Monday, March 26, 2012

Racism is Alive and Well. Exhibit 1: Twitter and the Hunger Games

Jezebel, using quotes gathered from tumblr Hunger Games Tweets, has demonstrated a disturbing display of racism. Apparently, several people "missed" (or conveniently read over) the fact that Suzanne Collins clearly describes the Hunger Games characters Rue and Thresh as having "dark brown skin" and have reacted with various degrees of shock and disgust to the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.

Seriously, several people saw this gorgeous thirteen-year-old's face:
And thought this was the appropriate response:

"And for the record, i'm still pissed that rue is black. Like you think she might have mentioned that . .? Is that just me or. .."- @LexieBrowning

"EWW rue is black?? I'm not watching" @Joe_Longley

"Sense when has Rue been a nigger" @Clif_Ford_Kiger

"I just pictured darker skin, didn't really take it all the way to black" @JBanks56

For a long while, I stared at this in shock. @Clif_Ford_Kigar's is the most blatantly racist, but @JBanks56's remark that he didn't think the filmmaker's would take it "all the way to black" and @LexieBrowning's admission that she's "pissed" that Rue is black are also telling. 

Many of the people highlighted in the article have deleted their Twitter accounts after people began pointing out that their racists outbursts were, indeed, racist. So maybe I should say this is yet another example of social media activism success. After all, it's not like Twitter made these people racists; it just gave them an outlet to express it, and maybe having some very public backlash to what they thought was an acceptable thing to say in an open forum will make them rethink their views, but I'm not holding my breath. 

But I can't see it as a success, no matter how hard I try. In fact, reading these tweets made me cry. As I went through line after line of "shock" over this little girl's mere presence in the world, it was all I could do to figure out what to say about it. 

Do people look at my little girl's face and get "shocked" that she is there? Do they see her pretty brown eyes and big corkscrew curls and get "pissed" that she is in the world? Of course, I know that--for far too many--that answer is yes. And sometimes I don't know how to handle that. Sometimes it's enough to make me want to lock the door to our house and never go outside again. How do I explain to her that there are people in the world who will be outraged at her very existence? 

And make no mistake, that's what these people are saying. They "expected" a white Rue (despite clear textual descriptions to the contrary) because--to them--the default is white. If someone is black, then that "black" serves a purpose. It means something specific about the character. Black people are criminals. Or black people are comic relief. Or black people are the sassy best friend. But for someone to just be black and also a fully developed, complex character? No way. Not buying it. 

Cinna's skin color is not described in the book, so he very well could have been any race. In the movie, he is played by multiracial Lenny Kravitz. Why is this shocking? If someone's skin is not described, that does not mean it is white. White is not the default!

I can already hear the responses. "What's the big deal? It's just a movie." It's not just a movie. It. Is. Not. 

People are responding so viscerally to Rue's race because Rue is one of the most sympathetic, innocent, and heart-grabbing characters in the book. When they read, they felt for her. Maybe they cried over her. Maybe they imagined their own little sisters or nieces or selves in her place. And when they saw that her skin wasn't white, they couldn't jibe those images with those emotions. What does that mean? 

That means that we are less likely to care about people of color. And that's not okay. 

It reminds me of the closing speech from A Time to Kill of the lawyer responsible for defending a black man who kills two white men who brutally raped and assaulted his little girl. He knows that the jurors suffer the same moral defect as these Hunger Games commenters; they can't muster the same emotional response for a person of color that they can a white person. So he uses that defect against them. He describes the little girl's beaten, bloody, violated body until every person in the courtroom is near or at tears. And then he pauses. "Now imagine she's white." The defendant walks. 

But it's not just something that gets depicted in fictional accounts (though these fictions reflect heavily on our realities). Consider these facts:
  • African American children made up 33.2% of missing children reported to the FBI, but only 19.5% of media coverage on missing children. (To put it another way, white children made up 66.8% of the missing children, but received 80.5% of the coverage). 
  • Baby Lisa Irwin and Baby Jahessye Shockley went missing within a week of one another, yet Baby Lisa's story dominated news cycles while Baby Jahessye received very few mentions. 
  • An analysis of George W. Bush's presidential pardons revealed that white people were four times more likely to get a pardon than people of color, even when controlling for the type of crime. 
  • Several doctors tested as having a racial bias against black people, and that bias correlated with the type of treatment they gave black patients. 
  • I've seen comments over the past few days that Trayvon Martin's circulating pictures are old and "misleading" because he's now bigger and a football player, as if being tall and black makes it okay to shoot him. 
All of these incidents (which are just a sampling of the ways that racial perceptions affect the real life interactions of people on a day-to-day basis) are connected to the inability to link adequate emotional responses with people whose skin happens to be a different color. 

The outrage over Rue makes this connection abundantly clear. No matter how much I can recognize this, repudiate it, try to fight against it, I still don't know what to say to my daughter. 


  1. Thank you for your brave and lovely post.

    I swear that many (and, I hope, MOST) of us do not look at your daughter with hate. We see the same thing you see.

    Keep fighting the good fight. I'll be right beside you... even if it's just on the Internets.

    1. Thank you. In my heart, I really do believe the good outnumber the bad, but somedays it's hard to keep that in mind.

  2. ARE YOU KIDDING? They must have been completely daft. The more you read in the series, the more brilliant Collins' portrayal of racial politics is. I mean, didn't they try to map Panel on top of the USA? I just got back from watching the Hunger Games film, and it was a fantastic portrayal.

    At the movie theater, I:
    wore a hoodie
    bought some skittles
    talked to a white man
    and didn't get killed.

    We'll be talking about HG/social justice/etc on our blog later this week --

    1. I saw it on Saturday, and I'm reading the last book right now. Looking forward to your blog post!

  3. I love this line: White is not the default!

  4. People are responding so viscerally to Rue's race because Rue is one of the most sympathetic, innocent, and heart-grabbing characters in the book.

    Yes, and I think this is a very telling point. That is, people aren't having the same reaction to Thresh (who is portrayed as large and able to fight/compete in the contest) or even Cinna (who, while sympathetic, has both shrewdness and understanding). While they may not be happy about the fact that they're black, it doesn't generate the same level of guttural "outrage" that Rue's (accurate) casting does.

  5. Thanks for this post. I thought Rue was amazing!

  6. I am SO late to responding to this post and I know this is not recent anymore, but I still had to comment!

    I was devastated by the racism of the (hopefully few) Hunger Games Fans. And I completely understand how that racism made its way into you thinking about your daughter.

    It's almost an indescribable feeling knowing that some people will not like you or the ones you love simply because of skin color. As a black/white biracial person, I know this all too well. As a biracial person with a Chinese husband, I know that my future children will inevitably face the harsh realities of racism and prejudice. It breaks my heart and it hasn't even happened yet!

    In a way, the racist Hunger Games backlash became a great conversation starter for me and my husband about how we as parents will respond in the face of our children being the victims of racism. My husband's initial response was to just feel bad for the actress playing Rue. But in reality, we should feel bad for people who are slaves to their hatred. It made us realize as parents that we can't shield our kids from ignorance and cruelty. What we can do is build them up to be strong and confident and compassionate, so that in the face of adversity they don't succumb to despair or self-pity. I want my kids to know that they kick ass and they are awesome and that it doesn't matter what angry, hateful people say. In the end WE feel sorry for THEM because our lives are filled with love and acceptance.

    So the actress that plays Rue...I hope she goes to bed every day knowing that she is beautiful and talented and a star. And to those people on Twitter...I really feel so sorry for them and I hope they took this as a learning experience to 1) not be so racist 2) AT LEAST don't be so racist on the internet and have a filter for goodness sake

    Awesome post, as always!

    1. "But in reality, we should feel bad for people who are slaves to their hatred." I think about this a lot. Obviously, racism makes me very angry and it often makes me very angry at specific people who are exhibiting it. But I do wonder about what their lives are like and how it must feel to be so terribly hate-filled that just seeing a face that they perceive as "different" from their own (that really isn't all that different, genetically or otherwise) can make them react like this. What a sad way to live.