Thursday, March 29, 2012

Does That Make Me Racist?

*edit on March 30, 10:20 PM*  To my students who've already read this: you might find THIS POST interesting.  It's a fantastic letter to Amandla Stenberg - the girl who played Rue.  I hope you loved the movie as much as I did.  Have a great spring break.*

The past few days, there's been a hullabaloo surrounding The Hunger Games and how it was cast.  Given the tie-ins to ethnocentrism, human rights, and current events (new and confusing reports are constantly being brought forth in the Trayvon Martin case.) I thought it would be worth discussing in class.

I saw THIS ARTICLE ON CNN, followed by MSNBC and various writers commenting on the blogosphere and... ummm.. "twitosphere..."  Both of these articles referred back to a blog article entitled, "Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed" as well as the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets who promises to "expose Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans, yet don't know a d*** thing about the books."  WARNING: Both of those last two sites contain some offensive language.  Students and parents reading this blog, I figure it's best to tell you here rather than letting you click and find out for yourselves. 

These issues actually crept up a while ago, but remained relatively on the fringe of the entertainment industry...  Given the current ubiquity of the movie - the issue has been pushed into the mainstream.

Without spoiling the book, let me give some background.  The characters Rue and Thresh are black - in both the book and the movie.

"And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from district 11.  She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that she's very like Prim in size and demeanor." (p. 45)

"... and see the little girl from District 11 standing back a bit, watching us.  She's the twelve-year-old, the one who reminds me so of Prim in stature.  Up close she looks about ten.  She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands..."  (p. 98)

"The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there."  (p. 126)

Now, I read this book out loud to each one of my classes.  I teach 7th graders in a public school, and I've got a great group of students this year.  Outstanding.  When we watched the trailer, there was quite an outcry of surprise from  my classes when they "found out" that Rue was black.  Does that make them racist?

When I originally read the book, I read Rue as a white character as well.  Does that make me a racist?  No doubt some people out there will say, "no, it just means you have poor reading comprehension skills..."  I'll make sure to address both charges.

Before we jump off the deep end, I think we need to examine a couple things.

In her article 'The Hunger Games': From the book to the big screen Stephanie Goldberg quotes Will Fetters as saying, "Reading is a really intimate, internal experience where you play your own movie in your head."

I believe there are two reasons many people read the character of Rue as a white girl.
  • Whenever she enters the scene Katniss mentions how much Rue reminds her of Prim (Katniss' sister.)
  • We place ourselves/settings into the story.
The book is 374 pages long, and a page-turner.  In reading fast, some things get missed - or even if they're picked up on - they're forgotten later.  The fact that Rue was always mentioned next to Prim forced an association of the two, and because the number of times this is brought up as opposed to the number of times it's mentioned that Rue is black - well, I think it worked its way into a lot of people's brains.  And, if I'm a white kid in a white school surrounded by white white white white white - there's a chance that I'm envisioning each one of the character's in the book as white.


This does NOT excuse the blatantly racist posts you'll find on the tumblr and Jezebel sites.


But, there's also something to be said for the movie we play in our minds, and the depth our minds want for our version - MY version - of the book to be THE version of the story.  Fans were upset because Peeta was too short, but they weren't called "heightists."  They were upset because Jennifer Lawrence was blond, but they weren't called "hairists."  (Though, in fairness, they were called over-zealous lunatics.)  My point is: people take their books seriously, and they take their mental image of that book seriously as well - however mistaken it is.

Poe's "A Tell Tale Heart" is taught every year in Language Arts.  Yesterday, the students listened to this version, performed by Vincent Price:

Today in class, as bellwork, I asked the students to tell me what the story was about.  Every single one of them said it was about a man who was a caretaker and murdered...  I cut them off.  "Man?!?" I said.  "I'm pretty sure it was a woman."  We argued a bit, then I showed them the first three minutes of this version:

Nowhere in Poe's story does it mention that the caretaker is male.  Yet, it's almost always read that way.  Does that mean my students are sexist?  (Does it mean that I'm sexist if I read the murderer as a woman?)  Does it mean we lack reading comprehension skills?  No.  No. and No.  It just means we got an idea in our head and ran with it...

Now, if I'd gone on twitter and posted comments demeaning women and how she "ruined The Tell Tale Heart" for me... then the charges of sexism might have merit.  But maybe I just showed an adolescent lack of judgement and posted something stupid before thinking.

Students: if you want the extra credit, discuss the blog with an adult - preferably one that you live with, but whatever...  Then, write some thoughts about it on a scrap piece of paper and have that adult sign it.  Don't forget to add your name.


  1. I have not seen the movie or read the books, but your post gives me more reasons to do so. I have done this many times, with many different books that have turned into movies. That is why books are often better than movies. You create your ideal characters and scenery. I'm having a project professionally edited. The editor commented on my use of she and he. Instead of using one, or the other, or a plural, I would switch from he to she and back again based on my internal images of the roles (like mother, father, and child) I was talking about. Does that make me sexist? That is a silly notion.

  2. Thanks, Tulip. Agreed, a silly notion indeed.