Racism in Star Wars and Star Trek
Last revised: 2001.04.30
"I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character."- Martin Luther King Jr., August 28, 1963
As a member of a visible minority, and one partner in an interracial marriage, I think I have some grounds on which to speak of the issue of racism. Just as you cannot understand love until you've experienced it, you cannot understand racism until you've experienced it first-hand. Unfortunately, I understand racism all too well.
Just below my hairline on the left side, I still bear a scar from a vicious schoolyard racial attack I suffered as a child, at the hands of an adolescent. He wasn't even suspended for trying to bludgeon a small child with a brick, because (as a white teacher explained) he came from a "broken home", which somehow made his behaviour acceptable. The crime was swept under the carpet, but the scar remains. Like an angry white line, it reminds me of the meaning of hate every time I look into a mirror. And in my heart, I still bear scars from many other racist attacks I've suffered throughout my life, including racial slurs from all manner of people and repeated accusations from my wife's German Mennonite relatives that our interracial marriage was "against the will of God". These scars are the reason that I am furious when people who have never suffered from racism try to downplay it, or redefine it to suit their purposes.
The Definition of Racism
What is racism? If we simply examine the structure of the word, it would appear obvious that the word "racism" should be interpreted just like all of the other "isms". Just as humanism upholds the importance of human rights, nationalism upholds the importance of national differences, and theism upholds the importance of divine beings, racism upholds the importance of race.
Does race matter? In an ideal world, it wouldn't. The fact that I am of Asian descent shouldn't mean anything to anyone, on any grounds, except as a point of purely academic trivia. But that's an ideal world. In the real world, have we been moving toward this ideal, or away from it? Does the "political correctness" movement help, or hurt?
I feel that modern political correctness, far from reducing racism, is actually increasing it. One example is the politically correct terminology for visible minorities. In America, people of African descent are referred to as "African-Americans". People of Asian descent are referred to as "Asian-Americans". People of Indian descent are referred to as "Indian-Americans". Some of these terms are championed by members of those races, but I strongly object to them. If a young black man traces his American lineage back for ten generations, grows up in Detroit and never sees Africa, why should he be referred to as an "African-American"? Doesn't that imply that he's half-African, and half-American? Why isn't he all American? Why aren't the descendants of European settlers referred to as "Anglo-Americans", or "Aryan-Americans"? When I hear one of these hyphenated race names, it implies to me that the person has recently immigrated from Africa, or India, or Asia. Therefore, I see no justification whatsoever to apply such terms to people whose grandparents were born here. It accentuates the differences, and implies that they are "imports", rather than a natural part of the local culture.
The politically correct media is constantly reminding us of the distinction between the alien cultures of non-whites and the presumably domestic culture of whites. The television is awash in documentaries and soundbites about "black culture" or "asian culture" or "latino culture", and people proudly demonstrate their "racial sensitivity" by "respecting" these various "cultures." What a crock ... this show of "respect" is completely racist, no matter what the politically correct brigade may say. To even describe something called "asian culture" is to subtly make two claims:
All people descended from Asian immigrants act the same.
People of Asian descent have different cultural values than "we" do.
The same is true whenever someone talks about "black culture" or "latino culture". The none-too-subtle implication is that members of visible minorities have conflicted cultural and national loyalties, torn between here and their "homelands". To put it another way, why don't we ever hear about "white culture"? No one talks about "white culture", because everyone knows two things:
There are many different types of "white" culture. British, French, Irish, Italians, Germans, Russians, etc. are much different from one another.
Once people have been here for more than a generation or two, we should assume that they've adjusted to local cultural values.
Why don't we make those same assumptions about people who aren't white? Are we supposed to perpetuate the notion that all asians act the same, or all blacks act the same? Are we supposed to promote the notion that members of visible minorities are incapable of accepting local cultural values, or that they have some unbreakable spiritual connection to the birthplace of their ancestors which will forever separate them from white people?
Oh, I know, the politically correct brigade might point out that white people aren't the only ones who talk about "black culture", or "asian culture". Well, that doesn't prove anything. No one ever said that white people are the only racists in the world, so you can't prove that an act isn't racist by showing that a non-white person does it. I've seen black people accuse other black people of "not acting black enough", and I've seen asians accuse other asians of "being yellow on the outside, and white on the inside." It's truly disgusting to me that a member of a visible minority can actually be criticized for not conforming to racial stereotypes.
So if you want to be racially sensitive, don't bullshit me about your great respect and admiration for "asian culture". Asian culture does not exist. I don't know of any such thing. People from Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and China have markedly different cultural values, and people from different regions or different social groups within those countries also have markedly different cultural values. As for me, I don't belong to any of those groups. I love burgers and pizza. I watch NFL football on TV. I only speak English. I drive a Mercury. My dog is a family pet, not a snack. I laugh at water, er .. American beer. And when someone asks whether I'm Chinese or Japanese, I tell him I'm neither. I'm a Canadian. End of story.
There is a quiet movement afoot to brand George Lucas a racist because of "racist" stereotypes that are supposedly found in TPM. The people leading this movement may feel that it's a huge burning issue, but I find it amusing that in spite of their aggressive publicity, most ordinary people have never given the idea a second thought. If they've heard of it at all, the average person has dismissed it immediately as a joke.
What is this "controversy"? It basically centres on two alien species in TPM: The Neimoidians and the Gungans. The same argument has been made in dozens of entertainment industry articles with virtually no variation, so I will paraphrase the argument here rather than quoting one of the articles verbatim:
If you watch TPM, you can clearly hear that the Jar-Jar Binks character (and for that matter, the entire Gungan species) speaks with a Caribbean accent, in an obvious 18th century slave dialect. It isn't just him- the entire Gungan species speaks this same broken dialect. The broken dialect suggests to the viewer that the entire Gungan race is under-educated, and the imagery of them living in the sea, beneath the land-dwelling, well-educated Naboo people is so racist that it is unbearable. The Gungans (blacks) are uneducated and live in the dark depths, while the Naboo people (whites) are highly educated artisans who live in beautiful cities in the sun. The characteristically lackadaisical gait and floppy ears of the Gungans merely reinforce the stereotype. It doesn't really matter whether this horrific imagery is deliberate or intentional- the point is that it exists, and George Lucas should be ashamed.
The Gungans aren't the only racist stereotype in TPM- the Neimoidians are even worse! Start with the accent- they all speak in an obviously Asian-accented broken dialect which sounds like Charlie Chan, in a not-so-nice homage to the common "Yellow Menace" motif of the 1930's era serials from which George Lucas drew his inspiration. But the stereotype doesn't stop there- look at their appearance and behaviour. With their slitted eyes, flat faces, duplicitous nature, and economic aggression, they are clearly meant to represent one of the big Japanese corporations- is it Toyota? Sony? Toshiba? Does it really matter which corporation it is? The point is that TPM promoted horrifically racist stereotypes of Asian-Americans. What kind of message does this send to our children? It teaches them that these slit-eyed, heavily accented, deceitful business thugs represent Asians- how much more harmful could a stereotype get?
I'll start with the second "stereotype", since my racial background gives me an unusual perspective on this issue. First, I would like to ask you, the reader, the question: did you see the Neimoidians as Asian? If you did, then I think you need to ask yourself some hard questions regarding your own racism. Frankly, the instant I hear a white person telling me that my race is being insulted in TPM, I get pretty damned suspicious. Wouldn't I have noticed such an insult if it were there? I am not known for blithely ignoring racial attacks upon myself. Why then, did I fail to see that the Neimoidians were an "obvious" Asian stereotype? Why did I need a white person to explain the insult to me?
The answer is simple: I didn't see the Neimoidians as an Asian stereotype because they bear no resemblance whatsoever to Asians. Let's examine all of the imaginary Asian stereotypes in the Neimoidian species:
Accent: They claim the Neimoidians have an Asian accent. Well, many of my relatives come from Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc., and none of them sound remotely like the Neimoidians. In my opinion, the Neimoidians have a bizarre accent but it is not Asian. But what would I know about Asian accents- I'm just the son of Asian immigrants, and not a white Hollywood film critic.
Appearance: My eyes aren't "slitted". My children's eyes aren't "slitted." My parents' eyes aren't "slitted." Asian eyes do not bear signs of reptilian horizontal "slits"- our pupils are round just like everyone else's. And the last time I checked, I do in fact possess a nose, as do all of my relatives. We Asians are not flat-faced, slit-eyed freaks! If you think that we are, and that the Neimoidians therefore represent us, then you are a racist.
Behaviour: Frankly, I find it utterly abominable that anyone would even think of associating the Neimoidians behaviour with Asians. Are we to believe that any time we see a duplicitous alien species, it must represent Asians? Are we to believe that any time we see economic aggressors, they must be Asians? Anyone who instinctively associates duplicitous and economically aggressive behaviour with Asians is a racist, just as bad as the sort of scum who thinks that we're all slit-eyed freaks.
As for the Gungans supposedly being a "black stereotype", I can only speak for myself as a human being, and not as a member of the race which is supposedly being slighted (although my informed perspective on the supposedly Asian stereotype of the Neimoidians leaves me doubtful of the anti-Gungan allegations, to say the least). But I will point out the following:
Accent: I have only known a half-dozen people in my life who grew up in the Caribbean, but none of those people sounded like Jar-Jar Binks to me. The young actor who portrayed Jar-Jar Binks happened to be from the Caribbean- are the thought police using this fact in their allegations? From the Salem witch-hunt style of their attacks, I wouldn't be surprised.
Dialect: I have never met a black person who spoke in Jar-Jar's dialect. I don't understand where this stereotype comes from- if it exists, I can only assume that it comes from a very obscure source. If people have to explain the Stepin' Fetchit stereotype (and to be honest, I'm still not sure who Stepin' Fetchit is, or what obscure piece of literature he came from), then is it really a stereotype? How can a stereotype be a stereotype if no one knows about it?
Education: I don't know whether the Gungans are meant to be uneducated, or whether their native language is simply such that it affects the way in which they tend to speak Basic (the fictional language of the Star Wars universe). Frankly, the former sounds implausible to me, but regardless, the entire education angle is yet another product of racism. If you instinctively associate poor education levels with black people, then what does this reveal about you?
Gait: I had no idea that the Gungans walked like black people until I read one of those articles "explaining" the resemblance. This may sound like I'm beating a dead horse, but if someone has to explain to you that the resemblance exists, then maybe it doesn't exist. In my experience, black people don't walk any more "lackadaisically" than anyone else. I don't wish to be presumptuous in speaking on behalf of another visible minority, but I can only imagine that if I were a black person, I would be rather offended at the notion that lackadaisical movement is an intrinsic characteristic of black people.
Floppy ears: It is a testament to the rabid intensity of the politically correct thought police that they would somehow find a way of making Jar-Jar's floppy creature ears into a stereotype of black people (by associating them with a certain Caribbean hairstyle). How ridiculous is this? Shall we institute a moratorium on all floppy-eared children's toys? From the sounds of it, there are an awful lot of stuffed animals and children's toys out there which have now become "racist."
Ahmed Best: The young black actor who played Jar-Jar Binks is in the uncomfortable position of defending his portrayal against politically correct thought police who claim that he portrayed a racist stereotype directed against his own race. He claims that he was given wide latitude to control the character's physical mannerisms and speech patterns- his detractors retort that he is simply spouting the Lucasfilm party line and lying to everyone. Supposedly, he's part of a widespread conspiracy ... yeah, sure.
This manufactured "controversy" is based not on an attempt to combat racial stereotypes, but rather, on a wholesale surrender to those racial stereotypes. Think about it- one has to accept these stereotypes in order to see the resemblance!
Some racists believe that all black people are illiterate, lazy, stupid, and slovenly. Some racists believe that Asians are flat-faced, slit-eyed, dishonest economic predators. What have the politically correct thought police done here? They have taken these stereotypes, accepted them, and then used this acceptance to declare that the reverse connection is true! If black people are illiterate, lazy, stupid and slovenly, then an illiterate, lazy, stupid and slovenly sci-fi creature must therefore be a black person! If Asians are flat-faced, slit-eyed business predators, then a flat-faced, slit-eyed business predator sci-fi creature must therefore be an Asian! TPM doesn't offend me- these critics offend me.
If someone portrays an Asian human being or a black human being in a negative light, then that might be offensive, depending on how it is handled. But when someone makes a fictional creature which is totally non-human in appearance, and someone decides to anthropomorphise its physical and behavioural characteristics in order to associate it with a particular human race, then he or she is simply demonstrating acceptance and reversal of the very racial stereotypes that he or she is supposedly trying to fight.
I recently saw a comedian on television who was joking about this very issue. He said that Jar-Jar Binks was obviously a terrible racial stereotype directed at Jamaicans, but he was curious as to why Germans had never complained about the robots, or why Italians never complained about Chewbacca. He got a big laugh, but he subtly made the same point I'm trying to make: such tenuous reverse racial associations reveal more about your own racism than they do about the subject matter.
It is a source of constant amazement to me that Star Trek is seemingly immune to charges of racism. With critics rabidly attacking the ridiculously ephemeral suggestions of racial stereotyping in TPM, Star Trek's "state of grace" is even more jarring to behold. Is the entire series supposed to be given a karmic "get out of jail free" card for its progressive efforts in the 1960's? TOS was progressive in its time, but TNG, DS9, and Voyager all promote racial separatism at every turn. Even if we ignore the white-supremacist messages buried in Star Trek Insurrection, we can still find far more evidence for racism in Star Trek than there has ever been in Star Wars. So why the critical silence?
I suppose that Star Trek fans might take offense at my casual declaration that Star Trek has been promoting racial separatism ever since the inception of TNG. Fair enough- I haven't provided any evidence yet. But I can rectify that omission quite easily, and I will do so now. First, I must ask the question: what is racism? Narrow-minded definitions of racism abound, often carefully designed for the purpose of excoriating others while exonerating the author.
A common definition of racism is "attempts to discriminate against members of other races." Well, that sounds great (and indeed, it's the definition found in many dictionaries). But it only covers actions, not statements or beliefs. According to that definition, it's perfectly acceptable to loudly proclaim that "black people are violent" or "asians are dishonest." I think that anyone with a smidgen of intelligence can recognize that no matter what Webster's Dictionary may say, someone who makes either of those statements is definitely a racist!
So if the dictionary's definition of racism stupidly covers behaviour but not words or beliefs, then what is racism? Well, I think the answer should be obvious: if you think that you can make assumptions about someone's personality based on nothing other than his or her race, then you are a racist. For example, if you look at a black person and assume that he's prone to criminal behaviour, then you're a racist. If you look at an asian and assume that he's obsessed with money, then you're a racist. Any actions based on such assumptions are therefore racist, which takes us back to the overly narrow dictionary definition. Racial slurs, which categorize human beings as nameless members of their respective races rather than individuals, are also racist. The underlying problem is the belief that cultural values are inherited, rather than taught.
Does Trek suffer from this problem? Yes, in spades! For example:
The Ferengi: In DS9, Captain Sisko once chastised his son Jake, for failing to respect Nog's cultural values. "Ferengi cultural values aren't better or worse than ours, just different", he explained. Classic example of racism- assuming that all Ferengi (including one that grew up on a Cardassian space station) are somehow compelled to act a certain way, and that our values and ideals are therefore inapplicable to them. If a white man cautioned his son not to expect black people to respect the law because "they have different cultural values than we do", would you be offended? I hope so.
The Klingons: In TNG, Worf once suffered a severe back injury and it was thought that he would be paralyzed for life. He asked Riker to kill him, and Riker refused. Picard then chastised Riker for not being sensitive to Worf's Klingon cultural values. When the doctor insisted that Worf learn to live with his disability just as any human would be expected to, Picard chastised her as well, for expecting Worf to make a cultural leap that was "too far, dammit, too far!". Classic example of racism- assuming that all Klingons (even one that was raised by adoptive human parents, on a Federation colony) are compelled to hold Klingon cultural values, and are incapable of understanding human cultural values. Very similar to the previous example.
Worf: Worf himself is a never-ending source of racist statements. How many times do we have to hear his tiresome "heart of a warrior" or "Klingon blood" or "Klingon warrior's courage" speeches? Isn't anyone else tired of hearing him compliment anyone with fighting skills by saying that he has the "heart of a Klingon?" Doesn't anyone get annoyed when he congratulates Roga Danar for his tactical skills by saying "you must have some Klingon blood?" Suppose a white schoolteacher saw a black student who excelled in math, and congratulated him by saying "your math skills are excellent- you must have some white blood in you." Wouldn't you be outraged?
Mixed-race children: Every single mixed-race child in the history of Star Trek "entertains" us with the same endless, repetitive, oh-so emotional speeches about how "I am torn between my Klingon half and my human half", or "I am torn between my Vulcan half and my human half". Torn between two worlds, two cultures at war with one another, yadda yadda yadda. What's the message? Mixed-race children are culturally confused. Hidden message? Don't have mixed-race children. Well, I have a pair of mixed-race children. Does this mean that my sons will someday complain that "I am torn between my asian half and my european half?" Will they be maladjusted? Will their lives be full of hardship and inner turmoil? Was I wrong to have mixed-race children? Was my interracial marriage a mistake? I don't think so. And I think that Star Trek is sending some pretty damned offensive messages about mixed-race children.
The Star Trek definition of "species": The evolutionary definition of species is simply that species are considered truly different if they cannot interbreed to produce fertile offspring. But in Star Trek, Klingons and humans are described as different "species" even though they can breed to produce fertile offspring. In "Emissary", K'ehleyr (a daughter of a mixed marriage) fooled around with Worf, and became pregnant by accident, thus proving that she is quite fertile. There are many other "cross-species" characters in Star Trek (starting with Spock), and it doesn't seem that difficult, since it can happen by accident (eg. K'ehleyr and Worf) or in primitive conditions (eg. Worf's brother Nikolai and a Boraalan woman in "Homeward"). So, what does this mean? It means that the various humanoid races of the Star Trek galaxy are not different species, even though the Federation claims that they are. The historical parallels are quite disturbing; during the height of African slavery, the slave traders' apologists claimed that blacks were a sub-human "species", so there was no need to treat them as humans (read: whites). Biologically and genetically, this position was pure nonsense; they were taking a few superficial differences and exaggerating them into a biological wall of separation where none existed. They even ignored the fact that blacks and whites could easily produce children. Does this sound familiar to you? Captain Picard was stunned when Beverly said that the DNA of the various "species" might be "chemically compatible" in "The Chase", even though there is a long and distinguished list of "cross-species" matings in Federation history.
Race and culture are treated as synonymous and interchangeable concepts in Star Trek. The above examples are merely a smattering, and you could compile many pages of examples by watching enough Star Trek episodes. In fact, you could take each and every occurence of the word "culture" in Trek dialogue, replace it with "race," and it would still be completely appropriate in context (it's an interesting experiment- try it!).
It's the worst sort of racism- while the PC thought police are rabidly attacking TPM for superficial nonsense such as verbal nuances and Jar-Jar's floppy ears, Star Trek is promoting genetic determinism (the philosophy that genetics control your destiny) for all the world to see, and none of the politically-correct thought police notice or care. But of course they don't notice or care- all of the politically correct thought police share this brand of racism! Every time they blather about being "sensitive" to "black culture" or "asian culture" or "latino culture", they demonstrate their racism for the world to see.
Unfortunately, since "they" are the media, they have an enormous mouthpiece with which to sell their value system, and the lemminglike public seems all too eager to go along with it. So the public gets used to hearing about how we must "respect" the cultural values of blacks, or asians, or latinos, and doesn't even question the underlying assumption that blacks all have the same cultural values, asians all have the same cultural values, etc. It may be politically correct, but it's still totally racist.
Allen Pearce, for pointing out that Klingons and humans have been able to breed fertile children.
Brian McNermey, for reminding me of the common slavery-era belief that only whites were human.