So it’s the first day of 2019, which tends to be a time for reflection and introspection – looking back at the achievements of the old year and looking forward to the new. But frankly, I am *done* with thinking about 2018 and talking about abortion. SO DONE.
(If you really want to read some of my thoughts on the campaign/abortion, they’re here; but I’d recommend reading this wonderful piece written by Mary Coogan instead. It says what I would better than I ever could. You’re welcome.)
Instead you’re getting part 2 of why Dumbledore is a shitty teacher and doesn’t do anything meaningful to help oppressed and marginalised people. Buckle up folks, it’s going to be a wild ride.
Part one of my ramblings on Dumbledore, privilege and feminism is here. Picking up where I left off: Hermione is well-meaning in her attempts to improve conditions for house-elves and to understanding the oppression of goblins, but she fails at listening to what these groups need, instead tricking house-elves and equating her own oppression as Muggle-born to the systematic centuries of oppression that goblins have experienced.
Throughout the series, we’re told that Dumbledore is the champion of the downtrodden, and in his own words, “We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long…“ He certainly talks the talk. But as anyone who’s ever worked to change systematic oppression knows, words are great but not enough. What does Dumbledore actually *do*?
Let’s take a look at how he runs Hogwarts. He hires a squib for Hogwarts (Filch), and one for the Order of the Phoenix (Figg). He also hires Hagrid (half-giant), Lupin (werewolf), Dobby (free house-elf) and Firenze (centaur). All these are groups typically spurned or indeed enslaved in wizard society. Giving them a job and some financial and social security is good, right? Well, yes, sure. But it’s also very tokenistic. Argus Filch the caretaker is disregarded by students and teachers alike, and Arabella Figg’s role is just to act like a crazy cat lady (incidentally it’s a weird coincidence that both their initials are AF. Read into that what you will). Lupin is hired to a job that Dumbledore *knows* is cursed. Dobby is paid, sure – but there are *hundreds* of house-elves in Hogwarts who are enslaved.
Back in the days of livejournal, eroej_kab wrote a detailed essay on Dumbledore, house-elves and slavery, which I’m going to try not to plagiarise too much of here. In short, they compare Dumbledore with Jefferson, pointing out how a beneficent master who let’s his slaves call him a “barmy old codger” is *still* a slave-owner. Although Dumbledore undoubtedly is a better master than the others we see – Sirius, Crouch and the Malfoys all abuse their slaves to a greater or lesser extent – he still doesn’t *do* anything about their enslavement. When talking about Kreacher, Dumbledore said he advised Sirius to be kinder to Kreacher – not because he’s a being with feelings, but because it’s going to make things dangerous for the Order. To quote: “[Sirius] regarded [Kreacher] as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike…. The fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.” Here Dumbledore blurs the line between slavery and servitude – it’s made explicitly clear at several points that house-elves are bound to their master’s will and instructions – and focuses on ‘indifference and neglect’ as the harms of house-elf ownership rather than like… the actual evil of claiming ownership over another being. Also, in discussing the consequences of centuries of abuse, Dumbledore focuses on the harm caused to wizards, centring the negative effect on the privileged of oppression, rather than the impact on the oppressed or the simple wrongness of slavery. To quote from the essay above: “The reality within this fantasy is that [Dumbledore] has chosen the status quo. He seems to accept the situations as presented to him. He hired Dobby based upon Dobby’s (and indirectly Harry’s) initiative. If an elf wants paying, OK. If they prefer enslavement, OK.”
The essay also goes into a lot of options as to what Dumbledore could have actively done to improve the rights and status of the house-elves at Hogwarts, which I won’t reiterate in detail – there’s a few cool ideas in there. However it could be argued – and yes, I’m playing devil’s advocate against myself – that as a schoolteacher and (later) headmaster, it’s not wholly within Dumbledore’s power to systematically end centuries of oppression for house-elves, goblins and the like. First off, I think this underestimates the impact a good teacher can have – hell, Harry and his classmates name themselves “Dumbledore’s Army” even though the headmaster seems to have had little to no direct contact with him. But secondly, Dumbledore is *not* just a teacher. The books never go into these roles in much detail, but he is also Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot and Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards. For a man who turned down the role of Minister for Magic because he doesn’t trust himself with power, these are *incredibly* powerful roles. Their Muggle equivalents are Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Secretary-General of the United Nations. Dumbledore is *perfectly* placed to implement large social and legal change to improve the rights of house-elves, squibs, goblins and so on – as well as being in a position to influence the attitudes of future generations of witches and wizards. But he doesn’t. He maintains the status quo, and engages in tokenistic hiring and hand-wringing about how terrible everything is, while ignoring the fact that his roles and the influence he has in society are maintaining oppression.
And, sorry, we have to address this – he’s a TERRIBLE headmaster. Amani Herron discusses Dumbledore’s flaws as a school leader in detail here – again, I’ll try to summarise without plagiarising. He hires BAD teachers. A lot. Ranging from the abusive to the incompetent to the genuinely-trying-to-kill-students, it seems that a passing knowledge of a subject is enough to get you a job in Hogwarts – even more so if you’re someone that Dumbledore wants to keep an eye on. Snape bullies students consistently for 18 years with no consequences. Why is he allowed to be in charge of children? Why is Filch given carte blanche to take 11 year olds into the Forbidden Forest as punishment? Alright, Umbridge was a forced hire – but she *literally* tortures children. Lockhart is dangerously incompetent. On a more mundane note, there is basically no pastoral care for students, which should be a big deal considering many of them live in the castle most of the year; the headmaster doesn’t seem particularly supportive of his staff either. In Chamber of Secrets, the whole student body is in genuine danger, and honestly, I’m with the Governor’s board here – what exactly is Dumbledore doing to protect the students? I guess they should be glad OFSTED isn’t going to come calling anytime soon, because Hogwarts would fail miserably.
And being a shitty headmaster ties into this concept of supporting oppressed groups because Dumbledore cannot even protect his own students from abuse by his own staff. His whole job as headmaster is to teach, nurture and protect the students under his care – if he can’t do that, should we really be surprised that he doesn’t stand up for vulnerable populations and instead maintains the status quo with a sprinkling of tokenism?
Ultimately, like Dumbledore, JKR’s inclusion is tokenistic too. Sure, there are named students of colour, but they’re not explored in great detail in the books or movies. Dumbledore and queerbaiting is going to end up being addressed elsewhere, as I’m rambling again. And perhaps we shouldn’t expect more – it’s hard work to write diverse perspectives and voices. And as we’ve seen with Fantastic Beasts and Pottermore, JKR kinda sucks at writing diverse voices without straight up appropriation. And inevitably, establishment writers (just like establishment wizards) are never going to be the ones to tear the establishment down. We need to read diverse writers for diverse voices, and ultimately both JKR and Dumbledore suffer from the blindspot of White Feminism – they can’t see the intersections of oppression that are interwoven throughout wizarding society, so they wind up maintaining them while claiming the moral superiority.
Again, I still have bitching about Dumbledore to do – at some point, I’ll get around to explaining why he’s way more a Slytherin than a Gryffindor. Happy New Year.