In the wake of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as we wait with bated breath for the moment Harry Potter and the Cursed Child comes to Broadway, I’ve been revisiting the story of Draco Malfoy and pondering how some of the lessons his life provides tend to be overshadowed by the exploits of Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
A quick reading of Draco is that he’s a racist, a white supremacist, and a product of his awful environment. For some people, the analysis of Harry Potter’s nemesis ends there. But I’ve always thought that there was more to the character than just a broad villain. I’ve always seen Draco as both a tragic figure and a character that fans of the Harry Potter books can, and should, learn from. Draco’s character arc is something that is especially important in the times we’re embarking on now.
“So what can we learn from Draco?” you might be wondering. What we can glean from his life is insight, through the lens of Rowling’s fiction, into how racism functions in the real world. More than that, Draco also exemplifies the ways in which a person can grow out of their upbringing and environment and strive to do better.
Still scratching your head about this? I’ll break it down:
Draco’s racism wasn’t inborn; it’s how he was raised.
A classic mistake I’ve noticed even among well-meaning people is the assumption that racists are somehow just born racist. No one is born a racist; racist convictions are taught. One of the best examples of this indoctrination can be seen in Draco’s upbringing.
Draco’s parents, Narcissa and Lucius, raised him to believe he was better than others because of his pureblood status. They instilled in him the belief that the world revolved around purebloods only, and that anyone else—half-blood, muggleborn, etc.—had lower places on the hierarchy of worth. Draco’s parents taught him this because they were taught it by their parents. Lucius and Narcissa never stopped to think that maybe their parents were wrong; instead they passed this narrow-minded thinking down to their son because for them, there was no other way to live.
What’s important to remember is that Draco’s parents, in their own twisted, ignorant way, thought they were teaching their son valuable life lessons. They assumed they were doing the best for their son.
The concept of love is hardly ever brought up by us muggles when discussing racist home environments; it seems like we assume that the parents are always knowledgeable about the negative and problematic concepts they’re passing down to their children. The wild part about racism in the home, though, is that some parents assume they are demonstrating love for their child by teaching them what they think is the way of the world.
In her Pottermore short story on Draco’s life, J.K. Rowling writes about Draco feeling special due to his upbringing: “From the time when he could talk, it was made clear to him that he was triply special: firstly as a wizard, secondly as a pure-blood, and thirdly as a member of the Malfoy family,” she wrote. This sentiment echoes the same sentiment Jonathan Odell, a speaker and self-proclaimed “recovering racist” wrote about in his 2015 Salon article, “I am a recovering racist: I was somehow taught hate as a gift of love.” Odell describes a moment when he was talking to an all-white fifth grade class about racism in 1950s and 1960s Mississippi. A kid asked him if he liked having his “own special place in the restaurant” when he was growing up, and instead of giving a PC answer, he told the class the truth.
“‘Yes,’ I admitted. ‘It felt good. I felt like I was on the winning team or voted most popular. I never thought of it before, but yes, it made me feel special,’” he wrote.
…[T]he hardest thing to admit was that my racism and its inherent privileges were gifted to me by devoted parents, dedicated teachers, righteous preachers—an entire white community conspired to make me feel special. These were good people. …That would make racism a gift of love! As toxic as those gifts were, they were presented to me out of love, by someone I loved. What adult, much less child, doesn’t want to feel special? What child is going to say, “No, I don’t want your gift because it takes away from others!” We hunger for the experience of feeling special and are grateful to those who see that specialness within us. No wonder it’s so hard to uproot racism from our souls.
Rowling herself writes that the one thing that Draco benefited from while growing up was the love of his parents. Yet, it was that exact same love and devotion that compelled them to pass down their racist beliefs.
In some ways, Draco is himself a victim of his environment. But he is also an unquestioning perpetuator of his environment, inflicting his bad morals on others around him instead of realizing that everyone is his equal. He learns this lesson when it’s almost too late, and in order for the realization for finally sink in and stick, he learns it in the most excruciating of ways.
Uprooting racism is a long, tough road, and only a few will take it because of the rude awakening that comes with it.
As a black woman in America, I’ve seen how easy and comforting it is for some of my white former classmates and acquaintances to stay in that bubble of racial ignorance. I’m sure it’s a lot easier, for example, to blame the nation’s problems on someone getting killed for running away or selling loose cigarettes than it is to confront the racist ideologies and white supremacy that allows for police to terrorize certain neighborhoods. It’s simpler to do that than to confront the reality of the basis of our current policing system—the slave patrols of the 1800s. I could go on and on, but it’s a luxury to comfortably complain about race if you’re at the top of the race-based food chain.
Similarly, Draco and his family were comfortable at the top, yet they complained about impertinent muggle-borns and people like Harry and Sirius who fought for equality; to people like Draco and his parents, Harry, Sirius, and other purebloods who went against the hierarchy were blood traitors. Did the Malfoys really have any room to complain about anything? No. But what they were worried about and feared most was their way of life being upended by those who thought differently than them. If equality was actually gained, they wouldn’t be special anymore. The perceived loss of power is what terrified them, and it’s that same loss of power that still terrifies too many people in America today.
But what happens when you realize you never truly had that power to begin with? The Malfoys were forced to come to grips with this reality when Voldemort returned to power and actually showed that his master plan benefited only himself. Just as the recent election here in the United States hinged heavily on America’s still-virulent strain of racism and sexism, Voldemort gamed the wizarding world’s existing prejudicial support of blood superiority and rode that wave back into power. Draco’s family followed Voldemort to secure their own privilege and sense of superiority, but soon realized that the power they sought had too steep of a price tag.
To quote Rowling from Pottermore:
Draco’s world now fell apart. From having been, as he and his father had believed, on the cusp of authority and prestige such as they had never known before, his father was taken from the family home and imprisoned, far away, in the fearsome wizard prison guarded by Dementors. Lucius had been Draco’s role model and hero since birth. Now he and his mother were pariahs among the Death Eaters; Lucius was a failure and discredited in the eyes of the furious Lord Voldemort.
Part of that price tag included Draco being drafted to kill Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It was then that Draco realized the path of Voldemort wasn’t the path he wanted to take. Coming up against the realization that his supposed superiority was all an illusion forced Draco—and to a certain extent, his parents—to forcefully wake up and finally see reality for what it was. This was expertly portrayed in the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as Draco (Tom Felton) faces agony over his task throughout the film, culminating in a scene in which he cries hysterically to himself in the bathroom. When he sees himself in the mirror, it looks as if he doesn’t know who is staring back at him.
Once again, to quote Rowling:
…The ideas that Draco had about himself, and his place in the world, were disintegrating. All his life, he had idolized a father who advocated violence and was not afraid to use it himself, and now that his son discovered in himself a distaste for murder, he felt it to be a shameful failing. …Draco’s changed, yet still conflicted, personality revealed itself in his actions during the remainder of the war between Voldemort and those who were trying to stop him. Although Draco had still not rid himself of the hope of returning their family to their former high position, his inconveniently awakened conscience led him to try—half-heartedly, perhaps, but arguably as best he could in the circumstances—to save Harry from Voldemort when the former was captured and dragged to Malfoy Manor.
Of course, the real world version of confronting and rethinking one’s own hatred and racism doesn’t usually involve being recruited as a reluctant hit man. But what it often does involve is a severe slap in the face that usually only comes when the universe decides, after gently trying to teach the same lesson over and over again, that there are no other options.
It feels like we’re in one of those slap-in-the-face times now. In the wake of the election, hate crimes have increased. Many people are shocked by the rise in racism, but Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior vice president for policy and programs, told NPR that the uptick in these crimes should serve as that universal slap that demands our attention.
“…I would refer to it more as a wake-up call,” she said. “The Anti-Defamation League has always said we need to fight hate in a comprehensive way, and now that it’s been exposed so graphically and in the public’s face, I think what we need is for people to really heed that wake-up call and stand up to hate.”
Draco doesn’t really begin to stand up to anything until after the war is completely over. But to his credit, he does begin walk the path towards internal growth.
Recovering from racism—and destroying it for good—requires diligence.
In her Pottermore story, Rowling offers readers a glimpse of Draco’s adulthood and his quest to be a better parent to his son Scorpius:
The events of Draco’s late teens forever changed his life. He had had the beliefs with which he had grown up challenged in the most frightening way: he had experienced terror and despair, seen his parents suffer for their allegiance, and had witnessed the crumbling of all that his family had believed in. People whom Draco had been raised, or else had learned, to hate, such as Dumbledore, had offered him help and kindness, and Harry Potter had given him his life. After the events of the second wizarding war, Lucius found his son as affectionate as ever, but refusing to follow the same old pure-blood line.
Draco ends up marrying Astoria Greengrass, who also flipped from the dark side, and together they strive to teach Scorpius a more accepting point of view. Rowling wrote that she expects Draco to still feel a pull toward the dark side while working furiously to remain in the light:
I see in his hobbies further confirmation of his dual nature. The collection of Dark artefacts harks back to family history, even though he keeps them in glass cases and does not us them. However, in his strange interest in alchemical manuscripts, from which he never attempts to make a Philosopher’s Stone, hints at a wish for something other than wealth, perhaps even the wish to be a better man. I have high hopes that he will raise Scorpius to be a much kinder and more tolerant Malfoy than he was in his own youth.
The road towards a better mindset doesn’t come overnight, and it definitely doesn’t come through magic. Becoming a better person requires hard work. It requires being uncomfortable (something Draco and his wife do feel from time to time, since Draco’s parents are somewhat disappointed in how they’re raising Scorpius). To that end, it requires standing up to people who are wrong. Just as Draco and his wife must stand up to Narcissa and Lucius and any other pureblood who criticizes them, we in the real world have to stand up to hate whenever possible. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child explores this further, but I won’t spoil it for you—suffice it to say, it contains several moments that could be considered the culmination of Draco’s struggle with his upbringing.
To fight hate, Lauter says, people who call themselves allies must mobilize. “It’s imperative that good people speak out,” she said. “So if they do witness someone who is being harassed or bullied—because they have a hijab on, for example—they need to be an ally, they need to step forward and say this is not acceptable. For people who see incidents in their community—whether it’s a swastika or other bigoted incident—come together as a community and stand up and say our neighborhood will not tolerate this.”
The importance of this call to action can’t be stressed enough. If we are to truly get rid of the Voldemorts of our world, we must be willing to be uncomfortable, face our own demons, and denounce hurtful acts. Otherwise, we’ll end up like Narcissa and Lucius: too far gone and too complacent to do anything about our problems, even though we face severe peril because of them.
So what did we learn here? Certainly not that Draco is a saint. He is, like Jonathan Odell and many others, a recovering racist. As such, he will always be, in some form or fashion, in the proverbial doghouse as he works to become a better person.
However, we can take as a hopeful sign Draco’s efforts to take responsibility for his past actions and the way he plans to live his life as he moves into the future. The toughest thing about the falsehoods at the heart of racism is that the lies lives on as long as a person denies their own culpability. For racism to exist, it must also be ignored. But once a person recognizes and starts to question their racist beliefs, it becomes more difficult for the lie to sustain itself. As the saying goes, once you know better, you do better. “Doing better” is much easier than it sounds, but if someone like Draco can work to create a better future for himself and his son, then we can draw from his struggle inspiration and motivation to create better futures for ourselves as well.
Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a multicultural pop culture site. Jones has acted as a consultant for Magic: The Gathering and is the founder of the upcoming MoniqueJonesConsulting.com, an online consulting business geared towards entertainment creators who are developing characters of color.