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Hunger Games: Why Didn’t Some Readers Notice Black Characters?

By now, you’ve likely heard or read about the controversy surrounding the “Hunger Games”, and some viewers’ reactions to the casting.  Quite a few people expressed disdain, dislike, or general consternation via social media with the fact that some of the characters that they had envisioned as white, were portrayed by black actors and actresses… though in reality, the casting decisions reflect the actual descriptions of the characters in the book.  The feeling from these viewers seems to be that the casting was done in a manner to consciously include actors and actresses of color, as some sort of Hollywood affirmative action program.  I don’t dispute that the reactions are extremely distasteful, but at the same time most of the viewers in question appear to be in high school, so we can at least point to age and immaturity as minor contributing factors.

I think what really struck me personally (as I’m unfortunately not shocked at overt racism on the internet anymore), is that these readers didn’t notice that the characters were black.  The book clearly spells it out (albeit briefly), and an interview with the author in 2011 specifically states that these characters are African-American.  So the readers read the passage, they understood and comprehended everything else that was going on in the story, but somehow their image of what the main characters looked like in their mind’s eye didn’t gel with what they were reading.  It didn’t even register!  Ugly reactions to their appearance aside, how can it be that a person wouldn’t notice something like this?

I think part of the answer lies in unconscious bias, but also in our own orientations toward cultural differences.  People who are oriented in the monocultural stages of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (or what we at LCW refer to in shorthand as the DMIS) may see differences and assign value judgments to them (Defense/Reversal), or be incapable of seeing or acknowledging differences at all (Denial).  People may be oriented in monocultural stages for a number of reasons, but lack of experience with those different from themselves, or having experiences limited to stereotypical portrayals in the media can be two contributing factors.  Being punished for noticing and verbalizing differences when we’re young, or being taught that our own culture is superior by our elders can also play a role. These may not be intentional lessons in racism or discrimination, but clearly though, there is some unconscious bias occurring here.

There is no other explanation for completely glossing over a literal description of a character… though it’s not difficult to think of white people as “normal” or “default” when looking at the statistics on minorities on Television and in the movies. If you haven’t seen some of the “bias” videos on YouTube, such as Michael Shermer’s 2005 TED talk, it’s highly recommended.  Another great tool is Harvard’s “Project Implicit”, a series of assessments to help show you your unconscious biases –and as it turns out, I have biases too, according to the tests and my own honest reflections.  We all do, in reality.  Understanding and working through our unconscious biases, and discovering where those biases come from, is a key component of developing intercultural competence.

 

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