Science fiction and fantasy are my favourite genres of movies and TV series.
This is largely because they are the genres of ideas on what another version of the world could—and in some cases should—look like.
Even when a show is still set on a recognizable Earth rather than in a secondary (i.e. constructed) setting, very often these stories seek to create an environment where the societal ills of the modern day are a either a thing of the past, being actively battled in the present, or else never existed in the first place.
Combined with adventurer-type characters, exciting plots, and the overall visuals of these alternate worlds, sci-fi and fantasy on both the big and small screen makes for a vivid—and ultimately hopeful—viewing experience.
(I do also read SFF, but not nearly as much since, for me, a large part of its appeal is actually seeing the story world and the ways it differs from the real world.)
As much as I love to watch these stories, though, there is a practice that sometimes happens in them that I’m considerably less fond of.
The face of fictional post-racism
One social ill that is often erased from SFF is racism. This in itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, given all that’s happened and been happening to motivate the current civil rights revolutions and Black Lives Matters movement all over the world, presenting a society that is absent of racism is most definitely not bad.
Even with movies and shows that aren’t created by people of colour (which accounts for the vast majority of content coming out of Hollywood … because racism), the desire to create a world untainted by the evil deeds of one’s forebearers makes sense.
The way that this post-racial world is often visually represented, however, does not.
The usual shorthand for a supposed post-racial TV/movie SFF society is as follows:
- A smattering of racialized characters (often light-skinned) who are noticeably outnumbered by white characters
And more importantly,
- A character of colour who at some point commits blatant acts of discrimination (often coded to mimic racial discrimination) against white characters.
The tacit statement of the second point is as follows: since it’s predominantly white people who discriminate against people of colour in our mainstream society, showing the opposite demonstrates social equality through people of colour being equally as unjust or evil as white people.
Art imitating life
A few recent examples I’ve seen of this include the following:
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Sabrina, who is white and a half-witch, is subjected to racially-coded epithets like “mutt“ and “half-breed“ by Prudence, a full witch who is Black.
The 100: Charles Pike, a Black teacher turned guerrilla warrior, is elected chancellor by stirring up negative sentiment against the mostly white pre-existing inhabitants of the planet, as well as ordering a massacre against 300 of them.
Detroit Become Human: A futuristic video game in which humans are served by enslaved androids. Connor, a white android, is manipulated by his handler Amanda, a Black woman, in an attempt to have him assassinate the leader of the android liberation movement.
Picard: A multi-racial group of engineers on a planet outpost trade coded jokes and insults about a white, obedient android that is oblivious to their mean-spiritedness. A Black engineer is also shown insulting an entire row of identical, white androids that are in sleep mode.
The problem with this attempt at post-racial shorthand, besides how blatant it is, is that it’s still being put forth and consumed amidst the inescapable backdrop of modern, mainstream society.
It’s certainly true that in real life, people of colour are capable of discriminatory behaviour. Usually when this occurs, though, it’s against other people of colour since these are generally the only people we can attain dominion over in majority white communities.
Which these SFF shows still portray in having predominantly white casts (as well as white people casted in the lead roles).
Which itself is a form of racism in real life that 100% translates to the screen.
SFF post-racism also rings false because much of what makes real racism against POC so powerful is the long historical context in which it occurs.
Racism isn’t just a case of white people not caring for POC the way some people don’t care for pineapple on pizza. Racism is an institutionalized social construct of interconnected systems of oppression within the core pillars of society (i.e. government, law enforcement, courts, media, etc.) in order to maintain the societal supremacy of white people.
Because of this, watching a Black character order a massacre, while wrong on an intellectual level, produces none of the visceral gut-punch it does in seeing a white character do it, which represents more of what’s been done throughout countless periods of history.
Or at least it doesn’t produce that response to people of colour. But then, the majority of these shows are presented from the white gaze, which is why this shoddy SFF post-racism exists in the first place.
Erasing racism (for real)
However much white people may wish to absolve the guilt of either their own past racist acts or those of their ancestors, “reverse racism” does not exist (see the above point about systemic power).
Not only does it not exist, presenting it in movies and shows as if it does minimizes the perceived harm of real racism, which seems rather counter to the point of creating a story and world where racism doesn’t exist.
The best way to demonstrate post-racism in visual media, besides not actively showing racism, is to not code other forms of discrimination as racism either.
In Sabrina, the titular character cheekily replies “That’s racist!” to Prudence’s taunting, and then later, to retaliate against being hazed while at witch school, briefly hangs Prudence by the neck from a tree—an act with blatantly racial connotations.
Casting an equal number of white and racialized actors—if not more racialized actors, even; it’s 2020: live a little—would eliminate the optics of POC doing bad things to white characters.
In the same vein, more racialized lead characters give the sense of systemic power for people of colour, which is what’s truly required to create a post-racial society, both in stories and in real life.