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