You’ve really got to feel bad for white people. At one time, they controlled 100 percent of the nation’s political seats, ran all the biggest business enterprises, and enjoyed a media that only cared about them. Now, they control only 80 percent of Congress, 96 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, and have only FOX News to cater to them. They’re slipping.
Worst of all, Hollywood cast a black man as a lead in the upcoming Star Wars movie. When The Force Awakens hits theaters December 18, John Boyega will play a Storm Trooper who, presumably, leaves the dark side to become a Jedi. This means Darth Vader is more racially progressive as an employer than many Americans are in real life. From the moment Boyega lifted his helmet to reveal a black face in the film’s newest trailer, segments of white America were outraged.
Even though the franchise has a notable tradition of black protagonists, armchair activists created the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII. While it’s certainly only a small minority of whites who are enraged, the ones who are enraged are absolutely apoplectic. A sampling of tweets includes, “If white people aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either” and, “#BoycottStarWarsVII because it is anti-white propaganda promoting #whitegenocide.”
That last tweet is such an overreaction it would be easy to mistake it for satire, but regardless of authorial intent there are white people who think this way. From the backwoods to the big stage of presidential politics, xenophobic fear of nonwhites is rampant. But what makes the impassioned defense of the white race so ridiculous, apart from all the obvious reasons, is that there really is no such thing.
Race is a social construct. Black refers to people with native African ancestry, even if they’re from a mixed European, Latino or Amerindian heritage. Depending on how far back you trace the genealogy, this makes us all black. But the question of who gets to qualify as white is far more complicated, not to mention beneficial. Whiteness is an artificial designation with the sole purpose of conferring privilege onto a chosen group of people.
In 1923, the Supreme Court actually rendered a decision declaring Asian Indians nonwhite specifically to deny them citizenship. While acknowledging the shared genealogy – Caucasian ancestry, usually given as the ethnic basis for whiteness, belongs to both white Europeans and Indians – the court twisted itself in as many ways as it could to argue that Caucasian and white were not the same and that, therefore, Indians could not be citizens. Italian-Americans faced a similar struggle in their path to whiteness.
Accusations of anti-white discrimination are inherently ridiculous because discrimination has always been reserved, at least on a systemic level, for those designated as nonwhite. The only reason “white” exists as a social construct is to protect those who qualify. American society is beginning to recognize the racial prejudice that inundates its history, but any conscious efforts to incorporate nonwhites – like affirmative action in academia and diversifying lily-white Hollywood – are treated as anti-white discrimination.
If only Boyega’s casting in Star Wars did indicate the destruction of the white race. The decent thing for any white person to do, if only it were possible, would be to renounce their whiteness. There is nothing to be proud of in the shameful centuries of discrimination, slavery, and political oppression that whiteness represents. European cultural, scientific and philosophical achievements deserve to be honored, but forget about “white” and focus on German, Italian, Scottish, etc.
A person’s race should be mere trivia, like their shoe size, rather than the centerpiece of their identity. But only for white people is it the case that their race doesn’t matter. The same luxury doesn’t often hold for nonwhites, who are constantly reminded of their status. Think of the innumerable stereotypes that still linger. Such characterizations become so culturally ingrained they can affect even their own.
Increased diversity in cinema is one simple way to combat it. It also seems to court the most controversy, as with Michael B. Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm in the failed Fantastic Four reboot. But it’s hard to deny black people are doing better in the era of James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Samuel L. Jackson than they were when the most famous black actor was Al Jolson.
Of course, nonwhite depictions on the big screen often suffer from stereotyping, which only reinforces negative cultural assumptions. That’s why roles like Boyega’s in Star Wars are so important. Everyone is entitled to have cultural heroes who resemble them to reaffirm their own potential. And everyone is also improved by having cultural heroes who don’t look like them, to keep their minds open and their hearts free from hate.
Much as race is a social construct, it’s a powerful one with deep implications that won’t go away without being proactive. We can’t help but notice that Boyega is black even as we are barely conscious of the rest of the cast’s whiteness. That we do notice it, though, is a powerful sign that Hollywood needs far more roles like it. Our goal should be to arrive at a place where we are no longer pretending race doesn’t exist, but where it actually doesn’t.