“Argumentative, Quick to Take Offense”: Criminalizing Black Women of Trek

“I’m not going to stand here and apologize for what I did. You had your duty; I had mine.”

-Kasidy Yates, “For the Cause,” Deep Space Nine

 

I am a Black woman. I have never been to prison. I have never been jailed. Police officers have never pulled my arms and hands behind my back and affixed handcuffs to my wrists.

I don’t know what any of these things feel like.

But at least one of those acts of the criminal justice system has been executed against two three of the major Black women Terran or Terran-passing characters of Star Trek. That’s a little over a third of the already low figure of just eight key Black women in the franchise. Among this list, I’m including Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Guinan, Captain Kasidy Yates, Commander Michael Burnham, Lieutenant Joann Owosekun, Raffaela “Raffi” Musiker, Ensign Beckett Mariner, and Captain Carol Freeman. In fact, since I’ve started composing this post, another Black woman of Trek was arrested on screen! More about that later.

The criminalization of difficult Black women trying to do good is canon to Star Trek. And most recently, with the mysterious arrest of Captain Freeman of Lower Decks, an objectively amenable woman, the trend no longer applies to the noncompliant alone. So many of our stories as Black women of Trek cannot exist without being shrouded in themes of betrayal and malfeasance. An appeal – a supplication for forgiveness.

Beyond major characters like Kasidy Yates and Michael Burnham, TNG dedicated an entire episode to a Black-passing (Haliian) woman implicated and investigated as criminal, even as she turned out to be a victim of the crime. In “Aquiel,” Lieutenant Aquiel Uhnari, the episode’s namesake, is suspected of murder after she and her commanding officer go missing from a space station; she returns while he is found dead. The contemptuous relationship between the two complicates matters, as Keith Rocha a White or White-passing decorated and highly respected lieutenant treats Aquiel, a junior grade lieutenant, who self-proclaimed is “not a model officer,” as though she is “beneath contempt.”

Without clear evidence one way or the other, Commander Riker is immediately ready to accuse Aquiel. He even attempts a psychological tactic used in law enforcement interrogations to manipulate persons of interest into letting down their guard, insisting “we’re not here to make accusations.” Although, he consistently makes accusations in and out of Aquiel’s presence, with little discouragement from Captain Picard.

Aquiel Uhnari

I mean, all’s well that ends well, I guess. As the true perpetrator is found, Aquiel is recognized as a victim and freed of suspicion. Riker never apologizes — and with that begins the Star Trek tradition of unapologetically shackling difficult Black women.

While the predominantly White characters of Trek face a negligible amount of criminalization storylines, for the Black women of Trek, this appears to be a theme deserving of a closer look.

 Kasidy Yates

Kasidy talks with Ben on her first appearance on the show

“Captain Yates seems like a very capable woman.”
– Miles O’Brien, “Family Business,” Deep Space Nine

Many of the ways that Black women respond to the oppressive realities of our lives come through acts of self and community protection and service. Take the case of Kasidy Yates.

Here I was, watching DS9 for the first time as an adult. I had made it through the first two seasons and most of the third when I heard Jake Sisko announce, “Captain Yates is back on the station.” While  there was precedence for Sisko’s attraction to Black/Black-passing women (the late Jennifer Sisko and Fenna, for example), I had come to terms with the notion that Star Trek presented a future that had very few people who reflected my visible and cultural identities, so in learning that Captain Kasidy Yates was written as a love interest for then Commander Sisko, I don’t think I consciously hoped for her to be something other than a stereotypically pretty White woman. Enter Captain Yates.

For the first time in my Trek experience, here was someone I could connect with on multiple levels. It wasn’t just about her racial formation or gender identity or sociocultural makeup; it was the way she carried herself. An accomplished freighter captain, strong in her resolve to maintain her independence but not afraid to be vulnerable with those close to her. Her initial encounter with Sisko – whom I’m sure she’d heard about as much as he’d heard about her – was open-hearted, quick-witted, and flirtatious. I was feeling her as much as Sisko was (maybe more?). She showed resolve in her abilities to get things done and primarily relied on her own crew rather than the station’s resources. In a way, she was the female counterpart to Commander Sisko.

This independence and self-sufficiency contributed key factors to the Xhosa captain’s temporary fall from grace. Unlike Aquiel, who essentially fit the mold of the angry Black woman, according to series leads, the DS9 leads respected Captain Yates—loved, even, in more than one instance.

Ben and Kasidy kiss

So that particular mold couldn’t take shape. Instead, she served as an example of the chaotic do-gooder rule breaker. The Black woman who oversteps her position in her duty to community. The criminal storyline here centered on the one thing Black women have been doing for our communities for generations and that a certain order of White folk have trouble comprehending—protecting and serving at nearly any cost. Unfortunately for Kasidy, that service and protection went against the interests of the status quo, that is, the Federation. Her crimes were, after all:

  • Smuggling Federation supplies (replicators) to a Federation enemy, under the mistaken belief that she was delivering desperately needed medical supplies to the Maquis, the Federation’s enemy at the time
  • Misrepresenting her delivery route and cargo (so that those in need could receive what she thought to be medical supplies)

Kasidy Yates faces down Ben when he confronts her for smuggling

 

In the same independent, self-sufficient Superwoman fashion that has come to define her character, she accepts her reprimand and incarceration. But not without a final word on the intention to serve, as indicated at the opening of this post: “You had your duty; I had mine.”

Michael Burnham

Burnham in her yellow prison jumpsuit

“Now we are at war, and I am the enemy.”

-Michael Burnham, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” Star Trek: Discovery

From the time the first Disco trailer premiered and Sonequa Martin-Green’s Commander Burnham and Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou graced our screens, Star Trek’s 23rd century finally began to reflect some of the gender and racial diversity of its 21st century fandom and haters.

Even more than Captain Yates, Burnham as the series lead instantly reignited a connection with Star Trek I hadn’t felt in a long time. This Black (American) woman’s disposition intersected Vulcan logic with human curiosity. As she eventually confides in Ash Tyler, “All my life the conflict inside me has been between logic and emotion. But now it’s my emotions that are fighting. I think about him, and I want to cry, but I have to smile. And I feel angry, but I want to love.” I found this character rich and complex—necessarily conflicted.

Yet again, though, the story creators of the show couldn’t make her so without a tale of criminalization and redemption. Commander Saru even comments to Captain Lorca, “Her mutiny aside, she is the smartest Starfleet officer I have ever known.” So, basically, they’d created this smart, critically thoughtful, caring, incredibly capable woman of color, and the only way they could think to make her story compelling and relatable—for a still predominantly western White audience—is to make her the Federation’s first mutineer.

Burnham at her interrogation

Like Lieutenant Uhnari, who countermanded orders to help out fellow Federation colleagues, and Captain Yates, who broke Federation law to deliver what she thought to be medical supplies to their enemy, Commander Burnham breaks Federation law and goes against its principles in an attempt to save the lives of her crew mates. Taking the story to a place in which she endangers her vessel and shipmates and mutinies places her intentions in a White masculinist point of view in which she must be criminalized.

As long as Trek keeps writing Black women’s stories without writers who share the lived experiences of these characters, we can likely expect to continue seeing Black women included but misrepresented as criminals.

Carol Freeman in handcuffs

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