Is Star Trek Racist?

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Title: Is Star Trek Racist? (also titled "Race in Star Trek")
Creator: Hypatia Kosh
Date(s): May 6, 2001
Medium: online
Fandom: Star Trek
External Links:
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Is Star Trek Racist? is a 2001 essay by Berli aka Hypatia Kosh.

It was in four main parts, but only the first part was completed; the last three are simply outlines.

Excerpts are below.


I've been planning to write on this subject for a very long time. Since the DS9 days, when I started to get the impression that the casting and portrayal of certain alien races on Star Trek was not simply random, but rather reflected an unconscious bias on the part of The Powers That Be (fandom's name for the executives, producers, writers, directors and actors as a collective whole), I've been pondering the meaning and portrayal of race in Star Trek. The focus of my discontent was first, the tendency in NextGen for the aliens they encountered to be all white men, secondly, the portrayal of the Klingons in all three series (this was before Voyager) and lastly, the fact that TPTB cast African-Americans as Jem'Hadar and whites as Changelings.

...Voyager has backslid so badly on the topic of race that I find I hardly have the words to describe it. I am amazed that in the 1960's Kirk could simply but firmly defend Spock when it was discovered that the Vulcans and the Romulans were related in "Balance of Terror" but in the late 1990's the captain of Voyager can tell an alien crewmember that maybe she doesn't belong with them after all. One can point to changes in America's attitude towards the rest of the world to explain it, but there's no denying that Star Trek has abandoned its vigorous anti-racist stance - it's raison d'etre in the first place, if Roddenberry was to be believed.

Given that Voyager is near its end and the franchise itself may be on its way out, I still think the topic is timely. Star Trek is still anti-racist in the popular consciousness, but it no longer is in fact. And besides that, even when it was still anti-racist, it was not everything it could have been. Star Trek was a start, not the pinnacle of achievement. I guess I'm angry that American society has completely stalled on race, and Star Trek is just a sympton of that. I wanted more out of Star Trek than it could deliver. So now I'm going to rip it apart, partially to satisfy that anger, partially to justify the hours upon hours of my life I devoted to it, and partially because it has to be said: if we as a society cannot understand where we have fallen short of the mark, then we will never progress. [1]


Star Trek's woes with regards to race are endemic of the situation in all science fiction and all television - recently, in some ways, worse. Star Trek held up a shining ideal of tolerance for all races, religions, nations, creeds, a world united for peace. It wasn't such a bad idea. It's fashionable now to act like things will never get better in America - but that very defeatism feeds into the problem. The real way to bring Star Trek to life isn't silly costumes or exotic technology, but by building the sort of society that we hold in our dreams. [2]

Part One: Who Are The Star Trek Races?

"A look at the racial/ethnic coding of the Star Trek races. Although they were nominally exotic aliens from all over the galaxy, the races of Star Trek have more often than not been stand-ins for various nations on Earth."

Despite the anti-racist intentions of its creator, Star Trek in some ways never quite escaped its times. For every episode like [shoot! the one with the organians] there was one like [omega glory?], the latter penned by none other than Roddenberry himself. The Omega Glory could be a page in itself, but I digress. Considering the classic series as a whole, we can see how the Vulcans were exoticized, like Asians were in the greater culture. Although Vulcan philosophy is for the most part the purest form of very western tendencies, in reality, Spock and other Vulcans were portrayed as inscrutable, exotic and somewhat barbaric in customs. Rather than being cooperative individualists, according to the Western ideal, they are portrayed as highly conformist, bound by all-important familial obligations and strict ettiquette. In the episode Amok Time, one sees Confucian and Japanese elements; in the Kolinahr discipline to remove all emotion, there is an echo of the Buddhist monk's goal to eliminate all desires. And finally - although the Greeks would certainly protest - in this day and age what could possibly be coded more "asian" than Spock's proficiency in martial arts?

The upside to this portrayal of Vulcans was that it freed Star Trek to avoid all of these things when portraying actual Asians. Sulu was quite a character, but there was nothing about him which was stereotypically "Oriental," a great achievement in the 1960's, when white actors were still commonly cast as Chinese on television. Harry Kim, who is an Asian-American, is a completely assimilated American, and why not? (Sulu wasn't Asian-American, but according to at least one origin, he was Japanese-Filipino, his parents were scientists, and he grew up in space, which would explain the lack of any positive national identity). Keiko O'Brien and Nurse Ogawa on NextGen and DS9 are the only other Asians of note on Star Trek, and they were both portrayed in a positive light. I might be wrong, but I thought that TPTB did a decent job portraying Keiko as Japanese, but without burdening her character with a bunch of mistaken notions of what that was supposed to mean. Unfortunately, Keiko suffered as a character by being "O'Brien's wife." She never transcended that, and the writers on DS9 were never quite sure what to do with her. Come to think of it, maybe the writers *were* projecting their views of Asian women on the character. Ya know, eager to please, not very assertive, that kind of thing. I mean, sure, Keiko and Miles got into arguments (most of which she started) but while Miles' position was always easy to understand, Keiko always seemed to be acting out of an unarticulated sense of discontent. She didn't know what she wanted. (Maybe she had a secret . . .).

While we're on the topic of Asians, I'd like to mention that the original series Klingons were associated with Asians as well. Yes, it sounds odd - in many ways, the Klingons were much more closely associated with the Russians - but I have proof in the form of Star Trek Log [?]. There were actually two different makeup jobs done on the TOS Klingons. One was little more than facial hair and titled eyebrows, making them look something like Fu Manchu in chain mail. The second involved some of the same face work, but with the added bonus of copper skin. This time, the Klingons are colored, and, not surprisingly, portrayed as somewhat more animalistic. (Type One Klingons in The Trouble With Tribbles taunted the Starfleet officers, but Scotty threw the first punch; type two Klingons ran amok on the Enterprise in Day of the Dove). [3]

Part Two: The Crews

"When Sisko was promoted to Captain on Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek franchise finally put a African-American on equal footing with the two famous, white captains of the previous two series. Despite that (and all the headway made on DS9) all of the series had some issues when it came to the crew - human and alien." [4]

Part Three: Klingons, Jem'Hadar and Tuvok

"Portrayal of Black men on Star Trek is really nothing to brag about." [5]

Part Four: Alien Crewmembers, From Spock To Tuvok

"What was, is again. Or is it? If you've seen The Galileo 7, you know Spock didn't always have an easy ride. He was alien and cold, and that rubbed some people the wrong way. But if Spock sometimes had it rough, Tuvok is never given a break. Throughout the Voyager series, he's been verbally abused by everyone, from the Captain on down. Maybe it's just a "coincidence," but I know Kirk never treated Spock the way Janeway treats Tuvok.'" [6]


  1. ^ Introduction
  2. ^ Beyond Star Trek
  3. ^ Who Are The Star Trek Races?
  4. ^ The Crews
  5. ^ Klingons, Jem'Hadar and Tuvok
  6. ^ Alien Crewmembers, From Spock To Tuvok