04/09/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

The Hunger Games & the Race Issue

America claims to be a land of the free and of equality. With this freedom comes the responsibility to respect -- a solemn recognition that for me to be free, I must both expect people to respect my freedoms and I must respect theirs.

That being said, I was stunned to read tweets from fellow fans of The Hunger Games commenting on Rue's skin color. (For those of you who need a bit of updating, Rue is the little girl who assists Katniss in the games by warning her of the tracker jackers and is the brains behind the ointment that saved both Katniss and Peeta's lives.) Once the movie premiered, a portion of the audience believed that the producers had unjustly cast African Americans for the parts of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi), taking to Twitter as a platform to vent over this seeming mistake. Some manifestations of their anger include:

"I'm still pissed that Rue is black."
"Ewwww rue is black?? I'm not watching."
"Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie."
"Why did the producer make all the good characters black?"
"Why is Rue a little black girl? Stick to the book, dude."

A voice of reason rose to Rue and Thresh's defenses by blogging, "The reactions are all based on feelings of disgust... These people are MAD that the girl that they cried over while reading the book was 'some black girl' all along. So now they're angry. Wasted tears, wasted emotions... This is a BIG problem."

This blogger is correct: this is an astronomical problem. For people to see qualities in characters and then, once race enters the picture, disclaim previous feelings of admiration, is a matter that insists we discern the progress we think ourselves to have made from the progress we have truly made, in valuing people based on how they can better society versus how society views them.

Because Suzanne Collins describes Rue to be of "dark brown skin," some readers may not have realized that this depiction is just as much another way to describe African Americans as "pale coloring" would be to describe Caucasians. Instead of blatantly stating that these characters are indeed black, Collins forces readers to evaluate their individual intelligences, moral characters and personalities based on the characters' actions instead of appearances. Kudos to Collins; she portrays Rue based on her ability to pick berries and create ointments that heal Katniss' and later Peeta's wounds. Because of Rue's pivotal position in the book, audience members become invested in her character, the way we would with any other good-willed person.

The reality is, Americans seem to be still hung up on the idea that skin color, and even gender, is a better way to define someone rather than defining them by their achievements, potential, intelligence or moral character. Too often are women degraded and objectified in the media, are blacks portrayed as less intelligent than whites and are men praised as leaders and active agents. Collins takes this opportunity to overthrow these traditions by giving Katniss sizable power, Peeta vulnerability and Rue an opportunity to bask in the admiration of millions.

Outside of the entertainment industry, discrimination still permeates other worlds, such as politics. All political leanings aside, when the United States elected Barack Obama to be President in 2008, many of the discussions in my classes revolved around the progress African Americans had made in finally gaining equality. I disagreed. We should not fool ourselves into believing that the race issue had disappeared when, upon electing an African American to be president, headlines read, "Obama, first black president" and reactions to the election were not that we had elected a fit executive, but that we had "overcome" racism to an uncharted extent. Would we have seen headlines that read, "George Washington, first white president?" Of course not. Whenever the coloring of a person's skin is used as an adjective in a headline, it becomes a means to define him or her. In turn, these adjectives play into readers' associations. The recent race issue with The Hunger Games unveils just how discriminatory the eyes through which some view other races are.

If Hunger Games fans would like to argue about any of the movie's distortions of the book, they should instead be enraged over the movie skewing the storyline of Haymitch's hand in the love conspiracy. No parachute appeared with the sleeping drug for Peeta, and no conversation of any great length occurred over Haymitch acting upon the star-crossed lovers idea as simply a way to keep the District 12 tributes alive. Instead, the audience leaves with the impression that Peeta and Katniss genuinely care for each other, which is certainly not the case at the conclusion of the book.