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Lori Ungemah

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Complicating the Racist Hunger Games Tweets

Posted: 04/ 9/2012 11:31 am

I finally saw The Hunger Games film on Sunday night in a packed movie theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I felt like I was the last person to see the movie, but as I squeezed between a kind man who was a heavy breather and a large woman who was not thrilled that I sat next to her, I realized that this film is still gaining speed.

For the past week I have been following the many articles investigating the racist tweets about the two Black characters in The Hunger Games film, Thresh and Rue. Both of these characters hail from District 11, the agricultural district in the fictional country of Panem, a dystopian United States of America. Because of the forthright responses of shock and disgust from these young adults, I wanted to see this film en masse. Something about their response to the characters and the following cyber-chastising of these tweeters was sitting uncomfortably in me, and I thought maybe seeing the film with a community of strangers might shed some light on my discomfort.

I taught The Hunger Games last year in my inner city school. Within the unit, we talked about Ancient Rome, dystopia as a literary sub-genre, and the question of how to be a moral person in an immoral world. We tracked Katniss's survival strategies, debated the characters' strengths and weaknesses, and discussed how one's ability to act is or isn't affected when there is a fear of one's government. Even before the Occupy movement sparked, we talked about the relativity of the terms utopia and dystopia, and how some might be living large (the Capital) while many suffer (the 12 Districts). Students explored these issues of the text through literature circles, and the trilogy of books caught fire (pun intended) across the 11th grade. Books two and three were fought over, and students were reading in the hallways and talking about the trilogy incessantly. For any English teacher who works with reluctant readers, this is akin to witnessing a miracle. A moment of pure, distilled awesomeness.

Race came up only once, and if you knew both my students and me as a teacher, you would find that surprising. I am always willing to talk race and my students always point out the stereotypical portrayals of people of color, the injustice of the Black character dying first or constantly being the antagonist in a text, and other race-based issues that I, as a White person, sometimes don't see. And I must admit here that I, like those many cursed, bad White readers who are feeling the wrath of the internet, didn't see Rue and Thresh as Black until the second time I read the novel. And this realization didn't happen because I was a closer reader, or because my students pointed it out to me, but because they started casting the film last spring and my students followed the casting closely. It was then that I realized Thresh and Rue were Black. Mea culpa, audience. Exile me to Mantua.

Note: The racial demographics for my school's student body of approximately 750 students were 65 percent Black, 30 percent Hispanic, three percent Asian, and two percent White (which meant Arab in our school building) according to my last definitive reference from the school's 2008-2009 Quality Review Report. The school's racial composition had not changed greatly in the coming years, minus an increase of approximately 20 Asian students due to a Chinese immigrant influx in the 2010-2011 school year. Point being, I read this book with 70 students of color, and, falling in line with the racist Hunger Games fans, seeing race was only an issue for me. (Source: New York City Department of Education. 2008-2009 Quality Review Report: The Cobble Hill School of American Studies. Unpublished Report.)

I realized this one afternoon, during a lunch period, when students and I were clustered around my desktop computer reading online articles on the casting and geeking-out over the film. As we clicked through the slideshow of cast characters, we came upon Rue and Thresh, and I couldn't help but exclaim, "Wow, they're Black? I didn't see them as Black!" to which my students looked at me like I was a moron and replied, "Of course they're Black, Miss, it says so in the book!" I went back to the text (like I always tell the students to do) and, yes, it says they had "dark brown skin." I guess, in my White-centric brain I just saw "dark brown skin" as an olive complexion (like Katniss in the novel). I wondered why I didn't see them as black, and I have admitted this lack of vision on my part to friends who also look at me like I'm nuts. The students weren't surprised, though, and the conversation quickly turned into a debate about skin tone in Hollywood (after looking at the actors who portrayed Thresh and Rue), always a fascinating topic to discuss with the students. The inability of my imagination to see a Black character was a non-issue then, but I am thinking about it now.

And this brings me back to the racist remarks made by the young readers in their tweets and why each article I have read has left me uneasy. I think the antsy feeling I have inside is that the articles examine what the tweeters said and the potential whys behind their actions (the whitewashing of literature in general), but nobody branches out to ask what next? What do we all do with this information? Yes, the readers did more than admit that they didn't seem Thresh and Rue as black--they expressed their disdain or disengagement due to this new knowledge -- but what did the we, as an audience, do when they heard their opinions? And was that the right thing to do?

I asked myself, what would I do in the classroom if one of my students said, "I wasn't as sad when Rue died when I realized she was Black." It would definitely throw me, but I would have to address it beyond my initial, visceral, "What did you just say?" response. How can we encourage the students to think differently about race and acknowledge their personal discriminator feelings? A couple of resources I have used to begin this discussion popped into my head:

1. Show students the video A Class Divided available online, for free, from PBS Frontline. It's the story of an Iowa schoolteacher, in 1963, who tried to teach her all White class of third graders the harm of discrimination through a two-day experiment in which she divided the class between the blue-eyed students and the brown-eyed students. The students turned on each other so quickly; it was terrifying and fascinating. Use this as a launching point to discuss what discrimination is, how it affects the individual and the group, what might be the long term affects for the discriminators and the discriminated, and how can we reverse the trends individually and collectively.

2. Another great resource is a short film made by a teenager named Kiri Davis. It's entitled A Girl Like Me and it explores the history of the Clark Doll experiments. She re-administered the experiment with young Black children today. It's only eight minutes long, but it tells a hard story about how kids internalize racism and discrimination from a very young age. Teach the background of the Clark Doll experiments and how they were used as evidence in Brown versus the Board of Education to integrate schools, talk about schools today --are they integrated? -- and ask students to conduct their own research like Kiri Davis in their school or in their home. Ask them to think about their own feelings about race--which doll would they like better, and why?

And I realize through writing this that the way the media crucified these young tweeters is not the way to resolve the larger issue of racism. Public humiliation is going to make them afraid to be honest about their feelings of race, especially if those feelings are racist. Many of the tweeters shut down their Twitter accounts after being called out as racists. The collective response of shaming has silenced them, but I can assure you that they are not truly silent. They have now been taught not to air their honesty, and they now could be expressing their racist ideologies in a more covert way to like-minded friends. And that is dangerous.

I am very much for calling a spade a spade, but I try to be thoughtful on how I call someone on their business. In this situation, someone needed to respond to the racist Hunger Games tweets in a constructive way to address why the tweeters felt the way they did upon seeing Thresh and Rue and where those feelings came from. Their teachers, the media, other tweeters, Scholastic, Inc., the author... The sooner these young adults can begin to investigate their own positions on race and acknowledge what these ideas are, the sooner they can begin to take steps to see others -- be it in literature or in life -- in more a more comprehensive and compassionate way.

This post was originally published on Read Write Teach.