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Odds In Our Favour: Race in The Hunger Games

25th Jun 2014

Odds In Our Favour: Race in The Hunger Games
With popularity comes controversy, and The Hunger Games is no exception...

There have been questions around the franchise’s use in advertising, and  positive and negative reactions to the casting of the curvy Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. However, the biggest controversy has been around race in The Hunger Games, and its portrayal of racial diversity.

The Hunger Games isn’t the only series to have sparked this debate. Walter Dean Myers and Soraya Chemaly have questioned the lack of racial diversity in YA literature, and Victoria Law wrote a two-month blog series inspired by her struggle to find YA dystopian novels with POC protagonists. 

None of the characters in The Hunger Games novels are explicitly described as black, white, or of any other racial background. Although her race is ambiguous, readers like blogger Alexiel have read the black-haired, olive-skinned Katniss as a woman of colour.

Like Harry Potter’s Dean Thomas and Angelina Johnson, Rue’s blackness is only implied, but her ‘dark brown skin’ means that it is a rather strong implication. The fact that Rue is African American is obvious – or so one would assume.

When the casting choices were announced, it became clear that not every reader had seen the characters this way. Racialicious published two articles on the negative reaction to the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue.

Characters in YA literature are often ‘white until proven black’, unless, like the author of ‘Hunger Games Tweets’, the reader is a person of colour thinking ‘where can I find the character that represents me?

The Hunger Games shows that, despite not-so-subtle hints, white readers often assume that all characters are white unless they are told otherwise. The reason for this, as with so many other issues in media, is white privilege.

The Hunger Games is a gut-wrenching, challenging series, but the blinkers of white privilege hide part of its brilliance from many of its readers. White readers need to challenge the assumptions they make whilst reading, and remember that the absence of ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ in a character’s description should not be read as shorthand for ‘white’. One of the best ways to do this is to follow the example set by Victoria Law, and look for the POC protagonists duking it out in the battlefields of their own dystopias. White privilege is often described as a lens, but it’s really more like a set of blinkers. As Peggy McIntosh points out, white people ‘can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of [their] race widely represented’.

There are few POC characters in all forms of media, one study showing that ‘there are three non-white people in America for every non-white character on the big screen’.

This near-exclusive focus on white characters is also found in YA literature, as authors Zetta Elliott and Ibi Zoboi note. When media reflects a distorted image of reality, white privilege flourishes; white readers anticipate white characters, because that’s what they’re used to seeing.

To paraphrase Effie Trinket, the odds of white readers seeing white characters are ever in their favour – and as a result, that’s all white readers tend to expect.

More chilling than the assumption that Rue was white were many fans’ reactions to finding out that she was black; several commenters stated that they found her death less sad knowing she wasn’t white.

Elliott quotes Rudine Sims Bishop, who states that ‘the lack of diversity in children’s literature is also harmful to white children because they grow up thinking they’re the center of the universe’.

The reaction to Rue shows an extreme example of this ‘centre of the universe’ thinking – some white readers can relate so little to black characters that they find their deaths less upsetting. It doesn’t get much more dehumanising than that.

Taking a broader look at the series, The Hunger Games tackles some real-world issues of race and racism. The Captiol is mostly white, with POC characters found the Districts, reflecting the kind of wealth disparities between ethnic groups found in the modern USA.

In ‘Why Katniss Everdeen is a Woman of Colour’, Alexiel argues that the series’ revolutionary message parallels the real-life struggles of people of colour: ‘Either as a localized revolution against a dictator in the Global South, or as a global analogy related to the wealth and power of the North, The Hunger Games is one large metaphor for people of color rising up against oppression’.

However, as Alexiel points out, using a white protagonist to enact this metaphor undermines it, appropriating the experiences of people of colour. 

The Hunger Games is a gut-wrenching, challenging series, but the blinkers of white privilege hide part of its brilliance from many of its readers.

White readers need to challenge the assumptions they make whilst reading, and remember that the absence of ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ in a character’s description should not be read as shorthand for ‘white’.

One of the best ways to do this is to follow the example set by Victoria Law, and look for the POC protagonists duking it out in the battlefields of their own dystopias.

Kaspar, the hero of Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict, also takes on a corrupt government – but unlike Katniss, he does so from inside the system.

Karen Sandler’s Tankborn deals with slavery and dehumanisation, and Zetta Elliott’s novel The Deep follows Nyla, a girl with superhuman powers who is drafted into a secret organisation to defend the world. 

Young adult dystopian fiction is a rich and varied genre, with the potential not only to tell a gripping story, but to hold a mirror up to injustices in the real world – whether that injustice involves crooked politicians, abuse of new inventions, or the erasure of non-white characters.

Katniss may be the Mockingjay, but look further into the YA dystopia genre and you’ll find dozens of brave and heroic POC protagonists ready to spread their wings.