Berli's Trek Shack

Race in Star Trek

Is Star Trek racist?

I've been planning to write on this subject for a very long time. Since the DS9 days, when I started to get the impression that the casting and portrayal of certain alien races on Star Trek was not simply random, but rather reflected an unconscious bias on the part of The Powers That Be (fandom's name for the executives, producers, writers, directors and actors as a collective whole), I've been pondering the meaning and portrayal of race in Star Trek. The focus of my discontent was first, the tendency in NextGen for the aliens they encountered to be all white men, secondly, the portrayal of the Klingons in all three series (this was before Voyager) and lastly, the fact that TPTB cast African-Americans as Jem'Hadar and whites as Changelings. At the time, I had probably a couple of pages worth of material.

However, I was forestalled in my plans when I came across a doctoral thesis on racism in Star Trek. The author had his own list of complaints, including quite a few from the Original Series, which I had basically excused from consideration, given its trailblazing in the area of race. What was most stimulating, however, was his discussion of the racial coding of the various Star Trek races, a topic which I had not given much thought. After reading the book, I put the task of writing about racism and Star Trek on the back burner, since he had already published a lot of my complaints, and because he had opened up so much more for consideration that I was convinced it would take a book for me to address the topic!

Since then, Voyager has backslid so badly on the topic of race that I find I hardly have the words to describe it. I am amazed that in the 1960's Kirk could simply but firmly defend Spock when it was discovered that the Vulcans and the Romulans were related in "Balance of Terror" but in the late 1990's the captain of Voyager can tell an alien crewmember that maybe she doesn't belong with them after all. One can point to changes in America's attitude towards the rest of the world to explain it, but there's no denying that Star Trek has abandoned its vigorous anti-racist stance - it's raison d'etre in the first place, if Roddenberry was to be believed.

Given that Voyager is near its end and the franchise itself may be on its way out, I still think the topic is timely. Star Trek is still anti-racist in the popular consciousness, but it no longer is in fact. And besides that, even when it was still anti-racist, it was not everything it could have been. Star Trek was a start, not the pinnacle of achievement. I guess I'm angry that American society has completely stalled on race, and Star Trek is just a sympton of that. I wanted more out of Star Trek than it could deliver. So now I'm going to rip it apart, partially to satisfy that anger, partially to justify the hours upon hours of my life I devoted to it, and partially because it has to be said: if we as a society cannot understand where we have fallen short of the mark, then we will never progress.

Race in Star Trek: Is Star Trek Racist?

Part One: Who Are the Star Trek Races?

A look at the racial/ethnic coding of the Star Trek races. Although they were nominally exotic aliens from all over the galaxy, the races of Star Trek have more often than not been stand-ins for various nations on Earth.

Part Two: The Crews

When Sisko was promoted to Captain on Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek franchise finally put a African-American on equal footing with the two famous, white captains of the previous two series. Despite that (and all the headway made on DS9) all of the series had some issues when it came to the crew - human and alien.

Part Three: Klingons, Jem'Hadar and Tuvok

Portrayal of Black men on Star Trek is really nothing to brag about.

Part Four: Alien crewmembers, from Spock to Tuvok

What was, is again. Or is it? If you've seen The Galileo 7, you know Spock didn't always have an easy ride. He was alien and cold, and that rubbed some people the wrong way. But if Spock sometimes had it rough, Tuvok is never given a break. Throughout the Voyager series, he's been verbally abused by everyone, from the Captain on down. Maybe it's just a "coincidence," but I know Kirk never treated Spock the way Janeway treats Tuvok.

Conclusion: Beyond Star Trek

Star Trek's woes with regards to race are endemic of the situation in all science fiction and all television - recently, in some ways, worse. Star Trek held up a shining ideal of tolerance for all races, religions, nations, creeds, a world united for peace. It wasn't such a bad idea. It's fashionable now to act like things will never get better in America - but that very defeatism feeds into the problem. The real way to bring Star Trek to life isn't silly costumes or exotic technology, but by building the sort of society that we hold in our dreams.

~~ o ~~

This site created and maintained by Berli.
Posted May 6, 2001.