be helpful is to acknowledge these blind spots and use these critiques to begin conversations about how her thinking has grown. As Paru said, it’s the difference between Rowling and Riordan where Riordan has used his status to start an imprint to highlight diverse cultures and stories. In the episode, they counted a grand total of 7 characters of colour in the whole series + Anthony Goldstein who seems to be the lone Jewish character. Aurora Sinistra may or may not be black – she was played by a black actress in the movies but that may have been racebending. We don’t know because we know nearly NOTHING about her, except that she taught astronomy. Let’s not forget that Lavender Brown was played by a black actress in the movies until she became a prominent love interest in Half-Blood Prince and then she was recast as a white actress. 

Blaise Zabini seems to be the token black Slytherin in the white supremacy house. I suppose marginalised people can be prejudiced against others as well as against people from their own groups (coughPritiPatelcough). Even among marginalised groups, there’s a hierarchy, which is where an intersectional analysis is helpful. As there’s no explicit engagement with race in the series and Zabini has said some bigoted anti-Muggleborn things – he definitely sounds like a baby fascist even though I don’t think he becomes a Death Eater. You don’t need to become an official Nazi or neo-Nazi or Hindutva terrorist to sympathise with those causes, do you?

As Prerna says, we didn’t think about these things as teenagers but teenagers now are so much more aware of these things as we see in protests – anti-CAA and anti-NRC ones in India, gun control in the US, climate protests all over the world. Though recently, there was a controversy when Associated Press cropped out the picture of Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan teenage activist who was there with Greta Thunberg and a few others; apart from Vanessa, everyone else was white. This deletion was rectified after a lot of criticism. AP’s justification was that the building in the background was a distraction. As Twitter would say, it’s qwhite interesting what the media decides is important.

Fan podcast – Episode 165 of Black Girl Nerds “Racebending and Whitewashing in Media”

Whitewashing is a question of privilege. Casting an actor from a dominant background in a movie or TV show to portray someone from a marginalised background – Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (who is supposed to be an East Asian dude), Avatar: The Last Airbender (who are clearly coded as Asian characters). In Bollywood, it takes on the form of religion, caste, light-skinnedness – Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy who had his skin darkened to play someone living in Mumbai’s slums; Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom, a boxer from the North East of India, a culture which is otherwise also so under-represented in mainstream Indian media and culture. Would the other side of whitewashing be black face and yellow face or straight cis people playing gay, trans roles? Whitewashing and the Western focus of history and mythology where diverse stories are erased; where stories about marginalised groups are present, they are whitewashed (or Brahmin-washed, straight-washed, upper-class-washed, Hindu-washed?)

This is a different argument from non-own voices books because visual media has so much more of an impact on your imagination and perception of communities for people from both marginalised and dominant groups. In books, you have to imagine/insert yourself in roles; onscreen, you can more directly identity with the character or alternatively find it difficult to imagine yourself in their place. Diversity in popular culture helps you imagine alternative possibilities. It allows you to decolonise your mind. Alternatively, the lack of representation leads to an ever-shrinking imagination. Who tells our stories?  

Everyone has blind spots but social media has made these conversations more mainstream. As Jaime mentions in the episode, encountering conversations about popular culture representations as well as their own diverse lived experiences has helped me confront my own blind spots and biases about LGBTQIA+ groups and disabilities too. You’re allowed to make mistakes – as the episode mentions, Jake Gyllenhaal regrets his portrayal in the Prince of Persia movie. You need to be open to learning, listening to critiques and rethinking assumptions. 

You also want different races, castes, religions, genders, sexual orientations, abilities telling all kinds of stories – not just ones which explicitly deal with their identities and associated struggles and triumphs (though those are important too). More diverse stories of all kinds! The internet and fandom helps but mainstream media has the most visibility. The current mythos consists of movies, TV shows, and books – more diversity is necessary which subsequently has such an impact on people’s attitudes and opinions. We need diversity in Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure Black Panther was an extraordinary hit but that was set in an African nation. What about normalising diversity? Everyday diversity? 

Whitewashing impacts both dominant and marginalised groups in different ways.  While there was racist backlash against the casting of a black actress as Rue in The Hunger Games (even though she’s explicitly mentioned as black in the books), there wasn’t a similar controversy with Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss who’s described as someone with olive skin in the books. To quote Twitter again, the reason for this one-sided outrage is qwhite interesting. One of the co-hosts mentioned research which shows that in the future, most people will be mixed-race, something which she proposes Suzanne Collins was going for with her character’s skin/race descriptions.

One of the hosts of Black Girl Nerds calls Rowling a woke white lady with regards to the Hermione comment and casting a black actress to play her in Cursed Child. I disagree because I think it reads more as taking credit and diversity points for gay Dumbledore and black Hermione. Even such superficial nods to diversity can have surprising impacts though. I spoke to someone at a workshop in university whose child is nonbinary and they were thrilled to hear the news that Dumbledore is gay. To them, the representation felt very real and had a great impact even though it isn’t really present in canon. 

Some other racebending canon examples – 007 as a black woman in James Bond and an older black woman as the Doctor. The hosts spoke of wanting 007 to go and seduce men to contrast James Bond – but why not women?! That would add an extra layer to the character and to conversations about diversity. I, for one, love the Doctor/Yaz ship in fandom. Flip all the scripts! First, the media. And then the real world. 

Fan podcast – Episode 18 of Woke Doctor Who “Sweep Your Own Yard”

Even before watching the Rosa Parks Doctor Who episode, one of the co-hosts Toya (a black American woman), was hesitant about it because white people loved the episode and she thought the episode must not require them to challenge their own privilege.

“Difference between art which is created for black people and art which is created about black people for white people’s consumption” – Toya.

This has so many parallels within an Indian context too, the most glaring of which might be poverty porn and tragedy porn.

A previous episode on Woke Doctor Who called Screw Season 10 raged against the ending Bill got. The black companion was turned into a cyberman (like Danny, another black character). She was literally dehumanised and made terrifying to other people, so much so that CyberBill tells a terrified white woman that she can protect herself with a gun. The hosts draw connections to police shootings of black people in the US and argue that this lack of sensitivity reflects a lack of black people in the writing team; a lack of diverse creators. 

In this episode, they discuss the implications of a British show exploring American racism. In schools, British students learn about American racism but don’t explore racism within their own shores or how black people came to the UK. As Toya mentions, Yaz is Pakistani and Ryan is black. There is room to explore their contemporary experiences of racism rather than historical racism in the US. Furthermore, the episode doesn’t properly negotiate with racial dynamics and the setting and time period – Yaz and Ryan in Alabama. The two hosts critique the episode for its simplified depiction of racism and for diminishing Rosa’s role. They argue that sitting down in the segregated bus doesn’t cure racism and this fact isn’t addressed in the episode. Racism still exists. Things have changed but not enough. 

They worry about white people teaching Ryan about Rosa Parks, in a way which centres white people in a narrative about racism. They also critique the absence of black women who were the crux of the civil rights movement both then and now (Black Lives Matter, Me Too). The episode erases their agency. Even when they show a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Rosa’s home, there are no women present. The hosts emphasise that Rosa didn’t do what she did alone; she was a part of a community of activists. Rosa herself was an activist and not a tired seamstress; it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision but was a well-planned act. The episode lacked nuance, complexity, and the people involved. Instead of black people saving themselves, white people played an instrumental role in the episode (the Doctor and Graham). Like in other social and political movements, Rosa was a representative or figurehead just like Hitler in Nazi Germany, Modi of the Hindutva movement, Trump and the Neo Nazis. The movement isn’t dependent on just one person. In social justice movements, every activist matters – not just the figureheads. The way the episode is framed makes you feel triumphant and good – though not if you’re black and American – which is who the episode was about. 

As the hosts point out, why are there white supremacists in the far future of the 71st century? Why are black people still at the bottom all that while away? It’s a failure of imagination.

Doctor Who episode “Rosa”

I re-watched this episode after listening to Woke Doctor Who‘s opinion about it. The prologue seems to show Rosa’s own journey – where she tried resisting bus segregation 12 years before the pivotal 1955 moment.

The Doctor’s flippant comment, “Don’t kill the vibe, Graham” reminded me of accusations hurled at progressive activists – feminist killjoy, anti-racist killjoy – can’t make jokes anymore etc. 

The episode makes you uncomfortable about racists in 1950s Alabama, but not all racists today are so explicit. They have changed their language and use dog whistles to reflect the attitudes of the time, but the undercurrent of racism (as well as other forms of bigotry) still exists.  

The episode does explore how dangerous it is to be black or brown in Montgomery, Alabama. Ryan gets slapped by a white man and is threatened with lynching. It’s Rosa Parks who rescues him and tells him about Emmet Till. Later, they also have to sneak into a hotel because the hotel doesn’t host people who aren’t white. In the bar, they’re kicked out because they don’t serve “negroes and Mexicans” i.e. Ryan and Yaz. As for Woke Doctor Who’s critique of Ryan’s lack of knowledge about Rosa Parks,  to me it reflects more on the educational system and the way history is taught in such an abstract way than it appearing as if Ryan isn’t smart. If anything is taught badly, or in a way which doesn’t make it easy for you, it’s difficult to retain it well into adulthood. Yaz mentions that people thought Rosa wouldn’t stand because she was tired going back home from work but she wasn’t. It’s a glancing mention of activism but it’s there. Ryan also complains that Rosa Parks didn’t stop racism – he still gets stopped by the police and Yaz gets called a Paki or a terrorist. “Never give them the excuse” is something both Ryan’s Nan and Yaz’s dad warn them about behaving so they aren’t targeted as black and brown people in the UK. The episode does somewhat explore racism in contemporary contexts. Rosa didn’t come across as a tired seamstress to me. She knew the consequences of her actions (she gets arrested, then loses her job), perhaps even better than the companions realised. As the Doctor points out at the end of the episode, it was a lifelong struggle but she kept resisting. And she did change the world and make it a better place. She may not have cured racism but small actions slowly move the world in a more progressive direction. 

I understand their critiques of the episode, but I still loved it. I think we can use texts with gaps to spark conversations with both young people and adults. One of the schools I worked in wanted to get rid of all the princess fairy tale books because they promoted stereotypes. I talked them out of it because children will encounter these stereotypes in culture anyway. Instead, it’s fruitful to use these texts as an opportunity to question, learn, and unlearn. This is especially true with a TV show episode of a popular mainstream show like Doctor Who.