Monday, October 28, 2013

Another (an Other?) Note on Star Trek

I have not had the opportunity to read Professor Daniel Bernardi's book on Star Trek, Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future, but I have been doing some research regarding the show and have to agree with what I have heard and read about it here and there in the blogosphere regarding his theory on the privilege of whiteness in the Star Trek series and films. In an interview with Trekdom published in 2007, Bernardi mentions, for example, that most of the Star Trek characters played by actors of color happen to be in roles of "loyal servants/side-kicks (Spock), or in the process of assimilation (Worf)" into whiteness. Bernardi concludes that this is the effect of a tokenization that, although it strives to be more representative of our multicultural population on Earth, never truly represents the other, but the white-washing of an other that is identified only in the visual spectrum.

Earlier this year, another article was published denouncing the most recent white-washing of a Star Trek character previously played by none other than Ricardo Montalbán. In The Original Series (TOS) and The Wrath of Khan, Khan Noonien Singh, (which this article identifies as originally written as "being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India"), was played by the Chicano actor and in the new Star Trek film, Star Trek: Into Darkness Khan makes a reappearance, but this time played by a white actor, who also happens to star on a television series in which he plays Sherlock Holmes (talk about problems of colonialism).

Although this latest article makes a very good argument regarding the lack of prominent roles by actors of color in the current Hollywood culture, I think it fails to recognize the racial complexity of Khan.

For example, while it is true that in the original characterization of Khan there was attention paid to casting an actor of color, in TOS and in The Wrath of Khan, Khan is played by a Chicano, thus generalizing brownness to the figure of the other, the almost "alien," to quote a concept discussed more in depth in Chicano literary theory.

Moreover, Khan's character is meant to represent a more-than-average-human-being with "superior" physical and intellectual qualities that are a result of a process of genetic engineering. Originally, my problem had been exactly that: the representation of a person of color as "superior" because of scientific enhancement. In The Wrath of Khan, Khan recognizes himself this way,

"It is only because of my genetically engineered intellect that I will survive."

And when Khan ultimately fails--because he is the villain of the film--William Shatner responds in the role of Captain Kirk,

"Khan, I am laughing at the superior intellect."

This entire racist build-up of the scientific enhancement of Khan and the social Darwinism of the rhetoric employed in the original film, however, are lost in the new film. This result is partly because Khan is now played by a white actor and in another way by losing the "superior" lingo from the film altogether, as Into Darkness never employs the word to refer to this new Khan's "impressive" abilities.

Obviously, it is not better to have a white-washed Khan in Into Darkness, nor is it worse to have a generalization of brownness in the old film, it is not comparative racisms we are speaking about here, but when talking about Khan, one cannot ignore the fact, that from the very conceptualization of the character, Khan's race was a challenge for the visual creators of Star Trek and that in every representation of the character, racism has not been avoided.

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