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Speech addresses Potter series stereotypes

Eastern European characters a focus

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Dr. Jacqueline Olich, Associate Director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian & East European Studies and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at UNC, spoke about how characters from "the other Europe" - Russia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania - are portrayed in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

When the first members of “Generation Hex,” those born between 1980 and 2003, picked up copies of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” 14 years ago, a generation was hooked.

But now, on the eve of the final Harry Potter movie, some perceptions of racism within the books have surfaced within the University’s academic ranks.

“‘Readers do not notice the racism that lurks beneath the surface of these stories,”’ read history professor Jacqueline Olich, who was quoting an article she is using in her own research of Harry Potter books.

Olich, who is also associate director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, said the Harry Potter series is rife with Stalinist imagery, negative stereotypes of eastern Europeans and depictions of Romania and Albania as dark, mysterious and evil.

Although author J.K. Rowling has called her books a “prolonged argument for tolerance,” Olich said the author portrays several young eastern European students in her fourth novel as “hyper-masculine” intimidating boys with poor dental hygiene and a tendency to use “dark” magic.

“Rowling internalizes stereotypes of eastern Europe as backward, dangerous and materially deficient, and she transmits these stereotypes to a new generation of readers,” Olich said.

Olich said Rowling also characterizes eastern Europeans as less stylish and less consumer-oriented.

“They’re there for comic fodder,” Olich said. “They’re there to be laughed at.”

Even the eastern European headmaster, Igor Karkaroff, seems to represent adaptations of Russian dictator Ivan the Terrible, Olich said.

“The scary thing is, people read this for their children,” said Zsolt Nagy, a Hungarian graduate student of history who said he has read the books and watched the films.

“I don’t know if it bothered me,” Nagy said. “I don’t know if it still bothers me. I do like Harry Potter.”

Olich said the film directors of the fourth Harry Potter movie, “The Goblet of Fire,” included images that equated Bulgarian Viktor Krum with dictator Joseph Stalin. They also all wear red, she noticed.

“I saw that and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Olich said.

But not all Harry Potter critics agree that Rowling’s descriptions are intended as racist.

“It seemed almost more of a descriptive thing,” said economics professor Patrick Conway, who attended the seminar.

“Rowling isn’t making value judgments against a culture but providing a travel log.”

Sophomore Travis Keene said he could see the connections.

“But I don’t think Harry Potter is intentionally racist or ethnocentric,” he said.

Despite some negative stereotypes in Harry Potter, Olich said there are still beneficial messages of tolerance and anti-racism.

“In some ways, it holds up a mirror to our society and how many contradictions there are,” she said.

Olich added that she still reads the books to her 4-year-old and 10-year-old sons.

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