Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Not Necessarily White: Kingsley Shacklebolt on Film

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.


  1. Did your reevaluation of the character's race also lead you to reevaluate the power of that name? Although "Kingsley" is a regal sounding name, "Shackle-bolt" definitely takes on a different resonance when you realize this is the only (non-student) prominent black wizard in the series. "Bolt" as in lock and "Shackle" as in well, shackle. Are these the best words to associate with a black character?

    1. You know, I have to think this must have been some sort of "Freudian slip" on the part of the author-people can't really hide who they are or what they think, no matter how hard they try. This name is her unconcious or subliminal thinking about black people. I mean-anything else "Skybolt", "Bluebolt" (most lightning looks blue,right?) or just plain old "Bolt" or even though the name Thunderbolt would have been corny,it would not have been racist-why and where do(es) SHACKLE(S) come into it? Is that to make sure that parents reading these stories to children feel comfortable that he's been "put in his place" as a character? I was enjoying her book until I read that name-thereafter, a great deal of the shine went off of my enjoyment of her book series. A little research would have helped with Chinese naming practices- would have enabled her to know that they place the last name first(at least in their own country)-and she would not have given a girl 2 last names. ("research" meaning ANY person of Chinese extraction, say, in a train station-or anywhere--??!! who could have told her, or if they like a student of Cho Chang's age, were 2nd or3rd generation-parents or grandparents were most likely from China- probably did not speak a lot of Chinese [born and raised in Britain] could have asked their grandparents and told her the correct naming conventions--ahh! I sort of despise J.K. Rowling because she actually went out of her way to treat her non-white characters with such disrespect. Even the house elves got more respect and they are not even real.I honestly would have rathered she had just had all white characters...Remember Dean-one of only 2 students of African descent (and of course, no women of African descent)in her books-didn't he turn out to be a traitor? Or, was it the other one? Or what if she had given some exposition for Kingsley Shacklebolt-maybe his family assumed the name to remind them of injustices in the past-maybe his family had a tradition of entering into law enforcement or becoming barristers for that reason? But no, she gives him this racist name and feels satisfied with herself.All she has done is made sure that we (non-white readers) now know exactly what we need to know about J.K.Rowling.

  2. You know, there was a type of restraint used on the hands IN VICTORIAN TIMES-it was u-shaped and a locking bolt went across the top and was locked in place with a key-now I know the wizarding world is odd-but old, Luddite Muggle technology to hold criminals? Really? Didn't they just use some kind of binding spell? So, since he's essentially a law officer, he would not have used even conventional handcuffs, since they don't deal in Muggle mechanisms and devices (toaster, anyone? remember Ron Weasley's dad's fascination with Muggle devices-NONE OF WHICH EVEN WERE ABLE TO WORK IN THE WIZARDING WORLD-except for some sort of radio apparently-remember the Weird Sisters-the band?)