Stereotypes Among the Stars

Western science fiction often presents fantastical ideas of the future, with robots and spaceships and groups of people living and working together in harmony. Yet for all of the ideas of progress, SF relies heavily on the current values, ideas, and stereotypes of the time period, often marginalizing, ignoring and stereotyping other races, presenting anyone who deviates from white as monstrous and evil. The blatant disregard for their race and culture has led many black authors to use science fiction and aliens as a vehicle to reflect on their own positions as alienated individuals and to foster conversations about race and identity.

In his essay, “Structured Absence and Token Presence”, author Adilifu Nama writes that while black characters are ignored or absent in early science fiction, the fears and anxieties the West towards blackness or anyone who isn’t white, are still present (Nama, 11). Films like One Million BC and The Time Machine present the only non white characters of the films as violent prone, dark skinned primitive people who must be eradicated in order to build a utopian-like society.

The Morlocks in the film were an allegory for the post World War II Western fears of nonwhites.

Author Adam Roberts writes that even the aliens from Alien and Predator symbolize the West’s fear of blackness, as the dark skinned aliens prey upon Western heroes in shocking displays of sexual violence (Roberts, 95).

It was a common practice among science fiction films of casting black actors in the roles of unstoppable alien nightmares.
The Predator, complete with dreadlocks and dark skin.

Because of the Western fear and their exclusion or stereotypical portrayal of nonwhites, black authors have taken SF and have used the genre to reflect their own feelings towards culture and identity. Octavia Butler, who wrote the book Xenogenesis which consists of three volumes, presents humans who react with terror towards the strange and unknown when they are “abducted” by aliens. The protagonist is black woman, and she learns that the aliens actually saved the humans and are going to create offspring from their shared genetics. Butler portrays the aliens, the Oankali, in a somewhat romantic sense; their differences are appreciated and they aren’t reduced to the typical alien abductor villain trope which plays on the stereotypes of the West.

Ignoring non white races or symbolically portraying them as monsters in SF films also communicates a host of racial fears and fantasies circulating in American culture. It’s important to portray difference in SF in a balanced way that does not relegate the “others” to violent or sadistic roles. The science fiction of today should continue to offer futuristic visions of robots, spaceships and time machines, but it should also offer something more, an embrace of the difference that SF has been keen to explore.

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