Friday, March 30, 2012

Considering The Hunger Games & What Happens When People of Color Are Killed

On a spur-of-the-moment decision, I went to a midnight showing of The Hunger Games when it opened last week. I was wary of Jennifer Lawrence's casting as Katniss (and by wary, I mean I was pissed off) because I had read the series last summer and Katniss is clearly described as not-white, as many of the characters were.

When I saw photos of Jennifer Lawrence, I had a similar feeling about her to Mou Khan's: that she was too soft-looking for the role. And then I saw Winter's Bone, and her acting convinced me that she could be Katniss. Khan (and many others) were apparently unconvinced by her acting, but that raises the question of what our picture of a strong, fierce woman looks like. Many of the strong, fierce women that I know are not always--actually, rarely-- wiry, hawk-eyed, or thin. They look like my mother, my grandmother, my friends. They have soft cheeks and tough souls. After the movie, I texted my other friends that I was "satisfied."

There is so much to unpack about the racist reactions to The Hunger Games, the news of Trayvon Martin's and Shaima Alawadi’s killings, and the hate they expose. When I see someone tweet that they didn't feel as sad about Rue's death because she was black, I realized two things:

1. Even when characters in books are explicitly described as having darker skin (as Rue is) or are flat-out supposed to be people of color, we imagine the characters as white because our culture is so saturated with whiteness as the default.

My first clear memory of realizing that whiteness was the default in my own imagination came when I was a junior in college. I was reading Nina Revoyr's beautiful book Southland, whose protagonist is a Japanese American, queer woman, and I realized at some point that the image I had in my head was a white woman, not who the author described. That was a shock, and I think it was a major moment in what compels me to write and to urge other people of color to write. Because I experienced a moment when my own mind could not picture someone like myself as a protagonist. It's not a stretch to say that this happens to other people, too.

2. Black people dying is somehow "less sad" to many in our society--likely because this country is so accustomed to devaluing the lives of people of color, first and foremost, black folks).

The tweets about Rue and Cinna disturb me terribly because the connection is so clear between those flippant remarks and the way that police and society handle the killings of people of color. The list of people of color who have been killed and whose killers were not brought to justice is long and heart-breaking and infuriating. Our culture has conditioned us to accept that people of color are killed, that we kill each other all the time, or that we were up to no good anyway, so it doesn't matter when it happens.

I am Asian American so I cannot help but think about Vincent ChinThien Minh Ly, and Mike Cho and how their stories relate to current events. But that's not why I am in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, Shaima Alawadi, Oscar Grant, women killed in South LA, and countless others-- it is because the dehumanization that lets these things happen to all of us is ugly, hateful, and wrong. The racist reactions to The Hunger Games are reminders of how deeply racism runs.

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