Let’s Talk About Race-Bending

Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger
Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger

There’s a collage of fanart right above my desk and it features one of my favorite art prints of Hermione Granger. She is, of course, surrounded by books in a studious pose. Her hair’s in a kinky bun and her skin is a shade of brown. The Harry Potter franchise was the first to introduce me to the term, “race-bending.” It is exactly what it sounds like. Fans take a white character and change them into a character of color. When I came across the interpretation of Hermione as a black girl I couldn’t be convinced she was ever anything but. In the novels she’s described as having wild, untamable hair, which is the most common way to describe the natural hair of black women.  The interpretation of a black Hermione has since taken off from the small corners of fandom online and reached the stage earlier this year when Noma Dumezweni portrayed Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s fascinating to see how this theory has grown so much that even J.K Rowling considers the race-bend to hold validity.

Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997)

Another one of my favorite race-bends is the 1997 version of Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I was that girl who grew up begging her mom to read Cinderella to her night after night. It baffles me now, but little Kiana never tired of that blue dress, pumpkin carriage and glass slipper. So when I saw Brandy in a blue dress of her own with all her braided hair glory I went crazy. I could be Cinderella! If you read last month’s post you know that I love having options – in case this college thing doesn’t work out. Moving on, the freak out didn’t end there because there is also the matter of Prince Charming. Now, this is a portrayal that took me a few years to fully appreciate because I wasn’t old enough to notice how much stigma surrounds Asian men. They are rarely shown as masculine, strong, and attractive in mainstream media. But, there was Paolo Montalbán as a prince and he was even more swoon worthy and interesting to watch than Disney’s Charming.

Race-bending will never take away the need for new diverse characters in literature and film, but that doesn’t mean we should refrain from doing it. There’s something powerful about diversifying content after it’s already been in the public’s eye for consumption. Without those who resisted the unconscious urge to make all characters white in their minds we might not have a black Hermione. The wonderful pairing that is Brandy and Paolo wouldn’t exist in a world where we don’t challenge the cannon, a.ka. material officially a part of a story’s universe. The cannon is normally people’s main argument when it comes to race-bending. I feel we have to remember that cannon isn’t the padlock of a story, but the foundation. Fiction is alive and has the potential to represent multiple people. So let’s continue to avoid boxing ourselves in.

Next time you read a novel I want you to try something. Despite what the writer says I want you to imagine the characters as people of color. I can guarantee it’ll break the monotony that is known as defaulting to white. Perhaps it’ll even get you drawing some fanart? Maybe you’ll cast a completely race-bended version of Sleeping Beauty (I beg you!)? Maybe you’ll produce a play with race bent characters? Or simply get rid of the bad habit that is assuming. Whatever it may be, it’s worth it.

I want to leave you all with this clip from Cinderella featuring Whitney Huston and Brandy singing Impossible/It’s Possible because one: it’s Whitney! And two: it works as a perfect response to those who still don’t believe in race-bending.