[Content Note: This post contains discussion of racism and violence. I also talk about racist slurs, although none appear in the post itself]
[Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for both The Hunger Games movie and the books]
Since this post is almost exclusively about race – and about specifically the portrayal and the treatment of African Americans in American culture – I want to make it clear that I am a white American. My perspective is thus inevitably skewed. If you are interested in further understanding these problems, I highly recommend also seeking out perspectives on The Hunger Games and Trayvon Martin that are written by people of color. I have linked to several in this post.
Onward we march! (with the post)
On February 26th 2012 in Sandford, Florida, Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager, went to the convenience store to buy his brother a Snapple and a pack of Skittles. The neighborhood watch commander, George Zimmerman, saw Martin as he was coming home, and thought he looked “suspicious.” Zimmerman called 911. The Operator told him not to follow Martin. Zimmerman did not listen. He trailed Martin in his SUV. Zimmerman had a semi-automatic weapon; Martin was unarmed. What happened next is somewhat unclear, but a confrontation ensued, and Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.
Martin was seventeen years old.
Zimmerman told the police at the scene that he had shot Martin. He was neither arrested nor charged. In fact, it was not until April 12th, 45 days after the shooting, that Zimmerman was charged. If the case had not caused a national scandal, I have little doubt that Zimmerman would still be free.
Part of the reason Zimmerman was left free was due to the Stand Your Ground Law. Florida has an extra-special self-defense statute, which allows a person to use deadly force if he/she/zie ” “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” The statute includes no duty to retreat. The statute is the reason why Zimmerman can argue he was acting in “self-defense. This article explains the law better than I can.
There are a lot of deeply disturbing things about the Trayvon Martin case.
For one thing, it’s just about as clear an instance of racial profiling as you’ll ever find. Martin was doing absolutely nothing suspicious except walking while black in a suburban neighborhood. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has a history of calling 911 and describing black youths as “suspicious.”One of those black youths was seven.
(Hey, I’m not judging. My brother was seven once, and he was pretty damn dangerous. He always got the last cookie in the cookie jar. Devious little thing)
Eyewitnesses on the scene said they heard Martin calling for help. The police corrected them and told them that they must have heard Zimmerman, rather than Martin. To quote Crunktastic: “Even with eyewitness testimony, the police seemed incapable of seeing Trayvon as the victim. Young Black men are always the aggressors, right? Not the gun-toting white guy, who weighed 100 pounds more than Trayvon.”
These links do a great job of detailing the many, many, many disturbing things about the way the case unfolded: Crunk Feminist Collective and Think Progresses “What Everyone Should Know about Trayvon Martin” and “The Five Unanswered Questions”
Thanks in large part to the national attention on the case, Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder. He is now out on bail, awaiting trial.
Now, lest we think that the racial profiling and racism of the case was confined to Sanford, Florida, let’s see what happens when the case becomes a national scandal:
– a prominent commentator on Fox News (Geraldo Riviera) told parents of black and hispanic children to keep their kids from wearing hoodies. Right. Because that’s the problem: that Black kids are making a decision to look suspicious, and not that people assume that black kids look suspicious.
– White Supremacy groups hacked into Trayvon Martin’s email and twitter accounts in an attempt to find evidence that would prove Martin was “dangerous.”Shock! Gasp! Martin listened to rap, may (or may not) have smoked weed, and sometimes used swear words.
The media pounced on this information. They did not pounce on the other information in the emails: Martin’s scholarship applications and his SAT scores (they must have missed that part)
– Trayvon Martin’s school records were leaked, again, in an attempt to find evidence that he was a Bad Person and Deserved To Die.
– Without any evidence, several prominent bloggers and columnists stated that Trayvon Martin assaulted a bus driver and was a drug dealer. A columnist at the Examiner continued to make this claim even after the police confirmed it was untrue.
– The Sanford Police has leaked selectively negative information about Trayvon Martin. They also told Martin’s parents that Zimmerman was not charged with a crime because he had a clean record. This is a lie: Zimmerman once assaulted a police officer, and was charged with resisting arrest.
– Prominent conservative websites have run photos of Trayvon Martin where he is wearing saggy pants and making a rude gesture. The trouble is: whoever is in those photos? Not Trayvon Martin. Whoops. Fortunately, the websites have acknowledged their error. Unfortunately, they did not take down the photos (although they do acknowledge their mistake… in the caption. Thanks.) (Melissa McEwan of Shakesville does a take-down here)
[Further discussion at Think Progress’s great article on the Trayvon Martin smear campaign]
We as a country are engaging in a giant smear campaign against a seventeen year old kid for the crime of being shot and killed by a vigilante.
It’s horrifying enough that Trayvon Martin probably died because of his skin color. But what’s almost worse is that the reaction to his death has been riddled with racism and victim-blaming. Even if Trayvon Martin was bus-driver-assaulting-head-of-a-drug-empire, he did not deserve to be assassinated. Zimmerman knew nothing about Martin when he shot him. He didn’t shoot Martin because of what he was, he shot him because of what he looked like – “suspicious.”
And the national media, meanwhile, fell over themselves to try to prove that Zimmerman had a reason to believe Martin “suspicious.”
It’s like we can’t possibly believe that a black teenager could be the innocent one in the story.
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is a mega-giant-blockbuster of a Young Adult trilogy. The movie version came out a few weeks ago, and it broke multiple box office records. It’s opening weekend gross is now the third largest of all times, behind The Dark Knight and Deathly Hallows.
Quick plot summary for those who have never read the books or seen the movie (ie: my mother): every year in the country of Panem (a post-apocalyptic future version of the United States), twenty four youths between the ages of eleven and eighteen are selected (by lottery) as tributes to fight to the death in the titular “Hunger Games.” The games are televised for the edification of the nation. There is one winner.
So how does a YA dystopia-turned blockbuster movie relate to the Trayvon Martin killing?
Two of the tributes in the book are African American: Rue and Thresh. Suzanne Collins, the author, explicitly describes both characters as dark-skinned, and in interviews, she has said she meant for them to be read as African American. When the filmmakers cast Rue and Thresh, they thus chose black actors.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
And “Oh, god, I have to watch these poor kids fight to the death?”
But actually – I just hope that’s what you’re thinking. Because a whole lot of people had a very different reaction to Rue and Thresh in the movies.
What follows are a series of tweets reacting to the movie (I have not included the twitter names of the people in question, although they are available at my original sources) [content warning for racial slurs, racism, terrible spelling, failure at life]
“Why is Rue a little black girl?”
“why is Rue black?!?! #WTH #hungergamesprobs”
“Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie”
“Why did the producers make all the good characters black”
“EWW Rue is black?? I’m not watching.”
“I’m still pissed that Rue is black”
“Sense when has rue been a” – (Me: you know what? I’m not printing that word. You know what it is. Starts with an N.)
“some ugly little black girl with nappy…hair”
“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad”
“Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture”
“How in the world are they going to make rue a freaking black bitch in the movie?!?!?? lolol not to be racist”
“ew i imagined [rue] looking very innocent and cute”
THIS kid. THIS twelve year old kid is getting called a “black bitch.” This twelve year old kid, who (to steal Dodai Stewart’s words) looks like a freaking ANGEL, does not qualify as innocent. Just to be absolutely 100% clear: this girl (yes, the one right above this paragraph) apparently does NOT look “innocent and cute.”
There’s a whole contingent of people out there who think that because Amandla Stenberg has an extra melanin in her skin her death is not as “sad” as it was in the books. (They apparently failed to realize that Rue was also black in the books, which doesn’t say much for the state of reading comprehension in the United States).
The degree to which these people fail as human beings defies words.
All right. In spite of the massive amounts of racism and horrific-ness going on above, I will continue with a cogent analysis of the problem at hand, and attempt not to erupt into bouts of – OH WHO AM I KIDDING? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? SHE’S A TWELVE YEAR OLD KID!
Okay. I’m back. Apologies. I needed a moment. (I actually need more than just ONE moment, but… I will control myself).
Cogent analysis of the situation at hand.
What shocks me when I read these tweets is the raw anger that come off of them. These people aren’t just bemused by the situation. They aren’t laughing about their bad reading comprehension. They’re horrified. They’re angry. How dare they? How dare the filmmakers and Suzanne Collins besmirch Rue and Thresh by casting them as black?
In The Hunger Games, Rue is possibly the most innocent character of the entire narrative. She’s twelve – the youngest participant in the games. She never kills anyone, not even in self-defense. She saves Katniss (the protagonist). Her death is the most poignant moment of the movie. For the rest of the series, Katniss remembers her as a symbol of goodness, purity and innocence.
Thresh, the other African American tribute, comes from Rue’s district. He too, is an unambiguously good character. He refuses to join the “careers” (the group of tributes who actively try to kill the other children). Unlike Rue, he does kill, but like Katniss, he acts only in self-defense. He saves and spares Katniss’ life after he realizes she tries to save Rue, a decision that probably led to his death in the arena.
Rue and Thresh are good characters. Rue and Thresh are innocent characters. Rue is a symbol of innocence.
They cannot possibly be black.
As one of our Friendly Neighborhood Tweeters put it: “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture”
Blonde is innocent. Black is not. To be white is to be innocent, good, pure. But it does not matter who you are, what you have done, where you come from: if you are black, you cannot be innocent. To be black is to be guilty without ever having sinned.
I’m going to quote the founder of the Hunger Games Tweets website (which collected many of the racist tweets I quote before), who says it far more eloquently than I possibly could:
“These people are MAD that the girl that they cried over while reading the book was “some black girl” all along. So now they’re angry. Wasted tears, wasted emotions. It’s sad to think that had they known that she was black all along, there would have been [no] sorrow or sadness over her death.”
If she had been black all along, there would have been no sorrow or sadness over her death.
Does this sound familiar?
Like Rue and Thresh, Trayvon Martin was an innocent. He did not die because of what he did, but because of where he was: Rue and Thresh were forced into an arena, Martin was forced into a society where to be black is to be suspicious.
When Martin, a black youth, died, instead of sadness, we got indifference. The police refused to arrest his killer.
When Martin, a black youth, died, we got anger. Anger not at his killer, but at him. The police, the media, society at large, conspired to find every possible excuse to justify his death. He was wearing a hoodie. He used swear words. He did drugs.
His email accounts were hacked and his school records were leaked to prove he was a criminal.
We tried to find every possible excuse not to feel bad at his death.
We are so used, as a culture, to seeing black youths depicted as thugs, as lowlives, as “bitches,” as drug-dealers, criminals, delinquents, as stereotypes. We are so used to their role as the bad guys of pop culture and the media. We know who they are. We are so used to their depiction as less-than-human that we have lost our capacity to see them as children. As human beings.
We are so used, as a culture, to the negative, dehumanizing images of black people. We know they are thugs. We know they are sassy bitches. We know they are ugly. We know they are “suspicious.” We are so used to these stories about black children that we actually get angry when they dare – dare – to challenge them. When a black youth dares to show themselves as human, as a child, as an innocent among innocents, we are enraged.
When we see a young black girl who is innocent and smart and cute, we are mad. When we see a young black man who is shot, but who is the innocent party, we are enraged. We are so convinced of the rightness of our cultural narratives that we will do anything to prove them correct. We will hack into a murder victims’ email accounts to prove that yes, in fact, he is a criminal. He is not innocent. We will conveniently ignore the information in the victim’s email accounts, like the scholarship applications and the SAT information, that tells us that he was a smart, hardworking kid. That is not part of the story. We will call a twelve year old girl a “bitch” and deny the sadness of her death to prove that no, in fact, a black girl cannot be innocent. If she were innocent, we would be sad.
We will take every possible excuse not to feel sad at a black child dying.
That sadness you feel, when you hear about the death of a child? To me, that sadness is an affirmation of the child’s humanity. And by refusing to feel sad that Rue and Thresh and Trayvon Martin died, we are in every way denying their humanity. Denying their right to exist on this earth.
If Rue was walking home in suburbia, and she was shot by a vigilante for looking “suspicious,” would her death be treated with any more respect than Trayvon Martin’s?
I suspect not.
And that’s why Trayvon Martin is dead. Because we can’t even see patently “good” black youths like Rue as innocent [not that it’s okay to dehumanize black youths who DO fit the cultural narratives, but I think the example of Rue and Trayvon Martin show how far we’ve gone as a society]. And that’s why we have taken to smearing Trayvon Martin’s name after his death. Because we refuse to admit he could possible be innocent.
The title is, after all “Trayvon Martin, The Hunger Games, and Me”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to understand why Trayvon Martin and The Hunger Games have hit me so hard. I can’t get them out of my head (I first thought of writing this post three weeks ago). I’ve ranted about both issues multiple times to friends. I’ve written out mini-rants on facebook. Last week, I started crying in the library as I read Ajani Husband’s heartbreaking Open Letter to his Unborn Black Son.
I know part of the reason these stories affect me so much.
You see, I have a brother.
My brother is Rue’s age, exactly and precisely. He’s only a few years younger than Trayvon Martin. When I read The Hunger Games, and Katniss volunteered at the reaping for her sister, it was my brother I thought about. When Rue died, it was my brother I thought about. When I read about Trayvon Martin for the first time, my immediate thought was how horrible it would be if my brother died that way, killed by a vigilante as he walks around the neighborhood.
When I read Ajani Husband’s letter to his son, I imagined reading it to my brother. I imagined telling him he would probably be shot and killed by the police. I imagined saying to him, as Husband tells his son: “you will die. You will perish at the hands of those who fear you. Your death will be likened to a hunting accident.”
And I was horribly, pathetically grateful that I would never, ever have to have that conversation with my brother.
Because my brother is white.
I will never have to tell my brother that he should fear the police. I will never have to tell him that there are people in the world, thousands of people, who view him as guilty because of the color of his skin.
He will not be killed by a vigilante who finds him suspicious.
But if he were, if he were to die in the exact same circumstances as Trayvon Martin, his death would be universally mourned. There would be outrage everywhere.
No one would blame my brother for his own death.
No one would hack into his email account to try and justify his killer.
No one would leak his school records.
No one would falsify information about “assaults” he caused.
Because my brother is white.
My stepsister is Rue’s age as well. In fact, she looks a lot like Amandla Stenberg (they have very similar eyes). Only she is white. And blonde. And blue-eyed.
If she were in a movie where she died, no one would think her death was less sad because of the color of her skin.
I would never have to sit her down and explain why people on the internet call her names (yes, Amandla Stenberg knows about the tweets, which is one of the most horrifying parts of the entire story).
I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to know, every day, that your child is worth less than other children because of their skin color. I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to sit your child down and tell them how to protect themselves from the police.
I am not Trayvon Martin. I am not Rue. My brother is not Trayvon Martin. My step-sister is not Trayvon Martin either. It could not happen to us. Because we are white, because we are privileged, we are assumed to be innocent.
So yes, part of the reason these stories really affect me is because these are children dying. And as a sister – as a human being – I can’t stand back while that happens and people act like racist idiots.
But that’s only part of the reason, because, like I said: this would never, ever happen to my family.
The other part of the reason, I suspect, that I’m so angry is that I know that I’m part of the problem.
After all, I’m white. I’ve been taught these cultural narratives about the worthlessness of black lives since before I could even process them. My safety as a white body is predicated on the criminalization of the black body.
When I use the term “we” in this post – when I say things like “we are so convinced of the rightness of our cultural narratives that we will do anything to prove them correct” – I do so very consciously. Because I am a part of that “we.” I too, have been taught by my culture that black life is worth less. I too, have been taught to fear black men. I too, participate in these narratives, although (mostly) unconsciously.
And most of all, I know that it would be easy for me to forget.
It would be easy for me to forget the racism. It would be easy for me to forget the lessons I’ve learned from reading the blogs of black activists in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. It would be easy for me to stop seeing my white privilege, to assume that my family and I are safe because we did the right things, because we are “good” and law-abiding. It would be much easier, in fact, if I stopped thinking about these problems. I could stop going to bed mad. I could stop raging against a world that says my brother is innocent, but Rue and Martin are not. I could stop trying to educate myself. I could stop listening to other people.
I could just forget.
It would be so, so, so easy for me to forget. To say: this couldn’t happen to me. Or to say: everyone is mad that children are dying (and ignore all the ones who aren’t), and think: I don’t need to fight this fight. Other people are fighting it.
It would be so, so, so easy.
That is perhaps the greatest privilege that comes with whiteness: I can stop seeing the problems of race. I can choose to forget. Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Trayvon Martin and the other black children of America? They cannot forget.
So that’s my promise to myself. I will not forget. I will not let Trayvon Martin and Rue and Thresh slip quietly out of my mind. I will not pretend I understand what it’s like to go through this sort of racism, but I will stand with those who are fighting against it.
And I will try to find other ways to help.
In the spirit of being productive (and also of lifting spirits) I shall use the final space in this post to recommend links to other commentary on The Hunger Games and Trayvon Martin…
And to post happy pictures of Amandla Stenberg and Dayo Okeniyi being awesome.
A fascinating discussion of the Hoodie Marches, especially in context of Slutwalk, from the Crunk Feminist Collective