Is Battlestar Galactica Post-Racial (or is that not even the problem)?

“[JOSEPH ADAMS] In his 40s, he is a Tauron, an off-worlder who has emigrated to Caprica; his hair is already starting to go iron-gray […] Left with a 9 year old son to care for, Joseph reaches out to young William, revealing to him that his last name is really Adama…SERIES REGULAR – SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES. HOWEVER, PREFER LATINO.”

While there are some extremely articulate discussions out there regarding Battlestar Galactica and gender (io9 has a good piece on it), there seems to be less focus on how BSG deals with race and ethnicity. Those interested in the issue would be happy to know that the UN actually held a BSG retrospective earlier this year, where the delegates were divided according to the Quorum of Twelve rather than earthly nations. A good account can be found on the website of Discover Magazine.

Those who have watched Battlestar Galactica will know that the cast comes from many diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, such as Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, Grace Park as Boomer/Athena, and Kandyse McClure as Anastasia Dualla (“Dee”). The opening quotation is taken from TV Squad’s 2008 posting, “Exclusive: Caprica casting info revealed,” which shows that the casting presents a level playing field for actors of all ethnicities. Perhaps more importantly, the series takes these actors and largely ignores their ethnicity. Granted, the universe of BSG isn’t the world of Earth (though that may be contested), but for some time I still puzzled over why Sharon Valerii was Asian. Is BSG post-racial and I am a dinosaur still hung up on this question?

What is “race” anyway? From my short coursework on this topic, it is a term to denote categorical differences in humankind, first used exclusively for biological differences and then shifting to recognize social differences, sometimes overlapping with the word “ethnicity.” There seems to be hope today that “race” can be a neutral term, but as Olmos stated during the UN BSG retrospective, it hasn’t been historically. While some people may not agree that Caucasians invented the term (eg this post by “keeptonyblairforpm”), it’s hard to disagree that the term has been used to persecute disparate groups in uneven power relations. It seems that recently there have been debate over popular culture inclusion of ethnic minorities, and whether it is a good thing. Of course, representation in all areas of culture production is necessary, but the criticism seems to be that representation has become the goal of addressing racial inequality instead of a symptom of an equal society, like saying “We have an African American in the cast, race problems solved.” The continuing impact of historical discrimination still go unaddressed, because everyone takes the successful African American actor as representative of all African Americans, whereas he/she is likely to be in the top 0.1% in terms of socioeconomic status, or some statistic like that. I’m definitely not faulting casting directors and actors for this – kudos for them for not aspiring only to be accountants or lab technicians out of a sense of personal security. But there does need to be more stories that address these unaddressed imbalances.

I, too, disagree slightly with Olmos that Caucasians invented the word “race” to persecute other “races,” though it is understandable that he and the other cast members of BSG don’t have a long historical view of racial construction. “Caucasian” is only a category that arose less than a century ago. Before the recent bout of globalization, people didn’t categorize themselves as “Caucasian,” simply because they weren’t in contact with that many Caucasian people to form any concept of a large umbrella category (same goes for “Asian” and other like terms). People thought of themselves as from an area within a country (eg, the “Cockney accent”), or at most a national conception (“English”). In fact, European countries were (and still are) very stratified. Irish immigrants to the US were seen as poor and uneducated, weren’t categorized as “White,” and faced almost as much discrimination as Asians. To think that Irish people aren’t “White” now seems laughable, because racial/ethnic categories, and those they exclude and include, change.

As Olmos stated in the UN, there is only one human race. All right, BSG seems to have accomplished that in BSG. But correct me if I am wrong; it seems that certain colonies of the Twelve (Gemenon, Sagittaron, Tauron, and Aerilon, according to Wiki) are seen as inferior, and Baltar changes his accent to seem more educated. Though displaced from earthly nations, the world of BSG isn’t even post-national. But even if we accept that the BSG universe is post-racial, what its post-raciality really points towards is just another shift in category concepts and not really any eradication of discrimination. There is a graduate course next semester at the Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster, that will examine the weird era we live in, where communities seem to have moved past the problem of racial inequality, and yet we are bombarded with the image of the Middle Eastern terrorist. (Sadly, I couldn’t get into this course, but now I’d like to take a commercial break to promote Cultural Studies and McMaster University.) BSG has been lauded to reflect the times, with post-9/11 uncertainty over the lack of security, but I believe that it best reflect this racial paradox, at once post-racial and not. To postulate that Dee and Boomer are not highly ranked in the military because of their race in the BSG universe seems absurd, and there are interracial romances aplenty. However, discrimination is largely displaced onto the cylons, who are not seen as human. Or, if we spiral the race timeline, as Irish people were gradually subsumed into a “White”ness that still excludes yellow, black, and brown (and red?), in BSG other human races are subsumed into “Human”ness, which still excludes humanoid cylons and centurions.

Personally, as someone of a visible ethnic minority, I’m extremely fascinated by the idea that cylons can look so much like humans to be indistinguishable (…except for glowing red spines). While most people have taken cylons passing for humans as terrorists passing for non-terrorists, we can also interrogate the question of race with this cylon phenomenon: Another idea in theories of race is that while groups such as the Irish can achieve equal status with other whites in popular conception, people who look different can’t fully do so, simply because they look different. BSG seems to suggest that this is true – humanoid cylons really do go undetected for long periods of time, unless you have Baltar’s nifty cylon detector. But then, if cylon/human discrepancies is biologically distinguishable, does that reinforce the idea that race is biological and not a social construct? It may seem far-fetched to parallel cylons and races, since cylons seem to be so clearly different. But two centuries ago, Irish and Germans seemed obviously different, and now we don’t bat an eye. Another thing that intrigues me is the sleeper agent cyclons who think they’re humans. This doesn’t seem to have any parallel in terrorism (which would be a terrorist who goes on a mission not knowing or forgetting what his/her mission is), but seems to better parallel the anxiety that younger generations are losing their cultural traditions and are becoming Westernized. Far from being a worry just on the part of older generations, I believe it is also a worry on the part of mainstream (Caucasian) society, who feel their White purity threatened. Hence the panic to sort cylons/racial minorities from humans/Whites.

*spoiler alert* Watching Boomer/Athena in particular addresses the label of the turbulence minorities face, and in particular situations inducing the “model minority.” When revealed to be a cylon, Boomer is incarcerated in isolation and then shot by Cally, a mechanic. Even though interracial romance occurs frequently in BSG, the first case of a possible cylon-human relationship is violently rejected by Chief Tyrol (I wrote about something related in “Racism and Culturism“). As Athena, she has to prove her loyalty beyond what is asked of other pilots. Even when (re-)accepted into the community of other officers, she is still distrusted. Roslin ordering that her pregnancy (father being Helo, who is human) terminated uncomfortably echoes the fears regarding miscegenation in North America and elsewhere. The difference between Boomer and Athena also reflects the two directions that minorities can take; either they can become the model minority and make peace with the majority, and prove themselves loyal (and risk complicity with the oppressors), or they can continue to resist and oppose the majority (and risk personal harm and furthering the conflict). That the model minority Athena seems more heroic and Boomer seems more villainous is slightly troubling, but BSG has already taken huge steps in not painting one “race” (human or cylon) as purely good or purely evil.

Within the BSG universe, the “Asian” appearance of Boomer/Athena has nothing to do with whether she is a cylon. Casting Grace Park in such a pair of characters is most likely a coincidence or a unconscious decision. However, even if the universe of BSG is post-racial, the audience watching it is far from. It’s a happy coincidence if that is what it is – Grace Park’s visible racial difference makes her character’s trials as a cylon that much more relevant. In the end, the lesson taken from BSG is not even a question of race, as in the different breeds of humans, but race as a broad denotation of any sort of delirious category used to justify ostracizing another. At the UN BSG retrospective, Olmos was apparently very vocal that BSG addresses race. But it seems to address pertinent issues indirectly, with a very very long view of history. And that’s what good speculative fiction does.

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3 thoughts on “Is Battlestar Galactica Post-Racial (or is that not even the problem)?

  1. Actually, Grace Park auditioned for the role of Starbuck as well, but it was originally the intention of making Starbuck’s character in her mid 30s. The original series had very heavy overtones for what they considered classical civilizations (e.g. Egyptian, Roman, Greek), and I think that’s what influenced the creators when they were coming up with interesting sounding last names which weren’t in the original series (e.g. Tigh and Adama).

    There are a lot of shows and movies guilty of casting a single visible minority just so they can claim they have a diverse cast, and then start projecting racial stereotypes without challenging or disseminating them. Then, there are shows which do have characters played by visible minorities, but where the actor’s ethnicity don’t carry much or any bearing into how a character conducts him or herself. For instance, Uhura from the original Star Trek is one of the most common examples of how a fictional character can influence societal understandings of race in a constructive and affirming way. Arguably, it’s easier to do this in scifi where differences on earth become overshadowed by the diversity of the rest of the universe, and where we’re looking towards a future where people are less hung up on these sorts of things. Sometimes the casting of characters serves a more explicit purpose (e.g. children’s programming like Rechov Sumsum and Nashe Maalo) which is meant to open dialogue in regions where ethnic differences aren’t merely a fuel for passive scrutiny.

    It’s interesting to break down and distinguish between notions of race and ethnicity the same way that gender and sex are. How are we supposed to analyze a South Asian teenager who psychologically associates himself far more with a subculture in the United States far more then he would his own “culture”? Conversely, how we do look at a suburban Caucasian woman who feels so much more spiritually and emotionally drawn to a set of African cultural traditions? Is he losing the only thing that makes him distinct and unique while she indulges in a reductionist foray into ‘otherness’?

    Speaking of traditions, which are worth saving and what are the different reasons for people arguing to preserve or leave them behind? Sometimes it’s not just “purity” – it’s about the decline in property values when existing houses are being bulldozed to house (mostly illegal) multi-tenant dwellings. Is too much ground being given up or are there not enough bridges? A.D. or C.E.? Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? Are deviations from the pre-existing norms a way in which to strengthen the understanding of a diverse society or to undermine social cohesion?

    Back to BSG, there were very strict lines between humans and cylons during most of the series – this was war, after all. Boomer was an unwilling pawn who was forced to betray her loyalties in a very emotionally crushing way, and her later relationship with Cavil hardened her against a life that she believed she could never have among humans. Meanwhile, Athena willingly played her part, and the similar drive for survival alongside Helo demonstrated that there were similar impulses between them both which went beyond flesh and circuitry. She had the luxury of being a force in a time of transition, of uneasy alliances between the humans and the rebel cylons, and being the symbol of a new life (figuratively and physically) in the new world. Although she did, in a sense, conform to the Colonial way of life, she was still fully willing to use her Cylon attributes to her advantage (killing herself to resurrect onto the base ship to retrieve her daughter). Meanwhile, humans as they perceived themselves throughout the series (both as survivors of the Twelve Colonies) ended just as much as the rest of the Cylons did when they destroyed their technology, divided themselves up among the continents, and decided to adopt the lifestyles of the indigenous humans. If it was the end of the minority culture, it was also the end of the majority one.

    • I remember a scene in Lakeview Terrace (a film with racial overtones that I’m not sure how to deal with) where Chris Mattson, who is married to an African American woman, is listening to rap music in his car. His neighbour, the African American police officer Abel Turner, tells him that no matter how much he listens to rap, he will never become black. This factors into your comment about the conclusion of BSG signalling the end of the majority culture as well as the minority culture. It is not only BSG that exemplifies this, but rather it seems a characteristic of postmodernity. In comparing an Asian American novel to John Updike in class, the professor was amused to find that most of us didn’t know who John Updike was, and then commented that perhaps this was phenomenon from the triumph of minority literatures. Similarly, in Lakeview Terrace and in real life, rap music becomes the minority cultural production that is taken up by the majority, with the result that it is no longer so much a minority art form and also that the majority is no longer separate and bounded. But again, there is no end to the forms and categories “minority” can take, generating ever more spiralling forms of shifting category concepts.

      And thanks for reminding me about Athena playing both her hands of cards. The scene that stayed with me is her running against the glass head-first in the brig.

  2. Pingback: Doctor Who and Ethnicity, Part I: Race and the cultural embeddedness of Science Fiction | Radical Compounds

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