Sep 27, 2017

Race vs. Culture in "Vulcan Hello"


Hi Valerie and Glenn,

I really enjoyed your episode on the first half of the Discovery pilot. I have some thoughts about Michael Burnham's phrase, "Don't mistake culture for race." Valerie was confused (as was I) that Burnham should say this phrase directly after making racist comments about the Klingons. But upon further reflection, I think that's exactly the point. I think Burnham sees two categories: race, which she sees as the innate, "natural" characteristics of a person, and culture, which she sees as the veneer of learned behavior and values atop that natural core. I don't think we're supposed to agree with her—this is an incredibly superficial and inaccurate conception of what culture is. I think we are supposed to be confused and frustrated by her insistence that what she has is Vulcan "culture" but that Klingons are violent because of their race. I think she would say, my race is human, which is why I'm irrational and impulsive and laugh when I see beautiful stars, but I have this superficial veneer of Vulcan logic and values that I've learned, but that can never really overcome my human "race." And by implication, even if you taught the Klingons some other "culture," and raised them on Vulcan or Earth, they would still at heart be nasty, violent creatures. She is, in short, a racist, who appeals to the facile distinction of "race vs. culture" when it benefits her, but without interrogating it deeply. I hope it's setting her up for some kind of redemption narrative. What do you think? Are we supposed to be frustrated by her self-serving appeal to race vs. culture? And thus, to be frustrated by our own society's often incomplete and self-serving understanding of what these terms mean and how they should be deployed?

Sep 29, 2017


Hey Rainbow!


Thank you so much for an incredibly thoughtful post. You’re asking some tough and important questions that I’m really excited to engage with, and you’ve read the scene beautifully.

Let’s start by returning to the verbatim dialogue from “The Vulcan Hello”:


Michael Burnham: The ideal outcome for any Klingon interaction is battle. They’re relentlessly hostile, sir. It’s in their nature.

Admiral Anderson: The Federation and the Klingon Empire have always been on the cold side of war. We’ve had only fleeting run-ins with them for a century. And now you presume to know their motivation because it is “in their nature”? Considering your background, I would think you’re the last person to make assumptions based on race.

Michael Burnham: With respect, it would be unwise to confuse race and culture.


The problem here, as I discussed on the podcast and as you’ve reiterated in your post, is that by saying hostility is Klingon “nature,” Burnham appears to be claiming that a prevalence for hostility is part of Klingon genetic makeup, or part of their DNA. Because race is traditionally defined as pointing to a set of genetically determined characteristics (while culture refers more commonly to a set of learned beliefs, behaviors, values, or traditions such as religion, language, and customs), we can view Burnham’s comment as a reductive and presumptive comment about race, in which she explicitly confuses race and culture in the exact same manner that she asks Admiral Anderson not to, only a few lines later.


My original assumption is that this was simply a large oversight on the part of the writing team. Perhaps they were excited to start a dialogue about race and simply missed the contradictions that they had built into the scene.


Your reading is much more nuanced and complex, and I would hope that you are correct in assuming we are meant to learn alongside Burnham as she unpacks these concepts. The fact that Admiral Anderson calls her out on her racially-charged comment, inviting her to think more carefully about what she is saying, is pretty good evidence that you just might be right. It would be quite interesting if the contradiction inherent in Burnham’s response to Admiral Anderson was meant not to educate viewers about race and culture through the mouthpiece of her character, but rather to reiterate, once again, that Burnham responds to emotionally challenging situations with overblown defensiveness, clouding her otherwise extraordinary intellectual capabilities and hard-earned knowledge of Starfleet command.

Sep 29, 2017

One of the problems here, I think, is with 'race' as a trope in sci-fi/fantasy as whole. When we're talking about the real world (whether historically or contemporarily), we can look at both race and culture as social constructs and think about what goes into our understanding of these terms and how they manifest (in terms of how we perceive ourselves racially and culturally and how we perceive other people racially and culturally).

But in sci-fi/fantasy we're looking at interactions between humans and members of other races/species (leaving aside for now the problematic way those terms are often used synonymously), and those other races/species are usually presented as 'monocultures'. In Star Trek terms: Klingons are violent, Vulcans are logical, Romulans and Cardassians are devious. Even humans, to an extent are a monoculture in Star Trek: we're inquisitive/curious and we want to 'better ourselves' (whatever that means).

Now obviously this is partly a conceit to make sure the audience knows what to expect when those races are involved, or to subvert expectations if a member of a race doesn't behave in accordance with their established monoculture. But it does lead to the problem (for a 21st century audience) of racial determinism. Do members of a race act the way they do because it's in their DNA (race), or because they've learned to the behave that way due to their upbringing (culture)?

This has never been explicitly answered in Star Trek as far as I'm aware, but it has been addressed several times, at least in subtext. In fact it's a pretty big part of Spock's entire character. But ultimately I feel like Star Trek usually comes down on the side of racial determinism (i.e. members of a race act that way because it's in their DNA), though this is probably just because it's a TV show from the 60s/90s, and the writers weren't thinking about it that deeply, and were constrained by genre and medium.

All that said (and at the risk of stereotyping), the Vulcans for the most part come across as pretty big racists across all of Star Trek. I'm struggling to think of any examples where a Vulcan displayed anything other than the attitudes held by Burnham in these first two episodes of Discovery: members of a race act a certain way because it's in their nature to do so. A Vulcan could teach a human or a Klingon logic, but ultimately they'll revert to their 'natural' behaviour. If there are examples of Vulcans not acting like this please let me know!

(Another interesting racist conceit of the show is that humans' 'natural' behaviour is somehow ok, but other races should learn to be more like us.)

I really really hope that exploring this is going to be a big part of Discovery. We'll see.

Sep 29, 2017

Some great observations, Karanthir. I just want to point to perhaps the most flagrant example of culture being an expression of DNA: the Voyager episode "Faces." B'Ellana Torres is split into two people: one Klingon, and the other human. While her character arc in this episode is about her acceptance of her Klingon parentage, of which she has largely been ashamed, the implication of this episode (and much of her treatment in the series) is that she (like Spock) is defined by some sort of competition between the human and Klingon chromosomes that define her behavior rather than by any kind of cultural upbringing.


I also want to pick up a thread from Valerie's comment. Admiral Anderson does indeed seem to castigate Burnham for a casual racist remark. Then he sacrifices himself and his crew to take out an enemy vessel. I think I like that guy, and he deserves a cocktail.

Sep 29, 2017

Oh yeah, even as a teenager I realised 'Faces' was a bit of a mess. They handled similar issues with a bit more subtlety in 'Tuvix', I thought.


Admiral Anderson was definitely a hero! A rare case of a competent Starfleet admiral?

Sep 29, 2017

Hey there, Karanthir!


Thank you so much for a really great post. You hit on some points that I wanted to include originally, but ultimately cut to avoid writing a novel.


In particular I'm grateful that you drew the distinction between the nature of both race and culture as social constructs in the real world and concepts of race and culture in the sci-fi/fantasty realm. We're a bit more limited in the latter, and any attempt to carry over these already-charged and complex terms from reality into to Trekland will inevitably have to wrestle with the variances in the baggage/history of those terms.


On the podcast, especially in our episode on "Battle at the Binary Stars," I was conflicted with our use of the term "race," and grappled with the idea of perhaps replacing it with "species." Again, this points to some real world/sci-fi world differences, because the term "alien race" (when we're talking about actual extraterrestrials) carries much different meaning and much less weight than the term "race" as it ties to our lived experiences in 2017, especially in America. If these terms don't all map one-to-one from Trek onto our real world, then how ought we to learn from them or carry them into our discussions? How can the show continue to be didactic is a useful way? I wonder if, given your comment on the problematic way in which race and species are used as interchangeable terms, you might want to weigh in.


Oh, and I didn't get to say it on air, but Admiral Anderson wins the award for Tightest Uniform in Discover thus far. We get it, Anderson. You've got a bod.

Oct 5, 2017

Hi Valerie,


I'm afraid I don't have much more to add at this stage, but I'll try. And I want to preface all of this by saying I'm not a scientist, so apologies if I get anything wrong on that front.


I think you're absolutely right to point out that 'race' as in 'alien race' has a very different meaning and weight to using 'race' in a purely human context (although I wonder where that leaves the 'human race' as a concept). Partly it must be because we're dealing with fiction on one hand and reality on the other (not in the sense of different human 'races' being real, but in the sense of that meaning/use of 'race' having very real consequences). I'm not sure whether these two uses of the same basic term can be reconciled, at least not easily, because your talking about and using the same two for two fundamentally different things.


'Race' in a human context is - at least partly - a social construct, a tool we use to understand our place in the world and to frame our interactions with those around us. 'Species', at least in my understanding, is something that actually is defined by DNA (i.e. the different animal species of Earth are not, and never can be humans, barring some spectacular advances in technology), even if there might be certain traits that we associate with certain species that might be stereotypes and/or nothing to do with DNA in the same way as happens with traits associated with 'race'.


So from that perspective, what we're dealing with in Star Trek (or most sci-fi/fantasy generally) is the distinctions between species rather than races. The Vulcans, Klingons, humans etc. are species. We've seen hints at what we'd consider different races within those species (e.g. black Vulcans), but the only time it's ever been directly addressed that I remember is with the Andorians in ENT Season 4 (unless you count 'Let That Be Your Last Battlefield', one of my favourite episodes of TOS). My understanding is that, from a scientific perspective, species are genetically distinct (but can sometimes interbreed), whereas races are basically the same on a genetic level with some superficial differences in appearance.


To bring that back to 'Race vs Culture', what we seem to have in Star Trek (and fiction generally) is a situation where, at one level, species and race are interchangeable, and at another level race and culture are interchangeable. And that's where it gets problematic. The second assumption on it's own in a human context isn't inherently problematic, although it depends how it's used, because if both race and culture are social constructs then we can also say the traits associated with them are as well. But when the first assumption is also in the mix you also have to ask (and maybe answer) the question of what is genetically determined and what is a social construct (or learnt behaviour to look at it from a slightly different perspective).


To take an Earth-based example: we all have an idea of how cats behave in a general sense, but do they act like that because of their DNA, because of their instincts (and where do those come from?), or because they learn how to behave from watching other cats? It might be a combination of all those things. But is that enough to say there is a cat culture? And what about cats that don't 'act like cats'? It's not an ideal example because cats aren't sentient, but hopefully my meaning is clear.


Sorry, that got long and rambly, and I'm not sure I ended up answering your questions. I would absolutely love to see Star Trek tackle these questions. I think it's the right sci-fi franchise to do it, and I think it could be done in interesting ways with the right team behind it. But I don't think Discovery is going to be that show.

Oct 5, 2017

These are some great points, Karanthir. This use of "race" in lieu of "species" in speculative fiction is a pervasive problem. My first encounter with this came from playing AD&D as an adolescent, in which the two dominant characteristics of one's gaming persona are "race" and "class." "Race," of course, meant "species" -- Elf, Dwarf, Human, Hobb ... er, Halfling, etc. But this language shaped me, and it primed me not to question the use of the term in Star Trek TNG which was airing at the same time (literally moments after I got home from gaming with my friends on a Saturday afternoon). But D&D post-dates TOS, so that can't be the origin of this problem. Do we know where this comes from? Is it simply that modern literature itself traces its origins to the nineteenth century when these taxonomical concepts were entering the zeitgeist?

Oct 5, 2017

Great question! And one I honestly don't know the answer to.


I mean, it makes sense to use the two terms interchangeably, because the different conotations aren't obvious unless you stop to think about them. But that's a result of how pervasive this already is in human culture (there's that word again!).


I would guess it derives from nineteenth-century attitudes, along with ambiguities in the English language. Though I don't know the equivalent terms in other languages and how they're used.


For the sci-fi/fantasy usage, I want to say it comes from Tolkien.

Oct 5, 2017

Yes, I had considered Tolkien as well, but I'm not actually sure how frequently he uses the word "race," if ever. I suspect that the use of this term in AD&D owes itself more to the pulp literature by writers such as Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. I've just done a (hasty) search on the academic internet and have not found much on this topic, so it looks like there's room for a new monograph if anyone wants to switch fields.


As for Trek's use of the term, I also wonder how frequently species are referred to as "races" in the various shows. My hypothesis is that it increases over time, that the term was not used very often for Klingons and Romulans (etc.) in TOS, more so in TNG, but most of all in DS9. If that's true (and I'm just guessing), then I think it would map very nicely onto shifting modes of othering as the Cold War raged, cooled, and then ended. Again, there's probably a book worth writing there.

Oct 5, 2017

Now that you mention it, how many times are the words 'race' and 'species' actually used onscreen in the series pre-Discovery? Are these mostly just terms we're using to discuss the show? Answering that would be a good place to start for figuring this out.


You might be right about Tolkien not using the word 'race', but he essentially invented the archetypal fantasy 'races', which don't feature in Howard or Lovecraft. So thinking about Elves and Dwarves as 'races' must come from somewhere. It might not be satisfying, but I'm inclined to say it's just a general usage thing. Thinking of them as 'species' even seems weird to me, and I'm the one arguing that's the wrong term!

Oct 6, 2017

Hey guys!


Glenn, you might have convinced me to switch fields. Or, you know, to start my own. Or, more realistically, just to write a poorly informed book based on my own observations while watching Star Trek. Though I suppose that's basically what we're doing here.


You've both come very close to the depth of my own knowledge on the subject, but there might be one good place to start our search for answers: the TNG Season 6 episode "The Chase", where we learn that all of the humanoid species that we know in the Star Trek world actually share the same common ancestor. A casual look at the Wikipedia page on the episode (because scholarship) throws the terms race and species around a lot.

Oct 6, 2017

Somehow I didn't even think about 'The Chase'. It's a weird episode; a fun story, and I can see what they were going for with the message, but it just doesn't make any sense at all! You're right that it's probably the best place to start to look further into this.


I am beginning to think that we've already thought harder about this than anyone who's ever written an episode of Star Trek has though...

Oct 6, 2017

I have a purely scientific question/comment that will betray my ignorance of Star Trek but might be interesting to think about in the context of the show. Species is definitely a DNA/genetic term, but some animal species are next to impossible to tell apart because they are so similar. One way scientists can tell whether two animals are actually two different species, or just variations within the same species, is by interbreeding them. Animals of different species can produce offspring together (horse + donkey = mule), but those offspring will be sterile because of chromosomal issues (mules cannot make mule babies). On the other hand, animals (including humans) that are merely variations within a single species can interbreed and create fertile offspring.


So, my Star Trek question is: can half-human, half-alien beings on Star Trek make babies? Can Spok or B'Ellanna Torres reproduce? Is this something the show talks about at all?

Oct 7, 2017

Great question! Torres has a daughter with the human Tom Paris. I think that's the only time we ever see a half-alien have a child, but I suppose that's enough evidence to demonstrate that it can happen.


So by that logic, and based on what we learn in 'The Chase', we seem to be looking at 'races' rather than 'species' after all.


But I still have a big problem with that because as I mentioned the science of 'The Chase' is incredibly dodgy. Even if humanoid life was seeded across the galaxy hundreds of millions of years ago, I don't think that's how evolution works. But I'm probably getting unnecessarily pedantic and nitpicky now.


Based on everything we see on the show, the different aliens of Star Trek are capable of interbreeding, and their offspring will be fertile hybrids. And they're all distantly related somehow.

Oct 8, 2017

Yes, this is a fantastic point. Whether or not the word "race" is used, Star Trek wants (sometimes, at least) to use its aliens to get us thinking about racial issues in our own society. That said, I still think that there is a major difference in the way this is done in the TOS era than in Voyager and Enterprise, and that this deserves some attention.


I have several edited volumes of Trek scholarship on my shelf, and I've just looked through them to find that none of them contain an article about these issues, so there is definitely room for it, as well as need.

Oct 9, 2017

Glenn, could you maybe say a bit more about what you see as the differences between how this was done in TOS compared to the later shows? I'm intrigued!

Oct 10, 2017

At this point, I'm just guessing (guess-remembering?), but I think that the word "race" was rarely used in TOS, and used with much greater frequency the closer we get to the present. If true, I would link this to the low significance of race within the ideology of the Cold War, and suspect that the word begins to appear more as the Soviet Union disintegrates and America begins engaging in "ethnic" conflicts in the Balkans and Africa just as DS9 is coming on the air.

Oct 12, 2017

Perhaps the writers of this series might be more exact in their use of the terms.


I would perhaps define them in the following terms.


Species: Individuals within a species can breed to produce offspring who can procreate.


Race: A visually distinct group within a species.


Culture: A group following a common set of laws, beliefs and customs.


In this case then perhaps most of the humanoids within the Trek are of the same species but different races. In this case conflicts are based on culture not race or species.


Thus the Federation becomes a Super Culture where different species and races follow a common set of laws.

Dec 6, 2017

Yes, this gets at many of the questions we raised all the way back in September, so thanks for sharing it, Karanthir!


I'm a little disappointed in the treatment of Tolkien and the drawing of a straight line between him and D&D. For one, Tolkien's Elves aren't Good and Orcs Bad because of biology -- there's an entire cosmology of souls and reincarnation behind these designations that both this article and D&D ignore. The link between Tolkien and D&D needs to be explained more in terms of why Gary Gygax and others grabbed onto the notion of "races" but left out the spirituality, and why he and the other D&D creators were so comfortable with scientific racism as not to question it ... even after the Holocaust. I would ask the same question about Gene Roddenberry and the other Trek creators. Moreover, I (still) maintain that the absence of religion and spirituality in (early) D&D suggest that while Elves and Dwarves may be derived from Tolkien, the attitudes about race derive more from pulp fantasists such as Robert E. Howard. Sturtevant mentions Helen Young's Race and Popular Fantasy. I haven't read it, but the first chapter is entitled "J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard," so I'm eager to see what she says about how their opposing worldviews function when they get mixed together by Gygax.


I'm still keen to compare TOS with TNG on this front as well, and I suspect that TNG doubles-down on scientific racism in ways that TOS doesn't -- even as European scholars such as Wenskus, Wolfram, and Pohl are dismantling the intellectual constructs that formed the foundation of scientific racism.


Something that came up in Discovery after this thread had died down, is Admiral Cornwell's admonishment of Stamets for violating prohibitions against eugenics. This is straight from post-war concerns about Nazism and scientific racism, and while it's unexplored (so far), I'm hoping that we'll get more about it.

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