Trayvon Martin and the Hunger Games

28 Mar

Note: I write this post with absolutely no knowledge of The Hunger Games, book or movie. But according to jezebel.com editor Lindy West, some teens are furious–or just racist–over casting choices for the movie.

Apparently, the authors Suzanne Collins described the character Rue as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” On that basis, picture the character: what do you see?

Apparently Collins needed to make an explicit announcement: Rue is black! Check out some of the teen response to Rue and her–surprise!–blackness:

“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” wrote [one teen]. (Okay, you’re racist. And you left out a “k.”) “HOW IN THE WORLD ARE THEY GOING TO MAKE RUE A FREAKIN BLACK BITCH IN THE MOVIE ?!?!?!??!” wondered another. One didn’t mince words (or use them correctly in any way): “Sense when has Rue been a nigger” (http://jezebel.com/5896688/i-see-white-people-hunger-games-and-a-brief-history-of-cultural-whitewashing?tag=hunger-games).

Let’s step out of the Hunger Games frenzy and back into the nonfiction world for a moment. In the still raw aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, these children’s uncensored sentiments seems to embody a national truth: that a black person dying just isn’t as sad. Because that black person is a nigger, or at the very least a bitch.

While West reports, “Pretty much all of these teens have since locked or deleted their Twitter accounts—because it’s totally cool to be racist in front of your friends, but the rest of America can be a real drag, bro,” I am not entirely reassured. As in the Trayvon Martin case, the violence is done: our protesting it is critical, but what did we do before Zimmerman pulled the trigger or these teens tweeted their hate, to say it is wrong to hate people because they’re black? Did we just read about emancipation and the Civil Right movement, and think we could check “unracist” off our list? Did we express the requisite shock and appalledness at previous incidents of racism among a group of sympathetic peers, and derive some comfort that the problem is not us? Did we personally commit to treating everyone equally by not seeing or speaking about differences?

While the notion of equality seems irreproachable, I would argue that the problem with treating people equally is that we inevitably treat people equally as if they are all the same. That is to say, as if they are all men, as if they are all heterosexual, as if they are all physically able… as if they are all white. West’s analysis of this Hunger Games race-confusion is spot on:

Those tweets raise knotty questions about what we see when we read—how our brains conceptualize things that aren’t explicitly dictated, the ways our subconscious is conditioned to fill in the blanks. The characters that these racist garbage-teens are so upset about are either explicitly described as having dark skin (to the point where, while reading, I felt a little weird about the demographics of Panem—did they seriously just make District 11 the black-people district?), or not specified at all. But, of course, if it’s not specified, it mustbe white.

The ubiquity of whiteness in popular media is so overwhelming that, in the absence of any racial signifiers, I would guess that the majority of white people and a significant number of non-white people automatically assume that characters are white.

Yes, white is the norm, the default, the unless-stated-otherwise–even when stated otherwise. I am intrigued by the physical descriptions of two of the main characters Katniss and Gale: from “dark hair, olive skin, and grey eyes” (http://jezebel.com/5896515/a-character+by+character-guide-to-race-in-the-hunger-games) we get blonde Jennifer Lawrence and Thor’s younger brother (Liam Hemsworth)? While neither of these characters is “necessarily white” in Collins’ novels, apparently they are.

And for the record, here’s a picture of Amandla Stenberg, the young actor (just 13) who plays Rue:

Stenberg’s mother is African-American and father is Danish. So even Collins’ “dark brown skinned” character ends up more lightly interpreted.

And while this whitewashing seems harmless enough in the world of fiction, the teen fans who carry their zealotry over into the real world illustrate the non-fiction consequence: Trayvon Martin could never have been their hero. So his death really just doesn’t matter to them.

To read more about the racial furor over Rue’s casting, check out: http://jezebel.com/5896408/racist-hunger-games-fans-dont-care-how-much-money-the-movie-made.

* Thanks to AIP for the article.

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