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Race, Ethnicity, And Utopia
The idea of a perfect society is very important in human cultures everywhere. Most cultures and religions talk about a time long ago when the world was perfect. Stories of long lost "golden ages" or the "Garden of Eden" hold memories of a better world that has been somehow left behind. When those longings are expressed in speculative fiction, dreamers may imagine the existence of a fantastical or future perfect society, in which the class and racial tensions will be erased and humans will live in social and economic peace. These imagined worlds are called Utopias, a name invented by Thomas Moore, who penned one of the most famous Utopian novels. Utopianism has a long and proud history as a philosophical and social movement. Among the many problems that Utopian thinkers may address is the issue of race. Race and ethnicity are increasingly powerful and important subjects as history progresses and the development of globalization increasingly pushes disparate identity groups together. For many Utopian authors, this perfect world only exists when there is some degree of homogeneity within the world. For example, in Gilman's Herland, all the characters in the Utopian society are female. Other utopian schemes might idealize a world where all the characters have a single racial identity. For others, Utopia exists through multiculturalism or through various forms of segregation; some writers might just ignore the race issue. Yet as race and ethnicity are more and more important to artists and to culture, it becomes something which increasingly must be an issue in Utopian and speculative literature as well. This essay deals with the way that race is an issue in three modern utopian or distopian art pieces: David Brin's Kiln People, the recent movie release of Lord of the Rings, and the Star Trek television series. These three sources are chosen because all three of them are among the most popular of recent works in their respective genres, and each presents a strong Utopian vision which on the surface is devoid of racism and may even present anti-racist messages, but at its center actually deals with serious issues of race and ethnicity.
Before addressing these three works, it is important to get a brief historical overview of the history of Utopian thought and its relationship to race. Utopianism started well before Moore gave it a name, though its name if significant. Utopia, according to Moore, is a place name drawn from the ambiguity in the relationship between the word Eutopus, which means "a region of happiness and perfection," and Outopus, which means the "a region that nowhere exists." (Munkner) So Outopia is a happy place that does not exist. It is caught in the crossroads of human experience. The fact that Utopia may not be able to exist is why so many writers instead speak of Dystopia, which is a society that attempts to be Utopian but fails dramatically in some way. Books such as 1984 and Brave New World show Dystopian futures, and in both cases part of the failure of the societies is their continued racism.
Even before Moore, though, philosophers such as Plato created imaginary societies that showed the problems and the potential of the world. The earliest Utopias were probably places like Plato's Republic, which while not overtly racist did include stratification into slaves and masters and a "myth" that different people were born of essentially different qualities. Writing about Utopia was resumed seriously during the Renaissance, as interest in ideal government and long-lost cultures was renewed. (Donough) It became extremely prominent as a form of fiction, in addition to being philosophical, during the Victorian age and through the early 1900s. This was when science fiction was first being pioneered by people like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, (Wagner) and they were among the first to integrate Utopian and Dystopian story-lines into their fiction. For example, Well's The Time Machine, includes a very Dystopian idea of the future in which all humans are split into two competing and incomplete races.
Victorian Utopian fiction had a particular tendency to be racist. More so than many subsequent Utopian tales, Victorian era writings tended to include elements of racism as part of their vision of the ideal world, or even to show that racial mingling was part of the problem in their Dystopian portrayals. For example, in Mary Bradley Lane's famous 1890 Utopian novel Mizora, the ideal world is populated almost entirely by robust blond women. This is described as a "wonderful civilization," even though the narrator soon finds out in conversation that this culture used to be multiethnic and now all those without fair skin have been "eliminated." There is a certain holocaustal ring to this which cannot be ignored. Books such as this, which suggest it is possible to create a society in which the answer to the question, "What became of the dark complexions?" is a curt "We eliminated them." (Lane, in Wagner), seem to trivialize or even condone mass murder. Even in less brutal senses, many Utopians were colonial in spirit. For example, Bellamy's infamous Looking Backwards, writes of how "America was the pioneer of the evolution, exporting its social innovations to the more backward races." (Wagner) This sort of spirit in early Utopias is often still present today.
Additionally, in this period, Utopia was generally seen in a very authoritarian light, and the true happiness and equality of its citizens was not always an issue. In her book Journey Through Utopia, Marie Louise Berneri wrote: "The authoritarian utopias of the nineteenth century are chiefly responsible for the anti-utopian attitude... But utopias have not always described regimented societies, centralized states and nations of robots. Diderot's Tahiti or Morris's Nowhere gave us utopias where men were free from both physical and moral compulsion,... The living dream of poets." (in: Targowski) Today, utopian works often show societies which are not authoritarian, and in which humans do live, as George Kateb writes, with the "freedom, will, energy, and talent to make and remake their lives unencumbered by insufficiency and the fear of violent death." (in: Targowski) Kiln People is one such book. However, other utopian works still show worlds in which authority has gotten out of control. The cult classic Brazil is an example of such a Dystopia in recent times.
A short history of racism and its central issues and imagery is also necessary. Of course, no single paragraph can sum up centuries of racial tension. However, a few specific traits of modern white racism deserve to be discussed because of their relevance. The first is the idea of the minority as Other. "The fragmentation into 'we' and 'they' groups is a discourse that is pervasive in each of the case studies. The ubiquitous 'we' represents the White dominant culture or the culture of the organization (newspaper, the radio station and in other contexts, the courts, police, school, and museum); 'they' refers to the communities who are the 'Other,' possessing 'different' (undesirable) values, beliefs, and norms." (Henry and Tator) What this means in reality is that other races are seen as less than fully human. If they are not fully human, they do not possess in the mind of the racist the same rights as "real people," or the same emotions, needs, and issues. In speculative art, this Otherness can be visualized as transforming the racial Other into something that is truly subhuman, and therefore can be more easily disarmed or destroyed. For example, the Lord of the Rings movies showed all the servants of evil as being of racial minority status in some way. The orcs, which were shown as subhuman, often had African social characteristics, dark skin, and dreadlocks. The Haradrim from the south were dressed in a way obviously intended to make reference to the Middle and Far East.
Another common trait is the tendency to vilify other races, and to suggest that they have severe negative (or even positive) traits. This can be as bad as saying that certain races or ethnicities are more likely to commit crimes or be lazy or have other personality problems, or as "innocent" as assuming that people of Jewish descent all handle money well but tend to be greedy. Common stereotypical traits assigned to different peoples might include increased or decreased intelligence, better musical, sexual, or athletic ability, alcoholism and drug abuse, criminal behavior either in gangs or in organized crime, bad tempers and overall violent tendencies, subservience or lack of initiative, greed, laziness, lack of sexual or family morals, and accusations of undercutting the value of mainstream workers. Stereotypes like this can be seen reoccurring in relationship to race in any number of Utopian stories in which race plays a role. For example, in the earlier mentioned book Mizora, dark skinned people had been eliminated because they supposedly were more violent. Along a similar vein, the Klingons in the original Star Trek shows were shown as being a race of inherently violent and dangerous enemies to the generally pale-skinned…[continue]
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