Tag Archives: The Other

Star Wars Isn’t Racist

Today I went to the San Jose Tech Museum, where I saw the Star Wars exhibit on its last stop of its tour. While it was a very cool exhibit, one thing that I (anthropologically trained) really noticed was the treatment of the “other” in Star Wars, the mythology of my generation.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Storm Troopers on Patrol
Storm Troopers on patrol at the Tech Museum of Innovation — San Jose, CA

To understand the impact of Star Wars on our impressionable young minds, we first need to dispense with the idea that the franchise is science fiction at all. Sure, they have laser blasters, robots, radios, and space ships, but it’s really fantasy (…in space!).

How do we know it’s fantasy? Because against the fairly dystopian cyberpunk background, we’ve got good guys in white, bad guys in black, glowing swords, and magic powers blooming left and right. And let me say this clearly: if we have good and evil wizards battling it out in the distant past, it’s not some vision of our future.

Science fiction, as a genre, is one of the ways that our culture tries to make sense of rapid cultural and technological change. We’ve been experiencing this change since the beginning of the scientific era and industrial revolution. But that’s not Star Wars.

Star Wars is about our colonial past, the nature of good and evil, the proper role of mysticism, and necessity of righteous rebellion against tyranny. In other words, it’s not a projection of our future, but a mythic retelling of our own past.

The Mythic Past as a Window to Our Own Past

The Millenium Falcon
The coolest cat in the universe clearly needs the coolest car…spaceship…whatever.

Back in the 70s, when science was “gonna change the world,” Star Wars gave us a chance to see something that was quite the opposite of the Humanist and spiritually sterile Star Trek. But the differences don’t end there. While Star Trek treats all aliens as foreigners with their own political interests and idiosyncrasies, Star Wars treats them as archetypes of our own culture.

In other words, George Lucas might not be racist at all. But he’s betting the bank that we are. And, historically speaking, that’s a safe bet to make.

Only a hundred years ago, the British Empire ruled a big chunk of the world, “race” was a dominant political-economic creed, and everyone “knew” that religion was true and culture was an a priori category. We’ve come a long way in changing our views about matters of race, religion, and gender. Heck, we’ve come a long way since the 70s.

Defining the Problem

Tusken Raider
Extremely territorial and xenophobic, Tusken Raiders will attack with very little provocation.” Little provocation after the humans took their planet, that is…

We live in a culture that would be unrecognizable to the people of a century ago. But that doesn’t mean the change is over. We still understand these archetypes, use them in our stories, and to a certain extent keep them as part of our culture.

Just as science fiction plays with the cultural change wrought by technology, Star Wars as science fantasy deals with our own changing culture. The aliens aren’t really meant to be aliens, just people in funny suits with motivations that we can quickly apprehend and use to drive the plot forward.

You know, archetypes. Stereotypes. We can get all jumpy about the way Star Wars uses these cultural shorthands to paint a quick, recognizable picture. But the problem doesn’t lie with the authors. The issue isn’t that Star Wars is racist. The problem is that we are.


What Is Cultural Anthropology?

Aden Pattern Pith Helmet
We don’t wear these anymore.

The stereotypical image of a cultural anthropologist is someone who studies strange people in far-off lands. Cultural anthropologists are known to speak a couple of languages, slip between cultures like Santa Claus down chimneys, and tell wild (if sometimes oddly low-key) stories of far off lands.

But in the new world of near-instant travel and even faster communication, that doesn’t really even begin to describe what cultural anthropologists do. We’re all exposed to the Other now. The Other is not some strange and exotic thing, it’s just a part of life.

So what do anthropologists do all day? Mostly, they try to understand people by watching them live and work in groups. And those groups work together using a set of “tools” called culture. Except culture’s not just a set of tools. Culture is the meta-tool. It’s so ubiquitous, most times we don’t even know we’re in it.

If culture’s so big, how the heck do we even look at it?

Chopping Culture to Pieces

Anthropological theory usually starts by breaking down culture into mental categories. For example, we might make the divisions: Ethnicity, Language, Economy, Politics, Kinship, Gender, and Religion.

A quick look at that list will show that it doesn’t quite cover everything, and a lot of things fit into multiple categories. If a leader is always a man (or woman) in culture X, then does that fit into politics? Religion? Gender? It turns out, we can look at the same thing in several ways.

Worse, there comes a moment when we realize that these categories are based on our own culture — they’re tools we use to help ourselves understand, not actual, natural categories with an a priori existence.

It’s a humbling moment when we discover that these word-tools are actually a part of our own culture. Still, for understanding culture and its basic processes, they’re a good start. The starting place of the Western discipline of anthropology has to be Western culture. It is necessary, but it would be a shame to forget why we did it in the first place.

Development of Social Theory

Each and every area of study in anthropology has its own extensive theories, and not all of it agrees with itself. In many of the social sciences, that is often the case. How can this be?

Most people know more about psychology than they do about anthropology. For a moment, then, think about psychology and its various approaches to understanding people. While modern psychological practice and theory (take Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Cognitive Psychology) do, in a sense, descend from the work of Sigmund Freud, it would be ridiculous to argue that we’ve just built on his ideas.

Instead, as Western culture’s knowledge has grown, psychologists have actually swept away some parts of Freud’s theories. In fact, we could probably break his theories into two categories: things that we think are true without questioning them, and things that we think are passé. We all “know” that the things that happen in childhood shape who we become (I hear that was his idea) but we think the id, ego, and superego might just be too simple a structure to describe us.

The same pattern holds true in anthropology, as it has developed over the past century and a half. We no longer believe that the first people developed culture as a way of figuring out which kids went with which father in a matriarchal society (MotherRight, J. J. Bachofen, 1861). Anthropologists no longer theorize that cultures develop through linear stages from band to nation-state. [We stole that construct from Neoplatonism, as mentioned here.]

Yet cultural anthropologists know culture is something that is learned. Moreover, it’s learned in such a way that it forms the basis of our experience of the world. We know that our area of study is as fundamental to human experience as human biology — almost mystical in its implications.