“[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.