Monday, March 6, 2017

Luminous Beings: Racism in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Hey, you know that movie you love so much about space wizards that fills you full of childlike hope and wonder? That is so ridiculous but so fantastic at the same time? That is such an integral part of your development as a human being existing in our culture?

Well, buckle up kids, because we’re going to talk about the racist parts of Star Wars. HEY. Don’t you click that little red ‘x’. I know this isn’t fun but it’s important. We have to talk about this, man.

Listen, I know Star Wars is supposed to be fun and plays a large role in many people’s escapism. I get it and I would never want to take that away from you. But we have to recognize the massive influence of popular culture in our society, and I don’t have to remind you how massive the influence of Star Wars is on popular culture. You can still adore a piece of media and acknowledge its flaws. In fact, it’s a requirement to recognize your faves' flaws. So let’s all step out of our little Death Star-shaped comfort zones and address one of the most problematic elements of Star Wars.

Tusken Raiders or Sand People

I know some people might see this as a stretch, seeing as these screeching fan favorites only had one scene in the Original Trilogy, but you’ve got to admit that the wardrobe chosen for these aliens closely resemble traditional middle eastern garbs. Plus, they’re called Sand People. However, as to be expected, it only got worse in the Prequel Trilogy. The Sand People are depicted as barbarous monsters that kidnap and torture Anakin’s mom for some undisclosed reason. When Anakin proceeds to flip out and murder a whole town full of Sand People, he delivers this little gem of dialogue: “They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals. I hate them!" Which I can understand to a point; they did just murder your mom, plus you’re Darth Vader so we get that you’re a little bit unhinged. But then Padme responds by saying “Anakin, what’s wrong?” The characterization of a whole race of people to be animals by Lucas is just awful, but at least a villain is saying it. When the diplomatic queen and senator completely glosses over this fact, pretty much with a “Yeah, so? Why are you crying?” means she agrees with him. The stereotype parallels between Sand People and Middle Eastern people is not the most blatant show of racism in the saga, but it’s still there.


Now, Watto is one of the most blatant shows of racism. It’s one of the most anti-semitic caricatures I’ve ever seen. Not only does this greedy, money obsessed alien have the caricatured features of a hasidic jewish person (large nose, scraggly beard, a typical hasidic styled hat) but his accent is just… just the worse. It wasn’t subtle, guys. I don’t even know how to finish this entry. I’ve got nothing left. It’s obvious and painful.

The Neimoidians

This was just as obvious as Watto. Their costumes were obviously Asian inspired, their accents were painfully on the nose and their eyes even have slits in them to mimic that specific Asian feature. American media has its own trope surrounding Asian men, in that they’re always businessmen up to no good. I know it’s common to accuse all minorities of crime, but we tend to pin white collar crimes onto Asian businessmen. Where and why did that start? Why does George Lucas have to be such a dingbat about this?

Nein Nunb?

Now, I have a harder time with Nein Nunb. He suffers from a lot of the same caricatures as the Neimoidians, like his eye shape and his language being blatantly Asian-inspired. But at least he’s not conforming to any preconceived stereotypes of Asian people. He’s sort of just doing his own thing in space, fighting for the rebellion. In fact, this is the first entry that isn’t a bad guy...

...but it isn’t the last.

Jar Jar Binks

If you were looking for a reason to hate Jar Jar Binks other than the fact that he sucks, please forward your thank you notes to my secretary. America has a long and disgusting history of minstrel style humor in film. Jar Jar has been criticized for his Jamaican style accent and gross incompetence. The actor who portrays Jar Jar, Ahmed Best, is an African American man, so I wouldn’t call it black face. If you do a simple YouTube search for “minstrel shows”, you’ll render hundreds of results. Just watch a few of them and compare them to how Jar Jar behaves and his function in the narrative. This can seem a bit unfair. How can you encourage black comedians without invoking this similarity to minstrel shows? It all depends on their function in the narrative. Jar Jar’s primary function was to be so completely moronic, his buffoonery directly impacts the fate of the galaxy. Not very empowering.

In my opinion (which is the opinion of a white person, so definitely not the definitive opinion on the subject), the Original Trilogy was actually very progressive given the time period it was released in. Why is it that things seemed to get much more racist in the Prequel Trilogy, or was that just me? And the newest Star Wars movies are the most progressive yet. Why the fluctuation in awfulness? Well, I’m not saying it was the level of George Lucas’ involvement, but in the OT he had a whole team around him and people to answer to, in the PT he had pretty much absolute control, and in the new era of Star Wars he just isn’t involved.

I see you, Villain. 

I want to give George Lucas the benefit of the doubt and say that these characterizations are not intentional, but rather his own internalized prejudices coming to the surface through his work. He was receiving the same institutionalized racism the rest of the country was via popular culture. Where Lucas screwed up is when he created these characters, he didn’t take a minute to stop and evaluate what he made through a different perspective.

This is how white filmmakers can learn from George Lucas. Take a step out of your bubble and ask yourself why you made the decision to give your character a specific feature. Think critically about your choices and where they stem from. And for the love of God, if a whole group of people tell you that they find something you created offensive, instead of getting defensive, listen to why they feel that way. The best storytellers are the ones who know how to listen in the first place.

Did I miss any glaringly obvious examples of racism in Star Wars? What other classics or fandoms struggle with racial prejudices?


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