Last week Yale University was embroiled in its own manifestation of a conflict taking place at many major American universities regarding race relations on campus. Yale’s particular manifestation of this conflict was a heated clash over the appropriateness of halloween costumes, and whether offensive costumes should be regulated (or even whether they should discouraged by administrators). Without getting into the issue itself, I want to say that the whole situation leaves me thinking about, what else?
For many minority students, the problem of halloween costumes is just another frustrating chapter in a long and unbroken chain of stereotyping of their people, and the projection of patronizing and belittling images upon their their skin-color. ‘Black,’ is a symbol upon which all sorts of things have been and continue to be projected. These projections have varied. Drugs. Slave. Violence. Stupidity. Anger. Gangs. Uncivilized. It goes back a lot further than we want to admit. Black=ugly is codified in poor (convenient?) translations of the Hebrew of Song of Solomon: ‘I am black, but beautiful.’ The Hebrew is, at the very least, ambiguous, a coin-toss whether it means ‘but’ or ‘and,’ yet the ‘but’ is chosen because black=ugly is an easy sell.
Protestors in Ferguson are portrayed as ‘a mob’ by the news media, and instances of looting in Ferguson were blasted all over the media yet few batted a critical eye or asked whether this is an overly selective sub-section. Of course black people are out-of-control looters! Yet, when white young men set fires and break cars and storefronts over loosing a football game they are simply ‘passionate sports fans.’ Stereotypes sell, double standards slip past uncritically because there is a market for them.
Media loves to play off of these stereotypes. This is not because the media is particularly full of machinating racists, but because these stereotypes sell. People buy them. They’re believable to so many, and they have been for a long time.
This is the case in the news, and in the arts. White men are typically cast as heroic roles in movies. Black men are typically portrayed as thugs and gangsters, or as passive victims rescued by the nice white person. This recently came to the surface when a producer said that the black actor, Idris Elba was too ‘street,’ to play the next James Bond. Portrayals of Africans in Western media have been grossly stereotypical; it’s all warlords and ‘uncivilized natives.’
Anyone who knows me is not at all surprised how much Star Wars has dominated my imagination as this release of The Force Awakens comes closer. Sitting on my bookshelf already is a tall figurine of Finn, a new character in the upcoming Star Wars film. He was the first action figure I wanted to buy. From the first trailer, and as new info has come out, I’ve found myself already emotionally attached to Finn.
Finn is played by the British actor, John Boyega, who is of a Nigerian background. I quickly came to love John Boyega, after finding out more about him once his name was cast for the role. He seems fun, charming, down to earth, and I personally appreciated that his Instagram is filled with Bible verses. Boyega has been caught in a few controversies regarding race and this role. After his first appearance in a stormtrooper outfit, there was some backlash to the idea that a black man was playing a stormtrooper, to which Boyega famously, bravely, tweeted in response “get used to it.” More recently, he was the center of attention during the bizarre ‘boycott Star Wars’ twitter trend (a trend that sadly?…thankfully? only became viral because so many people tweeted to condemn it).
From what little is known about the movie (no spoilers ahead that are not officially released!), Finn is a man of moral conviction, but a man who is unsure of his direction. He is not sure where he belongs in the universe. He teams up with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and takes up the call to become a hero of the galaxy. John Boyega says that, before knowing what role he was being tapped for, he cried at the end of reading the script because he was so moved by Finn’s story and desperately wanted to play him. His dream came true.
I think about diversity and toys sometimes when I look around at Target or Wal-Mart. I remember a particular conversation, a friend told me how her grandmother was once annoyed that all the white dolls were sold out at the store and there were only black dolls available for her grandchild, saying her granddaughter “deserved a doll that looked like her.” I thought of all the black, Asian, Latino, Arab girls and boys (in the West at least, but often elsewhere too since Western toys are often exported) who have not had that little luxury. They have grown up surrounded by images of happy, successful, pretty, smart, sexy, and heroic role models, as personified in toys, as mostly only white. Subliminal messages get into our brains and these have some very sad (albeit, unintended) consequences. Things are starting to change, thankfully, but there is work to be done still.
The first information released about the new Star Wars cast, a couple years ago now, opened the director and producers up to some criticism for continuing Star Wars’ long tradition of being mostly white men and even seeming to play into some very bizarre racial stereotypes at times. The second wave of cast announcements included Boyega, along with Lupita Nyong’o, and Ridley. J.J. Abrams would later say that they made a conscious decision to be more diverse on this film. There is risk of patronization and commodification in this attitude. for viewers, seeing a few more non-white faces up there making us feel better that we are watching something a little bit more diverse.
But there’s also something that seems right, and beautiful, about it all. It is a conscious attempt to make a statement that non-white faces are and can be and should be heroes, that black and white and all others can be heroes together, against years of messages to the contrary. Besides, surely any hint of patronization melts away when one recognizes what brilliant actors Boyega and Nyong’o are.
And I look at this action figure.
Star Wars is huge, obviously. This movie is going to break records, and the merchandise campaign is going to be a madhouse. It already is. Action figures of Finn are everywhere.
No one will be able to stop the fact that millions of little boys and little girls, black and white and otherwise, are going to have this toy; a toy that is an image of a young black man portrayed as a hero. This man will be a hero to so many children, a toy they put on their shelf, a trophy of who they want to be when they grow up. Boys and girls will be playing with these toys, recreating stories, where a black man and white woman join hands (like in that already-iconic shot of Rey giving Finn a hand up off the ground) and fight together against evil in the galaxy. That is a new story, a story of reconciliation and mutuality and equality. A message of ‘we are stronger together’ than apart.
I recognize the concern many have about free speech in these present campus debates. I’m sad, however, that we even have to have the fight over whether it’s permissible to mock and offend and stereotype; fighting over how much institutions should get involved in stopping racially-charged vandalism and racial slurs. I wish we lived in a society where that wasn’t common, or acceptable. I wish we lived in a society where we stood up for one another’s image and dignity, fighting side-by-side against what is evil, as partners.
A friend asked his Facebook followers to describe, in one word, what Star Wars represents to them. He and I both said ‘hope.’ These stories caught our imaginations as little boys because they were stories of hope; stories that compelled us so deeply that we have yet to grow out of them. Stories about heroes emerging, a rag-tag team of unlikely allies becoming friends and hoping beyond hope that no matter how grim things the galaxy good can still win out against wrong.
I look at our world today. The scab over still largely unhealed racial tensions is being ripped off on college campuses, and elsewhere. And it is painful. Those of us who have not had to deal with racial discrimination, disparity, and conflict have been able to pretend that everything is okay while there is so much that is not healed or made right, so much need for confession and forgiveness and reconciliation.
Things may seem hopeless right now.
Some character (likely Leia?) states in the trailer what I am trying, and am beginning, to believe:
“Hope is not lost this day, it is found.”