So recently I received this comment to my article From Panem to Ferguson (Edit: This essay has now been deleted). At first, I figured I would ignore it, because people get comments like these all the time, and frankly I didn’t want to waste my time with it when I had more important things to do. However, it kept on bothering me. Maybe it’s because I had a cold and my patience was a lot less than usual, maybe it’s because I just wrote a 15-page research paper about the depiction of race in dystopian fiction, but the point is that I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Now, I know this may shock and horrify you, but I’m about to tell you something that’s going to blow your mind: The Hunger Games is about race. Your precious story about a teenage girl overthrowing a totalitarian government is about race.
The thing is though, for some people that is genuinely shocking. And I don’t just mean people like the one who posted that response, or the people who said they didn’t feel sad for Rue because she was black. I mean people who honestly never even noticed it, who, once they read about the whitewashing, were genuinely horrified. AKA, “good” white people.
The person who posted that comment argued, “I suppose the idea that the wealthier merchants were all fair skinned and blue eyed fared better in the District than the olive skinned, dark haired was a little bit of that, but it never became more than it was.”
Katniss literally states in the first nine pages that her mother and sister, who are fair-haired and blue-eyed, look out of place in the Seam. She says, “Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way.” She goes on to say, “That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are.” That’s a direct quote from the book, that’s not me making assumptions. She even says that she and Gale look are assumed to be related. I’m sure many people of color have had the unfortunate experience of white people assuming they are related to someone simply because they both aren’t white.
It is not simply that some people are olive-skinned and black-haired, the Seam is collectively olive-skinned and black-haired, with maybe a few exceptions. Her mother and sister, and other people from the merchant class, are visibly different from the Seam because of their blonde hair and blue eyes. What can you call it if not a racial divide? I honestly don’t know how you could “suppose” that the better-off merchants are fair-skinned and blue-eyed unless you’re taking your information solely from the movies.
And if this commenter did read the book, then that is quite a feat of selective reading. I honestly don’t understand how you could read the books and conclude that District 12 was predominantly white with little to no visible racial division, but then again, that’s apparently how most people perceived it, which is incredible. But whatever you concluded, you can’t argue with the things that are literally stated in the book. It is stated in the book that District 12 is racially divided, with the black-haired, olive-skinned residents working the dangerous, low-paying jobs, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed residents being slightly better-off business owners. It is stated in the book that District 11 is predominantly black. It is stated in the books that people like Peeta and Madge are visibly different from Katniss and Haymitch.
In the films there is no visible division between the Seam and Merchant Class. Almost everybody pictured is fair-skinned, with blonde or brown hair. When we get images of what is ostensibly the Seam, again, we are shown white people, usually with dirty faces.
The commenter argues that “Suzanne Collins never made any over race statements.” Sure, Katniss never said “I am Latina/Black/Italian/Native/etc.” However, that doesn’t mean race isn’t there. Katniss simply doesn’t have the same vocabulary that we do to describe race. Katniss doesn’t have “African American” to describe Rue, so instead she calls her dark-skinned. Katniss and most of Panem don’t know about anything prior to Panem. They don’t know about segregation, or the Transatlantic Slave Trade, or even countries beyond Panem. The race statements are there, they’re just not written in a way we’re used to.
Another thing I hear a lot is “We don’t know what race Katniss is,” which is true. But we also know what she’s not. We know that she’s not fair-skinned and brown-haired, she has olive skin and black hair. This idea that somehow we know almost nothing about Katniss’ physical appearance is ridiculous. And even if Katniss does fall under our definition of “olive-skinned white person,” Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t.
Jennifer Lawrence is fair-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes. She has cool, blue undertones, making her the palest on a spectrum of skin tone. She doesn’t fit the description of Katniss in any sense. In fact, she’s the perfect description of somebody from the Merchant Class. Also, let’s not forget that the casting call specified that actresses “should be Caucasian.” Even if Katniss could be any race, that’s not what the casting call decided. It decided that Katniss can only be white.
Olive-skinned white people do exist. For example, many southern Europeans could fall under the category of olive-skinned, such as Spaniards, Italians, or the Portuguese. But there are also many Europeans who don’t fall under this category, because unlike the people of the fictional Seam, they are not collectively olive-skinned and black-haired.
This is Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor. He is what you would call an olive-skinned white person. Does he look ANYTHING at all like the pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence?
The thing about Katniss is that, yes, she could technically be any race (though it’s infinitely more likely that she’s multiracial), but in the context of Panem, she isn’t white. Whiteness is a social construct that is constantly changing. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people weren’t white. In 20th century America, Italians, Greeks, and the Irish weren’t white. Now, they are. (Fun fact: the Irish became accepted as white by participating in anti-black racism).
Also, I have personal experience with this. My mom is Spanish and Puerto-Rican, but she is also white, and she has dark hair and olive skin. In the summer she can get pretty dark. My dad is white, with Irish/German ancestry. He’s fair-skinned, with blue eyes and dark hair, and he looks like a tomato if he spends an hour in the sun. But despite this, you can’t immediately tell my parents apart in the way you could tell Mrs. Everdeen apart from Mr. Everdeen. My mom, though maybe “darker” than my dad, still has white privilege and is still recognized as white. I consider myself somewhat olive-skinned, but I don’t represent Katniss. You can’t immediately look at me and think “Oh, her mom is an olive-skinned European.”
In District 12, the Seam is not white. They are, by Panem’s standards, an “other.” They are hated by the merchants. When Peeta’s mom catches Katniss, a starving child from the Seam going through her trash, she threatens to call the Peacekeepers and says how sick she is of “those brats from the Seam” going through her trash. Just replace “Seam” with “hood” or “ghetto,” and the ethnic connotations are clear. Peeta’s mother doesn’t simply dislike Katniss for her actions, she hates her because of the ethnic minority she comes from. She sees her as “less than” because of her olive skin and black hair. It’s implied that Katniss’ mother, who is from the merchant class, was disowned by her family for marrying a dark, working class man from the Seam. Not only that, but Katniss seems to recognize that Prim, who looks more like their mother, is treated better than her. When Peeta’s father, a white man from the Merchant Class, promises to keep an eye on Prim, she thinks to herself, “People deal with me, but they are genuinely fond of Prim.” It’s not simply that Prim is more lovable. Katniss, despite her perceptions of herself, is valuable to her community. She could keep everything she gets in her hunts, but she doesn’t. She sells it at the Hob so other people can get a chance to eat. She cares about Greasy Sae’s disabled granddaughter. She’s taken on the responsibility as the sole provider of her family. Katniss is kind, even if she doesn’t believe it.
Additionally, people from the Seam are more likely to take out Tesserae. Katniss literally explains this on page 14. They are more likely to be chosen in the Hunger Games and they are more likely to die. The Seam live in poverty due to their status as an ethnic “other.” This isn’t to say that the people of the Merchant Class don’t suffer. Suzanne Collins makes it clear that people like Madge and Peeta also face difficulty. Madge’s mother is addicted to pain medication, Peeta is verbally and physically abused by his mother, and Mrs. Everdeen suffers from catatonic depression. Their lives are not perfect. But because by the standards of Panem they are “white,” they are less likely to take out Tesserae, be in poverty, or be chosen in the games.
Finally, and I can’t believe this isn’t brought up more, but Katniss mentions that her father could have made money from selling his bows and arrows. However, he didn’t, because somebody arming the Seam would never be allowed. Not District 12 as a whole, but the Seam. The Seam is the one seen as “risky.” The Seam is the part of the district that is seen as a threat. Think about when a white person drives through an “urban” neighborhood (codeword for black) and talks about how it’s “risky.”
Even though Katniss’ mom is white, Katniss is recognized as Seam, and that affects her experience. Whatever race Katniss is in our world, she is not white in her world. And frankly, she should be played by a person of color, because otherwise the dynamics of District 12 don’t make sense to us onscreen. Even if they did intend for Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss to be “nonwhite,” we still recognize and perceive her as white. And even then that’s not relevant, because there was no racial dynamic in the films.
I would even argue that the films watered down the class dynamic. Katniss is implied to have an Appalachian accent, which in 21st-century America, is looked down upon as dirty and uneducated. Yet even in the films, Katniss doesn’t have an Appalachian accent. Despite living in abject poverty, Katniss has shiny, flowing brown hair, clear skin, and straight white teeth. Katniss in the films isn’t even an “undesirable white.” At the very least, the film could’ve explored the discrimination that poor whites experience due to their poverty, but it doesn’t. It makes no effort to insist there’s even a class dynamic in District 12.
Also, what about District 11? District 11 is an explicit reference to slavery in the South. It is predominantly black, with the residents working 12 hours every day, prohibited from keeping anything more than a small portion of what they reap, and police brutality is a common occurrence. Rue tells the story of Martin, a developmentally disabled boy who was publicly executed for stealing a pair of night vision goggles. There is also the frail old man who was executed for displaying the three-finger salute. These stories have an uncomfortable parallel to the brutality African-Americans face at the hands of the police. District 11 alone shows that Panem is a racist society. Even though whites also suffer, people of color are still seen as “less” and are more likely to be in poverty. Even in the poorest district in Panem, the white residents are viewed more favorably than the Seam. This is not just “oh I guess things are a bit worse for the darker residents,” nor is it something that can simply be ignored. It is a huge part of the story. Katniss’ status as a racial “other” deeply affects her experience and her perspective. It provides a thoughtfulness and depth rarely seen in a lot of fiction, and a dystopian world beyond the generic “evil dictators oppressing people for the sake of being evil.”
The commenter said that they believe Collins’ statement about racial mixing and listed Finnick as an example because his description doesn’t sound like any particular race. Yet Finnick is still played by a white man. Johanna is also played by a white actress. Haymitch is played by a white actor. Annie was played by a white actress. The majority the of characters are played by white people, particularly the ones that get actual character arcs and don’t just exist to further the story. This isn’t a sign that the characters could be any race, this is the assumption that whiteness is the default. If you really think these characters could be any race, it should be weird to you that almost all of them are white.
This is not a person that we recognize as white. If so much racial mixing has taken place, then characters like Finnick, Katniss, and Johanna probably aren’t white by our standards. They’d probably look like the people pictured in that article. They might not be a specific race, but they wouldn’t be white. And it’s been pointed out that usually when describing a character, the author won’t describe their skin color if they’re white, because we’ve already assumed that. So just by specifying that Katniss is olive-skinned or Finnick has bronze skin, that’s a suggestion that these characters aren’t white.
Here’s a history lesson: in the Appalachians, there was an ethnic group known as the Melungeons. They were described as black-haired, olive-skinned, and blue-or-brown-eyed. They often called themselves Portuguese in order to be seen as somewhat “white,” but are believed to be the descendants of Native Americans, African slaves, and white Europeans, usually Spanish or Portuguese.
Not only do they sound eerily similar to the Seam, but they were also from the Appalachians, and they were the result of this “racial mixing” that people love to cite in defense of Katniss being white. If so much racial mixing has taken place, as Suzanne Collins and this commenter argues, then Katniss and the Seam are probably “Melungeons” of the future.
Of course, there is Suzanne Collins’ statement that the characters weren’t “particularly intended to be biracial.” There is also her statement that “a lot of racial mixing has taken place,” which as I already pointed out, makes it less likely that Katniss could be considered white. Her argument is essentially that because Panem is so racially mixed, our ideas of olive skin are different. That makes Katniss’ description of herself as “olive-skinned” to the reader useless. And also, this all comes AFTER Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss.
So why did she backtrack, why would she allow Katniss to be whitewashed? I don’t know. I’m not Suzanne Collins, I can’t tell you what she was thinking. Maybe she didn’t see why it was a problem, maybe she didn’t care, maybe she fought it and then changed her mind when she realized she couldn’t win. But authors can change their minds. Authors can be racist, authors can be wooed by money, authors are people, and people make mistakes.
Maybe this casting wouldn’t be such an issue if it wasn’t so common. Maybe it wouldn’t be such an issue if a movie about ancient Egyptians wasn’t cast almost entirely with white Europeans. Maybe it wouldn’t be such an issue if the majority of lead characters weren’t white, and behind the cameras even more predominantly white.
Also, I just want to address my favorite part of this comment, “Not everything is racist, believe it or not, sometimes authors can discuss topics beyond race.” It’s hard to describe my feelings toward this particular line. The solemn condescension, the classic “not everything is about race.” There’s so much to unpack here. First of all, the idea that race is a thing that authors are constantly discussing. I mean, people do write about it. But the idea that race is an overdone subject is hilarious to me. I think what’s most important to acknowledge is the idea that race is some kind “distraction” from the “real” issues. And my question is also, what are the “real” issues? Is it gender? Is it class? Is it the desensitization to violence and sexuality? Is it our modern surveillance state? Because guess what, all those things are connected. You can’t talk about class as something separate from race when African Americans and Latinos experience the highest poverty rates in the US. You can’t talk about gender as something separate from race when Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped, and their rapists are usually non-Native men. You can’t talk about surveillance as something separate from race when Muslim-American communities are continually spied on in our country. This doesn’t mean that these things don’t also happen to white people. Of course they do, and we should be equally outraged. But if we ignore the way race affects these things, not only are we prioritizing whites over people of color, but we’re ignoring the true nature of these issues.
Also, here’s the thing I love about this idea that race is a distraction. In the films, Panem is presented as post-racial. It is presented as a world in which race isn’t a problem. It’s purely a class issue, with generic evil dictators being evil for the sake of being evil. Does that mean that the films have no power or no thoughtfulness? No. But the whole problem with the post-racial dystopia is that it essentially takes the suffering of people of color and says, “I know this mostly happens to black and brown people every day, but what if it happened to Jennifer Lawrence?” Oppression becomes entertainment, and it’s presented as progressive because it “transcends” race. But it’s not transcending race. It’s placing white people at the forefront of the narrative. It’s doing the same thing we’ve always done since the beginning of Hollywood. It also shows where our priorities lie. We can talk about child death and and desensitization to violence, but god forbid we bring race into it. Why? Why is race this subject that is so unthinkable?
Frankly, The Hunger Games should be about race. The Hunger Games should be about race because in our world, race is still an issue. Katniss should be a woman of color because my 11-year-old brother, who is adopted from Guatemala, should get to see himself in his favorite stories. He should get to see himself as the hero, as the brave fighter pilot, as the True Alpha, not just as the tattooed drug dealer, the starving child, or the janitor. This should be true for children of color, because when they don’t see themselves as anything other than a stereotype, that affects their self-image. It is harmful for black children to only see themselves as the 12-year-old killed by a spear to the chest or the violent gang member. It is harmful for an Asian girl to only see herself as the math genius with strict parents or the submissive Geisha. It is harmful for a Middle-Eastern boy to only see himself as the screaming, gun-toting terrorist.
And here’s the worst part of this. I know when I publish this, people are going to comment that I’m wrong. I don’t know about what, but they will. They’ll accuse me of race-baiting, they’ll say race doesn’t matter. I’m sure somebody will STILL argue The Hunger Games isn’t about race, and that I’m just taking things out of context or using evidence that doesn’t exist. And I don’t know how to reply to that, because there’s nothing to reply with. It’s like arguing with a two-year-old, there’s no logic. Do you know how many times I’ve cited scientific, sociological, and textual evidence that Katniss is a woman of color, and people have still replied with “but what if she’s Italian?” But honestly, Suzanne Collins herself could personally reply to this article and say that I am wrong, that race is not an issue in any part of The Hunger Games, and I will still stand by this. Because whatever she could argue now, she can’t argue with what she’s already written.
Here’s my thing. If a district where the olive-skinned, black-haired residents are more likely to die of starvation, more likely to be in poverty, almost exclusively working the low-paying, dangerous jobs, and looked down upon by the lighter-haired, blue-eyed residents isn’t evidence of a racial narrative, then what is it? If an entire district that is predominantly black, forced to work 12 hours every day and subjected to public executions and whippings isn’t evidence of a racial narrative, then what is it? If Katniss’ mother probably being disowned by her family for running off with a dark, working-class man isn’t evidence of a racial narrative, then what is it? Sure you can say there’s no racial narrative. But you’re wrong.