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Star Trek and Ethnicity

By Taylor Marvin

The cast of Deep Space Nine. Via Memory Beta. No idea why Bashir’s head is so tiny.

Robert Farley has some fun  pointing out that Star Trek’s Starfleet is fairly… monochromatic. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Star Trek in all its iterations is an American show, and while its run has taken some fairly revolutionary progressive leaps, the show is still intended for a mostly American — and mostly white — audience.

I do think it’s interesting how much trouble American audience have internalizing just how large the world’s Asian population is. If Starfleet really is a perfectly meritocratic international organization, we’d expect roughly two fifths of human starship crews to be of Chinese or Indian descent, assuming world demographics haven’t drastically altered in last three hundred years (as Farley notes, Star Trek’s internal canon suggests that it has). While American audiences accept this on a factual level, few science fiction narratives actually depict world demographics as they actually are — Americans are used to seeing a white-dominated society, and perceptions of a future inclusive utopia are baselined around the demographics of early 21st century American, not world, society. It’s telling that when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did introduce a non-white lead the producers selected an African-American actor rather than one of Asian heritage, a choice that reflects Americans’ perceptions of what constitutes a “minority”  (though apparently the role was not written with a specific ethnicity in mind and actor Avery Brooks was selected on the strength of his excellent acting, so maybe this is reading too much into into the casting).

If the Star Trek universe reflected all of human society rather than just contemporary America’s, the show’s string of mostly white characters are all drawn from a minority of human society. It’s understandable that American audiences have trouble imagining a Starfleet that doesn’t reflect the ethnic composition of their own society. But presenting the Federation as at its core fundamentally American — both culturally and ethnically — does speculative fiction a disservice. Science fiction often strives to rigorously imagine future science and technology; why should ethnicity be any different?

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