Star Trek is an enormous and complex cultural entity whose impact on politics, technology, and storytelling are undeniable. It’s also as flawed and problematic as any other massive media franchise. Lifelong Trekkie and Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief Dylan Roth attempts to make sense of it all for die-hards and outsiders alike in his bi-weekly column: Infinite Diversity.
“There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class.”
“Yes, but it happened way back in the twentieth century. There’s no such primitive thinking today.”
– Ensign Pavel Chekov and Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu (“Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” [TOS])
By the time our species enters the 23rd Century as seen in The Original Series (or even the mid-22nd Century seen in Enterprise) human beings no longer define themselves or each other based on physical traits like skin color. Racial identity is a complete non-issue among humans in Star Trek. They may still take pride in their cultural heritage, and may celebrate traditions of their homelands, but no one aboard the Enterprise would describe themselves as “white” or “black,” just “human.” Unlike in today’s world, where claiming to “not see color” is a well-meaning but naive pursuit that frequently leads to ignorance of the unique struggles of life as an oppressed minority, in the world of Trek, being “colorblind” works because everyone is. The future of Star Trek is legitimately post-racial, but in a way that’s got some unfortunate implications.
When I was a kid, Star Trek: The Next Generation was the ideal world to me, and I was always trying to live up to that example. Everyone on Trek got along, and I imagined that if I behaved like them, I would get along with everyone, too. The characters on Trek didn’t acknowledge race, so neither would I. In theory, this is a great idea, but it’s based on a few false assumptions. Ignoring race completely can mean being insensitive to an individual’s experiences with the real racism that exists in the modern world. It also assumes that an individual’s race or ethnicity isn’t important to them, which frequently isn’t the case. Ethnicity may be a crucial part of your identity, providing context, a sense of history, and a communal pride from your victories over adversity. This is something for which Star Trek did not prepare me, because despite coming from different parts of the world, humans on Star Trek, particularly later Star Trek, really only have one unified culture: based almost entirely on the one I grew up with as a wealthy white American suburbanite.
Certainly, it was a great achievement that the original Star Trek series, produced in the tumultuous late 1960s, featured people of color in prominent roles, that their characters were not based on racial or ethnic stereotypes, and that they lived and worked as more or less equal members of the Enterprise crew among the white (leading) characters. At the time the show was created, this was a very big deal. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thought the show was a crucial advancement in media, famously talking actress Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) out of leaving the show by citing what an important example she was setting for both black and white audiences, who needed to see a black woman of poise and authority on television. The image of the Enterprise bridge crew–white, black, Asian–laughing together at the end of an adventure was a rare sight on American television at the time, and certainly made a deep impression on a great number of viewers.
Unlike its spin-offs, The Original Series crew is almost entirely human, but care is taken to demonstrate that Starfleet is (at the very least) an international venture. The main cast of the show was meant to represent continents, but not specific nationalities: Kirk and McCoy represent North America, Scotty represents Europe, Uhura represents Africa, and Sulu is intended to represent Asia (though in Star Trek IV we learn he’s actually from San Francisco, like actor George Takei). Apart from that, we’re not given anything too specific about where each character actually comes from or what their background is, though we see little details here and there that provide a little texture, and most importantly, these details are distributed evenly throughout the crew. Uhura’s first language is Swahili, which means she’s most likely from East/Southeast Africa. Americans Kirk and McCoy are vaguely Northern and Southern, respectively, but that’s all we get until the movies. Scotty is the outlier: he’s plainly Scottish, a total stereotype–though, if one of the characters has to be a caricature, it’s very fortunate that it’s a white guy, otherwise The Original Series would not be nearly as watchable in the present day as it is.
(Chekov is sort of an exception, too, but to American audiences in 1967 near the height of the Cold War, having a heroic Russian character on the bridge was a major political statement, so I’m gonna give it a pass.)
In the 1960s, giving every character as much in common as possible regardless of their national or racial origin was a necessary priority for Star Trek, as a one of its goals was to show how easily everyone should be able to get along. But when Trek returned to television in the 1980s, this was one of many elements of creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision that got inflated to hyperbolic, problematic proportions. While The Next Generation featured more alien characters among the crew, the human characters got less diverse, and were fleshed out disproportionately.
There are three regular characters on TNG who were born on Earth. Captain Jean-Luc Picard grew up on a vineyard in LaBarre, France. Commander William Riker is from Alaska. Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge is from…uhm…well, he’s black. If you want to know where Geordi is from, you’ll have to zoom in on a screen capture of his Starfleet service record. (He was born in Somalia, by the way.) The point is that it couldn’t matter less where Geordi comes from, and you would never be able to guess, because like nearly every other human character in the Trek spin-offs, Geordi is part of a nondescript “Earth culture.” The human population on the Enterprise isn’t multicultural, or even polycultural, it adheres to a single culture that already exists in modern day, that of mainstream white America, and it discards all others.
It’s not that characters should be confined to representing their ethnicity or nationality, or that one’s cultural heritage needs to be a prominent part of their personality. The problem is that, in a future that is supposed to represent a united human species, all human culture is almost completely homogenized in favor of that of the writers and producers of the show, who are predominantly (perhaps entirely–if anyone can find me an example of a Star Trek episode written by a person of color, please hit me up on Twitter) white Americans. While in TNG race is invisible and racism is dead, the wrong lesson is being taught: instead of everyone accepting and celebrating each others’ differences, everyone gets along now because everyone is the same. That’s not tolerance, that’s assimilation, a particularly bad word in the world of Trek.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, human beings from across the planet Earth and from colonies across the galaxy read William Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, listen to Mozart and Brahms, and play holodeck programs based on Westerns and Film Noir. The entire surviving mainstream culture of a united humanity is built around white people. Sure, Riker can quote Sin Tsu, but the future canon of art, literature, and entertainment is almost completely made by white Americans and Europeans.
I don’t for a moment believe that it was the intention of the creators or producers of Star Trek to present a whitewashed future and call it Paradise. As a young white viewer, the homogeneity of Trek‘s culture was invisible to me, as any culture is to a member of its majority, and I suspect this was also the case to the predominantly white creative forces behind the show. When constructing the culture of the future, it appears that the writers used a good rule of thumb and, rather than trying to invent futuristic music and arts that would no doubt date the show, projected that whatever had stood the test of time for the past 300 years would likely stick around for another three centuries. Hence, classical music and Shakespeare, canonized works of Western academia. What they didn’t do was imagine that by the 24th century, classic works by authors, artists, and composers from Asia, South America, or Africa would be just as prominent in a globalized culture. They failed to look outside their own experience (or, better yet, employ writers and producers with different experience) and as a result, the unified human culture of the 24th century is markedly lopsided.
I should note that another contributing factor to the sameness in Star Trek is humanity’s abandonment of religion. Religion is one of the most divisive forces among our cultures, but it’s also a form of diversity that’s wiped out by TNG‘s 24th century. No one on Trek is going to be seen wearing a turban, or a cross, or a yarmulke, or a bindi, because they’re practically all atheist, agnostic, or at the most, deist. Organized religion no longer exists among humans, except for in very small cultural pockets, such as Native American colonists like Voyager‘s Chakotay, whose faith is treated the same as the Klingon Worf’s fictional spirituality is on TNG and Deep Space Nine–it might as well be a made-up alien religion, for all the respect and accuracy it’s portrayed with over the course of the series. That’s not a knock against Trek‘s humanity being post-religious, necessarily, but it does contribute to humanity being more homogeneous.
The whitewashed Westernization of Earth culture is just as prominent in Voyager and Enterprise as it is in TNG (many of the leading creative forces carried over to each of those series) but it’s not surprising that Deep Space Nine, the only Trek series with a black lead, is the only one to really acknowledge it. Captain Benjamin Sisko is one of the most developed characters in the Trek canon, and also one of the few characters of color with clear connections to their cultural roots. His family has lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for generations, where his father runs a Creole restaurant. Benjamin carries on this tradition in his own home aboard Deep Space 9. He’s also a collector of ancient African art.
In the episode “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang,” Captain Sisko voices his disapproval of the crew’s obsession with a holosuite program set at Vic’s, a fictional casino lounge in Las Vegas in 1962, particularly when his girlfriend Kasidy Yates (who’s also black) gets involved in it.
SISKO: You want to know? You really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you. Las Vegas, 1962, that’s my problem. In 1962, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh, sure, they could be performers or janitors, but customers? Never.
KASIDY: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there and neither has Jake.
SISKO: But don’t you see? That’s the lie. In 1962, the Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people and I’m not going to pretend that it was.
This is the only instance of a human character in the Trek future referring to himself as a member of a particular race (with the exception of Native American characters, who, as mentioned above, are basically framed as space aliens), and it speaks volumes. It’s wonderful that humanity has moved past issues of race, but by effectively going back in time to a fantasy version of the past, they’re forced to either ignore or acknowledge what has changed. Kasidy speaks in defense of the fantasy:
KASIDY: Baby, I know that Vic’s isn’t a totally accurate representation of the way things were, but it isn’t meant to be. It shows us the way things could have been. The way they should’ve been.
SISKO: We cannot ignore the truth about the past.
KASIDY: Going to Vic’s isn’t going to make us forget who we are or where we came from. What it does is it reminds us that we’re no longer bound by any limitations, except the ones we impose on ourselves.
They both make good points, but Kasidy’s argument is more modern to the world of the show. Holoprograms are escapist entertainment, and it would be pretty abhorrent if someone made a video game that only people with certain skin colors could play and enjoy. It’s also important to note that nearly all holonovels throughout the franchise are programmed to treat the players as if they belong in the environment of the story, even if it’s a Sherlock Holmes program and the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson are being played by an impossibly pale android and a black man wearing a cheese grater on his face, respectively. Julian Bashir’s James Bond-inspired program doesn’t notice or care that Player Two is Garak, a Cardassian. They’re supposed to be universally inclusive because that’s what makes them fun.
The same, it seems, could be said for Star Trek. While it may be unwittingly narrow in its vision of a united Earth culture, it’s still intended to be inclusive and user-friendly. Star Trek is a world where race doesn’t matter and anyone can play. The result doesn’t always match the intent, but if you’re willing to acknowledge–not necessarily accept, but acknowledge and maybe even forgive–the problematic elements of that world, you can find comfort there, and an ideal that, with fine-tuning and a wider cultural lens, is worth aspiring to: a world where people are just people and prejudice is a thing of the past.
That is, as long as you’re human. But what if you’re an alien? And hey, what about the gender imbalance, or the complete lack of gay characters? Looks like we’re gonna be at this for a while, people. See you next time.
Infinite Diversity will return in two weeks! Follow @DeadshirtDotNet on Twitter to keep up with what’s new here on Deadshirt, and feel free to tweet @DylanRoth with suggestions for future topics for Infinite Diversity, or just to talk about Trek. He truly never gets tired of that.