A Customer Experience: The Ethics of Harry Potter and Eugenics

There’s something invaluable you learn about humans when you work long enough in retail: they’re unpredictable. I think we as humans have a tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals as a sort of defense mechanism. We forget at times that there is ignorance and outright bigotry still in the world because we must in order to survive one moment at a time.

But in retail you’re confronted with that truth daily―sometimes multiple times a day.

Not long ago I was working Customer Service, specifically working on putting all of the books back that tend to pile up at the information desk, when an older lady stopped me to ask me about our Bibles. I took her to the section of Bibles and she wanted to know if we had downsized the section and, if we had, where the rest had moved. I kindly explained that I was still relatively new and wasn’t sure if we had downsized, but to let me know if she needed anything else.

Maybe half an hour went by when she stopped me in-between the music department and the Customer Service desk. She stopped me because she wanted to express disappointment that the Eastern Religion section had also been downsized and, at this point, I’m honestly thinking “Alright, we’ve got an awesome open-mindedness toward religion and spirituality, what could go wrong?”

But then she began talking about energies and how since we (Barnes & Noble) decreased both the Eastern Religion section and the Bible section, the good energy of the store has decreased. I stood there for a moment, nodding absently, shifting the books I’d been about to shelve from one arm to another and trying to decide if she meant for me to respond.

“And the bad energy in this place is directly caused by books like The Hunger Games,” she said definitively, like I was a co-conspirator who she regularly confided in. I glanced down and to my left, immediately thinking about how I remembered reading the books in high school and how I still hadn’t seen the last movie, but that I had never considered the franchise inherently problematic. “And Harry Potter,” she added, the bite in her voice stopping me in my tracks. I was actually surprised, something I’ve found happens less and less the longer you work retail.

But she didn’t notice my instant discomfort, and kept plowing ahead.

She began talking about how the Harry Potter series specifically had terrible energy and how the books aren’t uplifting and how they’ve completely spoiled an entire generation of now-adults. After some time I finally cut her off (still being polite, however) and asked if she had ever actually read the books because they were in fact very uplifting. She stared at me a long time, assessing. I could see her processing how she hadn’t considered for a moment that I wouldn’t share her views. I could also tell as she scrounged for a response that she hadn’t read them.

She seemed to step away from me and said, “Maybe I should talk to someone else, because you seem to like those books.”

If anyone is wondering the love I have for the Harry Potter series, you can check out my very first blog post, The Boy Who Started It All. (Since then I’ve done several posts on the Boy Who Lived, including DIY Wands Fit For a Wizard and Quick Wizarding Wands in Bulk. My honeymoon was in Hollywood’s Harry Potter World for crying out loud. It was one of the first worlds I remember falling in love with as a child and it’s one I retreat to again and again as an adult. To have it attacked in a bookstore―a haven to so many readers―was a little disorienting, to say the least.

“It was my childhood,” I told her simply.

Her eyes grew wide and she said, “Wow, I’ve never actually talked to someone who likes the series. Could you tell me why you like it?”

(Let me take a moment to wonder how? Harry’s been around for about two decades and you’re claiming to never have interacted with a fan? Almost everyone from my generation has at least seen the movies―there’s no way I’m the first person you’ve interacted with in the last twenty years that’s appreciated the series. But I digress.)

I felt that excitement that only comes when you tell someone about something that’s really important to you and explained to her that, in essence, Harry Potter taught me about empathy. It taught me different perspectives, open-mindedness, inclusion. I told her that the story itself is one of love triumphing over hate and bigotry (especially when you take the Pureblood/Muggle struggle into literally any real-world context where a people group is being demonized or persecuted).

“But it’s how you look at it,” she responded, unmoved and determined to see it in a negative light. “It has so much dark energy to it; you just have to know where to look.”

At this point, I’ll admit, I was rather frustrated, as I usually am when I realize I’m dealing with someone who refuses to see anything other than what they’ve spent their lives convincing themselves is “right.”

“Are you talking about magic?” She nodded affirmation and I resisted an eye roll, “Well that’s not real, that’s fantasy. What remains when the fantasy element is stripped away is what she actually instilled, on a human level―and that’s love and acceptance.” (Not a small part of my English degree was showing as I blathered about the importance of the human element to any text.)

She quickly veered off-topic and began talking about Barnes & Noble having a new CEO, heavily implying that he’s also a big contributor to the “bad energies” that have come to her friendly neighborhood bookstore. She talked about how he had come to America from Greece (or somewhere, she wasn’t sure) and B&N had “given him a shot at CEO,” at which point (instead of loudly scoffing) I said, “Sounds like the American Dream,” which she dutifully ignored.

Once she had exhausted all the talking points of her distaste of the new CEO, she turned to a new subject.

“Part of the problem is that they let so many street people in.”

I have to pause here for a moment to give a little context. Honolulu, like many highly populated and expensive areas, has a rather large homeless population. It’s a known fact that there’s a large crossover between mental illness and homelessness and Barnes & Noble has many people who fall within these categories walking through its doors daily.

“So many what?” I thought I’d misheard her.

“Street people,” she said as if the Harry Potter incident had never happened and I was back to being her confidant. “I don’t like the idea that anything I touch in here could have been contaminated by their defective germs. Barnes & Noble should really do more to keep them out.”

At this point I had a lot of images running through my head like swastikas and pointed white hats and wanted to sarcastically shoot back, ‘Yeah, why don’t we give them pendants or something to wear so we can effectively tell them apart from the rest of society? While we’re at it we could make sure they don’t breed, so they can’t pass on their defective germs?’

“They have unclear energies, have you noticed?” she said, unperturbed, waving her hand around her head as if to visibly signify the mental illness she found so repugnant. “It brings the entire store’s good energy down and it’s been really upsetting to see.”

I thought about how difficult it must be not to have a home, and how I’ve always seen bookstores as beautiful havens full of knowledge and comfort and protection. For someone who has no home, how good must it be to have the freedom to walk among other people on common ground, and perhaps escape for an hour or two? How good must it be to have access to a public restroom, to protection from the elements, to literal sources of knowledge and escape? The idea of keeping anyone from gracing the doors of a place I’ve always considered a home away from home feels like more than a crime. It feels inhumane.

My hands shook as I stared at this woman. She held her shoulders high, imperious and unquestioning. She was perhaps seventy and she had reached that point in life where she’d stopped questioning, because she’d decided she had all the answers. She passed judgement on things she didn’t fully understand and she accepted with dubious clarity her own hollow certainty. She was blind to compassion and it angered me.

“But you know what they say,” she said with an austere smile that did not put me at ease. “Let go and let God.”

A coworker working in the music department noticed how long we’d been talking and how distressed I looked, perhaps. He called over the intercom, “Ali to Music at your convenience, Ali to Music at your convenience.”

I told her the page was for me and that I hoped she had a wonderful night.

My hands shook all the way to Music.

I don’t know if there’s supposed to be a takeaway from this. Writing has always been a catharsis for me, a way to put my thoughts into tangible words that I can then process. There’s a lot in this world that’s difficult to process and there are people who inhabit this world that are difficult to handle. But sometimes I forget–because I have to forget–that people can be so willfully ignorant. It baffles me–perhaps because books have taught me different perspectives, they’ve taught me empathy and given me the ability to place myself in others’ shoes–that people can lack compassion, understanding, and kindness.

Maybe this story is about a blogging girl who got annoyed that an older woman didn’t ‘get’ Harry Potter. Maybe it’s another post about how retail is hard. Maybe it’s superficial. Or maybe this is my plea to those reading that they remember as they go through life to pause and consider that compassion and understanding is always the right choice.

Thanks for reading,

Ali

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