We’re still two months away from the premiere of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the Internet mania around the movie is reaching ludicrous peaks. Tickets for advance screenings are being listed on eBay for $10,000, and the premiere of a new trailer has spawned viral video reactions from fans and stars of the film alike.
But naturally, there’s nothing like collective joy to bring out the worst in people, and amid the usual Star Wars-immune grumblers this week, a group of trolls appeared to ruin the fun. #BoycottStarWarsVII was launched as a joke, then quickly appropriated by actual racists in “protest” of the new film’s choice to make heroes out of women and men of color, making The Force Awakens the latest in a long line of films, from The Hunger Games to The Fantastic Four, that have met controversy for not living up to white supremacist standards.
For the kind of people who create hashtags like #BoycottStarWarsVII, race is something that exists in other people, not in themselves. Whiteness is normal, blackness is an add-on, like racially diverse emoji. That whiteness has been treated for so long as a race-neutral default and not as its own cultural construction is what makes it possible for white performers like Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill to embody characters that stand in for larger ideas and ideals, without limitations imposed because of their race.
Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are still relevant today because they exist in our collective memory as mythic heroes, expanding far beyond their 1970s origins. Journeying to galaxies far, far away is an opportunity to explore ideas without the baggage that history and culture can sometimes impose on our stories. This is the appeal of science fiction that Hollywood often forgets in their search for the next Guardians Of The Galaxy. If dramatic storytelling is traditionally based in the specifics of our everyday lives, science fiction has the power to reimagine our notions of reality.
The purposeful and active choice that Disney made to populate the new Star Wars reboot with women and with men of color is not “white genocide”—as #BoycottStarWarsVII trolls would have you believe—but instead a relief from the arbitrary limits mainstream culture places on anyone who isn’t white and male. If Harrison Ford could transcend race, gender, creed, and origin to become an international symbol of heroism and independence, there is no reason John Boyega can’t do the same.
So why is it that colorblind casting is still met with contention? Why is it that the presence of people of color in science fiction still provokes such ugly responses?
No doubt part of the vitriol comes from the outsized reaction that trends like #BoycottStarWarsVII inspire. The “protest” started as a 4chan meme—the people who made the hashtag weren’t trying to actually get people to boycott Star Wars, they just wanted to provoke responses from activists and people of color, and anyone else who committed the crime of being excited about diversity in a major blockbuster.
Common wisdom is to ignore trolls, but when trolls are proposing the same boycott strategies as the more sincerely bigoted, how can you differentiate?
The racists who came out of the virtual woodwork were sincere when Amandla Stenbergh was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games, and there were even more when Michael B. Jordan took on the role of Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four. Even the suggestion of Idris Elba as James Bond is enough to rile up Bond purists more literal than Antonin Scalia, armed with their Ian Fleming paperbacks, ready to defend the essential whiteness of 007.
Even when the supposed cause is #whitepride, there is rarely any pride on display in defenses of whiteness. There’s no attempt to understand whiteness as a race, no attempt to build a relationship with one’s own origins, no creative impulse that emerges from the aversion to black skin. But then maybe what is being so rabidly defended is not whiteness, but ignorance.
For people of color, negotiating race is an inevitable fact of life, and while that can mean something like the life-threatening effects of police brutality, most negotiations with race are small, even mundane. How should I represent my politics in front of my boss? Should I correct this person’s pronunciation of my name?
But for the kind of people who boost #BoycottStarWarsVII, their belief in the neutrality of their skin makes thinking about race avoidable, and so their lives become centered around avoidance. The entertainment industry has enabled this childishness for too long. Reactionary racism is just a sign that what Disney and Abrams have done with Star Wars is long overdue. If lightspeed isn’t yet possible, colorblind casting is one way to shorten the distance between two different worlds.