(Sort of dusting off an old blog post from a few years back and updating it.)
I think one of the major things that literature in general and the fantasy genre in particular asks us to do is question and/or redefine our views of how the world works and the definitions we use to make sense of things. This is especially true of an issue as broad and loaded as race and racism. For instance, if we look at Rowling’s work, she has been criticized by some individuals as painting a non-racially diverse world – in our “real world” sense of the term race. That is, some claim she does not make use of non-Caucasian characters. Of course, this is completely false since we can cite Kingsley Shacklebolt, Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, and Dean Thomas as being of African descent (the latter two dating Caucasian characters, one of the Weasley twins and Ginny respectively), the Patil twins of Indian descent, and Cho Chang of Asian descent. But it is true that Rowling doesn’t make a big deal about this. Their appearances are mentioned in “racial” terms once or twice and that’s it.
One obvious reason for this lack of concern is that British society/culture hasn’t had the same highly charged problems with racial issues that the U.S. has historically had, especially regarding those of African or Asian descent. As someone said on a message board regarding Dr. Who’s Rose and Micky, the odd thing would be not seeing inter-racial couples in a British show/book, these days. Of course, there are growing problems regarding relations with the other immigrant populations in Britain.
The important reason that Rowling in particular and the fantasy genre as a whole, doesn’t focus on these definitions of race is that they ask us to examine and move beyond such ephemeral definitions. When a society is confronted with even one other sentient, sapient species, definitions of race based on skin tone are thrown into question. These texts/shows then ask us to ponder what exactly “race” is: is it genotype (species)? Is it genetic purity as Rowling’s Voldemort or Dr. Who’s Daleks would have us believe? Is it phenotype (what the being looks like)? Is it something less obviously definable like behaviors or emotions? Is it even worth creating a solid definition?
But, unbeknownst to many, these questions have been asked for centuries. The authors/performers of the medieval romances and Breton lais asked these questions. The writers of medieval bestiaries asked these questions. Renaissance teratologists asked these questions. Even as far back as Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, and Petronius, these questions were being asked. In fact, the questions probably go back well beyond even ancient Mesopotamia, possibly as far back as the early days of shamanic religious practices.