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Racist 'Star Wars' fans aren't new. Why doesn't Disney do more to protect its actors?

Moses Ingram as Reva Sevander in <em>Obi-Wan Kenobi. </em>
Moses Ingram as Reva Sevander in Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The most surprising thing about the racism directed at Obi-Wan Kenobi star Moses Ingram is the fact that some people are still surprised by it.

After all, other actors of color who have joined the Star Wars universe in recent years have complained about racist attacks from fans online, including John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran.

So it wasn't exactly shocking to this non-white Star Wars fan when Ingram – whose turn as villainous Inquisitor Reva Sevander lights up the series – shared messages she received on social media from trolls using insults and the n-word to denigrate one of the most powerful Black women to join the franchise.

Here's what is surprising to me: that the media companies behind the Star Wars juggernaut — Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney – haven't done more to proactively support non-white actors and push back against the racism they regularly face when taking prominent roles in the franchise.

Why did Ingram have to reveal deeply hurtful and traumatizing messages to get this conversation out in the open? She has said that the studio warned her privatelyracist fans would come after her when the TV series debuted – why didn't they take action beforehand to denounce what they knew would likely come?

Let's see prominent executives talk about the racism among fans before actors of color have to go public with their trauma. Let's see an advertising campaign directed specifically at calling out racists and uplifting non-white performers. How about social media events with fans aimed at celebrating franchise diversity before a new TV show or film even debuts?

It is well past time for the companies which make billions from these media properties to take action before the racists do.

Diversity in the franchise brings new challenges

Producers are filling Star Wars movies with non-white stars, moving away from the franchise's white-centered narratives in a way which makes the new stories more appealing to young audiences raised in a more multicultural society. Upcoming series Andor, Ahsoka and Lando have been announced, starring non-white actors Diego Luna, Rosario Dawson and Donald Glover.

But that diversity, welcome as it is, also turns these actors of color into targets for a disaffected portion of the fanbase who seem personally threatened by the changes. These performers already face tremendous pressure to maintain the quality of a legendary franchise; now, the public can see the extra burden they face in the form of online harassment and insults.

This is also a unique crystallization of a debate we have been having in the public space over many different issues. Does amping up the racial and ethnic diversity of a storied franchise improve its storytelling or needlessly hobble it?

In other words, is diversity an institution's strength or a weakness?

To be honest, this is a question I thought was answered long ago. Especially after one look at Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon in Marvel's recent Spider-Man movies, Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian and Dawson's amazing performances bringing to life the character of former Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano. These gifted performers have enriched the movie and TV franchises where they have appeared, thrilling us fans.

But they shouldn't have to face abuse from an online mob alone to do it.

An issue that reaches back to the beginning

In a way, these problems trace back to the beginnings of the franchise. As I noted in my review of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars creator George Lucas has acknowledged that the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress inspired aspects of his films. The style of the Jedi Knights' clothing, their fighting style and mysticism all seem lifted from that ethos — an unfortunate example of Hollywood's tendency to appropriate Asian culture without featuring Asian actors or characters.

Because of this, and because the original films had so little space for characters of color, it has been tough for some racist fans of the franchise to see a version of Star Wars that is more inclusive without feeling it is somehow compromised. On one level, it is bizarre to think that people could object to Black, Latinx or Asian actors in a story set in a faraway galaxy including non-human characters that resemble outsize dogs and goldfish.

But quality science fiction stories are always about us humans in the time they were written, regardless of when or where they are set. So it makes sense that our current debates about tribalism, multiculturalism and equality would pop up here, too.

(Look up the definition of Group Threat Theory to see an academic explanation for how a group in the majority reacts when a smaller minority gets more power.)

I'm glad Ingram revealed this publicly. As a Black man who writes often about race and media, I've been on the receiving end of a lot of racist vitriol online myself, and it is seriously traumatizing to experience – let alone talk about openly. Still, detailing these messages are the only way to show the extent of the problem, and marshal support from non-racist fans, the studio, the press and fellow actors.

I'm also glad Disney and Lucasfilm are committed to the kind of casting choices which may anger some fans, but ultimately prove that science fiction and fantasy stories are places where anyone can be a hero. Young children of color today who imagine themselves as the good guys in a Star Wars story while at play, don't have to also imagine that they are white — like fans from my generation mostly had to do.

It is time now to protect that progress by protecting the actors of color who make it possible. Lucasfilm and Disney must find ways to help move this conversation along — in public — so that racist fans feel less welcome to express their noxious views and actors of color don't have to feel like targets.

These actors shouldn't have to shoulder the extra burden of figuring out how to handle the racism unloaded on them by dozens of nameless fans. But to make that happen, the companies which employ them need to get visibly and substantially involved in working to drown out toxic voices attacking the franchise's future.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.