Light-Skinned Times Lie Ahead
Sometimes I’m scared of crossing a boundary with my students when we discuss controversial topics. We’ve worked on American Indian issues, the representation of Muslims and the stigmatization of Ebonics, and I often fear that my own bias on those issues might just steer the conversation in one direction, without any room for debate. To avoid that, I try to follow two rules:
1. giving my students as many sources as I can —and I make it a point to listen to the voices of the people who actually belong to the group about which the discussion is held.
2. disclosing what are personal interpretations of mine vs. facts.
Considering that the topics we already deal with are plenty controversial, I had restrained from discussing the cases around #BlackLivesMatter, bar the analysis of an article about Rachel Jeantelle’s English during George Zimmerman’s trial. But after the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Eric Garner’s killer —which followed the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the Mike Brown case— I felt it my responsibility to shed some light on what is going on in the USA at the moment. Surprisingly, the discussion went very smoothly and I was particularly delighted by the subtlety with which these high-schoolers were capable to talk about, to say the least, a delicate issue [Side note: I, for one, would probably have not been that cunning at age 16.] When I got home from work, I saw that Laci Green had posted a video about the parallels to be drawn between the latest Hunger Games movie (Mockingjay – Part 1) and Ferguson. Considering that The Hunger Games is one of the books my students and I are going to read this year, I found it particularly relevant for my class. And as much as I love Laci Green, and I actually find her comparison pretty on-point, I have a few reservations.
First of all, the Hunger Games film series and most dystopian YA books-turned-movies tend to eschew the discussion of racial issues in their depiction of oppression, favoring metaphors like the colorless world of The Giver, or hints like the mostly Black population of District 11 in the Hunger Games movies, to full-fledged plotlines. The representation of people of color in pop culture, and particularly Black Americans, is an incredibly complex topic and part of the issue with the way that the Ferguson protesters are shown in mainstream media is that we focus on the isolated acts of violence in mostly peaceful marches against police-sanctioned violence against Black men, and not on said police-sanctioned violence against Black men. Not using such huge platforms as young adult dystopian movies to openly discuss the role played by systemic racism in government oppression is making a deliberate choice to negate those issues. It’s playing the “color-blind” card of #AllLivesMatter and thus making the conversation, yet again, about White people, and implying that it’s only really worth mentioning when it also affects White folks. And the fact that prominent White figures who regularly identify with —if not re-appropriate— Black culture (Iggy Azaelia, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, to name a few) have remained silent while Black artists such as Janelle Monáe and Azealia Banks are setting Twitter on fire about Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, goes to show that most White people will more gladly dump a bucket of ice on their head for a cause they don’t even fully know —not to mention spend money on reminding Africans it’s Christmas time— than open their eyes to the systemic racism that brings them safety by making the lives of people of color disposable.
Second of all, the actual racial issues that are directly addressed in the books have been blatantly downplayed if not erased from the live-action version. Most notably, the whitewashing of not only Katniss Everdeen but also the entire District 12 —who should have olive skin tones close to Latino or Middle-Eastern— has sparked a conversation on White audiences’ inability to relate to characters beyond the spectrum of their own color. That no non-POC fans batted an eyelid over Katniss Everdeen being played by Irish-adjacent Jennifer Lawrence rather than someone like Malese Jow while the casting of a Black Human Torch had comic aficionados up in arms is a clear example that most White people want White heroes. As Elise Swanson writes about the backlash that followed the casting of a Black actress to play The Hunger Games’s Rue:
The idea that watching a black Rue die is less sad than imagining a white Rue die is emblematic of not being able to relate to a character or a person simply because of their race. This, in turn, is a product of our society, which is white-dominated and controlled.
[…] [W]ith black people being portrayed negatively or not at all in so many aspects of our culture, is it really so shocking that some people in our generation have such a problem relating to them? If there’s been such an effort, conscious or unconscious, to “other” black people, is it really shocking that they’ve been “othered?”
And let’s not think the Hunger Games series is an isolated incident. This Christmas, Exodus: Gods and Kings tells us the story of Ancient Egypt, a country in Africa whose ethnicity is still up for debate, except that WE KNOW THEY WEREN’T WHITE. And, of course, Ridley Scott’s cast could just as well play in Brigadoon, if the actual people of color that were cast weren’t too busy playing servants —how generous. Please, let’s give all the Academy Awards to Black people playing staff (off the top of my head: The Help, Gone With The Wind, Driving Miss Daisy, etc.) while we whitewash the shit out of real people of color like Cleopatra, Gengis Khan, Gandhi, Mariane Pearl and Tony Mendez [Side note: And that’s not even taking into account the fictional characters of West Side Story, Prince of Persia, The Last Airbender, or Warm Bodies…]
So, what do I tell my students when we talk about the themes in The Hunger Games? Probably that justice comes with fighting an oppressive government that vilifies the poor to maintain the privilege of the rich in the annual spectacle of District 1 fully-trained warriors killing little children from District 11. Or perhaps that fighting back isn’t free of collateral damage although it’s gotten minorities rights that have prevented many more tragedies from happening, just like District 13 isn’t all fun and games but then again neither is The Capitol. I would even like to point out how the role of the media is paramount in creating/annihilating a revolt, depending on how you make out Katniss to be a heroic leader or a violent hothead. But I’ll have to add that, IRL, it only really works if you “don’t make it about race.”
Well, if you’re a Black teenager wearing a hoodie in the 2010’s, may the odds be ever in your favor.