What Draco Malfoy Can Teach Us About White Male Privilege
When you love a series as fiercely as so many Harry Potter readers do, it is hard to confront the many ways in which the books, and several of its characters, are problematic. Twenty years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, fans are still unpacking the whitewashing, misogyny, and abuse contained within its beloved pages. As is the case with the most groundbreaking entries to the literary canon, the Harry Potter series has pushed readers to think beyond the books’ storyline to the social and political implication of its narrative. There are obvious lessons about social justice, love, and political activism in the Harry Potter books and film adaptations, but a perhaps less obvious lesson is the one Draco Malfoy can teach readers about white male privilege. Not only does the infamous Slytherin exemplify the very concept of it, but his reception in the fandom and his ever-expanding narrative beyond the original seven book series are clear examples of our reluctance to call bad men like Malfoy — white, male, educated, privileged — what they are: bad.
There has always been a lot of controversy around the character of Draco Malfoy, but let’s start with the facts. A pure-blooded son of a wealthy and heavily connected witch and wizard, Draco Malfoy was born into a life of extreme privilege. As J.K. Rowling explains in a Pottermore story about Draco, "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." That feeling of rightful specialness is what defines Draco’s entire existence, first at home with his doting parents, then at school with his less-than classmates, and, later, during the Second Wizarding War in which he fights on behalf of the evil Voldemort.
At Hogwarts, Malfoy was a bully, a tattletale, a terrorist, and an attempted murderer. He harassed peers for what he saw as failings: being poor, being a non-pure-blood, or being moralistic. He frequently lied to his teachers and his classmates, and was quick to pass the blame or avoid the consequences of his own actions. Remember when he knowingly provokes Buckbeak into attacking him, and then manages to avoid punishment and get the hippogriff sentenced to death? That only scratches the surface of the nasty things Draco does, which includes throwing racial slurs at classmates, ratting out Hagrid’s beloved dragon, Norbert, and joining Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad. Oh, and let's not forget the part where he becomes a Death Eater, agrees to murder Dumbledore, almost kills two innocent people in the process, successfully sneaks several Death Eaters into Hogwarts, and, later, attempts to kill Harry.
When you take all of this into account, it is easy to see Draco Malfoy for what he is: a bad boy, and later, a terrible man. So why then are there entire Harry Potter fan pages dedicated to proving why Draco was not bad, but simply misunderstood? Why is there article after article that attempts to excuse his behavior, citing his troubled upbringing or his inherited racism? Draco is, by most standards, an evil character, so why is it that so many readers, and even Rowling herself, are quick to forgive him for his horribly misogynistic, racially-driven, violent, and even deadly trespasses?
It is because he is white, he is male, and even in a fictional world, he is afforded a kind of privilege that protects him from any real harm.
Like real-life villains who look like the fictional Malfoys, Draco and his sins are often treated with kid gloves. Readers, whether they be die-hard Potterheads or casual fantasy fans, are reluctant to call him a villain, despite all of the evidence that proves otherwise. Instead of faulting him for being racist and acting violently on behalf of these beliefs, they search for excuses to explain away his “mistakes.” Book and movie fans are constantly searching for evidence that proves Malfoy wasn’t all that bad in the end. They will cite the ways in which he helps the Golden Trio over the years, how he attempted to befriend Harry in the first place, or the fact that he is forced into agreeing to kill Dumbledore, one villainous act he is unable to do. In a cut scene from the final movie, filmmakers were even compelled to give his character an epic moment of redemption: He was supposed to give Harry his own wand to defeat Voldemort in the final battle.
Everywhere you look, there is a defense of Draco Malfoy, one that largely rests on the belief his badness was a result of his upbringing. Many critics, and even Rowling, place the blame his failings on his parents, specifically his father. "Much of Draco’s behaviour at school was modelled on the most impressive person he knew – his father,” Rowling’s Pottermore post on Draco explains, “and he faithfully copied Lucius’s cold and contemptuous manner to everyone outside his inner circle."
While Rowling herself has pointed out the ways in which Malfoy's character is problematic, and expressed disapproval over readers' tendency to find him romantically appealing, she too attempts to make excuses for his flaws. "I pity Draco, just as I feel sorry for Dudley," she explained in a Pottermore story. "Being raised by either the Malfoys or the Dursleys would be a very damaging experience, and Draco undergoes dreadful trials as a direct result of his family’s misguided principles." I will admit that Draco wasn’t raised with the best role models, but at what point does a boy become responsible for his own behavior?
When you’re white and privileged like Malfoy, the answer seems to be never.
Despite all of his wrongdoing over the course of seven books, Rowling still chose to grant Draco a somewhat happy ending. At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, he and his parents — three white, rich, educated individuals guilty of horrific war crimes — are seen simply sitting in the Great Hall following a battle they were largely responsible for. None of them are given wizarding jail time or community service, nor were they required to make any kind of reparations. In the stories released about Draco beyond the original seven books, the character is described as living a typical wizarding life: He gets married, has a child, and even gets to send his son to the school he once tried to help destroy.
Yes, there is such thing as redemption, but has Draco Malfoy earned that kind of story arc, or is it just one we expect him to have because of the kind of person — white, male, rich, educated — that he is?
If you’ve ever seen the coverage of a horrific crime committed by a white man — how the media talked about the Las Vegas shooter or the way they avoided calling the white perpetrator of the deadly 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting a terrorist — then you know how automatic it is for our culture to overlook the flaws of dangerous white men because of their privilege. The way in which readers, fans, critics, and even J.K. Rowling herself attempt to explain why Draco Malfoy wasn't a typical villain is a mere reflection of those deep-seated, knee-jerk reactions, and it's high time we started talking about it.
For 20 years, the Harry Potter series has been teaching readers about very real, very important social issues. Teachers have relied on the text to introduce children to class disparity, parents have pulled it off the shelf to help explain death, and friends have brought it up to each other in discussions about everything from political activism to true love. In an era where the problems associated white male privilege is finally getting the attention they deserve, it's time we start using the Harry Potter to talk about white male privilege, and how dangerous it can really be.