The Thing about Rue and Racism

So, a little background. The Hunger Games movie came out. In it, Rue was black. Some people were shocked, confused, and even upset.

Others, understandably so, were shocked and upset at the people who didn't realize Rue was black. It says so on pp. 45 and 98 of the hardcover edition:
[p. 45] ...a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she's very like Prim in size and demeanor.
[p. 98] ...the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. ...She has bright, dark eyes, and satiny brown skin...
So, clearly, the first group was wrong. Rue is black in the book, and rightly so in the movie. To be upset about it (or to say it "ruined the movie," as at least one tweeter said) is not only ridiculous, but wholly and completely racist.

I have a confession, though: When I read the books, I thought Rue was white too.

Is that racist? It's certainly indicative of the white, privileged way I was brought up. People tend to visualize characters as like themselves, and none more than the privileged classes.*

Maybe I'm a bad reader. I do tend to skim descriptions a lot, especially if they aren't critical to the plot (e.g. Rue's skin color never affects plots events or Katniss' feelings for her, as opposed to say White Cat, in which the MC's skin color is part of a minor con toward the end).

But racist or not, when I saw that Rue was black, I didn't go, "What? That's ridiculous!" Instead, I thought, "Oh. How did I miss that in the book?"

This is part of how racism is solved, I think. I went back to the book and discovered I had skimmed over the "brown skin" part in favor of the part where Rue was "like Prim," thus making her like Prim in my head. Whether that was racist or not, I know to pay more attention in the future.

I learned.

And here's the thing, all those people who tweeted their racist anger can learn too. Even though I understand how they missed the cue, I was pissed at the horrible things they said. But getting pissed doesn't solve anything.

At the end of the article, it mentions that most of those people have shut down their Twitter accounts or made them private. I assume I wasn't the only one pissed at them. I do hope they can see past the hate they received and learn from it, but I fear they won't.

Because people don't listen to words spat in hate. They just don't. If we want to fix racism, we do need to point these things out, but we need to keep our anger in check. If we don't, then we're as much a part of the problem as they are.

Racism isn't killing us. Hate is.

What do you think? How does this make you feel, and what can we do about it?

* For the record, I think the fact I missed Rue's skin color is racist in the subtle, subconscious sense. While I hope we solve that level of racism someday, I'm more interested in solving the part where people turn into seething rageballs of hate.


Kristen Wixted said...

I remember thinking, Rue looks exactly how I pictured. It was her likeness in age and cuteness to Prim that was important about her, you're right about that.

vic caswell said...

i really like descriptive passages, because when i read, the story plays like a movie in my head... maybe that's why i was so shocked that people didn't realize she was black.
the whole white privilege thing is something i only learned about a few years back. and i've never seen it quite so apparent until this whole rue thing. maybe, just making the world aware that default shouldn't mean "white" will help come about by this kind of discussion.
anyway, hate ain't the way to go. that's for sure!

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, re-reading the passages now, that's obvious to me. But at the time? It went right past my head.

Daisy Carter said...

When I read HG for the first time, I saw Rue as filipino. No idea why "satiny dark skin" equaled that in my head, but it did. I saw Thresh as black, Cinna as black (no idea why, just what I saw), and I always saw "Fox Face" as Thai (although I know that's a nationality, not a race).

So when I first heard that a black girl was playing Rue, I was surprised, but only because the picture in my head was different. Then I went back and read HG and had a "Doh!" moment like you.

And as angry as I am at the ignorance of people, I agree with you that hate is the problem. More posts like this one, that deal with the ignorance in a calm and non confrontational way are part of the solution. Well done.

Lori M. Lee said...

Fantastically said, Adam. I'm not very good at keeping my anger in check, which is why it's always a good idea to step away for a few hours or a few days, whatever's necessary, and then come back when I'm more rational.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I don't have a good answer for this. Rue is just like I pictured her, although I often skim descriptions, and Collins' style is spare in descriptions anyway. I just happened to catch it in this case. I don't think the subconscious assumption that a character is "like you" is racist - if the gender of a character isn't identified, I'll often assume she's female, especially if it's in 1st person. That doesn't make me sexist. We're supposed to identify with characters. I think that's where the racist outrage came from - they don't want to identify with a black character. It upsets their ideas of the universe. I felt outrage at the racist comments, but honesty, I think the best thing that could combat their racism is not calling them idiots (which they are, and which I did), but the mere fact that they were forced to identify with a black character, quite by accident. A little disruption to their racist universe is a good thing.

Leigh Ann said...

I mean, the fact that you missed that Rue is black is just a result of non-careful reading, which we ALL do. It's not like you were reading THG for a class or something, and had to have all the facts memorized. And "like Prim" following a description of Prim AND your understanding that Katniss is white, so of course her sister is, too...yeah. That's no problem. Whatever.

So, I wouldn't call that "racist," I would call that, "your recollection of the character," which just happened to be inaccurate. Big deal.

You're right. It's when a person's skin color turns a person from loving to hating something that's destructive. It's the hate.

Adam Heine said...

"...AND your understanding that Katniss is white."

That's a good point too, though I do clearly remember the olive skin descriptor. I think technically Katniss (and Prim, therefore) was either white or a partial-white mix in my head (which is what I frequently assume of the future anyway).

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

This is interesting. I had no idea people were reacting that way. It's sad really, but nothing to get upset about. I've come to the conclusion that there will always be hateful people out there that want to ruin things for the rest of us.

I always imagined Rue as black, and I think they picked the perfect girl to play her. She was sweet! And I cried in the theater when she died. I love that Katniss and Rue were different 'colors'. What a great example Ms. Collins created, whether intentional or not.

Rena said...

When I read the satiny brown skin, I saw Rue as Hispanic. That's a product of where I grew up. People try not to address the fact that half the population is Hispanic, so they find ways to refer to it without saying words like Latino or Hispanic (this is because the white people where I grew up wonder if they are being racist to point to someone's obvious heritage if they look different, but have no problem calling someone a wop).
I don't know if SC left the ethnicity of Rue ambiguous so we could all insert whichever race cropped up in our minds (Asian, Indian, Native American, etc.), but I think that the residents of Panem certainly wouldn't have used terms like African American.
It really upsets me that people went crazy about it, but I think there is a solution. We need a broader spectrum of people staring in our fantasies and spec fic. Part of the reason that we often see white people in these books is because the authors didn't go out of their way to express the ethnic diversity of the world their characters were living in.
I think the other part is fear. It's hard to be a white woman writing about an African American man. I always feel like if I were to do that, someone's going to call me out and say "Well, what right do you have writing about an experience that you can't even imagine except through movies and books?" I think the fear of being called out keeps white writers from writing as much ethnic diversity into their stories as they should.

Which sort of means that the solution is scary: we must write fearlessly.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I don't mean to contradict any of the other commenters, but I do think it's very self-aware of you to recognize the subtle, subconscious racism inherent in assuming Rue was white. My husband is pursuing a doctorate in education, and a few semesters ago, he took a class on diversity. What he learned is that most members of the majority are subconsciously racist to some degree and often completely unaware of the subtle ways in which society has shaped itself around them.

Which isn't to say that all white people hate all black/brown/purple people. It's just that society sees members of the majority as individuals whereas it often views members of a minority in a block. Inaccurate ways of thinking are always going to pop up in that kind of situation, like assuming that Rue is white (which I did, too).

Great post, Adam. Obviously, it got a lot of people thinking.

Charles Eubanks said...

I'm just surprised everyone's talking about Rue's skin and not Woody Harrelson's hair.

Emmet said...

Whats strange is that I knew Thresh was black but never connected the dots for Rue, I think I missed it for the same reason you did.

Myrna Foster said...

Rue looks just like I pictured her. First preview, they showed her briefly, and I knew she was Rue (and got all choked up 'cause I'm a baby). But I pictured Cinna very much the way he looks in the movie as well, and I'm not sure his description in the book supports that. When I'm reading, the way a character acts and talks has as much to do with the way I picture them as the way the author describes them.

Hepius said...

Thanks for posting this. I had no idea people were reacting this way to the movie. Sad.

Steve MC said...

I saw a link on the subject yesterday, but I didn't go there 'cause I knew it would be a boatload of anger, and I didn't want to wade into it. So when I saw your post, I thought, cool, he'll explain it and give insight on it, and you did, perfectly.

When I read the book, I skipped to where the game begins 'cause I wasn't sure if I wanted to read the whole thing, and then I was hooked and didn't want to go back.

So yeah, I pictured Rue as white, too, and the emotional high point of the book for me was when Katniss lays the flowers on her. That's what hit me. And it wouldn't matter what race she was - Katniss respected one she was suppose to see as nothing but an enemy, and did so beautifully.

Adding in race as a factor (in our society) only makes that more profound.

Erik Winter said...

Some may have seen the first or both of these:

1st one:

2nd one:

They're worth the watch.

Erik Winter said...

Oh, sorry about not linking them...

1st one

2nd one

Adam Heine said...

That deserves its own post, Charles :-)

Adam Heine said...

LOL. Nice linking, Erik!

Ben Spendlove said...

But they didn't give Katniss an Appalachian accent. No one ever has a hillbilly accent in movies—except idiots and bad guys.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Wow, I missed all this and I haven't seen the movie yet. But I'm really in shock at how ridiculous people can be. People really said it ruined the movie? That is so beyond silly. And yes, racist. Thanks for this post, Adam.

Matthew MacNish said...

I always pictured Rue as darker than the actress who played her (like Thresh), though I didn't have a problem with the casting. I always pictured Cinna as somewhat olive-skinned, like Italian or Latino (not sure why, I don't think his skin is ever described), but I loved Lenny Kravitz in the film.

I don't know that there's much that can be done to change people whose bigotry is already entrenched. But I do think we can change the hearts and minds of young people. It's why I write books with Asian, Latino, Black and mixed race characters. Most of the cool people I know in life are not only one ethnicity.

Matthew MacNish said...

I liked Woody's hair, even if I never pictured Haymitch looking like Fabio.

Victoria Dixon said...

Beautifully said, Adam.

fairyhedgehog said...

I think I tended to see Rue as white in my mind's eye, even though I'd read the passages that describer her.

But the people to worry about are, as you so rightly say, the ones who turn into "seeing rageballs of hate". That's not acceptable towards any group at all.

Anonymous said...

...People were.. mad Rue was black? Didn't they think to go back and check if the book described her that way? That's what I do when the movie doesn't fit my memory of the book.

Also I have a question, if anyone knows. Is Johanna black too? This is something I've been wondering as I read the last book, because I picture her black but I can't remember ever reading that she was.