Rue Is Black And Racism Is Still An IssueNicole Paulhus

I will be the first to admit that when I first read The Hunger Games, I pictured Rue as a little white girl. Then, when the movie was being cast and they were looking for a young black actress for the role, I went back. Yep, sure enough, on page 45, Rue is described as having “dark brown skin and eyes”. Embarrassingly, I had somehow managed to overlook this extremely clear description. However, this was a character I had fallen in love with, rooted for and sobbed over. Did the fact that she had a different skin color than I had imagined change my feelings toward her? Absolutely not. Did I cry my eyes out in the theater when little Amandla Stenberg stuttered out her final words? You betcha.  Therefore, I found it really disturbing this week when a wave of Hunger Games fans began tweeting in outrage at the fact that Rue was played by a black actress.

The first issue here is that so many fans, including myself, imagined this girl to be white despite a very obvious physical description to the contrary. It is easy to say that people are racist for thinking in this way, but I think the issue is bigger than individual thought process. I think this speaks volumes about where we are in terms of diversity representation in media. As our brains develop, we learn to fill in certain blanks based on patterns and past experiences. We grow up seeing that the majority of characters we are exposed to in books and on TV are white. Therefore, when we create a mental picture of characters and their race is not clearly stated (even in this case when it was), we tend to fill in the blank and assume they are white. This is called whitewashing and it’s a big thing.

The things we read, the shows we watch and the movies we go to – in addition to our experiences – shape our view of the world. I think if there were more diversity in mainstream literature, television and movies, we would learn not to assume whiteness so quickly. We assume that characters are white because… most of the time, they are.  I was recently reading an article about the upcoming show Scandal starring Kerry Washington. The article mentions, “It will be the first time in 30 years that a single African-American woman leads a primetime show on network TV.” That is mind-blowing to me. While cable channels seem to be much farther ahead in regards to diversity, they also aren’t as mainstream and accessible. Network TV shows have the highest ratings and largest audiences, yet the least diversity. This is where the problem lies.

In terms of writing, I generally think the way in which we choose to describe characters needs to be more balanced. Most non-white characters in books and scripts are explicitly described as such, but how often are white characters described as being white? When we read “cute 12-year-old boy”, many of us immediately picture a white 12-year-old boy, because if the boy is black, we’re used to it saying “black 12-year-old boy.” We either need to choose not to identify any characters racially and allow readers and casting directors to use their imaginations or identify them all equally. If writers are going to specify one character is black, Asian or Latino, they should conversely specify that another character is white. Treating one race as an adjective and another as an unstated assumption only furthers this form of whitewashed thinking.

Okay, now back to the issue of little Rue. I have already admitted to incorrectly assuming she was white and do not fault anyone else for thinking in a similar manner. However, I find the hateful responses of some fans when finding out that Rue was black to be very disturbing. First off, if you are such a big Hunger Games fan, where were you a year ago when they cast Amandla Stenberg as Rue? Also, why didn’t you go back to your book and check the character description before sticking your foot in your mouth? We need to learn to think before we broadcast our thoughts to the world.

Much more important than the poor research behind the tweets, however, were the hateful messages they contained. Some stated that the character’s death wasn’t as sad once they found out she was black. Others included racial slurs when referring to the character. Some claimed that Rue’s race had ruined the entire movie for them. While, I am by no means blind to the fact that racism still exists and is a major issue in our society, it blows my mind that in the year 2012 young people find it acceptable to post these things on a public forum. It makes me question if we, as a society, are actually starting to regress very much like that of Panem.

After taking a step back and reading many well-written and intelligent responses to these racist fans, I started to feel much better about the state of the world. I think the issue isn’t so much that we are regressing, but that more and more ignorant and hateful people have access to public forums. Anyone can open a Twitter account, Facebook page or Tumblr blog and broadcast their thoughts to the world. This, unfortunately, includes messages of racism, sexism, violence and hate. My hope is that these harmful posts don’t result in equally hateful responses, but in open discussions about race and representation. This is a great opportunity for all of us to open up a dialogue, become more aware and start to change the way we think about the world. How often does a blockbuster film give us the opportunity to discuss such an important issue? We need to take advantage of the hate and use it to create change. I think in terms of racism, we tend to focus on how much progress has been made and forget how far we still have to go. If these responses to Rue can teach us anything, it is how far we still have to go.

Feature Image from Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games via mrsgrapevine.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/BrittianyKirk Brittiany Elisabeth Kirk

    How funny Rue looks exactly like I thought she would from the book. The only difference was that I thought her hair would be longer.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gwendolynjrl Gwendolyn Jane Ramsell Langan

      I also think she looked exactly how I imagined her (but I too thought longer hair?). My first read-through of the books I was actually thinking she was of Pacific Island or Indian descent but then that was just me…and it had changed by my second reading.
      And I had no idea who would be playing Rue til I saw the pictures for the movie. I’ve been so disappointed in the past with Hollywood casting a popular actor/actress instead of someone who would look according to a character description in a book, that I was surprised and delighted.

      And to reply to Rhonda Yearwood…that’s so sad that people are angry about Gwen in the show Merlin! I’m enjoying seeing Gwen’s character portrayed as a real person and not an afterthought or typical damsel-in-distress. The name Guinevere, (or Gwynhyfar, or Gwendolyn) means “fair brow” or “beautiful face”. And that actress is beautiful!

      I’m a very pale “white” woman with red hair and brown eyes, but I hate it when people make assumptions on this. I’m so proud of my heritage which includes Native American (“injuns”), African American (“slaves”), Irish (“dirt farmers”), Sicilian (“mobsters”), as well as many other cultures.
      People often joke that some of my siblings look adopted because they look atypically Italian (dark skin, eyes, and hair) and I look atypically Irish (pale skin, light brown eyes, red hair). It’s hurtful.
      In my opinion anyone who tries to whitewash (or colorwash) based upon assumptions of physical description is just ignorant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zurichko Christina Martinez

    I agree! I knew Rue was going to be a young cute black actress. I think what might have thrown people off about Rue being white was because Katniss said that Rue reminded her of Prim, who is a blond hair blue eyed child. I read on other social sites about the racial slurs and distaste that this beautiful angel faced little girl was playing Rue. I cried my eyes out when she died. It wouldn’t have mattered what race she was, because it was an image of a little girl getting killed for no real reason. I hope that Ms. Stenberg is strong and is supported throughout her acting career because with that performance, I’m sure she’ll have many roles in the future. Rue is not a color, she’s a person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=595842836 Sammie Hess

    I think it has to do with all of those issues that you brought up, but also that a lot of people race – identify. Most people automatically picture characters as someone similar to their own race. But this disgusting racism and ignorance towards a little girl is inexcusable. Some of those tweets are just mindblowing. Hard to believe people still think like that in these times. Quick note, I also always saw rue as black and I also pictured katniss as native American and cinnamon as Hispanic or Indian.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504303832 Megha Hirani

      “Most people automatically picture characters as someone similar to their own race.”

      Presumptuous.
      Maybe you mean most Caucasian people picture characters as their own race because you’re constantly so well represented in mainstream media; most other races are marginalized to the extent where I’m pretty certain we know the majority of characters will be white even if they were written as black/asian/hispanic etc. Whitewashing is not natural, you’ve just been duped into thinking everything is about your own race is normal.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504303832 Megha Hirani

      Sorry, I shouldn’t have used “your” as I can’t presume what your background is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=595842836 Sammie Hess

    Ugh auto correct *cinna

  • http://www.facebook.com/msfrancesXO Frances Vasquez

    I think this is a great piece. Unfortunately with the subject matter that the books represent was going to have some backlash. I think that racism will never go away. Because this is what our country was built on: immigrants and racism. It’s such a significant part of our history I don’t think some people know anyway else to be. It’s a wonderful, entertaining book that can also be related to what’s happening now. Hey there are even people saying that Jennifer lawerence is fat. People have different perceptions on many things and unfortunately we have to read it in our social forums.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jennymparker Jenny Parker

    I think what we picture when we read is not an issue of racism, but of who we are. I don’t automatically picture white if there is no description, I picture people like me. When I read The Hunger Games, I actually didn’t see any of the characters, except for those in The Capital, as white. Casting and Hollywood is another issue for sure, but to say writers need to be more “balanced” is a little extreme. Books and stories are supposed to be open to our interpretation in terms of the picture we form in our own minds- I think that is really why people get so upset when a book is adapted to film and it’s not what they pictured. We own the experience of reading, it becomes very personal.

    • http://www.facebook.com/npaulhus Nicole Paulhus

      I agree with the concept of using ones imagination and I think Liz Lemon said it best, “Let me imagine what Peeta Mellark looks like and how his arms smell of bread.” The point I was trying to make about “balance” was that so often in books and scripts that I read diverse characters are explicitly stated to be a specific race, while white characters are never identified as being white. I think either none should be identified by race and allow them ALL to be open to interpretation, or identify all of them equally. Totally agree that I prefer to use my imagination though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lindsayalicejones Lindsay Jones

    It’s funny, because I had a slightly different revelation talking with my best friend. In Catching Fire, I was completely convinced that Beetee, Wiress, and Plutarch Heavensbee were all black. It wasn’t until reading all of the casting speculations and saw the suggested white actors that I realized I was completely wrong. Upon my revelation, my friend gently pointed out that in fact, Beetee and Wiress are described as having ash white skin. And I ignored it and imagined something different. Weird.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=23906515 Samantha Collie

    I don’t understand how such an obvious description of a character could be missed by so many. Crazy what the mind does. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505699034 Kelsey Taylor

    I read about those tweets in the news, and it really pissed me off. And then I was even more upset that more people weren’t pissed off as well. And your point in “whitewashing” is SO true, and I thank you so much for bringing this to the surface. I can’t believe young children are learning such racist ideals and spreading them so publicly, it absolutely disgusts me. I haven’t read or seen The Hunger Games, but to say a little girl’s death is “less sad” because the girl is black is just atrocious. It’s so wrong. And I am so relieved that those remarks aren’t going unheard or ignored. A lot of people like to pretend racism isn’t an issue anymore, and it most definitely IS an issue. Thank you so much for posting this!

  • http://www.facebook.com/szarrinkelk Sepideh Zarrinkelk

    I am kind of shocked reading this article and realizing that there such young ignorant people exist. Makes me wonder why the same people weren’t pissed about Peeta portrayed by Josh Hutcherson not having blue eyes like the book mentioned many many times. Just shows that there is indeed some sort of whitewashing going on here. These fans can’t use the ” I’m disappointed because I imagined it so &so” excuse because if that was true they should’ve been more disappointed about one of the main characters(peeta) being very different more than Rue being black which was how it was supposed to be. By the way I personally found the whole cast perfect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rhymeswithsoul Nikki Nyack

    I have said that if one didn’t know Rue was black you didn’t read, and if it matters you is very much an asshole. I totally get that we partake in an entertainment industry that is essentially homogeneous, and that’s definitely highlighted when you see the one, two, or few “ethnic” people in a cast of a show or movie; but I think this specific issue transcends all of that. I mean, it’s written in the book, not really left up to interpretation. I think Collins does a great job in terms of describing a diverse group of characters equally; you get descriptions of skin, hair, and eyes for a number of characters. It’s one thing if you missed the description(s), then realized at some point and then went on with life; but if you missed it, you realize Rue (and Thresh) is black and it MATTERS?? It’s changed your perspective/opinion of this character who is essential to this wonderful story that you supposedly love? It’s more than whitewashing, it’s the idea that because someone (or a character) doesn’t look like you thought they did, they are no longer of value. As a bibliophile (who happens to be a black woman), that just makes no sense to me at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/noxiez Rebecca Kennedy

    I’m also willing to admit on my first read through I thought she was white, but when I read it again (When I first read a book, I sometimes skip certain descriptions) I realised she wasn’t and I don’t see how it’d make that big of an issue. She’s still a little girl who dies tragically. The people who said that that change in their ideal was what broke the movie for them are sad :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500223994 Robert Isenberg

    Granted, they’re just Internet trolls, who generally wouldn’t have the chutzpah to peep a racist word in polite company. Only their anonymity makes them brave.

    That said, I’m always astounded by British television, which is almost breathtakingly diverse. From soap operas to the original “Prime Suspect,” from sci-fi to the evening news, the BBC airs more cosmopolitan faces than U.S. television could imagine. What’s irksome is that putting African-Americans on TV equals “diversity.” It’s a tremendous step, to showcase the extraordinary talent from African-American communities, especially after centuries of slavery and cultural oppression, but putting blacks and whites on the same screen doesn’t remotely reflect the diversity of our country or era. As long as Italians are always cast as mobsters, East Asians are always comic relief (or computer whizzes), Indians are always shopkeepers, Latinos are always thugs or dishwashers, and Native Americans are just weird sages or nonexistent, the U.S. will only appear as a land of pretty white people and their witty black friends.

    Most significantly, there’s the nightmare of Arab-American TV personalities — either (a) terrorists, or (b) All-American Muslims, as if there is nothing in the middle. After all these years, Muslims are still “with us or against us.” The show may have been well-meaning, but it was cancelled, due to low ratings. The bottom line: Not enough people even care about diversity, much less embrace is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cupcakebcs Beth Say

    to post a comment

  • http://www.facebook.com/akilah.hughes Akilah Hughes

    Yeah, the racist responses online really did bother me. I’ve had a lot of issues to come to terms with because the “mainstream” can only see black in one way. The author wrote Rue as a lithe, delicate, cute little girl, and immediately people thought that meant she was white. Can we take a minute to think about that? Why do we associate these “good” or “better” traits with whiteness? What would the author have had to say for people to assume she was black, since, clearly stating that she is by physically describing her wasn’t enough? It brings to light the issue of the negative images of black people that are portrayed in the mainstream and the media. It’s the reason why Trayvon Martin is threatening for wearing a hoodie in a white neighborhood–armed only with candy and a beverage. It allows for the absolutely abhorrent, lamentable racism that most people aren’t even aware exists. I’m a girl, I’m 5’4″ and I’m relatively thin. I have whimsical brown curls and I play ukulele. However, if I was written into a book, what negative crap would an author have to say to get you to believe that I am not white? Think about that. Please.

    • http://www.facebook.com/npaulhus Nicole Paulhus

      Thank you for this. I agree entirely and this is the exact type of discussion I was hoping to get going.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristelacevedo Kristel Acevedo

    That’s funny. I was sitting next to a friend watching the movie and when they show Rue she turned to me and said “didn’t you imagine her with blonde hair and blue eyes?” (by the way, my friend has blond hair and blue eyes). And I said, “no, she’s black.” I got the impression from the book (and books that followed) that most people from her district were black. I think it’s weird that so many people didn’t catch that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lindawayner Linda Wayner

    Didn’t Lisa Bonet headline her own show, A Different World , for three seasons? surely that was less than 30 years ago

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=18900644 Ramou Sarr

      Dwayne Wayne was clearly the star of that show.

    • http://www.facebook.com/npaulhus Nicole Paulhus

      Yep, you’re right. Perhaps the author of that article considered her a girl not yet a “woman?” I may have watched a lot of Britney Spears videos last night…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1592242321 Sam Gordon

    While there is still an issue with race in this country that cannot continue robe overlooked, I feel like poor reading comprehension is also an issue. If people learned to actually read a book instead of just rushing through it to read the thing before the movie came put, there wouldn’t be an issue. Or at least less of one. Rue and Thresh are blatantly described and I blame poor reading comprehension for people’s idiotic reactions to “finding out” they’re black.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gea.marin Gea Marín

    Amandla is just RUE and I can’t think of anyone else to play her because she’s just like, my ideal Rue. The movie is not yet released in my country so I haven’t seen it so I don’t know her acting, but her looks are just those of Rue!! Time ago when I was reading the books I already had an idea that Rue and Thresh were black, so I really can’t understand why people thought them to be blonde-blue eyed cuties… I have to admit though, that I always thought Clove was blonde with blue eyes -like Glimmer and Cato.
    I also think that people over-reacted with Cinna; dude, please why should we care about he being black, white or beige? When I first read about them I thought him to be with, at least, a tan -don’t know why, just I thought he’d look cool like this. But we need to get clear the fact that Suzanne didn’t ever said how Cinna was (racial aspect, I mean) so he could have been Asian for all we knew!
    But really, I think people pay too much attention to one’s racial features than how they are in the inside.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=546673709 Catrin Morgan

    I was so shocked at first to hear that people thought she was white. I always imagined her as african american and wasn’t surprised that she was cast as so not that my views would have changed if I had thught she was white.

    Doesn’t change the way I feel about the character or my reaction (lots of tears) to her death. I think people’s reactions are disgusting!

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