July 15, 2005

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

— Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts Headmaster

By Keith Woods, Poynter Prefect


A red glow rose up the editor’s cheeks and washed over his bulbous nose, so Harry Potter knew his cauldron was boiled.

Editor Joe Gutenberg’s temper was legend at the Daily Prophet. His cantankerousness was sometimes disguised; belied by crow’s feet that gave his eyes the look of someone more amused than he had ever truly been. But nobody laughed when the man they called “Goot” turned this particular shade of crimson. They just held their breath and hoped he didn’t call their name.

“Potter!” he yelled again, and Harry remembered ruefully the exact moment he’d decided to leave his Invisibility Cloak behind at the Hogwarts Graduate School of Wizardry. Now, his summer job on the Prophet’s copy desk was about to blow up like a bad brew in Professor Snape’s Potions class.

“What sort of description is this? It’s incomplete!” Goot screamed, his fiery glare threatening to ignite the dry bush of eyebrows dangling from the cliff of his forehead. “Where in the name of Dumbledore is the Muggle’s race mentioned?”

Harry peered out from behind owl-eye glasses and considered carefully what he’d say next. He’d already been branded “too sensitive” for decrying the way wizards labeled people without powers as “Muggles,” as though they were a different breed of human or something. As a copy editor, Harry often cut the word out of Daily Prophet stories.

Still, he knew it wasn’t a slur on the order of, say, Mudblood, and besides, Muggles like his Aunt and Uncle Dursley earned no sympathy when they went about treating him as though the words “human” and “humane” had never met one another.

This race thing, though, well, this was something else. Talking about race in the newsroom was like speaking the name of the Dark Lord Voldemort himself. Some things, Harry had learned, were simply unspeakable. So, naturally, he spoke up.

He had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes, or so the gossip writer Rita Skeeter once said of him. Skeeter wrote under the pseudonym J.K. Rowling, and she was the paper’s biggest name. They called her the Queen of Description.

With just a few words, she could conjure up a picture of someone so vivid you’d think you’d seen the person’s smiling face winking at you from the Daily Prophet’s front page. Her sources came alive in colorful details that told you as much about their peculiarities as their particulars.

Well, that was true of most people she described.

Since his earliest days at the Prophet, Harry’d noticed that people who weren’t of The Race That Shall Not Be Named got a lot less description out of people like Skeeter/Rowling. He’d noticed it in the newspaper, in books, on TV -– everywhere.

“Potter!” Goot screeched, yanking Harry back to the immediate problem. “Is the Muggle black or The Race That Shall Not Be Named?!”

This, Harry knew, would be an unpopular fight, and it would be downright blasphemous for him to drag Skeeter/Rowling into it. But he had survived five encounters with the Dark Lord Voldemort. Surely he could handle someone who went by the name Goot.

“Why is it that you ask me about race when the people are black,” Harry asked, “but you’re OK with describing just the blonde hair of someone who’s white?”

He’d said the w-word. There erupted so many gasps in the newsroom that it was a miracle everyone didn’t immediately drop dead from oxygen deprivation.

“I’ve been editing Rowling for a while,” Harry went on. “She describes black people by their race. She describes white people without ever calling them white.”

“Please say ‘The Race That Shall Not Be Named!’ ” Goot hissed between yellowed, clenched teeth.

Harry took a deep breath, considered quoting Dumbledore, then showed Goot clips from Skeeter/Rowling’s coverage of the big stories: the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix.

  • Of Harry’s very own Aunt and Uncle Dursley, Skeeter/Rowling had written: “He was a beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache … Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.”

  • Harry’s best friend, Ron Weasley, was described this way: “He was tall, thin and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose.”

  • The writer described Albus Dumbledore thusly: “He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. … His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice.”

Goot’s patience, already shorter than the hair on a newt’s knuckle, had expired.

“What in blazes are you on about, boy?!” he roared. “That’s great prose she wrote. Even a Muggle-educated kid with glasses can see that.”

The lightning-shaped scar on Harry’s forehead, a souvenir from other encounters with evil, was starting to burn. He looked hard at his tormentor, imagining a Patronus he might summon to chase Goot back to an era more suited to his sensibilities. Instead, Harry offered more evidence.

“Those people are all white,” he said, pausing until the requisite gasping subsided. “But Rowling never actually refers to The Race That Shall Not Be Named unless she’s talking about someone turning white out of fright, which, by the way, seems to happen a lot in her stories. She drops colorful clues, though: green eyes, flaming red hair, blushing purple and pale skin.

“But look at the shabby way she describes Angelina Johnson (“… a tall black girl with long, braided hair.”) and Dean Thomas (“… a Black boy even taller than Ron …”). I mean, why can’t Lee Jordan (“… a boy with dreadlocks …”) get the same kind of description Rowling gives to a nameless white girl?”

One more “white,” and Goot would surely have swooned, but Harry pushed the proof into the editor’s face, pointing to a piece Skeeter/Rowling had written about the “Sorting Hat” that decides each fall who’ll go to which Hogwarts dorm.

“A pink-faced girl with blonde pigtails,” Skeeter/Rowling had written, “stumbled out of line, put on the hat, which fell right down over her eyes, and sat down. A moment’s pause –

‘HUFFLEPUFF!‘ shouted the hat.”

“She wrote pink-faced. Not white,” Harry said by way of punctuation.

Goot was flummoxed. “Are you saying she should’ve written that the child was whi…” To everyone’s great relief, he couldn’t finish the word. “Are you calling her a racist?”

“No,” Harry said, his sigh heavy with the familiarity of the debate. “I’m sure she’s a fine person. I’m saying she should stop writing as though white is normal and needs no identification, while every other race is so one-dimensional that a single word –- black –- sums up shade of skin, expression of eyes, length of nose, color of hair. She should describe my black friends with the same gifts of language that she uses on the white people.

“One time, she wrote that Professor Snape’s ‘sallow skin had turned the color of sour milk,’ ” Harry said, quoting Rowling. She wrote that Professor McGonagall had turned “white as chalk.” I can’t count the number of colors she uses to describe Ron’s blushing spells. But are you telling me that the best description she can come up for Angelina Johnson is “a tall black girl”? Isn’t Lee Jordan interesting enough to inspire more detail than ‘a boy with dreadlocks’?”

Goot had heard enough. He needed to think. He needed Tylenol. He put the story on hold and sent Harry home.

“We’ll pick this up tomorrow,” Goot said. “Contact me. I’ll let you know then what I decide.”

Harry said he’d send Hedwig, his messenger owl, to collect Goot’s answer.

“How will I recognize him?” Goot asked.

“He’s easy to spot,” Harry said, and a clever smile spread slowly over his thin, pale, bespectacled face.

“He’s white.”

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The Dean of Faculty, Keith teaches reporting on race relations, editing, persuasive writing, ethics and diversity. He's a former reporter, city editor, editorial writer and…
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