Last week, I wrote about the annoying and condescending trend of websites cherry-picking stupid tweets from unwitting teens to make readers feel better about themselves. (Since then, Buzzfeed has outdone itself by superimposing some of these stupid tweets over pictures of corgis.) I mentioned Hunger Games Tweets, the Tumblr that went viral after collecting various tweets that expressed surprise or dismay that one of the characters from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Rue, was played by a black actress in the blockbuster film adaptation of the book.
As I mentioned in that post, it’s somewhat unfair to lump this Tumblr in with the other blog posts and Tumblrs deriding Twitter stupidity: Calling out racism is different from—and much more important than—mocking people who are ignorant about pop culture (like those who have never heard of Paul McCartney, for instance). But I suspected that such methods of calling out racism might not accomplish much beyond shocking the politically correct millions who read about the tweets on Buzzfeed and elsewhere. So I reached out, via Twitter, to several of the people whose tweets were posted to Hunger Games Tweets to see what they thought about it.
Most ignored me, but a couple didn’t. The first to respond was an 18-year-old college student who goes by Preston. The tweet that earned Preston inclusion in Hunger Games Tweets?
Preston is a fan of the books but hasn’t seen the movie yet; he’s waiting for a break from school so he can see it with his friends from home. But he caught a glimpse of Amandla Stenberg, the actress who plays Rue, in the trailer, and says he was surprised. “I just was picturing someone else,” he told me in an email. “It did not change my excitement to watch the movie nor did it change my view towards it.”
Preston didn’t know his tweet had been published on Hunger Games Tweets until I emailed him, though he did notice a few people on Twitter pointing out his reading-comprehension error. Collins describes Rue as having “dark brown skin and eyes” in the book. “It was a short description of a character,” he says, “and it’s possible that many other people skimmed over it too.”
More importantly, he feels that his tweet was “misunderstood in the midst of all the actual racist ‘Rue is black’ tweets about the movie.” “I do not think there was any ounce of racism in what I tweeted,” he said. He called the more virulent tweets that were singled out—like “when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad”—“disgusting.” “Who says that?” asked Preston.
I’m not sure: The person who tweeted that particular comment deleted his or her account after the Tumblr appeared. But I did manage to track down the author of another offensive tweet:
Zoee is also a student; she’s 16, and she lives in another country.* “I was not being racist AT ALL,” she told me in an email. “When i [sic] tweeted that, it was because I was surprised Rue was a black girl as it was said in the book that Rue reminded Katniss of Prim, who was a small blonde pale girl.”
Zoee says she was “majorly pissed off” when she found out the creator of Hunger Games Tweets had published her tweet, which she described as tantamount to “slandering me.” (Zoee’s tweet appeared alongside the comment, “Why so sad? Is it really such a bummer that her casting stayed somewhat true to the book?” How this amounts to slander is unclear.) Zoee received a number of responses from strangers on Twitter, who “said stuffs [sic] like I was ruining humanity, I was fcking [sic] ugly and that I couldn't read.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, being told that she’s fucking ugly and ruining humanity didn’t make Zoee reconsider the content of her tweet. “Maybe I could have phrased my surprise of Rue not looking like Prim in a less offensive way even if I had no intention of being racist AT ALL,” she wrote.
The creator of Hunger Games Tweets has not yet replied to my message; I’ll update this post if he responds.* But his Tumblr suggests that knowing the age of the people whose tweets he collected wouldn’t make him reconsider his method of singling them out. When he learned that one of the tweeters whose thoughts he published was only 15, he wrote,
FIFTEEN! To me, that’s way too young to be saying stuff like Rue being black ruined the movie.
Not gonna lie though… There really is no right age to foster feelings like that.
He’s right, of course: No one should argue that others are less deserving of our sympathy because of their race. Nor should anyone, like Zoee, imply that there is something less desirable or less worthy about being black. But these ideas don’t occur in a vacuum, and the young people who absorb them from our culture and then repeat them back to us don’t deserve the brunt of our scorn.
Being publicly shamed on Hunger Games Tweets didn’t make Preston examine his (and not only his, of course) ingrained habit of imagining fictional characters as “white until proven otherwise,” as Anna Holmes puts it. It didn’t teach Zoee why it’s racist to ask why a character is black as though that’s a bad thing. Instead, it made her dig in her heels in her insistence that she’s not “racist AT ALL.” (Being insulted on Twitter seems to have taught Zoee that phrasing, rather than intention, is what matters.)
If the highly visible mockery of teenagers leads to a serious examination of the practices and institutions that perpetuate racism, perhaps it will be worth it. But I have my doubts. This kind of drive-by scapegoating does not seem conducive to genuine reflection (and it definitely doesn't encourage reflection in the individuals it scapegoats). It allows us to point the finger at other, younger, relatively powerless people, rather than consider the ways in which we’re implicated in a problem that is much, much larger than a few misguided teenagers on Twitter.
Update 2, October 5, 2018: This article has been updated to remove a small piece of identifying information about the author of one of the tweets.