Race and Assumption in “The Hunger Games.”

Rue in "The Hunger Games" (from The New Yorker)

So apparently, there’s a large segment of the Hunger Games fan base that doesn’t read very closely.

This excellent article from The New Yorker follows one man’s efforts to compile racist and angry responses to casting choices for the movie version of “The Hunger Games.” Apparently, several people were upset to learn that Rue and Thresh (and most of the people from their district) were black.

That’s pretty clearly stated in the book. Not only are both Rue and Thresh described as having dark skin and dark hair, but just as Katniss’ District 12 is described as Appalachian coal country, the details of District 11 make it sound like a throwback to the old southern plantations. I thought the whole thing was a pretty obvious depiction of slavery played out in all the Districts, really, based not on race but on economic status and power. I remember being surprised that there weren’t more explicit references to people of color in the books– surely a futuristic America would be more ethnically diverse and not less. I viewed it as a glimpse of hope in the midst of a dystopia that Katniss and her fellow characters seemed far less aware of ethnic differences– perhaps since everyone is oppressed together, the subcategories don’t matter quite as much.

But where I think readers may have been confused is because Katniss frequently says that Rue reminds her of her sister, Prim, who is quite clearly a fair-skinned blond-haired child. And this begs a question that I think we need to confront as part of our conversation about racism.

Can a person remind you of someone else, or bear a strong resemblance to someone else, if they are of a different ethnicity?

The answer to me is obvious: yes. I’ve said before that I neither grew up nor live in the most ethnically diverse place on the planet, but even moderate exposure to a diverse group of people will cure one of the notion that “all black people look alike” (or all Asian people, or Latino people, or white people). Not only do people embody similar characteristics and mannerisms (Katniss lifts up Rue’s timidity and gentleness as similarities with Prim), but there are shared physical traits as well (in the case of Rue and Prim, their size is similar, and I believe Katniss mentions their eyes). If someone totally unrelated to you has your grandmother’s smile, why is that any more or less likely if their skin is a different color?

The underlying assumption, I think, is that a person is reduced to their race or ethnicity (or other minority status). Well, not any person. I’m not reduced to being a white person or a white woman. But that’s the privilege I receive. Someone else can be reduced to being the black person or the Asian girl or the gay kid. This is not okay.

And yet, it seeps in, and I’ll be darned if I know how to pull it out by the root. In earlier blog posts, I’ve celebrated the relative innocence of my daughter’s assumptions about ethnicity. But now at seven, she has started pointing out skin color as one of the first traits she recognizes in people. It’s discouraging.

My husband, who I married for a reason (many, in fact), sent me an email with a link about Trayvon Martin, lifting up the challenge of raising African American boys to be safe. My husband’s comment was “I read this and thought, how about ‘how to not raise your kids to go around shooting people because they look suspicious’?”

It’s harder than it sounds, and harder than it should be. But I think part of it lies in questioning assumptions, lifting up heroes and heroines in literature and life who embody all sorts of diversity, drawing comparisons between people that may not be as obvious, and naming the places where we’ve had our own assumptions challenged. We can’t as a culture shy away from conversations about racism– our silence and discomfort can be fatal. We need to speak often, and loudly, about the assumptions and prejudices we find in ourselves, in our books and films and media, and celebrate the times and places where they are challenged.

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One Response

  1. Becca, I am deep into standing up against many of my own church members about “seeing past race”. I am easily reminded of dear friends, now deceased, by members of entirely different ethnic groups all the time. The internal person is the one God sees–and the one He wishes us to see!

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