By Janet Chen
Suppose you walk into a bookstore. Consider three books all written on the topic of the American Revolution. The first is by a Native American writer, who recounts ancestral oppression during the revolutionary era. You find this in a corner labelled “Native American history.” The second is a book detailing the account from an African American slave’s perspective, which you find under the section “African American history.” So where does that leave the rest of historical nonfiction that is not accounted for by the confines of ethnic categorization?
When people refer to “history” itself, it is viewed synonymously with “white history.” And the historical nonfiction category is precisely where the third and final book is found, a summary of the pivotal moments the Founding Fathers incurred during this era.
Furthermore, a perusal of the section labelled “African American history” reveals that maybe 80% of these books are concerned with oppression, prejudice and assimilation–what is described as a specific “African American experience.” It is significantly more difficult for authors of racially marginalized groups to get published unless their books have some embedded cultural truth or experience in it–as if it were so different from the norm. Regardless, this is a subtle otherization of people of color.
Pop culture is also laden with cultural and racial microaggressions and one of the most well known concerns the 2012 “The Hunger Games” movie release. Audiences were genuinely surprised that Rue, Thresh, and Cinna were portrayed by black actors in the film adaptation. These characters were either described as having “dark skin” or “short brown hair” in the novel. As readers, we internalize racial representations in the media; unless characters are explicitly described as people of color, or concern a specific racial or cultural experience, we assume by default that the characters are white.
Panem, the fictitious nation in which “The Hunger Games” takes place, is a dystopian society. It is no country that exists currently on Earth. Race may not even be a relevant concept in this time period. The book does not specifically call Cinna “African American” but it also does not call Katniss “Anglo-Saxon,” they are only played by darker and lighter skinned actors who the author and us readers do not intend to discern by race.
Race is, at its very core, a socially constructed concept that does not exist beyond the scope of human knowledge. Other animals are divided biologically by species, not by race. And it is not so simple as to just describe the color of your skin. Race is a societal notion that depends upon a history of assumed biological superiority and institutionalized oppression. It thrives on a system of prejudice and once we become aware of the racial microaggressions that prevail around us, it is easy to realize that we still do not live in a post-racial society.