The Hunger Gaming of Skin Color


I'm not much of a fan of YA (young adult) fiction. Like young adults themselves, the genre tends to be more about emotions and relationships than world-building, logic, or gritty action. The demographic that this writing is aimed seems to be very forgiving of plot holes and illogical character behavior. On the other hand, a fun read is a fun read. So, regardless of my rocky relationship with YA, I went and saw The Hunger Games movie with my wife. (She'd recently read the book and I like spending time with my wife, sue me.) I thought it was a decent movie as long as you suspend disbelief that a minority government (The Capitol) with such magical technology and food to spare would bother with the risky business of keeping a boot on the collective neck of the majority (the 12 districts of people providing everything the Capitol needs to survive). Thus, per the YA rulebook, The Hunger Games is a story about a girl and, according to the internet, that girl's name is Rue.

Yes, I know, the main character is Katniss, but the Internets are aflame about Rue! And Thresh! And Cinna! They're black!? Impossible! Long story short: a great deal of youths (hereafter I prefer the informal use of 'punk'1 instead of 'youth;' I'm not sorry, fuck you), who allegedly read the book, believed in their heart of pure white hearts that Rue was a white-skinned sweet, little, innocent girl. Alas, Rue is, in fact, a brown-skinned (along with Thresh), sweet, little, innocent, girl. This is indisputably2 according to the author, Suzanne Collins. Whenever a book is adapted for the big screen, beloved characters are brought to life and may appear very differently than what fans of the book have imagined. To disagree with the interpretive portrayal is acceptable, but this bizarre response to characters portrayed faithfully from the book to the movie points out a couple of ongoing and disturbing trends in America.

First, I think it's great that the punks are reading, that's awesome. I just wish they could comprehend what they were reading. Second, this is an example of the treacherously entrenched racial attitudes dogging America generation after generation. Examples abound that demonstrate today's punks adopting the very manners they've purported to disavow. Like the aggressively ignorant rants on YouTube from UCLA student Alexandra Wallace or the Gainesville High students in Florida. None of these kids were even aware that what they were doing was going to be construed as a racist attack. The tweets regarding The Hunger Games' characters are just the latest example of how ingrained this incredibly surreptitious attitude has become. Behavior that denies blacks and others of their very personhood seems to be a normative part of the American cultural psyche, completely undervaluing the lives of people who do not match the predominant cultural ethnic profile of whiteness.

The most dangerous effect of this mindset's continuous entrenchment in American culture is that it gets into the heads of the people it is most hellbent on keeping down. The first twelve or so years of my life were spent in Boston's lovingly self-segregated black neighborhoods. Aside from teachers, I had no regular contact with white people other than those seen on television, in movies, and comic book characters. I can speak firsthand about never considering that characters I created3 were anything but white; how it took a concerted effort to better reflect the true world around me rather than the media rich echo chamber of America's whiteness; that to be successful meant somehow being white—which is impossible when you're not white4. I can also speak firsthand about editors' initial reactions to the fact that the main character in my novel is black (actually: half black, half Native American, but I won't quibble) and the main protagonists were white. To whit: her: "Why are all the bad guys white?" Me: "When aren't all the bad guys white?"5.

The more brown America gets, the more paranoid it's more conservative element seems to become. No better example holds the office of the Presidency at this very moment. This mindset that purports that only white-skinned people have stories to tell is incredibly damaging to American whites. This creates a self identity this is hopelessly mired in the need to put someone else down. It is, of course, damaging to those it demonizes. It's even ruining the speculative future. There is still a major dearth of non-white main characters in sci-fi. Whenever a suitable role does turn up, it goes to Will Smith6. However this meme got started, we damn well better figure out how to disentangle ourselves from it before our actual future is ruined.

  1. Punk(s): Prepubescent Uninformed Nambypamby Knuckleheads.
  2. Cinna's ethnicity is largely left to the imagination in the book, unlike Rue and Thresh.
  3. Bracken MacLeod has a fine post on this subject at his blog.
  4. This experience slowed my progress down in ways that irk me to this day.
  5. Actual quotes. I know, right? Mind. Blown.
  6. Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, and Idris Elba are way better actors.