The Hunger Games, race, and the “default white”

Seeing humanity’s worst on teh interwebs is nothing new.

So I guess I wasn’t surprised by the small but heinous outcry against Rue’s casting in the movie version of The Hunger Games. If you’re unaware, start with this Jezebel article.

This has got me thinking (harder than usual) about character descriptions and reader expectations. In a workshop in graduate school Mary Anne Mohanraj once called me out on something called the “default white.” See, I had written a story in which none of the characters’ ethnicities or skin colors were mentioned except for one person of color. I hadn’t even realized I’d done it.

And just in case you were wondering, I am white. (I’m not sure if there’s a default for authors with other skin colors).

And yeah, I do–and especially did, as a younger writer–tend to write characters who are like me. Apparently I did not feel the need to define these characters as white, whereas if a character was unwhite I did. Shame on me. Seriously.

But here’s the thing. One of the pleasures of reading is imagining one’s self in the story. We find characters that we like and that we identify with, and we root for those people. One of the wonderful and frustrating things about writing is that no matter what we write, readers are going to bring their own interpretations to it. This means that if writers want readers to imagine a character a certain way, they have to be very very clear about it.

Suzanne Collins was clear about many of her characters. Rue, for example. For a partial list, see this other Jezebel article. As you can see, some of them are unclear. But on the whole the movie’s actors are much paler than the book characters. And that’s . . . whatever. I don’t want to guess at the filmmakers’ motives.

In fact, I don’t want to guess at anyone’s motives. I am taking this kerfuffle as a cue to look at my own writing and work on clarity of description of all the things that are important. I am looking to my own habits as a reader, and reminding myself to always read closely.

Is race one of those important things? That is a much bigger question than I can handle.

But to white Hunger Games viewers who are upset by seeing dark-skinned characters: STFU. Guess what? Human skin comes in lots of shades, and kids who don’t look like you should get to see themselves reflected on screen too.

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