“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.

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