Monday, March 26, 2012

.....Just Wow

So... apparently there is a contingent of Hunger Games fans who are upset that black actors were cast for the roles of.... black characters.

I know I've mentioned whitewashed cover art around here, and I probably said something about how annoyed I was with the casting on The Last Airbender (the Avatar series was one of my favorites, specifically because they did such fabulous Asian culture based stuff... so it was very weird when the only named characters who were any type of Asian (and then clearly not the type of Asian they'd been in the series) were the villains, and then only because the white Disney pop star boy backed out. I actually really got into it with a friend of mine over this, which was terribly weird to me, because I really just assumed they would also assume a character named Toph Bei Fong was, you know, from some sort of Chinese or Korean extraction. Not quite so, apparently.)

Aaaaanyway. Here is a bunch of angry tweets from people very upset to see that characters they apparently thought were just tanned white folk portrayed by black actors. 

In the words of one superfan: "when I found out Rue was black, her death wasn't as sad".


  1. People are assholes - and given the chance, they will gladly demonstrate it to you.

    Put that on your coffee mug.

  2. Yeah, that is kind of the issue with any large group of people. It still really surprised me, though, especially given that the characters seem to be pretty explicitly described as black in the books.

    Apparently the casting call for the main character was strictly white only (though the author seems to indicate in interviews that she's of mixed ethnicity).

  3. Are you surprised? I'm not. Not even a little. Surprised they copped to it in public, maybe, but not that the sentiment exists. Maybe it's my now-years of experience with focus groups and the horrific things people will bust out with when they think they're in "safe" company... but I think I would have suspected it anyway.

    At first I was surprised that they didn't see what was clearly in the text--and the excerpts in the article certainly make the skin tones pretty clear--but then I remembered something about comments on my own novel. (This is just an example to demonstrate the phenomenon. I do not mean to imply that it's on the same level of vicious prejudice/etc.) A significant majority of the people who read Body and Song without reading Love Like a Shadow first either thought Seveteshan was female or were plain-statedly confused about his sex until about 10,000 words in, with some going even deeper than that. Despite the fact that he's called "a man" and "he" in the first chapter and "sir" not long after that. I couldn't begin to tell you why that happened so consistently, but I think it shows that people are very capable of letting their assumptions cloud out the words on the page.

  4. I guess what made me surprised about it was how many times people have made the point that the expectation is that white folk won't be able to empathize with minority character- and my general response to that assertion is that it's silly and antiquated at best. You know, and then you get a big mess of this.

    I'm not terribly surprised that folk misread a character- I've done that. I'm more surprised that there are people who are saying that the corrected reading of that character makes the book/movie not as enjoyable for them.

    I dunno, I guess in part it also goes back to what Dianna was saying in an earlier comment- that people are going to see what they expect to see and that the best way to tell a story (even a story specifically about something like racism- and forgive me, I'm paraphrasing you here) is to not give too much concrete demographic information that might hinder their ability to identify with a character. (Again, please correct me if I'm not doing that point justice).

    And, I mean, strategically that's not an invalid point. You could also certainly write a parable that examines the social mechanics of classism by looking at the relationship between the astronomically wealthy and the merely exceptionally wealthy. You know, or you could also write about poor people. There's pros and cons to both approaches.

    I think there's an extent to which abstraction saves people from having to look at the realities of unfair social systems, especially when there's a chance they're complicit in them.

    And I feel I've kind of gone off on a tangent now, but.... yeah.

    Isn't there something to the idea of the empathetic exercise of identifying with someone who isn't just like you?

  5. Yes, you got it mostly correct. I think the only time one needs to specify the color of a character's skin tone is when the story is about racism.

    My theory has borne out in a rather ugly way. What I think happens is that the reader paints the character with the skin tone they are mostly familiar with. For me "dark brown" is going to be someone who is really tan. I live in Florida. I see caucasians with tans that are darker than a lot of African -Americans. If all the author gives me in the way of identifying the character's race is 'dark brown' then I probably would paint the character caucasian tan instead of African brown.

    One could label me racist and completely miss the phenomena I'm trying to describe. I don't think it is a function of racism but more the way one's brain works to pull up an image one is familiar with and attach to the character.

    However, that is not to say that there isn't an element of racism going on. I think there are two things going on here. One is racist and the other is painting the character a familiar color.

    And the angry outburst by these teenagers who are shocked to discover the characters are black when they painted them white; some of that is racism. But I think some of that is lashing out because they feel stupid for having gotten it wrong. I won't lie to you, I do feel incredibly stupid confessing this. And the only reason that I can confess it, is because I think it is important to be honest about my experience and I am also a lot older. If there wasn't some value in parading my stupidity to the world, then I would keep my mouth shut.

    Some of what is happening here with the tweets is racist, yes. And that needs to be addressed.

    But I think some of it is not, and it would be really interesting if a psychologist or sociologist studied the phenomena to figure it out. If we knew what was going on when a reader does this, then a writer could describe a character so that the reader gets the difference. If you're trying to write a story that is multicultural and you want the reader to get it, then you have to describe the characters in a way that they will get it. Obviously, skin tone isn't enough.

  6. Diana- I guess I have a couple of questions, if it's alright?

    Short of straight up saying "this character is black/hispanic/han chinese", what level of description would it take to convey the race the author was trying for (not always applicable in, for example, second world fantasy)? Also, in your mind, how much difference do set pieces make (for example, if a character is wandering around with a katana and a wakizashi, or the character is native to a rainforest)? If a character was explicitly stated african american, but described as "light skinned", what would you picture? How much do names affect this for you?

    After the first time or two when you found out afterward that a character was meant to be some other race than white, were you more likely to read subsequent characters described in that way as not white?

    Also, and forgive me if I'm extrapolating too far from the quote "I think the only time one needs to specify the color of a character's skin tone is when the story is about racism", does that mean by extension the only time a character needs to be something other than white is in a story specifically about race or racism?

  7. Answering your last question first: Good god, NO. Hair, eye, and skin color along with other physical descriptions tell me nothing about a character. Nada. The only time it will tell me anything about the character is if the character was treated in a special way (either good or bad) because of that physical characteristic. "The man has curly brown hair" tells me nothing about the character. It's a detail which can be forgotten. But "the man was tormented as a child for having curly brown hair" tells me something about the man's life experience and his character.

    Race doesn't tell me anything about the character. An African-American could have been brought up in the ghetto, but they could just as well have been brought up in a middle class neighborhood or Beverly Hills. They could be a gang-banger, but it is just as possible for them to be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. I know more black engineers than I do gangbangers. So the character is black, so what? Unless the author tells me how that is a factor in who they are, I can't make any assumptions.

    I thought about this some more after I posted. I haven't read the book. I'm taking this from the link you posted. The description of Rue is "she has dark brown skin and eyes." and that is the proof that Rue is African-American. But dark brown skin and eyes are also found in other ethnic groups. It doesn't automatically identify Rue as African-American. She could be Native-American. She could be Latino. She could be an Arab or from the Middle East not specifically Muslim as there are Christian and Jewish Arabs. She could be Indian. She could be Polynesian. All of those ethnic groups have dark brown skin and eyes. That description is not enough to label Rue African-American. There has to be more there which could be name, clothing, accoutrements, habits, speech, etc.

    Name really helps. In Harry Potter, I got that Cho Chang was Asian and the Patil twins were Indian. But Dean Thomas being black didn't stick in my mind. I don't think his race was ever stated again after he was introduced. It certainly wasn't an issue in the story.

    It was Dragonriders of Pern where I totally missed the characters race. And thinking about it as I am trying to come up with examples and answer these questions, in that series race is not an issue. From the earliest stories of when the settlers landed on Pern, there was a mix of races initially present which can be determined by their names. But two thousand years of interracial mixing and changing the names to ones not found on earth, and it's hard to say this character is Asian or this character is African-American. It is a non-issue in her stories. Skin color is not a source of tension.

    If a character was explicitly stated as being African-American and described as light skinned, then I would probably picture a friend of mine in LA who is mixed race. There used to be a cashier at Publix who was mixed race. She had light brown skin and freckles. That is something you don't see everyday. I have to wonder how that affected her growing up.

    I think I need to say that I hate racism and racists with a passion. One of my childhood friends was beat black and blue by her father; he almost killed her, because she was dating a black boy. Because of the color of the boys skin, he almost killed his daughter, my very good friend. When she told me, I was horrified that her father would do that. Racism is stupid. Racists are stupid. And it needs to end now.

    Does that clear up where I am coming from or did I confuse the issue more?

  8. Anne doesn't mention skin color, but for a number of characters she does describe their facial features. And with the exception of a few in Dragonsdawn, all the descriptions are characteristically white European. I cannot remember a single description that included a wide nose, high cheekbones, or any other non-white feature!

    This is the only thing I dislike about the series; at least sexual orientation is for the most part accepted (there are a few exceptions, but they are usually "bad guys" anyways).