Star Wars light,
Star Wars bright,
First Star Wars I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.
Well, this question is about something in Star Wars that I wish were different. I assume this means some thing apart from the thing I wished had happened, the thing I wish hadn’t happened, the thing that makes me mad, and the thing that made me question whether I would continue loving Star Wars.
I could say, “I wish Yoda hadn’t been so much of an egotistical jackwagon that he refused to let Obi-Wan confront the Emperor, thereby creating Darth Vader and cementing the Empire as a galactic power for the next quarter century.” There is a certain element of realism that is lacking — what in the universe sort of guardians of peace and justice just pack it in for the next 20 years when one guy loses in a lightsaber duel to a Sith Lord? They should have hit the Emperor again, and again, and again. But neither of these wishes are reasonable because they completely alter the entire plot and purpose of the saga.
Here’s a wish that doesn’t. I get upset about this periodically, upset enough that I actually made a page dedicated to the subject, just because I wasn’t finding a way to post about it. What I’m talking about is Racism and Star Wars. And no, it’s probably not what you’re thinking.
Dear theoretical arts and entertainment genie who exists to grant wishes related to space sagas from the late 20th century: I wish that the expanded universe authors hadn’t felt the need to translate outdated skintone-based bigotry, specifically of the United States variety, into a government-endorsed and common “anti-alien/non-human” sentiment in the Star Wars universe.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about how the Star Wars books are permeated with references to nonhumans being some sort of second-class citizen, and how this is drawn as a parallel to the inexplicable prejudice that occasionally exists on Earth between people groups of one shade of skin and people groups of another. The initial attitude first appears in Heir to the Empire, where Timothy Zahn wants to emphasize Thrawn’s unique status as a Grand Admiral by making it clear the Emperor had a prejudice against non-humans. Now, much of this trilogy is rooted in the American Civil War, and it’s possible he drew some parallels between the Nazi regime and Palpatine’s Empire as well. Such parallels do exist in the films. My only problem with what Zahn did comes from the way the other authors took this and ran with it.
Not to imply that this is a fault of Zahn’s. Mid-20th century science fiction writers, across the board, seem to have a deep-seated disgust of nonhuman characters. This is evidenced by the insistence they have of calling them “aliens,” and parallels consistently drawn with animals. In the Star Wars scripts and sketches, there are “hammer heads” and “yak faces,” names that no people group would assign to themselves. Chewbacca is referred to as a “big, shaggy dog” in interviews throughout the 80s, and his characterization is frequently doglike as well. As for the films being predominantly human-focused, don’t you think that’s because we, as humans, are the producers and viewers?
I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense for the authors to have trumped this up in the first place. What I’m saying is that it bothers me on a profound level. Because while it makes sense for the cast and crew of a 1970s low budget science fiction picture to refer to the nonhuman species in demeaning terms, it does not make any sense on any level for the characters of the Star Wars universe to do so themselves.
Oxford English Dictionary, Alien, adj. and n.: B. n. 1. a. A person who does not belong to a particular family, community, country, etc.; a foreigner, a stranger, an outsider. b. spec. A foreigner who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where he or she is living; a foreign national. 2. b. A person who or thing which is opposed, repugnant, or unaccustomed to a specified person or thing; a stranger to. 5. orig. Science Fiction. An (intelligent) being from another planet; an extraterrestrial.
That last sense was coined in 1931 with obvious reference to the first. Alien is obviously meant to imply things unknown and apart from one’s own being. We use it now almost exclusively to refer to extraterrestrial beings, but consider this. The “galaxy far, far away” consists of roughly one billion inhabited solar systems. The Galactic Empire was made up ≈ 70 million solar systems and more than 100 quadrillion sentient beings — and these 100 quadrillion beings encompassed maybe 20 million different species. (In my Guide to Sentients, I list about 65 as particularly significant to the plot.)
I’m throwing all these numbers at you because I want you to see what I do: that in a galaxy of 7 billion inhabitable solar systems, with a population so much greater than that of Earth that I don’t even know the math language to express it to you, there is absolutely no way that one species could dominate the others, and no way the word alien could ever refer to all non-human races equally. Especially when all these races have been in contact with each other for at least 30,000 years (cf. Obi-Wan’s Jedi ruled for “over a thousand generations“). It makes no sense. Banish it from your vocabulary.
Now let’s talk about bigotry. I’m not denying that it’s very likely for some humans somewhere to have prejudicial sentiment against non-humans. Prejudice, bigotry, and xenophobia are certainly going to exist in a fallen world, whether that world is Earth or a galaxy far, far away. I’m sure as many humans are prejudiced against non-humans as non-humans are prejudiced against humans. My point is that in a galaxy where there is no racial majority, widespread oppression of every non-human sentient species is highly unlikely. In fact, I’m calling it impossible: there can be no galaxy-wide, government-sanctioned treatment of non-humans as lesser beings. This kind of behavior is going to be fringe and exist equally in humans as nonhumans.
You may tell me that Palpatine himself was prejudiced against non-humans (as well as females!), but I say there’s no internal evidence for this. He took his Sith training from a Muun, his first apprentice was a Zabrak, his right hand man was a Chagrian, and his senior administrative aide was an Umbaran female. His private personal assassin was human, also female. He never demonstrates prejudicial preference for humans (or males), nor does he have any motivation to do so. Imperial persecution almost certainly centered on resistant individuals, or even resistant solar systems (such as Mon Calamari) — not people whose genetic composition differed from the Emperor!
Anyway, I go into more detail on the page Racism and Star Wars; all I wanted to do with this was get my thoughts on the matter out where some people might see them and be inclined to agree. What you should take away is that I wish the expanded universe didn’t insist quite so heavily on humans being egotistical scum who detest most non-humans. And I wish they didn’t use the incongruent word “alien” quite so much.