Monday, June 25, 2007

Prof. Daniel Bernardi on Star Trek and Race

In 1998, Prof. Daniel Bernardi published Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future, a book that analyzed and critiqued the representation of race in Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bernardi, as a scholar of popular culture and media studies, had much to say about Trek's shortcomings. While many fans at the time recited slogans like "infinite diversity in infinite combination," Bernardi took a much more critical stance to show how Trek , in many instances, did not live up to its own ideals of racial equality and tolerance. He was kind enough to answer our questions about his book and thesis:

Trekdom: In Star Trek and History, you argue that “Trek perpetuates the longstanding myth of the natural and humane right of white rule and occupation into and beyond the final frontier." Can you please explain this quote for our readers?

Bernardi: Some background. History tells us that there are no white people. There is no gene that makes someone white. There is no archeological or linguistic evidence, either. There are only people that pass as white, and the criteria for those who pass as white shifts and changes with time and space. In the US, there was a time when the Irish were not considered white (read, for example, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev). Yet too many people believe there is a white race, based largely on the perception of "white" phenotypes (light pigment, straight hair, thin noses) that falls apart when you consider the evolutionary mechanisms that determines phenotypes and the diversity of phenotypes within all human populations. In the past, blood percentages defined the criteria; now we seem to rely on sight; something like, "I know a white person when I see one." The existence of a white race is, in this light, a very troubling myth, especially since white is linked with superiority, higher intelligence and divinity (why isn't God ever represented as black, brown, red, yellow or purple?). How do you prove that there are no white people when it is obvious to most people that "x" makes someone white -- and "x" keeps shifting with history?

Trek does not challenge the myth of a white race; it perpetuates it by defining "human" as the center of the universe, the ideal galactic species with the moral voice to press forward and expand, and white as the rightful and heroic leaders of the human race. White humans are the ideological center of the Federation, a metaphor for the United Nations. Aliens are at the periphery serving as threats to humans/Federation authority, loyal servants/side-kicks (Spock), or in the process of assimilation (Worf). The humans of color in Trek work to assimilate into whiteness. In TOS in particular, they are kept in the background as, to use the word of that day, "tokens." They act white but look colored. When they come out center stage, so-to-speak, the are coded as different/not quite white/a problem. Trek is saying, in effect, that we can all get along so long as we aspire to be white/Federation/human.

Trekdom: Unlike Europeans of past centuries, Starfleet officers seem very conscious of the dangers of interfering in the “natural evolution” of other cultures. How would you respond to arguments that Trek’s “Prime Directive” represents a celebratory rejection of the white Euro-American imperialist past, or at least a very open awareness of the thin line between exploration and exploitation?

Bernardi: The Prime Directive complements IDIC, or Infinitive Diversity in Infinite Combinations, a Vulcan philosophy and, I think, Star Trek's moral voice. And, yes, I think it is a liberal humanist rejection of colonialism and imperialism (if alive today, I'm sure Roddenberry would be pounding away at a feature film that dealt allegorically with Iraq). One of the reasons I wrote the book on Trek is because, as television goes, it is one of the most thoughtful and politically-mindful series in history. It aspires to be better, not only from a fiction (storytelling) perspective but also from an ethical (moral) perspective. This is also one of the reasons I'm a fan of the series. I also appreciate Trek's willingness to be self-critical, to shine critical light on itself (think of the sixth film, when Gorkon's daughter calls the Federation a "homo sapiens only club"). As a scholar interested in the contradictory elements of popular culture -- and as as fan of Trek -- I have tried to participate in the sprit of Trek's commitment to self-reflection by pointing out the ways in which the series departs from IDIC and the Prime Directive. It does this, not so much in its representation of people of color (admittedly, there are only a few stereotypes in Trek's history) and more in its representation of whiteness as the ideal of evolution. When, for Trek, whiteness is not at the center of the evolutionary process, you get Khan Noonien Singh!

Trekdom: When discussing the character of Sulu, you write, “[He was] only supposed to look Asian. Otherwise, he was fully assimilated to European values.” You then use the fencing scene from “The Naked Time” to illustrate how “white” they made Sulu. I wonder though, if Sulu had been swinging a Samurai sword, could you have used it as another example of Trek perpetuating stereotypes of the menacing Asian “Other”? It seems like Trek can’t win in your analysis. How can white writers escape this double-trap, if they can’t give the character a sword without either perpetuating racial stereotypes or destroying racial identifiers?

Bernardi: As someone that has done a little writing, both for the Sci-Fi Channel but also on a few feature films, I can say with confidence that the writers and directors had far more creative options at their disposal than the ones you mention. My analysis of that episode and scene is in the context of the entire TOS series, all of the roles given to Sulu throughout TOS, the specific script and storyline for that episode, and the way in which the scene was performed by the actor. Sulu, like Uhura, came out of the background (or, in Sulu's case, the immediate foreground) in only a few ways: to defend his captain (i.e., as a loyal sidekick), to talk about racism (think of his line in, as I recall, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"), or performing his identity in stereotypical ways due to some affliction that destroys their inhibitions/pursuit of a white identity ("The Naked Time").

Trekdom: Interesting. Television shows are products of their cultural context, meaning that they illustrate the perceptions and unconscious assumptions of their writers and audiences. But, Trek, unlike many shows, openly challenged the prejudices of viewers with preachy episodes like “Let that be your Last Battlefield.” Couldn’t it be argued that, while Trek unconsciously reflected mainstream racism of the late 60s, it consciously challenged that contemporary racism at the same time? Shouldn’t it be celebrated for what it attempted to do?

Bernardi: Yes. Absolutely. And the best way to go about that celebration is to honor Trek's very own interest in self-criticism (the pursuit of a better universe and thus a better self) by acknowledging - indeed, critiquing - the moments in the series when Trek fails at its own admirable goals. Because the series fails to critique the myth of whiteness, it has a great deal of room for improvement in this regard. And given the size of the actual universe and the limitations of American television, I'm not sure why more people haven't found that argument to be more persuasive.

For a better sense of of my critical fandom, I'll leave you with some of my Trek favorites:

Favorite Line:

Kirk: Spock, you want to know something?, Everybody's Human. Captain Spock: I find that remark... insulting.

Favorite Character: Data, the super-white android that fights for equal rights!

TOS episode: Journey to Babel (in terms of race... in terms of storytelling, "The City on the Edge of Forever")

TNG episode: The Chase (in terms of race... in terms of storytelling, The Inner Light and All Good Things...)

Trekdom: Thank you so much!


*To purchase a copy of Bernardi's book, click here.

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