The aliens were racist the whole time

Screenshot from Star Wars Episode 1
Screenshot from Star Wars Episode 1

How privilege can keep us from seeing the obvious, and what we can do about it

By Rebecca Peterson, Staff Writer

We were subjecting ourselves to the Star Wars prequels because The Force Awakens was about to come out, when I heard my friend groan next to me.

The weird blue Trade Federation aliens had just showed up, and for a moment I thought just the overall fact that we were watching The Phantom Menace had finally sunk in, until she murmured, “The racist Asian aliens.”

I blinked. The what now?

And then the first alien opened his mouth, and the most offensive Japanese accent I’d ever heard in my life came pouring out.

This was pretty cringe-worthy to begin with, but what creeped me out was that I’d seen this movie a hundred times growing up and not once did I pick up on the racist aliens. I like to think I make a solid effort of straddling the line between “hair-trigger offence alert” and “morally bankrupt,” but man, this one came out of nowhere, and I felt like I’d somehow been willfully blind for years.

It’s not the end of the world, of course. A widely-panned movie from 1999 and a bunch of white voice actors committing verbal yellow-face is pretty awful, but ultimately 17 years is a little late to be protesting. It was almost physically painful to sit through, though—and the whole time all I could think of was all the other things I might be missing because I’m white.

I remember working on set last summer and talking to one of my coworkers, a man, about sexism in the film industry, and to his credit he was incredibly receptive. He nodded, he listened, and he smiled and said, “That doesn’t happen on this set, though.” On that set, I’d been harassed for my phone number by older men, had my name replaced with “sweetheart,” and was told by a woman calling for help lifting something that she’d wanted “someone with testosterone” to help her. Never mind the fact that I’d spent my last job hauling furniture, and never mind that I could lift her equipment without help.

When that unflattering spotlight is on you, it’s almost impossible not to see it, but it can be blinding for others.

And honestly, it’s good to be reminded of that sometimes, even if it is unsettling.

Our best weapon against our own personal blind spots are our ears. Even if we can’t see something, even if we don’t agree, listening to those who do see something wrong never hurts. I’ve been very lucky in my friends, and lucky that a lot of people I’ve met over the years have been so willing to listen to me when I fall into rants about women’s issues, LGBTQ+ issues, and issues regarding mental health. In turn, I’ve got a responsibility to listen to others as well. It’s an essential part of basic courtesy, and it’s doubly important if someone has a perspective on things you might not be able to share.

You never know what you might be missing. Sometimes it’s obvious—sometimes the aliens are really, really racist. But sometimes it’s subtler and takes time to process, and it’s important to listen then, too.

So I’d like to thank my friend for ruining my childhood and pointing out the horrifically racist aliens. Lord knows I needed another reason to groan my way through the prequels like a kick in the head, but it was a good reminder, and one that I’m grateful for.

Just like I’m grateful for young Ewan MacGregor—the entirety of why I watched the prequels so many times growing up. What can I say? The guy is hot.