[The third post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are very welcome!]
Trying to make sense of the latest version of the racist ugliness that seems to bubble up so frequently in our collective online consciousness.
It’s one of our most common and accurate truisms that there are few places more discouraging and unsettling than the comment threads on virtually any web article or piece. In point of fact, those rare blogs or sites where the comment discussions operate at a typically high quality, both in tone and in substance—such as at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Joe Posnanski’s blogs, to cite two writers I’ve referenced before in this space—are unique enough to merit notice; at the rest, vitriol and garbage reign supreme. And while there are various factors to which we could attribute that trend—especially the anonymity and freedom that online commenting allow—such arguments would explain only why the vitriol is being shared, not its source; that is, the kinds of racist garbage that constitutes (for example) a significant percentage of comments on many of the articles on the Trayvon Martin case, including this beautiful piece by an African American mother on raising her son, may be enabled by the anonymity of the web, but it’s obviously present in many Americans’ perspectives in any case.
It’s tough to say whether another contemporary, indeed very recent, explosion of such racist hatred—the racist responses offered by many fans of The Hunger Games to the casting of a young black actress to play one of the film’s characters—is more or less surprising than that inspired by the Martin story. On the one hand, rabid fans of a work tend to react with vitriol to any perceived changes when that work is adapted or represented; those of us who witnessed the collective fan-boy horror at the concept of “flames on Optimus” in the first Transformers film can attest to this phenomenon. Yet on the other hand, this particular outburst is still surprising for at least two distinct reasons: the character in question, Rue, is explicitly describe in Suzanne Collins’ book as having “dark brown skin” (as is another kid from the same region/community later in the novel); and even if Collins’ dedicated readers had missed those details, the film apparently portrays the character’s actions and plotline identically to the novel, making the perceived “change” in race seemingly a superficial shift. Yet instead (as the linked article above details), many fans have responded to it as a change that “ruins the film,” and some, as represented by the fan who Tweeted that when he “found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” have gone much further still.
There would be many ways to analyze those responses, but for me they’re particularly interesting, and saddening, as examples of why empathy, particularly across racial and other communal lines, can be such a tough connection for us Americans to make. Identifying with, and often even (as in the case of a seemingly beloved character like Rue) loving, a fictional character is a definite act of imaginative connection; and the responses to Rue’s cinematic race illustrate just how much such imaginative connections require, for many of us at least, that the character in question feel identical to us in key, defining attributes such as race. While I’m sure that some of the angry Hunger Games fans are explicitly racist in other ways as well, my guess is that many—perhaps even the aforementioned Tweeter, who appended the phrase “I hate myself” to his response—surprised themselves with the recognition that the race of their beloved character mattered as much to them as it did. And while seeing their racism in that light might seem to be letting them off the hook for its ugliness, I would argue instead that it simply repositions that racism as something more shared and communal, in our (and especially white Americans’) tendency to identify with, and thus care about, those who look like us. Until us white Americans can all see Rue, and Trayvon Martin, as both black and just like us, we’ll all share in this collective vitriol far more than we might like to admit.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. Once again, after completing a post I come upon a very relevant, even parallel, piece. Guess that’s what happens when you American Study very zeitgeist-y topics!
PPS. What do you think?
3/28 Memory Day nominee: Nelson Algren, the Jewish American novelist and essayist whose representations of his beloved and troubled Chicago and nation are as radical as they are realistic, as cynical as they are clear-eyed about America’s ideals and realities.