Okay wait — let’s try a little thoughtfulness.

I’m still on about Hunger Games craziness.  No spoilers here, just a conversation I wish I could have with a few of the people whose reactions to the casting of Thresh, Rue and Cinna inspired Wednesday’s rant.

A couple of tweets struck me as leaving an open enough door for the possibility of conversation.

The idea that when we read we imagine that all of the characters look like us is benign enough on it’s face, right? It’s a way for us to relate to the people we’re reading about. That makes sense to me. Sort of.

I don’t always spend a lot of time worrying about what characters look like. As I read, an image develops, seemingly on its own. If an author makes a point of specifically describing someone, I pay attention because there has to be a reason for that especial description.

The comments on those tweets, however, interest me. Is it true that people assume every character they read in a book is their race?  So when these kids read, they imagine completely white worlds, worlds in which every person they encounter — even the ones that are specifically described as black — is defaulted to white. It would never have occurred to me that people read this way, imagined characters this way.  Even if I imagined that the protagonists I read looked like me, I know that I live in the actual world, in a place where not everyone looks the same.  I would never imagine that every single character was black.

My initial response to that second tweet was along the lines of, “Oh, check your hemline, dear. Your white privilege is showing.”  At the same time, I love the question of that tweet.  That shows me someone’s home, that there’s a person there, thinking, allowing herself to be pushed to wonder about something she’s never thought of before.  That’s a person I can talk to, a person who imagined Cinna as white and who might still wish he’d been cast white but who is open to being challenged to seeing him as a black man and letting that challenge make her think about (these mysterious, exotic) black people and not respond with “Eww,” or profanity. 

What’s that I hear?  Could it be … hope?

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15 thoughts on “Okay wait — let’s try a little thoughtfulness.

  1. After your post yesterday. I read Hunger Games today. All of it, in one sitting. My bottom is still a little sore, as I sat for hours. I wanted to know who Rue and Thresh were.
    And I cry for the little Rue who died, and for Thresh who let Catnip go free.
    I don’t notice a persons color. Is that wrong? No more than if their dress is blue or purple. I notice how they treat me or their friends. Are they kind? Do they listen?
    And I would still hit the kid in the head with my book if I had been there. At least, I hope I would have.

    1. Wow. I love that you sat down and read the whole book. That’s pretty powerful. And thank you for crediting Thresh for his decision not to kill Katniss. That seems to have slipped everyone’s mind (a black gangster? since when? in what story?).

        1. You what?! I continue to be impressed. I don’t know whether to apologize for taking three days of your time or to thank you for being so inspired by my post (and the general in-the-air-ness of these books) to just sit down and read all three. I’m opting for: thank you!

  2. I haven’t read the books yet but the questions you pose – or are posed in these Tweets – are interesting ones. I am white and when I was young I did imagine all characters of my race unless the author noted otherwise. But then, I’m of a generation where most of what I was reading was probably fairly whitebread reading. It is worth noting, however, that I no longer assume everyone is white when I read. I don’t know when it changed – and whether it was me that changed or writing that changed or both – but now I find I cast different races in my mind’s eye.

    1. I think when I was a kid I always imaged characters were white, too … because they mostly were. But as I type that, I realize that it’s maybe not entirely true. I looked for non-white characters. I remember doing that as early as 8 or 9 years old. I guess I was more aware of it than I thought. Hmm … I have to think about this some more.

      As for the change you note, I’m willing to bet it’s both: you’ve changed because what you see and experience has changed and some of the writing has changed, too.

  3. When I got to your previous post about The Hunger Games, I stopped reading when you said ‘spoiler alert’ because I wasn’t sure if I would read the books or see the movie. This post has floored me.

    I thought about it a minute, and I noticed that without a description by the author, something in me takes over and casts an image that I think goes with the characters’ personalities and the places they live in. I can cast a rainbow of races into a story, if left to my own devices.

    In a movie from a book I’ve read, nobody ever looks the way I thought they would. It may surprise me, but it only bothers me if the acting sucks.

    1. I think I have the same response when I read, Re. I let the story draw the character for me … but then I just wrote that last comment and I realize that I was actively looking for characters of color when I was reading as a child. I read a lot of books I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise simply because they had black characters. Definitely need to think about that some more.

  4. As an Asian – which means anything even resembling my ethnicity is almost never depicted in books except as “exotic people from a faraway land” or the one token who’s usually female – I spent my childhood as a reader hunting for some mention of someone who might look like me. Sometimes that meant the token, sometimes that meant the enemy, sometimes that meant the dark-haired stepsister in an all-white world.

    As a writer I always puzzle over how to introduce characters’ ethnic background. My worlds are diverse, but I dislike the emphasis created when I point out every person’s color or physical difference or queerness. I don’t know that I have a choice, though, because readers will assume what they willassume, and if I don’t want them assigning characteristics I think I have to provide my own.

    1. I, too, wonder how to introduce characters’ ethnicities. I see them so clearly that it feels heavy handed to say it out loud. It’s something I’m still grappling with.

  5. molly

    I had the humbling experience one time of imagining the characters of a novel I was reading as all white people when in fact they were all African-Americans. It was interesting to re-imagine them halfway through the novel. My ignorance, my racism, my learning experience. I think that people from ethnic backgrounds that are different from mine probably do not have the experience I had. And I think that similar preconceptions happen for (homo)sexual identity of fictional characters. I tend to imagine they are all straight unless told otherwise. Today authors are very careful to tell you about all the otherwises.

    1. I think about myself looking for black characters when I read as a child. I was able to find some. Not always, not in every story, but I was definitely able to find some. But your point about sexual identity really struck me. I was able to find people who looked like me. I can’t imagine there were any gay or lesbian characters — ones not added to be the butt of jokes — in any of those books. I may feel, as I said in the previous comment, heavy-handed or awkward when I just come right out and say who/what a character is, but I think you and Lisa are right: if I want people to know, I have to tell them. The tweeters I talked about in these two posts prove that it’s possible to ignore the author’s description of a character, but I still want to be sure the description is there, don’t want anyone to say I didn’t tell them.

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