It’d be great news if the buzz about 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong'o being cast in the upcoming Star Wars sequel is true. That’s because Lupita Nyong’o is great, and it would be wonderful to see her get high-profile roles.
Casting someone whose breakout role explicitly and thoughtfully engaged with the African-American experience may also, hopefully, kick off a discussion about race in Star Wars and in sci-fi more generally. The franchise has often been criticized for its clueless, tone-deaf use of caricature, especially the nods to blackface minstrelsy in Jar Jar Binks. More importantly, Star Wars encapsulates a pop-culture tradition of space operas that can easily invent spaceships and robots and aliens, but that helplessly acquiesce to old, stereotypical treatments of gender and race. Why does that matter? Sci-fi is at least in part a dream of a different world and a different future. When that future unthinkingly reproduces current inequities, it seems like both a missed opportunity and a failure of imagination.
So, how could Star Wars try to imagine better?
There are four basic ways that sci-fi has approached issues of race. The first, and perhaps most common, is through metaphor. Creators often use analogy to express virulent racism without having to own it—as in the dreadful Priest, in which John Ford's The Searchers is rewritten with evil, slavering vampires in the role of Indian tribes. Paul Verhoeven nicely critiqued the practice of equating racialized others with disgusting alien monsters in in Starship Troopers, where the fascist heroic humans are clearly the bad guys, and you end up sympathizing with the bugs as the colonized victims.
In other cases, metaphor may be used to try to understand or condemn racism—or, less comfortably, to borrow for white protagonists the experiences of the marginalized. The X-Men are perhaps the iconic example here, with the oppressed, heroic mutants standing in for oppressed groups like African-Americans. Much more thoughtful is Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which differences between human/android (or, by metaphor, whites/non-whites) are presented less as absolutes than as profiling tools for law enforcement.
The second way in which sci-fi has handled issues of race is through tokenism. Non-white actors or characters are included, but there is no comment or discussion of racial issues. I presume that this is how the new Star Wars film will handle Nyong'o's presence, just as it was the way in which the original series handled Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.
It can be heartening to think about a future in which racial difference is no longer the weight it is now, as in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. But tokenism's refusal to directly confront racism can also end up backfiring. The white guy in the original Star Trek leads the diverse crew with the black woman as the space secretary, or the black best friend stands off to the side somewhere, as with Christina in the recently released Divergent.
A third approach is diversity. Instead of one or two white characters, a diverse setting imagines a world in which whiteness is not the default. Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin does this a number of times. In her Earthsea books, the main character, Ged, is red-brown. In Left Hand of Darkness, the main character, Genly Ai, is black, and the androgynous inhabitants of Gethen are, Le Guin says, "Inuit (or Tibetan) brown." As Le Guin herself notes, she was "wily about [the] color scheme," making it part of background detail rather than a central focus. This fact perhaps enabled the whitewashing of Earthsea for the television adaptation: Since the non-whiteness was done subtly, the adaptors felt justified in ignoring it. Still, the fact that they wanted to ignore it, and the fact that Hollywood virtually never imagines a future with a substantially different color mix than the contemporary U.S., is a sign of just how much Le Guin was pushing against the racial preconceptions of mainstream sci fi back in the 1960s and 1970s—and, for that matter, against the racial preconceptions of mainstream sci fi today.
Finally, the last approach is a direct one, in which racial issues in a sci-fi setting are dealt with as if they are continuous with, or affected by, racial issues in the present and the past. For example, in The Hunger Games, District 11, the home of Rue and Thresh, is presented as a segregated black city or region, subject to familiar prejudices and inequities—it's the poorest region, and its inhabitants experience especially vicious policing and persecution. Octavia Butler's Dawn is more subtle. The protagonist, Lilith, is black and her race inflects her relationships with both alien invaders and the remnants of the survivors of earth. Even after the apocalypse, Butler suggests, race and racism aren't that easy to escape.
These approaches to race and science fiction don't have to be mutually exclusive. Metaphor and tokenism are often used together. For example, in Aliens the human exploratory force includes a number of non-white characters, while the nightmare monsters are stand-ins for the Viet Cong. John Sayles's Brother From Another Planet is about a black alien escaped slave running from white alien slavers, a narrative that mixes, or falls between, metaphor and a direct engagement with racial history.
Nor is one approach necessarily better or superior to every other. Metaphor or tokenism or diversity or direct can all be used well or badly, just like any other aesthetic trope.
But it seems telling that certain ways of dealing with race in sci fi—like metaphor and tokenism—are so common, while others are almost completely ignored. Sci-fi likes to believe it can imagine anything, but, especially in its mainstream incarnations, it's clearly a lot more comfortable imagining race in contexts where the topic is dealt with obliquely or simply not mentioned or foregrounded. In this area, Hollywood adventures are strikingly timid. Excited as I would be to see Lupita Nyong'o in the Star Wars franchise, I doubt the new film will change that.