Empire Strikes Black
“I want to join the Starfleet Academy!” I exclaimed to a colleague when leaving the theater. Watching the new Star Trek movie left me with a sense of optimism about intergalactic governance, a desire to trust and give of myself wholly to the Federation, who will school me, train me on how to kill Romulans, and then (if I’m a white man) make me captain of a starship.
But, that’s the thing: I’m not a white man. Neither are most on this planet. Then, why in Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future, a utopia where peace reigns on earth, where nation-states no longer threaten each other with nuclear annihilation or terrorist attack, why are there so few people of color?
Okay, yes there is Uhura. There’s the Asian man who’s name I can never remember. And, there’s also the one with the thick Russian accent, proof that the Cold War is over as humans unite to conquer the dark space. But, scanning the faces of the instruments of empire, the Starfleet Academy located in the center of liberal white U.S.: San Francisco, I saw very few faces similar to my own. There was the obligatory green woman, a love slave on former episodes of the television series, the weird alien-thing, and a black man with a striking resemblance to Tavis Smiley as head of a council. Every other face is white, white, and more white.
What type of future utopia is this anyway? There’s one intergalactic government, modeled after the United Nations, ruled by a charter and a labyrinth of bureaucratic codes and practices, that every budding Starfleet member must remember and recite at climactic moments. It’s funny how at times of interpersonal conflict, whether between Starfleet soldiers or between Starfleet and other beings, an arcane Federation code comes to the rescue with an answer. It seems that in the future, you would live long and prosper if you have the ability to remember contents as prosaic as the listings in the Yellow Pages or the fine print that accompanies your Linux installation.
What is the purpose of boldly going where no (white) man has gone before? To bring order, civilization, and warp speed to the far reaches of the universe. How interesting that it becomes the duty, no, the destiny of the white commanders of the Federation to shine the light of rationality and reason on undiscovered peoples and planets. How similar to the burden that white men have operated under in the past two centuries of imperialism and enslavement of the global south, making the darker ones either cheap labor or new markets to push their goods in.
The Romulans are primitive peoples, who earn their living mining the depths of planets. Their clothing is crude, in a steampunk and future primitive kind of way. Their foreheads are marked with the swirl of jagged black arcs, emblems for many fraternity members who have these signs tattooed on their skin as signs of how they’re down with the people. Does it matter that the Romulans are pissed? Does it count when there is genocide of one species but not the peoples of the Federation?
Now, I am dubious of my zeal to be a Starfleet member. Especially if it asks me to choose: do I want to be a Vulcan or a human? Spock, cursed with this double consciousness, is asked to choose sides. He is born with a veil, gifted with second sight of logic and reason, but a commander in a human-dominated world. This double-consciousness makes him ever feel his two-ness, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one pointy-eared body. The biography of Spock is the history of this strife for people of color, this longing to merge our selves into mainstream society.
Beam me into the future and I will shun the Starfleet Academy. Instead, I would join the rebels on the planet Tatooine. Meet me in the Mos Eisely Cantina, where we’ll plot the overthrow of the Empire. Or, wait. Am I getting my sci fi/fantasy worlds confused?