SOCIAL STUDIES Rue Is Black And Racism Is Still An Issue Nicole 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

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  1. I thought Rue was absolutely adorable in the movie, and it is horrendous that people would act in such a way. After all, it SAID in the book that she had dark skin. Either way she was fantastic!

  2. I agree with the white-washing of not only characters, but people in our everyday lives too. It seems as though-unless CLEARLY stated or “stereotypical”-anyone of multiple cultural backgrounds (regardless of which ones) is automatically seen as “white.” See, this annoys me for two reasons.
    1. Who are you to determine what someone’s ethnicity is? Just because an individual has the appearance of a “white” person, does not mean he/she is of such background.
    2. Why should it matter? Why should someones ethnicity be of any determent to his/hers (in the case especially) special skills, achievements or quality of life?
    Being a Metis Aboriginal Canadian, i’ve had quite a few arguments with quite a few people regarding my own ethnic background.
    Frankly, it infuriates me that I seem to have to “prove” my cultural background to the world, as if all “seemingly white people” have to advertise their “true colors” (pun intended) to therefore forewarn others of that they are “not what they seem.”
    This whole debocle has made me quite angry at the fact, even if this day-and-age, the “white supremecy” is still evident in our current media. So much, it seems to obscure evenour envisoning of fictional characters.

  3. I can’t say I’m surprised by perceptions that Rue was white (contrary to the book’s description, as addressed), or that such a reaction exists (that her death wasn’t sad because she’s black). I thought there would be similar (if not more vile and ignorant) reaction when Thresh killed Clove. ‘Stereotypical angry black man hurting a poor white girl’. More surprised to see I was wrong there.

  4. I agree completely, and am actually in the same position as you when I read the book. I too feel a bit embarrasssed.

    The comments that people didn’t find Rue’s death as sad because of the colour of the skin literally made me nauseous.

  5. Just a short question and statement, but whether or not it was clearly stated in the book–which it was–why is it necessary for readers to go back and confirm that Rue is black? I don’t understand why it is important to have to check and make sure that’s what the book really said. Characteristics and features of characters often change in book to movie adaptations, yet do not make or break the actor’s performance or the success of a movie, although Rue’s character was as she described in the book minus having “dark” brown skin (She wasn’t all that dark to me). I hate that it matters to people this much, as I am bewildered by the fact that after seeing the movie casting people had to reread to confirm whether or not it was mentioned in the book. WHO CARES if it was or NOT? Base your like for the movie based on the performance of the actors and actresses, period.

    • Regarding descriptions: I would be curious to see a cross section of published authors’ race. It makes total sense to me that if I am going to describe someone black in my book, and I am white, that I would differentiate that person with descriptors. Humans template; it is natural. We see ourselves in groups and those groups are often (though not always) defined by skin-color. If I am a white author, I will familiarize myself with my characters and only put in color descriptions of non-white characters. Perhaps the same could be said of religion…assume everyone is christian unless otherwise stated (for example). I agree whitewashing is a real thing, but I would be curious to do an analysis of black, Asian, Hispanic published authors to see if they describe those outside of their race and assume others are members of the same race.
      For the record, I too pictured Rue as darker than she was portrayed in the movie. “Dark brown skin” with a position of being in the sun all day picking from trees made me picture her pretty black.

    • Aha, I didn’t think of it like that. When people told me she was black in the book, I sure as hell didn’t go back to my actual copy and confirm it.

      You know what? Because I had Rue in my head as white, when I first saw the actress was black I was actually a bit disappointed. I thought a major hollywood movie had actually cast a black actress of their own accord! I thought it was very awesome. And then…no. But anyway.

  6. The casting of the lead role of Katniss was opened to only caucasian actors, I find that in itself to be telling and very very sad and pathetic. It seems to be a okay for a white actor to change their hair and skin tone to play role that seemed to be someone who was racial mixed looking in the novels, but when the Director of Thor went with Idris Elba to play Hemidale the gate keeper, the hate and ignorance that followed that was sickening as well.
    As a black woman I am so tired of this ignorance, so tired.
    Whitewashing happens all the time in Hollywood and books, the film Avatar the last Airbender which was an AMAZING animated series , based in an fantasy Asian world,was cast with white actors playing the leads/heroes with the darker actors as the bad guys and the asian/ inuit people as background decor. And the Japanese Anime classic Akira is being cast with white actors, but they will have Japanese names.
    People got upset when in the latest Star Trek film that Spock and Uhura are in love, and that Uhura bullied and forced herself onto the Enterprise and Spock, but Kirk didn’t?!!
    Some people said hateful things about the character Martha Jones on Dr. Who, who was also a medical doctor and the most educated of all of the assistants, but the hate for her character is appalling! And also the hate shown for Gwen being Arthur’s true love on the show Merlin, just so sad.
    Yes I think that there should be descriptions of characters in books and default should not automatically be white, but sadly even when people are told plain and simple that a character is, black, asian, or mixed race there are those who simply do not comprehend what is in front of them, and that makes me sad because a) they cannot read and gleam information that is presented and b) to them it is a white world and everyone else are just “extras” in it.
    The hate and vitriol that has been spewed about the character Rue and the actor who played her is just plain sad.
    There is nothing wrong with seeing colour and differences but there is something very wrong about making them a point for hatred, ignorance, fear and being oblivious. We should all celebrate each other for there is more in common than most think.
    I am glad that you wrote this article and I am happy that you admitted your mistake in reading Rue as white at first but there are still sadly those who do not think they are wrong for what they are thinking and feeling deep down.

  7. I agree, people who were offended that Rue was cast black obviously didn’t read the book that well…as we have said, she is described at having dark brown skin and eyes. And I think it is funny how they are magically ignoring Cinna in all this controversy! Lenny Kravitz is half-white and half-black, yet they are not bringing his role up at all. Instead of looking at their skin color, for goodness sakes, why can’t we be in awe of her fabulous acting skills! She was wonderful! I think they whole movie was phenomenally cast (except Peeta, I was a little disappointed in how short and slightly wimpy he was, but still,…) It’s not about the skin, people, it’s about the acting and the emotion…did she bring me to tears, yes…did she rock that roll, absolutely…she looked exactly like I thought she would in the book. Bravo for little Rue!

  8. most of life’s problems and conflicts could be resolved if … “We need to learn to think before we broadcast our thoughts to the world.”

  9. I think a lot of people misinterpreted the fact that Katniss felt strong emotions towards Rue because she reminded her of Prim. I think that made a lot of people ignore her actual physical description and imagine a Prim clone. The things that have been said were disgusting nonetheless. In the end she was still a 12 year old child essentially being sacrificed which is an extremely unnerving thought, regardless of her skin color.

    I read somewhere that the casting of Katniss called for Caucasian actresses only, which in itself was kind of disappointing but not surprising. I did think it was a little off that her physical description described her as having dark hair and an olive skin tone so instead of looking for an actress that could fit the bill naturally, they dyed Jennifer Lawrence’s hair and gave her a fake tan. But where were the gray eyes??

    What Nicole said is very true — it is usually assumed that a character is white because well, they usually are. It’s a sad thing and I hope that Hollywood continues to grow and offer more leading roles for people of all ethnicities.

  10. I think the saddest part of this whole racism issue is that it is coming from the younger generation. I like to think that racism exists in our culture mainly in the generations before ours and that we are coming to a more equal playing field. Which for me makes the fact that these blatantly racist comments are being said by younger readers appalling. And, you’re right, Nicole, it’s a reminder that racism is not dead, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it be the predominant viewpoint.

  11. Really great article!!! I don’t really have much to write; a lot of people on here have already shared a lot of thoughts that I agree with. This is a very well written and thoughtful piece. Thank you for it.

  12. Thanks Nicole for this post! I think you are exactly write about using the hate to start a discussion and plead for change. Lets talk about why these assumptions were made, why people felt differently about a person of another color, and why those people felt entitled enough to spread such racist venom. If we walk away from these books with a lesson, it’s that the dehumanization of any person (regardless of district or skin color) is dangerous and wrong! So let’s all do like the mockingjay and fight injustice and hate!

  13. I just started reading The Hunger Games, and imagined Rue as Indian. Dark skin, dark eyes, but with long black hair. A tiny, Indian Prim. It saddens me that there are people so ignorant in this world.

  14. while i was reading the book i pictured rue, along with the rest of district 11 being black. so when all these issues online started popping up I was really confused. I was even more irritated when people even got upset about Jennifer Lawrence being cast Katniss because she didn’t look like or or . Regardless of what someones race is fictional in a book, or real life as an actor, when it comes to art that should be the last thing on peoples mind. The whole point of an actor is to become who the character is you are playing and do them great justice and I felt all the actors in this film did so.

  15. Thank you for this article – it’s so true, not just about ‘The Hunger Games’, but about general literature and media representation, or the lack thereof. (Although, as a side note regarding this film, little Amandla’s name means ‘Freedom’, and was the first part of a resistance chant in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Interesting, and a little piece of irony that most of the people making the racist comments you mention are probably not well-read enough to grasp.)

    I live in the UK and, for the record, I think the idea that the media-representation over here is more diverse is a case of ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’, though of course it’s a valid opinion. I don’t know if the BBC version of Merlin has aired much in the US yet, but there was a huge outcry (by similarly bigoted people) when the producers revealed that Guinevere, or Gwen as she is known in the show, was to be played by a mixed-race actress, the wonderful Angel Coulby. Why? Because so many people felt that, despite the fact the race of the Once and Future Queen of Camelot is NEVER mentioned in ANY version of the Arthurian legends WHATSOEVER, the role and character was white. This illustrates how ingrained ideas of stereotypes are.

    I was overjoyed. Not only did it mean that (finally!) we were moving forward to a place where race didn’t matter, but it also seemed to suggest that the people behind the show weren’t afraid to force the viewing public to embrace a new attitude towards a story supposedly so canonical. Myths and legends are so fundamental to the identity of a country/culture that they are the perfect conduits to change thinking (and perhaps it’s not for nothing that ‘The Hunger Games’ takes Greek folklore and the Theseus and the Minotaur myth as part of its inspiration, too.)

    Having said this, in my view, there’s one aspect of diversity which is almost non-existent in the media and which people are loath to raise as an issue – disability. Maybe I would notice this, as I have Cerebral Palsy and use an electric wheelchair to get around, but it doesn’t mean it only affects me. I want to act (I’m studying an English and Theatre joint-honours degree) and I’d really appreciate having role-models – just putting that out there.

    Okay, I think I’m done ;)! Thanks for being patient!

    • See my above post too. Guinevere literally means “fair brow” which so many think means WHITE but it really only means she was quite beautiful. And “beautiful” is a stereotype that has changed over the years so many times.

      Despite living in the USA, I enjoy “over-the-pond” shows so much more! (I’m addicted to BBC.) Partly because of the cultural diversity and mostly because I feel better when watching “Masterpiece” or “Doctor Who” specials instead of “Desperate Housewives” or reality tv (it depresses me too much).

    • YES. I agree. Also, the two characters in wheelchairs that first come to mind Kevin from ‘Joan of Arcadia’ and Artie from Glee are both played by able-bodied actors. Though, I guess the first they needed him to be able to play sports for flashbacks and the second they were looking for someone with a specific voice… it’s interesting how rare it is to see someone with an actual disability on TV. Good luck with the acting classes!

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

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

  20. 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.