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Cultural Appropriation, Star Wars and the Myths of White Supremacy 

“Look, without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense. What I mean by that is: if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings in the New World through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible, yeah. In the Green Lantern Corps, we are the oath. We are all of these things—erased, and yet without us—we are essential.” — Junot Díaz

Ever since I saw this quote I’ve been thinking about my favorite fantasy franchises like Star Wars, and how they function in entirely white worlds while depending on racial tropes and stereotypes in order to build that world. For example, the Jedi Knights very clearly draw from Buddhist philosophies, and yet they are almost all played by white men.
Another striking example though is the costuming of Padme, played by Natalie Portman, in the newer SW movies.
For example:
image

This exquisite and elaborate regalia is based directly off off Mongolian royal attire, pictured below:

image

I mean they weren’t really trying to be subtle about it. They just assumed, as most white people do, that nobody watching Star Wars would care or know enough about Asian cultures to notice.

Example 2:

image

This exquisite hairstyle is also borrowed from a POC culture, specifically an NDN one.

image

The above image is titled simply “Hopi Girl” and was taken by a white male photographer named Edward S. Curtis who obviously didn’t care to differentiate his subjects with names. The Hopi nation is based in the Southwestern United States.

So why choose attire/ garb from two wholly disparate cultures to dress a white woman/ princess? Well the first answer is that the elaborate beauty of these styles lend themselves well to a fantasy universe. But there’s something else, and that is the white-centrism of fantasy that always assumes and privileges a white gaze. The costume designers were clearly operating from an ethnocentric perspective of “well these are unique and different!” where the difference and uniqueness is racially predicated. These styles are assembled hodge-podge because of the assumption that no one watching Star Wars would know or care.

As the quote by Junot Diaz illustrates, the cultures of people of color are not just varied and beautiful, they are full of stories of devastation, tragedy, survival, heroism and resistance, the type of stories that fantasy is made of. The problem is, we understand fantasy as white and European. White bodies and white-only environments are almost indissolubly coupled with escapism and heroism in our cultural imagination.

This means that stories about and by POC that could get told, are replaced with white narratives instead. Star Wars is one of the biggest fantasy franchise in the West, and it’s representation of POC is appalling. Don’t worry though, because there are plenty of racial caricatures! Like minstrel!JarJar who speaks a butchered form of pidgin, the slave-trading money lender with a “long nose” and the “Tuscan Raiders”.

This is not about whether Lucas intentionally set out to offend POC, his intent means shit when he’s produced a legacy of fantasy film that leaves out the majority of the world.

So next time we watch major fantasy franchises like Star Wars or Harry Potter, we need to ask ourselves: whose being left out? Whose mythologies are affirmed while others are demonized? Whose allowed to exist as full, empathetic human beings, and who gets to be the token, the object, the symbol, the decoration?

ETA: I’m not sure if that first picture is actually Mongolian royal attire 100% because I’m not very familiar with the culture. I know it’s Mongolian but if anyone out there knows for sure it’s not royal attire, please let me know.

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