Complicating the Racist Hunger Games Tweets

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 visceral responses from these young adults, I wanted to see this film en masse. Something about the cyber-chastising of these young 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. It was an end-of-the-year unit that wrapped up a year-long study in the theme “The American Mosaic:  How each person, culture, and religion experiences the American Dream,” a topic we explored though many forms of American Literature.  I selected this text specifically for my 11th grade class because of reading level and engagement potential. First, most of my students read at an 8th to 9th grade level, and I knew they would be able to read the book easily. Secondly, my spring semester curricula had worked like magic–we had completed a unit on race in America with the play Fences by August Wilson and a unit on war and the American Dream in which we read from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I knew I had to find something to keep the engagement level up until mid-June, so I created a new unit called The American Dystopia: How the American Dream Gets Redefined and we used The Hunger Games as our class text.

Note: The racial demographics for my school’s student body last year, according to No Child Left Behind data, were 65% Black, 25% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 2% White (which meant Arab in our school building). Point being, I read this book with 70 students of color, and, falling in line with the racist Hunger Games fans, race was only an issue for me.

Within the unit, we talked about Ancient Rome, dystopia as a literary subgenre, 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 while many suffer. Students delved into the text through literature circles, and the trilogy of books caught fire (pun intended) across the 11th grade. Students were fighting over books two and three, reading in the hallways, and talking about the story. 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. My students are always the ones to point out to me stereotypical portrayals of people of color, the injustice of the Black character dying first or constantly being the antagonist in a film or book, and other race-based issues that I, as a White person, just 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.

One afternoon, during a lunch period, 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 olive complexion (like Katniss in the novel). Then we talked about the casting of Thresh as a medium-complexioned man, a rarity in Hollywood, and Rue’s lightness and curly hair, a common trait of Black female movie stars. The conversation turned into a talk about skin tone in Hollywood, 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.

This informal lunch talk turned into a history/geography lesson on past-America versus the setting of Panem, with a focus on who works and lives where in our country. With the historical and geographical knowledge of slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, and The Great Migration we plotted who might live in what district of Panem based on the trade/product and each district’s imagined location. We used one of the many maps created by fans online and added the racial breakdowns of each district across Panem. It was a fascinating use of history and geography to explore a text. I would do that lesson again.

Now, after having seen the movie, I would definitely introduce a lesson on the concept of a post-racial society to the students. Is the Capital, where citizens mask themselves beneath body art, hair and skin dye, and outrageous colors an example of a post-racial society? Why or why not? Have the individuals in power shifted? What is similar or different to today? Discuss.

But 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, but nobody branches out to ask what next? What do we all do with that information?

And I ask 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.” How can we encourage the students to think differently about race? Or to just think about race, period? A couple of resources I have used often pop into my head:

1.  Show the 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 3rd graders the harm of discrimination through a two day experiment in which she divides the class between the blue eyed students and the brown eyed students. The students turn on each other so quickly; it is terrifying and fascinating. Use this as a launching point to discuss what is discrimination, how does it affect 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 and re-administers the experiment with young Black children today. It’s only 8 minutes long, but it tells a hard story about how kids internalize racism from a 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?, ask students to conduct their own research like Kiri Davis in their school or in their home.

And I realize through writing this that I think the way the media has crucified these young tweeters is not the way to resolve the larger issue of their racism. It is going to make them afraid to be honest about their feelings of race, even when those feelings are ugly. Many of them shut down their Twitter accounts after being called out as racists; the collective response to their truths has silenced them. But I can assure you that they are not silent. They have now been taught not to air their honesty, and they are currently expressing their racist ideologies in a more covert way to like-minded friends. And that is dangerous. Someone needs to talk to them in a constructive way about why they felt the way they did upon seeing Thresh and Rue, and where those feelings came from. 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.

[Also published in the Huffington Post, here.]