“Third World” identities in Star Trek

As a woman of active imagination and a science-fiction enthusiast, I could never help but wonder what my life would be like had I been born in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. Would I apply for Starfleet? Would they have a strong Social Sciences department (meaning: pretty, pretty please, could I do ethnographic research for Starfleet!?)? In a future where national borders are diminished, and we puny earthlings are faced with such transcendental formations as planetary empires and galactic quadrants, would I still identify as Latina? In fact–are there still third world identities in the 23rd and 24th centuries?

Even though Trek seeks to unify humanity, several characters throughout the series have their specific Earth backgrounds underlined. Picard is very clearly French, and demonstrates a certain pride to be so. He occasionally speaks French, and, after the Borg incident, we follow him to his brother’s vineyard in La Barre, France.

Picard and Robert in France

L’Europe

Keiko O’Brien (née Ishikawa) was born and raised in Japan. We see her prepare typical Japanese meals and in a flashback, doing Japanese brush writing with her grandmother. Her husband Miles O’Brien is Irish, and in DS9 we get to hear a thing or two about his notable ancestry. Their wedding “combined Irish and Japanese traditions,” according to Memory Alpha.

In the Original Series, we have Scottish Montgomery Scott, who talks about Scottish pubs, plays bagpipes and occasionally wears a kilt. Chekov is very proud of being Russian, and constantly talks highly about Russia. Jim Kirk is from Iowa and Dr. McCoy is from the U.S. South, and if we take into consideration the Kelvin Timeline, Karl Urban’s Bones uses a Kentucky Derby metaphor as an old saying from from the South.

But when taking into consideration human characters whose national identities are not those of the so-called developed countries, the pictures Star Trek paints are not so colorfully detailed. In fact, ethnic representation in Star Trek is a subject of both praise (American TV’s first interracial kiss! Hell yeah, go Star Trek!) and criticisism (Why is Chakotay not played by a Native American actor, and why is he such a stereotype?). The series makes an effort to show human diversity, though it doesn’t always get it perfectly right.

We Trekkies are familiar with the Swahili origin of the name Uhura, which indicates the character has roots in eastern Africa. But we never get a mere “back in Kenya, my family…” or “my great-grandfather lived in Uganda when…”

B’Elanna Torres has a Hispanic surname, and Roxann Dawnson (née Caballero), the actress who plays her, is of Hispanic descent. However, B’Elanna’s identity is referred to only as half human/half Klingon. In flashbacks, we see her on vacation with her family and (awful) father, John Torres, who seem to be North American. There’s no way of knowing for sure where they are or where they come from, though; if even Tamarians speak English, why expect anyone on Earth to speak Spanish or Portuguese?

Picard and Dathon in "Darmok"

“Shaka, quando as muralhas caíram” o “Temba, con los brazos abiertos”….?

The scene of B’Elanna telling John that she is bullied for being Klingon hits me as a lost opportunity of addressing race issues – for a second there, I thought he would show her that he did understand how she felt because he too had been bullied because of his ethnicity; or because he too comes from a multiracial family. Instead, he dismisses her as being “too sensitive” because “it doesn’t mean [her cousins] hate Klingons.” Yes, I understand the whole episode is about how her father was douchey, and she should be proud (or at least not ashamed) of being Klingon. But it’s at the very least odd that a character whose lineage was so constantly addressed never had her human side explored in such terms.

WORST. FATHER.

Actor Siddig el Fadil, born in Sudan and raised in England, changed his stage name to Alexander Siddig while playing Dr. Julian Bashir on Deep Space 9. In “Doctor Bashir, I presume”, we meet his parents Amsha and Richard Bashir, portrayed by actors Fadwa El Guindi (Egyptian) and Brian George (Israeli of Iraqi descent). Since this is the episode we find out about the doctor’s genetic engineering past, there is a lot of talk about his childhood, school, and the family’s changing cities. These cities, however, are not named, nor is their country, or countries, of birth. The only geographical landmarks mentioned are those of planetary dimensions, and the prison in New Zealand where Mr. Bashir is sent.

Now, imagine if the episode started with Dr. Zimmerman announcing the LMH would be based on, say, Benjamin Sisko, and everyone in DS9 was interviewed. Wouldn’t New Orleans, Sisko’s’s Creole food, or the New York Yankees be mentioned, even if just in passing? If it was based on O’Brien, wouldn’t he talk about his family in Dublin?

Bashir

This makes me think about just how the unification of Earth would take place in Trek’s scenario. First Contact took place on U.S. soil; Starfleet’s headquarters are located in California – if the movement that led to an established identity of “humanity” was steered by one, privileged, nation, it’s unlikely that the particularities of the many, many others around the world were taken into consideration in the building of said identity. I imagine that not much of “we are all human” includes peripheral nationalities.

Truth be told, I haven’t watched all Trek episodes yet (there are almost 30 seasons of it, people!!). I fact-checked my points using Memory Alpha, but maybe I’ve missed an episode where B’Elanna talks about how she never had white Christmases because she used to spend the holidays in Rio de Janeiro with her grandparents; or one where Julian takes shore leave in Sudan to practice his Arabic among non-holographic people. If so, I stand corrected (and please let me know). But I’m sure there aren’t full scenes in any of the movies showing Uhura having fun with friends in, say, Nairobi National Park.

Kirk, McCoy and Spock in Yosemite National Park

One of the things I love the most about Star Trek is that its ultimate message is that we are, first and foremost, sentient living beings; that we must respect one another on that account. I first watched the series when I was 16. It has had a profound impact on how I see relationships, the world, and what the future can be. It has made me consider, over and over again, what it means to be human, and how much we can achieve as a race if we set our differences aside. However, as a product of a hegemonic culture, it’s not perfect in its representation of human diversity. Discovery, and any other new incarnations that may appear to carry on Gene Roddenberry’s legacy, still have a lot of ground to cover to depict a vision of the future that actually considers our whole world.

  9 comments for ““Third World” identities in Star Trek

  1. Mark Rodriguez
    December 6, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Mariana, AWESOME post! I have been concerned about ethnic representation on Star Trek since I first started watching TOS in the 70’s. Especially Latinos (being Puerto Rican & Cuban) I would LOVE to talk with you about the subject more.
    Please feel free to email me or Messenger me on FB.
    There was a DS9 character named Enrique Muniz,an engineer working with O’Brien, who I thought was handled pretty well. Played by F.J. Rio. I would like to discuss DSC as well, having a Puerto Rican Doctor now.
    Mark Rodriguez:
    exponents2046 at hotmail dot com

  2. Stormkpr
    December 6, 2017 at 11:53 am

    This is so good. I love Star Trek but I cannot help but to be disappointed in this regard. Star Trek has such potential and sometimes has pushed boundaries, but the writers sure dropped the ball with how they handled third world identities.

  3. Janet
    December 6, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    To be fair, most Mexicans have some Native ancestry. I bet that if Robert Beltran were to get his DNA tested, that would be the case.

    I think the reason third world identities get glossed over in Trek is that since we get past ethnicism/racism, there is no need to talk about it. It’s supposed to be what happens when we don’t see color. But of course that’s not how it comes across. These are unintended consequences of having mostly white writers. It’s why we don’t hear more about Malaysian food and culture when discussing Malcolm Reed. Even though it’s a white guy who grew up in Malaysia. He could have made an offhand joke to Trip about how durian would get him in trouble with T’Pol (it smells so bad it gets banned on many Southeast Asian subways).

    • Ruby
      December 6, 2017 at 5:46 pm

      Beltran IS Native, though what specific tribe he has not said outright. He is half Native and half Hispanic and uses the term “Latindio” to refer to himself.

      • Mariana B
        December 10, 2017 at 1:36 pm

        Hello, Ruby!
        In the post, I was referring to other people’s comments about ethnic representation in Trek, and used Chakotay as an example because I’ve read more than once this particular criticism around reddit, tumblr and the likes. I knew Beltran was Mexican, and it’s been brought to my attention that he is a self-proclaimed “Latindio”, which, I must confess, I had never heard of before. Thank you so much for commenting!!

  4. Janet
    December 6, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Was there any episode that mentioned B’Elanna’s dad was bullied for his ethnicity? Trek is supposed to be a time where we got past that (but replace it with other problems). In Enterprise, there’s an anti-alien terrorist group with black and Asian members. So it’s not out of the question for him to be racist towards Klingons despite being a minority. We see in our own history that sometimes oppressed groups like the Puritans turn into oppressors. There’s minority-on-minority racism in real life too.

    • Mariana B
      December 10, 2017 at 1:50 pm

      Hi, Janet!
      I totally agree with you, and certainly would hope that in the 23rd Century there is no longer any sort of racism on Earth.
      What I miss on Trek is not moments of African, Latin American and Asian characters suffering some sort of oppression, but quite the opposite: our cultures being portrayed as beautiful and rich as they are, and being celebrated. It’s not (just) about discussing race and/or skin color, but about acknowledging that “Earth culture” and “humanity” include much more.
      Thank you so much for commenting!

  5. December 10, 2017 at 7:20 am

    One thing that always intrigued me about the Bashir family is their mix of accents. Julian’s mother has a Middle Eastern accent, his father a South London one and Julian himself an upper-class English one. Regional accents like his parents have are one thing – even if there are no nations as such, there are still regions and people in them will continue to have dialects and accents.

    But the accent Julian has is not regional. It’s more of a learned mode of speech. The BBC accent (well, of the early days of the BBC anyway.) It’s a way of speaking learned at the schools where the wealthy send their children. It’s the accent of the ruling classes. I have to wonder if Jules Bashir had a similar accent to one of his parents, or the one of the region where they lived. But after the genetic engineering and moving away, his first accent became a casualty along with the rest of that lost identity.

    The way it contrasts with his father’s accent, a much more working class one, helps to tell their story, and helps to ground it. Nobody real has ever been in this family’s situation, but working-class parents (in reality and fiction) have paid out to send their children to expensive schools, only to have those children turn into people who now look down on the family they came from. Dr. Bashir, I Presume seems like a science fiction version of that story to me.

    • Mariana B
      December 10, 2017 at 2:01 pm

      Becky! I had never thought of it like that! Maybe because English isn’t my first language, it didn’t occur to me that Julian’s is more posh. I think it makes perfect sense, and from now on I’ll never watch the episode without paying attention to their accents again 🙂
      Thanks for commenting!

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