White until Proven Black.
On Tuesday, February 28th, a twenty-nine-year-old Canadian male fan
of Suzanne Collins’s dystopian young adult trilogy, “The Hunger Games,”
logged onto the popular blogging platform Tumblr for the first time and
created a site he called Hunger Games Tweets.
The young man, whom I’ll call Adam, had been tracking a disturbing
trend among Hunger Games enthusiasts: readers who could not believe—or
accept—that Rue and Thresh, two of the most prominent and beloved
characters in the book, were black, had been posting vulgar racial
Adam, who read and fell in love with the trilogy last year, initially
encountered these sorts of sentiments in the summer of 2011, when he
began visiting Web sites, forums, and message boards frequented by the
series’s fans, who were abuzz with news about the film version of the
book. (The movie, released a week ago today, made a staggering $152.5 million during its first three days of release.) After an argument broke out in the comments section of an Entertainment Weekly post
that suggested the young black actress Willow Smith be cast as the
character of Rue, he realized that racially insensitive remarks by
“Hunger Games” fans were features, not bugs. He soon began poking around
on Twitter, looking at tweets that incorporated
hashtags—#hungergames—used by the book’s devotees. Like the
conversations found on message boards, some of the opinions were
vitriolic, if not blatantly racist; unlike the postings on fan forums,
however, the Twitter comments were usually attached to real identities.
“Naturally Thresh would be a black man,” tweeted someone who called herself @lovelyplease.
“I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue,” wrote @JohnnyKnoxIV.
“Why is Rue a little black girl?” @FrankeeFresh demanded to know.
(she appended her tweet with the hashtag admonishment
Adam was shocked—Suzanne Collins had been fairly explicit about the
appearance, if not the ethnicity, of Rue and Thresh, who, along with
twenty-two other kids, are thrown into the life-or-death, Lord of the
Flies-esque battle that the book is named for. He began taking screen
grabs of the offensive tweets and posting them to Instagram. Adam soon
decided that Instagram’s functionality was too limited for his
purposes—users can look at the photos of people they follow but can’t
easily share them—so he played around with different social-media
technologies and switched to Tumblr, which, like Twitter, allows users
to reblog the posts of people they follow, thereby exponentially
broadening their reach.
At the beginning, Adam, who works as a financial executive for a large multinational bank
by day, had just a few dozen followers. In his first post, titled
“Presenting…Hunger Games Tweets!” he explained that he’d created the
site in order to “acknowledge all of the idiotic tweets that I’ve come
across as they concern the Hunger Games.” He followed that post up with
his first Twitter screen grab, courtesy of someone named @MAD_1113, who
had tweeted, “Rue is black?!? Whaa?!” One person, perhaps Adam’s very
first follower, “liked” the post.
By mid-March, Adam’s screen grabs were regularly receiving five, ten,
sometimes twenty “likes.” Other Tumblr users were reblogging Hunger
Games Tweets and providing their own commentary alongside Adam’s. (In
response to a tweet from a young woman named Kayla, who asked, “why is
Rue black?!?! #WTH #hungergamesprobs,” Adam responded, “Melanin. Rue is
black because of MELANIN.” “Oh my god, Kayla, you can’t just ask people
why they’re black,” added a Tumblr user named beastieeyes22.) Last week,
just as the film version of “The Hunger Games” was about to hit
theatres, Adam’s Tumblr posts were receiving dozens, if not hundreds, of
reblogs and responses. By the time of the film’s release, the site was
going viral: Adam’s follower count shot up into four figures, and it was
mentioned on the home pages of such sites as CNN.com, Buzzfeed, and
Jezebel, which did a story
that has turned out to be the highest-trafficked in the site’s
history, with almost two million page views. (Disclosure: I used to
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Hunger Games Tweets took off: the
project is a potent mix of pop-culture criticism, social-media sharing,
provocative statements, and public shaming. But more important, and no
doubt more disturbing, is what Adam’s time line of ignorant tweets—what
he calls “the repository of death”—says about a certain generation’s
failure of imagination. (A look at the tweeters’ profile pictures
suggests that most of the missives were written by people in their teens
and early twenties. Jezebel reported in a postscript that most of the
people quoted on Hunger Games Tweets have since taken down their
accounts or made them private.)
In addition to offering object lessons in bad reading comprehension,
Hunger Games Tweets—there are now more than two hundred up on the
blog—illuminated long-standing racial biases and anxieties.
The a-hundred-and-forty-character-long outbursts were microcosms of the
ways in which the humanity of minorities is often denied and thwarted,
and they underscored how infuriatingly conditional empathy can be. (“Kk
call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as
sad,” wrote @JashperParas, who amended his tweet with the hashtag
#ihatemyself.) They also beg the question: If the stories we tell
ourselves about the future, however disturbing, don’t include black
people; if readers of “The Hunger Games” are so blind as to skip over
the author’s specific details and themes of appearance, race, and class,
then what does it say about the stories we tell ourselves regarding the
Adam says that the pivotal moment in the evolution of Hunger Games
Tweets came on or around March 23rd, after he posted a tweet by someone
named Alana Paul, a petite brunette who went by the handle @sw4q.
Alana’s tweet was not the most offensive or nakedly racist of the bunch
(that award could go to Cliff Kigar, who dropped the N-bomb, or to
@GagasAlexander, who complained of “some ugly little girl with
nappy…hair.”) but perhaps the most telling. “Awkward moment when Rue is
some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,”
she wrote. She cc’ed a friend on the tweet, @EganMcCoy.
“That tweet was very telling, in terms of a mentality that is
probably very widespread,” says Adam, speaking softly from his office
high above Toronto’s downtown financial district. He doesn’t sound
angry, but he also isn’t amused. The phrases “some black girl” and
“little blonde innocent girl” are ringing in my head as he talks, as are
thoughts about how the heroes in our imaginations are white until
proven otherwise, a variation on the principle of innocent until proven
guilty that, for so many minorities, is routinely upended.
Adam tells me that, on the post featuring a screenshot of Alana’s
tweet, he added, “Remember that word innocent? This is why Trayvon
Martin is dead.” As he says it, I am thinking the same thing: of our
culture’s association of whiteness with innocence,
of a child described without an accompanying adjective, of a child
rendered insignificant and therefore invisible because of his or her
particular shade of skin. “I am invisible, understand, simply because
people refuse to see me,” explains the protagonist in another famous
work of fiction, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which was published
sixty years ago this month. “Invisible” can mean unseen, but just as
often it speaks to others’ inability to see beyond something, or someone. The renaming of Rue as “some black girl” is a version of this, as is the pursuit and murder of the seventeen-year-old Martin,
who, by some accounts, was shot dead by the self-professed neighborhood
watchman of an Orlando-area community because all George Zimmerman
could see was that he was young, male, and black.
It’s unclear whether Suzanne Collins anticipated such reactions, or
whether she encountered them when the book was first published, in 2008.
(Attempts to get the author to comment were unsuccessful, but
Lionsgate, the distributor of the film, issued a statement praising the
passion of the fans who spoke out against the racist comments, saying
“we applaud and support their action.”) Adam says he believes that the
notoriously press-shy author overestimated her audience, and wonders
whether or not writers have a responsibility to be more explicit when
introducing non-white characters in their books. I believe that Collins
was well aware of what she was doing: after all, in the author’s
imagining, Rue is herself invisible to most of the other “Hunger Games”
characters, a quick-on-her-feet, resourceful “shadow,” either unseen or
unremarked upon by most everyone but the book’s protagonist and heroine,
Katniss Everdeen. It’s a conceit that seems to have worked maybe a
little too well.
“People very often talk about literacy with words, but there’s such a
thing as visual and thematic literacy,” says Deborah Pope, the
executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which encourages
diversity in kids’ books. “I think some of these young people just
didn’t really read the book.” (Mr. Keats’s groundbreaking
classic, “The Snowy Day,” which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary
this year, revolutionized children’s literature by being the first
mainstream picture book to feature a black male protagonist.) Pope tells
me that data analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s
Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2010 found that only nine per cent
of the three thousand four hundred children’s books published that year
contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity. She points out that
the white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned
and internalized early, including by children of color. It takes
vigilance—and self-awareness—to overcome. “I picked up on the [character
and racial] descriptions in “The Hunger Games” immediately,” says Adam,
who is of Caribbean descent. “But then again, whenever I read
something, I wonder, ‘where can I find the character who represents
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Why!? Why are we still fighting this thing!
Why are we still fighting stupidity!
I want to know what your thoughts are, on this.
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