Racism and Star Wars
This is something that bothers me every time I read an expanded universe novel, and no, it’s not “do as many people with breasts as without fly spaceships” or “are people with various shades of skin equally represented.” What I am talking about is racism, or the xenophobia of humans in the expanded universe: humans treating other humans preferentially while pushing nonhumans down. Realcanon books assert that this is a common practice in the Empire, which also supposedly demonstrates huge prejudice against women.
This has frustrated me almost since the first time I read an EU novel. They are absolutely filled with implications that nonhumans are second-class citizens — a sentiment that does not exist in any of the six films. As my sympathy for the empire grows and I increasingly approach Star Wars with logic and critical thinking, I’ve gone from frustrated to completely obsessed with proving why this is ludicrous — “this” being “speciesism,” or more accurately racism (humans are one race, which means the nonhumans are simply other races).
Now, the first reference to the Empire preferring humans over nonhumans comes from Heir to the Empire. Whether Zahn was intending this as a parallel to bigotry and prejudice surrounding the American Civil War, or whether he meant it to echo the Aryan preference of Hitler’s Nazi regime, the effect he seemed most interested in achieving was making Grand Admiral Thrawn stand out as much as possible.
Really, I think this was unnecessary, and I don’t thank Zahn for it because of how the other authors decided to run with it. Zahn was clearly intending to emphasize Thrawn’s unusual talents and abilities by making him the “only nonhuman Grand Admiral in the Empire,” the head of a navy exclusively (apparently) filled with humans. I think it’s a point Zahn made at the expense of sense — and without reason, because Thrawn still would have been remarkable as the only Chiss in the entire Empire. Chiss are essentially unknown in the galaxy proper, so he could have battled the natural prejudice against an unheard of minority. Insisting on an entirely human military was uncalled for and absurd. Yet Zahn did not go so far as to say women were unknown in the military: in fact, Captain Pellaeon refers to female and male crew members as equals. Other authors are responsible for the anti-female sentiments in the Empire, which I’ll get to.
In short, my point is that it was absurd and unjustified to introduce a government-supported, galaxy-wide prejudice of humans against “aliens.” (The word alien could not possibly even exist as a synonym for nonhumans, not in a galaxy where some 20 million different species have been mingling for “over a thousand generations” of the Jedi and even participating in a galaxy-wide Republic “for a thousand years.” It’s illogical, even impossible; cf. this post.)
There are an estimated 100 quadrillion individuals in the “galaxy far, far away,” and for any one species to become the majority, it would have to boast at least 51,000,000,000,000,000 individuals. I suspect the races are in fact far more evenly distributed, with no real “majority” to be had. Which is really the cornerstone of my argument: in a galaxy lacking any racial majority, there is unlikely to be any widespread or government-sanctioned oppression of every nonhuman sentient species.
I’m not saying no humans have any prejudice against nonhumans. 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 nonhumans as nonhumans are against humans. But bigotry would likely be a fringe pursuit — the only place it might be officially sanctioned is by the odd sector governor or individual Imperial captain who cannot be said to reflect the views of the government as a whole.
Speaking of the government as a whole, let’s discuss Emperor Palpatine. I’ve been told that he is demonstratively against nonhumans, but is this so? First of all, he took his Sith training from a Muun — and while he eventually did kill Plagueis, it certainly wasn’t racially motivated. Palpatine does demonstrate the ability to use anyone — so his first apprentice is a Zabrak, his right-hand man is a Chagrian, and his senior administrative aide was an Umbaran female. The entire Separatist council consists of nonhumans, and they disgust him because they’re idiots, not because they aren’t human. And going back to Sly Moore for a moment, not only is she his most trusted aide, she’s also a sort of prototype Mara Jade that he rescued when she was a homeless girl suffering from horrifying Force terrors. So much for his prejudice against women, because, hey, there’s Mara Jade — the Emperor’s Hand at the apex of his power. He never demonstrates a prejudicial preference for humans or a bigoted attitude toward nonhumans in any of the films. He has no motivation to do so, and I believe that Imperial persecution was wholly restricted to individuals, governments, and solar systems that resisted his will — not those who possessed nonhuman genetic material.
I’m calling it impossible for there to be any official, widespread persecution of nonhumans, and unlikely for there to be any similar disparaging attitude toward females. Whatever prejudice exists must exist on a small scale, at an individual level.
This is the part where you, or some argumentative soul, indignantly objects, “But, RebeLibrarian, there are only human Imperials in the movies! We don’t see any nonhuman Imperials anywhere!” This brings me to another hugely significant point: the constraints and mindsets of filmmakers in 1970s/1980s America are not the same as the attitudes of men and women living in a galaxy far, far away.
In my experience with mid-20th century science fiction, I’ve seen deep suspicion and/or disgust across the board when it comes to nonhuman characters. No matter how far advanced a species is described as being, the authors invariably fall back on parallels with animals. Even Timothy Zahn’s Noghri mew, purr, and growl, and are consistently being compared to cats as though to demean their status as sentient beings.
These were simply the prevailing attitudes when work on the first Star Wars film commenced int he mid-70s. The director was an amateur, his budget was relatively low, and studio support was minimal. What they had went toward the incredible vistas and special effects. It can hardly be surprising that the crew came up with shockingly offensive terms like “Hammerhead,” “Yak-face,” and “Pruneface” for sentient beings. With the next to movies, though the budget had increased, they already had a groove that was working for them and they stuck with it.
Male filmmakers of the late 70s-80s were not overwhelmingly concerned with filling a perceived quota of how many representatives of each gender or race you need to have before you can establish an acceptable pattern of diversity. They just wanted to get the job done, and getting the job done means working with what you have on the easiest possible level: don’t you think that the slant toward humans in the films is a direct result of the fact that humans are the ones making and viewing them? This is one of those cases I think we can’t afford to ignore the fact that these are movies made by moviemakers, after all. It’s completely logical for the cast and crew of a 1970s low budget science fiction picture to refer to nonhumans demeaningly — but it does not make sense to turn this into a galaxy-wide government policy on sentient species.
Which brings me at last to my final point. Frankly speaking, extremely little is ever shown (in the films) of the people and personages of the empire. As far as Stormtroopers are concerned, they could be very many things under all that body armor. All we could say for certain is we aren’t seeing any Twi’lek troopers on the Death Star — the troops we do see could be any number of near-human species, and how can we make a solid declaration that there are no Twi’lek Stormtroopers anywhere in the galaxy? After all, are we to assume that just because every droid we see in A New Hope is battered, scavenged, second-hand Jawa bait that no glistening, fresh-off-the-assembly-line droids exist? That just because all the ships we see are warships or battered freighters, that there are no “muscle car” or Mercedes-Benz starships? Of course not. We draw conclusions that there are normal families in the Star Wars universe; that journalists and actors exist; that people go grocery shopping and do their laundry. We don’t need to see these things to figure they exist, so why do we need to see nonhuman and women Stormtroopers and military officers to assume they exist?
All right, my argumentative friend acquiesces, no telling about the people in armor, but what about the ones in uniform? Those are definitely human men! Well, two things: first, we see only a tiny, downright miniscule fraction of Imperial crews in the Original Trilogy. We can’t conclude from a sample that small that every officer on every starship in the fleet is a human man just because we see 30 or so human male officers in the trilogy. Second, there is no reason to suppose that denizens of the galaxy far, far away are really any different from those in the United States — men are statistically more likely to take on high-risk, high-paying jobs, like working on the Death Star. The man-woman ratio in the Imperial military might be 60:40, with the Death Star ratio falling nearer 70:30. This is simple logic that doesn’t contradict the content of the films or minimize the accomplishments of a Chiss like Thrawn.
Yes, there is a persistent, species-based racism that pervades early Star Wars products and writing, but those attitudes are not present in the film. Such prejudice comes from those involved with the film, the earthbound humans who were still pioneers in a new field, long before we started taking crazy-looking nonhuman species for granted. I remember one interview where the crew said how much fun it was to take a Shakespearean actor like Sir Alec Guinness and make him have a conversation with “this big shaggy dog creature” — if a character as beloved as Chewbacca can be reduced to a doggy sidekick, how much more are the nameless extras going to be flattened into two-dimensional “aliens”?
The radio drama and early novels slip in apologetic lines, urging acceptance of (or patience with) nonhumans — but those aren’t inserted for the benefit of the characters. It’s there for us — or rather, for the readers back then who considered anything nonhuman to be sort of non-entity. Even my grandmother, a huge Arthur C. Clarke fan, referred to everything sentient and nonhuman as “a monster.” But haven’t we moved past that? Let’s stop importing the ideals of late 20th century America onto the sensibilities of people who would’ve grown up absolutely surrounded by people who didn’t look like them. Let’s stop pretending that the Empire had some kind of psychotic “white power” delusion that was motivating a total oppression of the galaxy. It’s not in the films, it shouldn’t be in the books — it comes from us, not them, and it’s time to let it go.