When I was a kid, I fell in love with Star Wars. Back then, those movies could do no wrong. Amazing action, intense dogfights, the most terrifying super weapon imaginable, memorable characters, family drama—Star Wars had it all. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized the one thing Star Wars lacked:
Star Wars fans (and critics) used to joke that Lando Calrissian was the only black person in space, and they had a point. Up until the prequel trilogy, Lando was the only black character. Then we got Mace Windu, but even then, Star Wars was a saga about a sea of white faces engaging in intergalactic politics and warfare. As a white kid, this fact didn’t bother me. I had plenty of heroes to choose from. Back then, before I reached my teens, I had no idea that a lack of representation was a problem.
The new Star Wars movies rectify some of the sins of the past. While we don’t know much about Finn yet other than he was a Stormtrooper (spoiler alert? It’s been long enough, folks), Rogue One’s cast brought us a diverse cast of memorable characters (another spoiler: just don’t get too attached to them). Whitewashing the universe, however, isn’t a problem that just Star Wars has to overcome.
Star Wars was my gateway drug into science fiction. Science fiction, as you may or may not know, is sharply divided between pulpy genre conventions and writers that want to use science fiction as a medium to explore our current problems. I prefer the latter, but there are a lot of people who want science fiction to remain apolitical, avoid experimentation, and focus on things like space ships and lasers. This group of people is known as the Sad Puppies and they intentionally vote pulpy works to the Huge Awards (think the Oscars for fantasy and science fiction novels) because they believe science fiction is attacked by “politically correct” writers. Most of the time, this means writers of color or writers who touch on diversity and minority rights into their novels. Gasp, right?
For some people, representation in content is a hard concept to grasp. Their logic is that racism ended with desegregation. They consider statistics that indicate the racial bias in America as propaganda and spin. Never mind the fact that in places like New York City, 80% of all police stops involved either a black person or a Latino (compared to 8% of stops involving white people). Representation of minorities and minority voices just aren’t priorities for these people.
While I certainly believe that people can idolize whoever they choose regardless of their race, wouldn’t it be nice to give people choices? In Star Wars, you could idolize the sassy white woman, the roguish white guy, the whiny white farm boy, a walking carpet, or Darth Vader (who turns out was white under the mask, despite being voiced by the legendary James Earl Jones). Lando came later and immediately exuded a unique style. He was slick, a rogue like Han, but also a leader of his people, looking for a better life and faced with a hard decision of betraying his friends or sacrificing his people. Why couldn’t we get more heroes like him? Why did it take three decades before we got Finn and Cassian and Chirrut?
There is no downside to representation in content. A diversity of characters allows us to get a variety of voices to tell a more complete story of who we are as humans. This applies to all forms of marketing, as well. When people of color see only white faces in ads (or when LGBTQ couples only see straight couples), it is a subtle way of brands saying that minority stories are not important. They might justify whitewashed ads by saying things like they don’t want to concentrate on certain marketing segments, or certain advertisements test better with focus groups than others. To me, this seems like a convenient way to justify more white faces in advertisements, more tone-deaf ads that fail to understand the issues facing America and our society at large.
All of this is to say that as much as I love Lando, there should be more than one black person in space, and there should certainly be more than white, straight people represented in content.
Josh Duke is the director of content at 2930 Creative and used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.