Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hoodies, Hunger, and Intuitive Racism

For the last couple weeks, the news has been dominated by 2 stories, and depending on who you ask, one just as important as the other: Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, and The Hunger Games came out in theaters nationwide. At first glance, these stories don't seem to have much to do with one another. In fact, they don't really. Or, they didn't, until people's reactions to the stories became the news.

The reactions to the Trayvon story quickly took a predictable turn to arguments primarily about race, with people choosing sides based on the perceived racism involved in the killing. It could have been (and may still prove to be) the start of an important discussion on gun laws in this country, but we decided to focus solely on the racial aspect, which proves to me that we have a long way to go in this country on racial issues. My conviction was further solidified when race became a major factor in the coverage of the release of this year's biggest movie, The Hunger Games. Racist reactions to the movie's casting became a headline news story, not to mention a pretty funny (and sad at the same time) Tumblr blog.

The movie has already made over 200 million dollars, and any movie with that type of success and popularity will have its share of controversy. This particular controversy is very interesting though, because most of the negative reaction came from young people, and the racist tweets say as much about their awful personalities and outlook on life as they say about this generation's horrible reading comprehension skills.

Apparently, some of the characters in the movie were portrayed by *gasp* black actors and actresses. In particular, the character Rue, was portrayed by a young black actress, Amadla Stenberg. Apparently, many people missed the section of the book where she is described as having dark hair and dark skin. (Readers should have at least realized she was supposed to be black when characters from her "district" were whipped, and later they rioted, the two accepted actions of black characters in American pop culture.)  One movie-goer said, "why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie." Another said, "Awkward moment when you find out that Rue is black and not the innocent little blonde girl you pictured."

The face of evil.

I'm not surprised by these reactions, I know there are people out there who still harbor these negative thoughts; however, with forums like Twitter and Facebook and comment sections on news stories, these ideas are posted for all to see, and the prevalence of these thoughts is alarming. Go to any news story about Trayvon, and at least 10% are just blatantly racist and hateful. The one saving grace in all this is that at least there's a large backlash against these types of comments...most of the time.

The Hunger Games comments became a huge news story because they not only show how hateful people can be, but they show how ignorance feeds the hatred and negativity. It is pretty obvious that the characters who were played by black actors were black in the book, yet these people claim to be huge fans of the book. Most of them claim that it's not about racism, they were simply upset that the movie didn't follow the book exactly; except that it did. Any time somebody says, "I'm not racist, but..." you know some racist shit is gonna come out of their mouths. It's similar to the defense, "I have a lot of black friends." These are classic racism deflectors, and they are as see-through as saran wrap. In 2012, everybody is aware that racism is not acceptable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist; racist people have simply modified their language in order to hide their true feelings. As Bill Maher said, denying racism is the new racism.

The scary part is that a lot of these people truly don't realize that they have these negative thoughts and feelings; or they don't recognize these thoughts as being racist. They think that racism is only when you call a black person nigger (which some commenters did, of course). Their views that only a white actress can portray the "innocent" character isn't racist to them because it's so engrained in our society that white = good and black = bad that we don't even recognize it as an issue. Why are we surprised that kids equate innocence with white skin and blonde hair? Have you seen a picture of Jesus?

 Looks like every Middle Easterner I know...

We are taught (implicitly and explicitly) from an early age that white is good, black is bad. The villains wear black; good guys wear white. White is innocent, pure. Black is evil, dangerous. Daylight is happiness and sunshine, nighttime is dark and scary. A white pigeon (dove) represents peace and love. A black cat represents bad luck. Black licorice tastes like shit.

This goes back thousands of years. More recently, though, it has been pervasive in cinema. In silent movies, you couldn't identify the bad guy through his words, so the easy solution was putting him in black clothes. Instant villain! And that trend continues to this day

Many people believe this tendency to associate good with white and bad with black has been the cause of negative race relations throughout modern history. The pervasiveness of cultural representations of the association between black and evil has led to an intuitive prejudice that works on an unconscious level, and it can happen even in people who are not consciously prejudiced. This idea is discussed much more thoroughly (and brilliantly) by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. He claims it is the reason for such tragedies as the killing of Amadou Diallo, an innocent, unarmed man shot 47 times by the NYPD.

Therefore, laws such as the Stand Your Ground Law are especially scary because they allow people to use deadly force whenever they feel threatened. Oftentimes, all it takes is the wrong skin color, or the wrong hand gesture, or the wrong piece of clothing to be perceived as a threat. Twenty four states now have such Stand Your Ground laws. Nowadays, any mention of even the smallest restrictions on gun ownership is shouted down with claims about the liberal agenda to "take away our guns!", and now the extraordinarily powerful gun lobby has helped push through legislation that further empowers gun owners to use deadly force at their own discretion. According to the Wall Street Journal, "justifiable homicide" has nearly doubled since the laws have taken effect. The laws basically encourage people to shoot first, and it makes it difficult for law enforcement to prosecute shooters (which, unfortunately, will probably happen in the Trayvon Martin case). The laws are particularly scary for people with a skin tone that has been culturally predetermined as a threat.

As sad as these stories are, they have highlighted some of the issues we face as a nation, and if the discussions we are now having don't lead to any changes in the gun laws, maybe they will at least help us confront our racial biases; and if we confront our biases now, maybe in the future, the young man who thinks a characters's death "isn't as sad" when it's a black person, or the 15 year old who thinks a black girl can't be innocent looking, will recognize their prejudices and be able to overcome them.

Otherwise, we will have a lot more tragedies like that of Trayvon Martin.

I Love You All (Black, White, Yellow, Red, Green--I see you Martians)...Class Dismissed.

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