–Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic
Content warning: mentions of racial violence and police brutality
Thousands of people marching in the streets for a week straight. Police officers–sworn to be peacekeepers–attacking and murdering in full view of cameras, with little to no legal repercussions. Fires and looting and the tearing down of Confederate statues hundreds of years late.
Millennials–and indeed anyone who has ever watched a movie–have realized pretty quick that real life is mimicking fiction right about now. Stories involving overthrowing tyrannical governments like The Hunger Games, or Star Wars, or even Harry Potter are all starting to feel eerily familiar. In fiction, it’s always easy to see who the heroes are–Katniss Everdeen…Luke Skywalker…Harry Potter. They’re the ones storming the castle, or leading the battle, or any other dramatic throw-down involving explosions and the glory of victory.
It’s been super easy for white people to look at these stories about underdogs fighting the system and go, oh wow–a story about me and my struggles! Which… sure, us white people have plenty of struggles–I mean, sometimes Target doesn’t have that strappy sundress in the size we need. The line at the DMV (pre-plague) is obnoxiously long. And sometimes–sometimes–the local organic market is completely out of kale. Quelle horreur.
Of course, this is not to say that white people have never had personal problems to deal with–but they’ve never been SYSTEMIC.
We have been conditioned to only see ourselves as the heroes in stories, even if the narrative itself doesn’t actually support this.
This is something that author Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas talks about in her book The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. After reading this work over the weekend, it has come to my attention that, fellow white people–we need to talk about Katniss.
The hero of the iconic YA series The Hunger Games, right? The Mockingjay, right? The leader of a revolution that ultimately dismantles an oppressive, tyrannical government, right?
Of course we want to relate to her. Of course we want to see ourselves as this headstrong, authentic girl fighting for justice in an unjust system. We can all clearly see that the Capitol (and the series antagonist President Snow) are morally corrupt, the system broken, benefiting only the privileged elite who are spared the violence of the Games. It’s exciting–inspiring, even–to see Katniss heroically lead the underdogs to climactic, cinematic victory.
But here’s the thing, fellow white people–we are not Katniss.
At best, we are the Capitol. At worst, we are President Snow himself.
Especially when we look at The Hunger Games film adaptation, where a white actress was cast as Katniss (who is repeatedly described as dark in comparison to her fair mother and sister) and the majority of the impoverished District 12 citizens are, for some reason, also white, it begs the question–exactly what conversation are we having about race here?
In The Dark Fantastic, Thomas mentions Rue, the young black girl who was murdered in the arena and whose death propels Katniss towards the heroism of becoming the Mockingjay, the symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. Thomas, as well as the Tumblr sources that she cites, assert that “the revolution really doesn’t start with Katniss. It starts with Rue.”
And it does start with Rue–when the innocent black child dies, the mantle of savior is picked up by the white (or read-as-white) hero, the one the audience is meant to identify with. The story then shifts its focus to Katniss, whose sympathetic reaction to Rue’s death inspires the (white) Districts to begin rioting against the Capitol.
Wow, white people taking it upon themselves to violently and dramatically act out under the guise of wanting justice for a murdered black person when really just wanting an excuse to cause a ruckus because it’s a fun break from the status quo? Preposterous, THAT would NEVER happen in real life.
https://ktvz.com/news/oregon-northwest/2020/05/30/eugene-protest-turns-violent-rioters-destroy-several-businesses/[/caption][/caption]It’s become obvious how we, as white consumers of stories of rebellion, have fully misunderstood and appropriated this particular struggle.Breaking free from oppression is a struggle that we have never and will never experience–and yet, it’s the kind of story that we keep coming back to in our books and movies and D&D fantasies.
So how can we train ourselves to de-center ourselves from the narrative? To step back and allow ourselves to become supporting characters, background players, characters that exist to serve the narrative of others, instead of the other way around?
The first step is to understand that this is real. What is happening outside our window is not fantasy, not fiction, not a chance for us to play-act revolution like it’s a LARP-ing convention.
The second is to acknowledge and respect our place as extras in this narrative, using the resources available to us to uplift the voices of black communities instead.
The third is to put our money (and time) where our mouths are–crack open that wallet, expedite that carpal tunnel by signing petitions and writing emails, educate our fellow white people when possible (mayhaps through an overly preachy blog post) and sit down and shut the fuck up the rest of the time.
The longstanding white supremacy involved in nearly 100% of the stories we were exposed to growing up has provided us with delusions of heroism, with fantasies of glorious rebellions that were Definitely Meant For Us Because Isn’t Everything. But the biases of publishing have failed us, just as it’s failed the black voices that have fought to have their stories heard.
Black lives matter. Not just in fiction, where black kids should be able to see themselves represented and allow themselves the beauty of imagination and magic that white kids have had handed to them. But they matter here, in reality, where a revolution is forming, where those leading the charge are those that fiction has not allowed in this role.
We don’t get cookies for doing this. We don’t get to make this story about us, heroically stepping aside for the black people to take center stage. Contrary to the content of this entire blog post, this is not.
So we need to show up. Shut up. And don’t take selfies.