Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato’s dialog The Cratylus explored the connection between names and the things they stand for.
In our time, even before she began writing her remarkable series of Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling started compiling a list of intriguing names.
In the books themselves, Rowling's names often give clues, veiled in classical or French allusions, to the nature of the people who bear them.
Tonight, watching The Order of the Phoenix on DVD with my boys, I was struck by my own implicit racial prejudice concerning one such name: Kingsley Shacklebolt.
It’s a dynamo of a name. The word "king" is right there in Kingsley, pointing to a commanding presence. And Shacklebolt connotes both power (bolt, as in lightning bolt) and service (shackles). So Kingsley Shacklebolt is completely spot-on as the name for the lead “auror” at the Ministry of Magic in the Potter books.
The aurors enforce the laws that govern witches and wizards. In essence, then, Shacklebolt begins the books as the attorney general for the magical community.
In reading the books or hearing them read, I assumed he was white. This occurred despite the fact that, in the early pages of The Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling describes Kinglsey Shacklebolt as black.
Somehow, amid the narrative sweep of the 870-book, this fact did not really register with me. The white image took shape, without me really thinking about it. After all, the books were written by a white British woman and are set in Britain. And I, of course, am white myself.
In the film version, there is no room for such misconceptions. Shacklebolt is clearly portrayed as a person of color. He is played by George Harris, a native of the West Indies, and exerts an undeniably authoritative presence.
My hat is off to the filmmakers for correcting my flawed misconception that Shacklebolt is white. He could be black, white or any other race, in a community where what ultimately matters is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the content of one’s character.
Why did I think he was white? Because being white insulates many of us from the struggles that others must overcome to achieve a level playing field in the face of structural racism.
In short, as I learned in dismantling racism training in 1998, being white means NOT having to think about this — even when we should.