White Men Reeling: #CelebrateStarWarsVII as Counter-Frame

Joe Feagin contends that while it is important to acknowledge that white racial framing helps legitimize systemic racism, it is also essential to understand counter-framing. He suggests that racial counter-frames are typically, though not exclusively, developed by Indigenous peoples and people of color as a way of making sense of persistent racial disparities.

A good illustration of counter-framing presented itself when some familiar names, who happened to be Star Wars fans and/or supporters of the casting choices for the 2015 film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, pushed back against #BoycottStarWarsVII. African American director (Selma and 13th) Ava DuVernay created the hashtag #CelebrateStarWarsVII, which served as a powerful counter-frame to #BoycottStarWarsVII. People of color, like DuVernay and the film’s star John Boyega, do not share whites’ material investment in whiteness. They have a necessary investment in counter-frames. So, too, does Aaron Barksdale, an African American Star Wars fan turned Huffington Post writer. Regarding #BoycottStarWarsVII, he wrote:

[R]ace relations in space are not light-speed ahead of our own challenges in the real world. I hope that more diversity is able to shine in the follow-up films — fingers crossed there will at least be one black female human character. One thing is clear, the force is definitely woke.

As #BoycottStarWarsVII started trending, counter-framers took charge of the hashtag. Accordingly, the bulk of the tweets began to counter the systemic racism and white racial framing behind the hashtag’s origin. Counter-resisters, for example, wrote:

“I would love to see the Venn diagram of #BoycottStarWarsVII supporters and Trump supporters, but I’m pretty sure it’s just one circle.”

“I’m going to #BoycottStarWarsVII because I missed the entire point of science fiction and all the morals it tries to teach?”

“Lunatic #BoycottStarWarsVII racists, weren’t you serving drinks in Mos Eisley cantina? (‘We don’t serve their kind here.’)”

“Aliens that speak English, bad physics & WOOKIES, but you people can’t deal with a black guy?”

#CelebrateStarWarsVII accentuated and extolled the diversity of the film’s cast and Star Wars fans. Boyega chimed in too, stating,

I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it? … You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future … [it] is already happening. People of colour and women are increasingly being shown on screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make sense.

According to Feagin, counter-frames such as anti-racist counter-frames and home-culture frames have long provided people of color with “important tool kits enabling individuals and groups to effectively counter recurring white hostility and discrimination” (p. 166). Successfully countering the recurring white hostility and discrimination he faced, Boyega recognized the systemic nature of the whitelash, as opposed to seeing it as simply individual prejudice. He explained,

It’s Hollywood’s fault for letting this get so far, that when a black person or a female, or someone from a different cultural group, is cast in a movie, we have to have debates as to whether they’re placed there just to meet a [quota]. … ‘He’s just placed there for political correctness.’ I don’t hear you guys saying that when Brad Pitt is there. When Tom Cruise is there. Hell, when Shia LaBeouf is there, you guys ain’t saying that. That is just blatant racism.

The counter-frame of which Feagin has so skillfully written is plainly seen in DuVernay’s and Boyega’s responses to #BoycottStarWarsVII and other systemic racism and white racial framing surrounding The Force Awakens.

White Men Reeling: #BlackStormtrooper and the White Racial Frame

The latest Star Wars film titled, The Last Jedi, is scheduled for release on December 15, 2017. As Richard Lawson wrote in Vanity Fair prior to the theatrical debut of 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

Star Wars has never been a bastion of diversity. Lando and Leia were the only non-white and non-male main characters (among the humans, anyway) in the original franchise; George Lucas’s dreadful prequels at least made some attempts at racial diversity, with Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits playing large roles, though it mostly forgot about women. (And some critics took issue with ethnically charged alien characters, but that’s a different story.) So [The Force Awakens] was [J. J.] Abrams’s chance to issue something of a corrective, to open up this universe to more people.

In white fans’ reactions to the casting of a black man in a lead role in The Force Awakens, key elements of systemic racism were distinctly present, including white power and entitlement rooted in the U.S. racial hierarchy, the dominant white racial frame that rationalizes and defends unfairly gained white privilege and power, and the pro-white and anti-others sub-frames. Tweets posted by white fans to twitter hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII (see below) typify the white racial frame and its sub-frames. For example, the director, producer, and writer of The Force Awakens, Abrams (a white Jewish American male) was targeted for allegedly endorsing “white genocide” given his racially diverse cast, including Nigerian descended British actor John Boyega in the secondary lead role.

A white racist framing was plainly evident in the whitelash against this casting of Boyega. #BlackStormtrooper is a hashtag related to virtual whitelash besieging John Boyega’s appearance as a Stormtrooper in the teaser trailer for the 2015 Star Wars. In November 2014, the trailer was released on the Movieclips Trailers YouTube channel. It opened with a shot of a Stormtrooper, played by Boyega, abruptly appearing on what appeared to be a desert planet. Twitter (most of whom appeared to be white male) users instantaneously started to comment on Boyega’s “race” with the hashtag #BlackStormtrooper, questioning the legitimacy of a black Stormtrooper. Shortly after, Boyega posted a message on Instagram thanking supporters of the new film. To those posting to #BlackStormtrooper, he simply said: “Get used to it.”

“#BoycottStarWarsVII because I am sick of muds being casted in white parts,” wrote #StopAppropriatingWhiteCulture. For this particular Twitter user—who identified “as a neoreactionary … with the Pro-Trump white supremacist ‘alternative right,’” and who earlier had tweeted that he hoped Trump would turn out to be a fascist —- Star Wars “belongs” entirely to whites. In response, a pop culture critic sort of agreed, writing:

[W]hen George Lucas made Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, 99 percent of his cast was either Caucasian, or extraterrestrial aliens covered in prosthetics. “George, is everybody in outer space white?” John Landis says he asked Lucas after watching the first Star Wars. An emphasis on diversity increased as the sequels went on—Billy Dee Williams showed up in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, earning instant legend status.

The whitelash against Boyega’s casting also included important elements that Joe Feagin outlines in his white racial frame, including: racial stereotypes and prejudices; racial narratives and interpretations; racial images and preferred language accents; racialized emotions; and inclinations to discriminatory action. The broad framing also included an especially positive placement of whites as superior and virtuous (Feagin’s pro-white subframe) and an especially negative placement of racialized people as inferior and unvirtuous (Feagin’s anti-others subframes). Tweets included the following:

“Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White. #BoycottStarWarsVII #WhiteGenocide.”

“#BoycottStarWarsVII because it will be ghetto garbage.”

“#BoycottStarWarsVII – I know the trailer is short, but it’s pretty unrealistic that we don’t see the black guy committing murder or rape.”

““Diverse” casting is both a symptom of #WhiteGenocide, and a conditioning tool to help facilitate it. #BoycottStarWarsVII.”

To reiterate, the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag was purportedly created to incite a boycott of the 2015 film The Force Awakens. While Internet news media sources extensively reported that the hashtag was genuine, other commentators have surmised it was a ruse contrived to produce controversy. In October 2015 twitter user @DarklyEnlighten posted a tweet encouraging readers to boycott The Force Awakens because of the alleged absence of white lead characters and because of the casting of Boyega in the secondary lead role. @DarklyEnlighten tweeted for followers to create the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII.

To some observers, #BoycottStarWarsVII was far more troublesome than a few white trolls; it was an exemplification of the poor state of U.S. race relations in the 21st century. African American activist and social commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of numerous books on the black experience in the U.S., called the #blackstormtrooper remarks “alarming.” He viewed the virulent racist discourse on #BoycottStarWarsVII as yet another fervent example of how badly U.S. racial relations have deteriorated, starting with Trayvon Martin—the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012. The #blackstromtrooper comments “are indicative of just how polarized the discussion has become,” remarked Hutchinson.

Kimberley Ducey is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Winnipeg