So Say We All

Race is an illusion. So say we all! But what do we intend by this saying, this performative? Denise Ferreira da Silva is but the most recent of scholars to note that, in dispelling race from its improper place in the order of the human sciences, casting it into disrespectability along with sorcery, alchemy, and other bait for the credulous, we consolidate that much more firmly the protocols of scientific rationality. But the protocols of science gave us race as an invidious distinction in the first place. Reason giveth, and reason taketh away, seems to be the faith animating the claim “Race is an illusion.” But what if were to suspend such faith in the subject of Enlightenment rationality? What might the illusions of race look like then?
Speculative genres are a particularly good place to look for such suspensions of belief, and so they are helpful in testing the range and limits of our complacency about race and racism. This is more the case in literary genres less beholden to the highly capitalized industries, but even mainstream SF film and television can occasionally explore both the illusions of race and their tenacity.
The TV remake of Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 2003 to 2009 on the SciFi channel, presents an interesting case, insofar as it presented itself as an especially realistic work of science fiction, which would avoid arbitrary and excessive flights of fantasy. For the far-fetched, Battlestar would be down-to-earth, and so offered viewers the possibility of grappling directly with racial realism even within a speculative scenario.
Like Star Trek before it, Battlestar featured a multicolored, but predominantly white human race confronting an alien other. The ‘Cylons,’ robot slaves who have risen up against humanity in genocidal vengeance, are an obvious candidate for a racial reading. But the discovery that a new ‘breed’ of them could pass for human, a breed the humans proceed to derisively refer to as “skin jobs,” activated a particularly rich and complex series of racial allegories, including allegories of anti-semitism and racial passing. But against the backdrop of these racial allegories stood the racial spectacle of the series itself, a product of the Hollywood culture industries, exhibiting all the symptomatic conventions of racial casting and stereotyping, even as it sought to evade or subvert those conventions.
The show relied upon the familiar and thoroughly un-reassuring premise that black and white can unite and fight only when confronted with an utterly alien foe. Humans experience the transcendence of race only when confronting the gaze of the hostile other for whom we are all but prey. But Battlestar also unseats this convention of race war by making both humans and Cylons theistic races caught in a dynamic of belief and conversion. The humans are, ironically, polytheistic (and therefore ‘primitive’ in a civilizational schema derived from nineteenth century anthropology) while the Cylons worship a new, singular God. So while the series launches with a genocidal attack of the Cylons upon humanity, which leaves no doubt of their “villainy,” their technological, biological, and theological ‘superiority’ to humanity introduces a series of doubts into the standard white hats/black hats scenario. The introduction of skin jobs who feel as well as look human, who fall in love with, have sexual intercourse with, and even convert and come to conceive new life together with humans, adds further layers of complexity.
Race war, one could say, forms the ontoepistemological backdrop of all the ensuing events of the series, making both its ultimate resolution, not to mention the “lessons” it leaves us with, all the more pressing to ponder. But it is one in which who will engulf whom is continuously and agonizingly posed (before being unfortunately and ludicrously resolved in the final episode through updated Edenic myth). If the enslaved Cylons necessarily stand in, in this allegory, for the wretched of the earth, rising up against human supremacy, does that make the human race as such a white race? Certainly humans are presented as living on an archipelago of colonies, and the relations within those different colonies suggest that while phenotype may not register within the world of Battlestar for race, colonial identity does (people from one particular colony are more superstitious than the others, etc.). The series therefore presents an allegory within an allegory: a foregrounded human-Cylon relation modeled on the cyborg as slave, and a backgrounded internal human-human division in which colonialism maps uneasily onto earthly questions of race.
The series was thus poised to explore planetary racial and colonial dynamics rarely addressed on escapist American TV. And lessons were hardly in short supply on the show. Debuting shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and amidst the early ferment of the War on Terror, the show used the conventions of space opera to investigate serious issues like genocide, nuclear weapons, terrorism, capital punishment, military tribunals, torture, war rape, religious fundamentalism, and civil liberties. Thus, the show solicited recognition that the victimized human “race” was reaping the whirlwind, and that the Cylons who so piteously attacked them/us were not ‘aliens’ at all, but the return of the repressed. Placing that first insurrection outside the main storyline kept Battlestar from resonating too strongly with the long history of slave and plebeian insurrection from Spartacus to Santo Domingo (and beyond). But this deep and melancholic historical racial allegory, I suggest, was never fully absent from the screen. The inscrutability of Cylon motivation evidenced this, insofar as admitting the full consciousness and history of the slave an order of recognition cannot occur without confronting that order with its foundational trauma.
In the end, Battlestar could not go that far. Instead it fell prey to the temptation to resolved the master-slave dialectic into a romance of heterosexual reproduction. Elsewhere, in my book The Amalgamation Waltz, I examined the odd pairing of mongrel pasts and hybrid future in discourses of race mixing. Battlestar employed the speculative leeway of space opera to conflate this conventions into one, making what we thought as a hybrid future into a hidden, mongrel past.
Science fiction has repeatedly used robots to explore sexual slavery – the film Blade Runner being the most prominent example. The twist that Battlestar Galactica introduced, albeit only in its concluding moments (which some fans have called “the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen“) was to reveal what we assumed to be a distant future was in fact the aboriginal human past. (Spoiler alert) The show concluded in a deus ex machina: the human-Cylon hybrid child Hera is revealed to be Mitochondrial Eve, whom real scientists posit to be the most recent common ancestor on the matrilineal line of all living humans today.
If “race” is an illusion based on the impossible logic of the binary tree of genealogical descent, Mitochondrial Eve is a convenient post-racial figure for troping it’s scientific errancy. In place of the illusion of separate races, human and cyborg, the show presented a new illusion, a singular race, courtesy of the latest genetic scientific rationality.
Of course, as the fan boys howled, resolving the show in such a way actually made a mockery of both science and logic. In order to work, they argued, this resolution would ironically rely upon a more stringent theory of intelligent design than has ever been proposed by Christian fundamentalists. The neatly post-racial conclusion, founded on what looked on the screen like “real” science, could only resonate at the level of wishful thinking.
What neater way to finally address the burning question of racism than by revealing it to be a cosmic joke? If our hybrid future is revealed to lie long buried in the mongrel past, we have nothing to do but recognize the folly of racial divisions as an illusion, an error, a false faith in purity keeping us from embracing our inner, mitochondrial hybridity. But this default back into the liberal scientific anti-racism of our present moment, I want to suggest, ironically betrays the more subversive lessons the show could teach us.
Instead of following its fictional premise to the end, and investigate the traumatic consequences of the originary division of (human) life and (Cylon) social death, the show falsely substituted a fantastic version of human prehistory as a kind of screen memory, thus attempting to repress the series’ irrepressible antagonism. This screen memory was restaged at the United Nations in New York, when series stars Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell addressed an audience of youth delegates on what the series could teach them about solving problems through diplomacy on our own planet. At one point Olmos, responding to a diplomat’s use of the term race in his comments, delivered an impassioned speech against the false concept of race, which he asserted came about only as a way of justifying and conducting race war, before shifting into the register of color-blind liberalism to declare that there was only one race, the human race.
“So say we all!” he concluded with the rousing cry his character William Adama often ended his speeches with, blurring his real identity as Chicano actor with his TV role as Battleship commander. “So say we all!” responded the gathered youth, transported, through the vehicle of fandom, into transracial unity. But the liberal vow that there is no race but the human race was haunted by echoes of the claim Olmos had made only minutes before, a claim that had been substantiated over the course of the series, that race could be deployed as an apparatus of war not only despite its illusory basis, but indeed because of it.

Tavia Nyong'o

Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and professor of African American studies, American studies, and theater studies at Yale University. He writes on art, music, politics, culture, and theory. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies, and a new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, is forthcoming from NYU Press in the fall of 2018. Nyong’o has published in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, GLQ, TDR, Women & Performance, WSQ, The Nation, Triple Canopy, The New Inquiry, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text.