Friday, March 30, 2012

Rue the Day: Hunger Games and the power of race in our collective imaginings

It's been a couple of days since I read about it on Gawker Media. There are (or were) some vocal fans who were intensely disappointed to discover that a tragic young character from the books was being played by a black actress. Not because she was white in the books -- she wasn't -- but because they had pictured her in their heads with white skin.

I've talked to friends all over the world about it, talked to my wife, and read the detailed analysis of many commentators and have yet to find anyone else who rises above the "How are we still here after all these years?"

The simple answer is that if you draw together a huge and diverse cross section of humanity, you're going to get some racists. Twitter, of course, is about encouraging the broadcasting of surface thoughts and soundbytes. That's the simple answer. But some questions defy the simple answer.

Many of the posts from Twitter were racism in the starkest terms. I have nothing to say to those people. If you hate someone because their skin color or think yours makes you superior, I have nothing to say to you; that the amount of melanin in our skin somehow denotes our value is anathema to me.

However, many of the tweets (most deleted since Gawker threw a spotlight on them) included hashtags like "#ihatemyself" and a lot of the posters seemed genuinely taken aback by their own racist brains.

It is to those people that I choose to address myself.

Because they were surprised by their own feelings and confused by them. The internet is not a place where calm and rational examinations of feelings and nuance are encouraged, but this is my space to stand and speak and I choose to dig for the nuance. Not to make excuses, but to hope that those who are surprised by their own feelings are those who are open for change.

I am going to dig into this as deeply as I can go in a blog post and I am going to end it without having answered any questions.  That's the nature of the thing: There are no easy answers, there are only more questions.

Color is woven so deeply into our culture that most of us are unaware of it.

There is an implicit association between "good" and "fair" in the English language and the culture it influenced. But what many don't realize that when the Grimm brothers called Snow White 'the fairest in the land' it is her pale skin that is being referenced just as in her name. She's the whitest white girl in the land. This was because in Medieval Europe, fair skin meant you did no work in the sun.

Shakespeare makes use of this dual notion of 'fair' in several of his plays and sonnets. In Sonnet 18: "Every fair from fair sometimes declines" when he is warning the recipient of his verse about how too-short the summer of our lives and by Sonnet 130, when he's in the throes of love to his mysterious "Dark lady" he describes her thus in pointed contrast to the lies told by other sonneteers...

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head...
Her breasts are dun, which is a shade of brown and he doesn't care who knows it, nor will he conceal it with false flattery. Because calling them 'fair' or 'alabaster' or any one of a hundred other metaphors for pale skin would be considered flattering and in Elizabethan England, white still equals beauty and our poet defies that convention.

Fairy tales, and sonnets, and history, oh my! But what does it and have to do with the Hunger Games? Because it's all about the power of words. About the power of our assumptions. And it's about the implicit associations between a word like fair or innocent and the mental image of Snow White, a child of pale skin and blue eyes.

This reminded me of a story told by Studs Terkel in the introduction of his book Race:
"My wife was driving down the street in a black neighborhood. The people at the corners were all gesticulating at her. She was very frightened, turned up the windows, and drove determinedly. She discovered after several blocks, she was going the wrong way on a one-way street and they were trying to help her. Her assumption was they blacks and out to get her. Mind you, she's a very enlightened person. You'd never associate her with racism, yet her first reaction was that they were dangerous."
In the 1940's, Mamie and Kenneth Clark conducted a series of experiments with African American children where they were asked to choose between two dolls: identical except that one was white and one black. When asked to choose the pretty doll, the 'good' doll, they overwhelmingly chose the fair-haired and white skinned doll.

The experiments demonstrated something called 'implicit association', which is what Studs was talking about in the anecdote about his wife. It's the deeply-ingrained reactions that our society programs into us without our necessarily being aware of them: that dark skinned folks are scary, or at the very least, less trustworthy. It's in our movies and our fairy tales and our cartoons. The Clark Doll Experiments demonstrated this in stark terms, that the fair-haired cultural stereotype was so deeply ingrained that even those who recognized themselves in the toys presented to them chose the white baby as better, prettier, and more desirable. The study compared kids from segregated schools and desegregated schools and the differences were marked. By some accounts the Clark's testimony was instrumental in the Supreme Court's landmark Brown -v- Board of Education decision that made desegregation the law of the land.

Brown ended segregation in the United States. It meant that my upbringing in rural Missouri was not all white faces and white culture. But it did not mean racism was at an end any more than the inauguration of President Obama meant that we were exiting a racial phase of our culture.

Flash forward to today, in our supposedly post-racial America and The Hunger Games...

Susanne Collins makes it clear in several places that Rue has "dark brown skin and eyes" but the innocence of the character drove these readers back to their societal default: fair skin and light eyes. So that confronted by the visual contrast between their expectations and the reality of a lovely young actress with African skin, the dissonance drove them to sound off on Twitter.

While this is sickening for many of us who hope daily that we will get past this horrible phase of our history, it is all too apparent that we are not. And while it would be easy to decry the mile-wide-inch-deep nature of Twitter, I cannot. Because I think that getting this stuff out in the open will -- I hope -- turn out to be a positive thing in the long term.

If culture is the lie we tell ourselves about ourselves, then let this show how thin the 'post-racial' lie really is.  Which is sad, but I can't help but hope it's healthy for our society as a whole to see itself clearly in the mirror.

The Huck Finn kerfuffle last year should have warned us this was still lurking out there, but race still has the power to sneak up on us. And I think nothing surprises us more than the fact that we're surprised by it. This is the ongoing power of literature and movies to bring out that which would otherwise be hidden. Our preconceptions and our prejudices laid bare...

If nothing else, it's a wake-up call to those who think we are in a post-racial phase just because we elected a black man president.

If sunlight is the best disinfectant then this is a good thing. Let us be aware of ourselves, warts and all. Let us do something about it in the light of day rather than shoving uncomfortable subjects under the rug where we can pretend they don't exist.

In Paradise Lost, Milton noted that: "Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light." We have a habit of burying our sins and thinking our culture more civilized than is warranted and times like this are necessary to remind us that though there is a rocky road behind us, there is yet more ahead.


  1. A friend of mine, Duncan Scott Scrymgeour told me to check you out, I am glad I did. We are well on our way to asking the right questions. regards Harold Richardson

    1. Pleased to meet you, Harold. Hopefully you'll stick around for happier topics... and hopefully we can find some to talk about soon. -Scott


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).