It's been a racially-charged week in several ways. I'll be posting on race as I see it until Friday. I hope my words will shed some new light on the subject for you.
So, this happened. Apparently some Hunger Games fans were disappointed, hurt and even angry that Rue, Thresh and Cinna were black. Now, I am the world's least visual person. I don't see characters in my head like I imagine most readers do, so I run right over description. I didn't notice Rue and Thresh were black until casting either. Guess I just don't notice race where it doesn't matter, which is like 95% of the time anyway.
RUE AND THRESH
Rue and Thresh are described as having dark skin. Yes, you can have dark skins without being black. But Katniss is described as being olive-skinned, the skin tone of darker White people, many Native Americans, and much of South-East Asia. If she's going to call someone dark, then they've got to be darker than that.
Now, if Rue and Thresh were always black, it raises the issue of how so many people missed that. I already told you how I missed it, but if you clicked over to the link, lots of people imagined Rue one way or another. They're clearly not in the same boat as I am.
Magicians, comedians and pick-pockets use something called misdirection. A pick-pocket may spill something on you and wipe your dress off. While you're concentrating on your dress, their other hand is fishing your purse out of your handbag. The principle behind the thing is that your brain has a set of expectations and doesn't see anything else.
In the case of Rue and Thresh, the misdirection is not purposely set up by author Suzanne Collins. The misdirection comes from society, entertainment, and the literary canon. I mean how many characters are specified as non-white, especially where their race is not a plot point? Especially in dystopians and other speculative fiction (fantasy and sci-fi)?
Cinna's race isn't specified, but according to commenters on the Jezebel article, he wears gold eyeshadow, which just wouldn't work on certain tones. Even if that weren't the case, what protesters about Cinna are saying is that if a race is not specified then a character must be white. White people never have to be specified as white. If you write a movie script with no descriptions, the casting director should only consider white actors and actresses. Only where specified, should a non-white actor/ress be sought.
There's a part of me that wonders how much we are to blame. By we, I mean stakeholders in the publishing industry. There are so many times when a character isn't required to be of one race or another, and they are just "arbitrarily white." There's no reason why more supporting characters couldn't be black, Asian, Latino, whatever - unless that completely doesn't work for your setting. It would be weird to have a lot of Asians in my books, set in Barbados. If your book is set in Dutch country, I don't think there are any Amish people of other races.
And then there's the house angle. I keep hearing that houses say they can't sell books with minority faces on the cover. I expect that if people see a minority face on a book, they assume it's a "minority book." And who can blame them? Right now, that's the case. The only way to change this mindset, is to change the actuality. Put some minority covers out there. Yes, you might take a hit for a minute, but a good book is still a good book. The people who will purposely avoid a story only because it features a minority, ARE a minority. And even if they weren't, you kind of have to wonder about the validity of catering to racism - because it IS racism. It's allowing people to say this book is inferior because there's a minority person on the cover.
Hollywood is even worse than publishing when it comes to minorities. I posted about it 2 years ago, when I got really annoyed at the casting for The Last Airbender. The tribes are clearly based on the Inuit and early Asian cultures. And for 3 of 4 characters, they cast white actors. Then there was that time that Goku from Dragon Ball was white, and the time they spray-painted Jake Gylenhaal orange in Prince of Persia. Even in the same Hunger Games, there is no way that Jennifer Lawrence could be considered "olive-skinned."
The Hollywood argument is sometimes that the actors just aren't there. There aren't a wealth of A-list minority actors to draw on for roles. How many A-list Native American actors do you know? I'm talking pre-Twilight. The only actor I can think of is Adam Beach, from Flag of our Fathers. On Hollywood's end there are two possible solutions. Cast more non-whites, and eventually you'll have more non-white A-listers. And solution 2 is to go with unknowns. Every single one of Twilight's werewolves has Native American ancestry. Had anybody heard of any of them before Twilight? Probably not. But they all turned out to be fine actors. And one of them is now an A-lister.
A PARTING CHALLENGE
Not all the tweets in the Jezebel article were racist. There are some where people had just genuinely not considered it. Why consider it, if it never happens? Maybe if it happened more, it wouldn't be so terribly shocking. So, if you're a fiction writer, I've got a challenge for you. Have an minority or "other"* character in your work. A main character, if you're willing put in the work. (The one thing worse than no other characters is poorly-done other characters.) One of the bigger supporting characters, like Rue. The guy that sits next to your MC at work or school. The boss. The principal. The waitress at the local hangout spot. Better yet, see if you can do that in every novel or script you work on.
We've got the power to change the mindset, one minority character at a time.
*I define "other" character as any character who doesn't fit the mainstream literary reality. It includes different races, different sexual preferences, disabilities -- basically anyone you'd find in the section of a college application about who they don't discriminate against.