Sunday, July 5, 2015

Does George Takei Have A Racial Blind Spot?

As a child, one who felt like an outsider in my middle-class, conservative, WASP suburban neighborhood in Baltimore, "Star Trek," and its multicultural, multiethnic perspective on the human race and its future meant a great deal to me.  It gave me hope that one day, I would be a grown-up in a world that tolerated and even celebrated our differences, and showed respect for people who valued brains over brawn.  Sadly, the world in which I operate as a grown up is not nearly as enlightened as the United Federation of Planets, and the starship Enterprise, were depicted on the show.  But it is a better world than the world of my childhood, and I believe that programs like "Star Trek" played a decisive role in making that happen.

So I was deeply disappointed, to put it mildly, when I learned a few days ago that George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu on the show and in six films based on it, decided to attack Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' dissenting opinion in Obergfell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality in the U.S., by way of a truly disgusting racial slur that obscured the legitimate reasons for his anger at Thomas.  I am generally a believer in the principal that the best way to deal with ugliness is to expose it to the light but, in this case, I would prefer not to be a direct channel for Takei's ugly choice of words.  If you need to know exactly what those words were, you can find out here.

If you've clicked on the link and read the story, or if you've otherwise read similar stories already, you know that Takei has attempted to unring the repulsive bell he chose to rung, by attempting to suggest that he was engaging in some sort of historical satire.  I'm sorry, George, but that explanation just doesn't hold water.  Ethnic caricatures such as the one you evoked, no matter how they are used, do nothing but perpetuate the racism that gives them life in the first place.  How would you feel if someone had described your "Star Trek" character with reference to similar stereotypes of Asians in popular culture?  You would be offended, and rightly so.

In effect, George, what you have done is turned Clarence Thomas into the thing Clarence Thomas loves being most:  a martyr who doesn't bow to "politically correct" liberals.  And, in the process, you have obscured the fact that Thomas' dissenting opinion, like much of his "thinking" on the bench, contains plenty of ugliness of its own.  That an adult anywhere in the 21st century, much less one on the highest court in the land, can actually believe and say that slavery and race-based internment does not destroy the dignity of its victims is utterly unbelievable.  It validates my theory about modern conservatives:  the only way they can tolerate what they say is to not listen to it.

And, on top of all of that, George, you have forced people with long memories such as mine to wonder if, when it comes to African-Americans, you don't have a bit of a blind spot in your thinking. Do I think you're a bigot.  No, I don't.  But that is not to say that racism, on some subliminal level, has not clouded your thinking about African-Americans.  Racism is such a pervasive force in American society, and such a subliminal one as well, that it is not always easy to see how it affects our cultural and personal attitudes towards people.  We blind ourselves to racism's effects, not wanting to believe that WE are capable of thinking and acting the way openly bigoted people do.  But, sometimes, those thoughts are there, beneath the surface, and they are more easily triggered than we think.

In your case, George, I'm thinking about your otherwise witty attack on NBA star Tim Hardaway, when he came out as being openly homophobic.  "Chocolaty," George?  Seriously?  You went there? Sadly, yes you did.

I hope that you come away from this whole experience with not only a deeper appreciation for the virtues and values of the "Star Trek" universe, but also an appreciation of how difficult it is, even with the best of intentions, to truly embody and share those values with others.  I hope that you take a hard look at your own attitudes toward African-Americans, and come away with a healthier perspective that better reflects the good work you do, and have done, in promoting tolerance.

And I think you should start, if you have not already done so, by calling Nichelle Nichols, your former fellow cast member, and apologizing personally to her.  She has, sadly, recently suffered a stroke, and may not be up to the conversation.  But, if she is, she can explain better than I can why what you did was wrong, and what you need to do to prevent it from happening again.

Otherwise, George, live long and prosper.  And focus not on Clarence Thomas' ugly thoughts, but Anthony Kennedy's beautiful ones, as expressed at the end of his majority opinion.  Those latter thoughts express the "Star Trek" universe as well as any words could.

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