The 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony has come and gone, and one of the biggest moments from the ceremony was North and South Korea walking into the arena together, united under one flag made specially for the Winter Olympics. But, apart from that historic sight, there was one other moment that caught my eye, a moment I still haven’t gotten over, and no, it’s not the appearance of Tongan flag bearer Pita Taufatofua. The moment that warmed my heart was when the Rainbow Chorus of the Center for Multicultural Korea (CMCK) sang the South Korean anthem.
If you were like me and wondered who these precious kids were, they are members of the Rainbow Chorus of the Center for Multicultural Korea. The chorus is, according to a 2012 article from Korea Magazine, reposted to Korea.net, “the first-ever multicultural children’s chorus in South Korea and comprises children from families with ten different nationalities including Japanese, Filipino, Russian, Iraqi, and Thai.” Professional musicians train the kids for free, and the chorus is often invited to perform for dignitaries, like the world leaders at the 2010 G-20 Seoul Summit, and at other special occasions.
These kids aren’t just fantastic singers; they are also ambassadors for South Korea’s growing multiculturalism. “The chorus is vitally important to its members—such innocent children who freely mix with one another regardless of nationality and physical features—and provides valuable opportunities for its audiences to better understand what a multicultural society is like,” states the magazine.
Clutching at multiculturalism
Getting a grasp on multiculturalism is one of South Korea’s biggest policy projects. The country is steadily becoming a nation of immigrants; as Korea Magazine wrote in 2012:
“More than 45 million people left and entered South Korea in 2011 alone, and the number of foreigners staying in Korea topped 1.4 million. Yes, Korean society is rapidly going multicultural. Of these 1.4 million, 1.1 million are long-term immigrants, representing 2.2 percent of the Korean population. Nearly 49 percent of them are Korean Chinese who moved back to their ancestral fatherland, followed by Americans at 9.5 percent, Vietnamese at 8.3 percent, and Japanese at 4.2 percent. This surge in foreign settlers in Korea can be attributed to increases in the numbers of migrant workers, marriage immigrants, children born to multicultural families, Korean nationals returning from abroad, and North Korean defectors to South Korea. As South Korea becomes racially and culturally more diverse, the national, local, and municipal governments have been devising new policies to embrace them as members of Korean society.”
The chorus is just one part of South Korea’s arts and culture strategy for welcoming in immigrant families. The Sejong Cultural Center created the Sejong Youth Harmony Orchestra in 2011, offering children from multicultural and low-income families the chance to gain orchestral experience.
South Korea is among a group of Asian countries that are seeing a dramatic decrease in their population; fewer and fewer people are marrying and having children for a host of reasons. However, unlike its neighbors, South Korea is actively welcoming immigrants to help fix their population problem.
“There is real immigration going on that is supported, facilitated, advocated by the South Korean government,” Katharine Moon, chair of Korean Studies at the Brookings Institution, said to NPR’s Elise Hu. As such, South Korea is working overtime to bring the country together on multiculturalism.
Honestly, many Asian nations are coming to terms with the realities of multiculturalism in their populations whether they endorse multiculturalism or not. There have been mixed results, to put it mildly; China, for instance, is becoming more insular and nativist, with racist agendas launched against its African immigrants. South Korea has its share of racism to contend with, too–because South Korea has no anti-discrimination laws in place (measures to pass laws have failed three different times due to outcries from far-right Christian groups, who cite sexual differences as reasons for discrimination), there is no recourse a foreigner can take if they are discriminated against. Indeed, several bars and other recreational spots have denied foreigners entry based on a host of xenophobic and/or racial reasons.
Also, diversity in the political sphere has been met with animosity. Jasmine Lee, an actress from the Philippines who found success in South Korea in entertainment, launched a successful political career and was elected into the Korean National Assembly in 2012. As the first naturalized South Korean and first non-ethnic Korean to be elected, she served until 2016, and throughout her tenure, she received tons of racist comments, despite the swell of support from citizens propelling her to her assembly seat. Even with the hardships she’s faced, she is certain South Korea will have to understand its place in a multicultural future.
“There’s a chance that they won’t reconsider me for my congressional post. But in 10 to 20 years, as long as the borders are not shut, Korea will definitely have become a multicultural society. However, there’s no law or regulation which addresses the imminent multiculturalism,” she told Huffington Post Korea’s Dohoon Kim in 2015. So my goal is to establish within the next 10 years a sort of congressional department that can oversee such a development from a legal and policy standpoint.”
Taking multiculturalism seriously
South Korea has a long way to go with their project of creating a country welcoming and hospitable to all of its citizens, both native and immigrant. But the country has put itself on the fast track towards a unified South Korea, and multiculturalism is something the government sees as one of the top priorities.
“Few countries take multiculturalism as seriously as Korea does. While most countries have vague and ambiguous multicultural policies consisting of either forcing immigrants to assimilate to the local culture or allowing immigrants to integrate while keeping their traditions, Korea has come up with a new concept: tamunhwa,” wrote The Diplomat in 2014. “Tamunhwa means multiculturalism in Korean, and the basic idea is for Koreans to learn as much as they can about immigrants’ original culture while setting up as many cultural immersion programs as possible for immigrants. With foreign residents now accounting for nearly 3 percent of the population of a country that long defined itself as homogeneous, Koreans are taking multiculturalism seriously.”
Along with 2008’s passing of the Multicultural Families Support Act and the creation of centers for multicultural families and global centers that cater to foreign spouses, tourists, migrant workers, and foreign investors, citizens are holding meetings at these centers, asking foreign residents how they feel about their lives in Korea and what could be done to make their time more beneficial. “Meetings are held at global centers where foreigners are asked their opinions on what should change in Korea. Korean language and culture classes are offered free of charge,” wrote the site. “Many Koreans are volunteering to teach Korean or to help migrants. Speech contests are organized where foreigners are encouraged to voice their concerns about Korea.”
However, while meetings and centers are increasing multicultural interest, coupled with more and more non-Koreans appearing on popular television shows, Korea still faces an uphill battle towards being equally and consistently hospitable to its immigrant and multicultural populations.
The increase in foreign workers, particularly foreign English teachers, plus pressure from the U.N. and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, forced South Korea to end a decade-long practice of requiring mandatory HIV tests for teachers in 2017. The test, initially advertised in 2007 as a way to “ease the anxiety of citizens” and “assure the parents” of children taught by foreign English teachers, was, obviously, a sly way to create a catch-all situation for any and all types of discrimination. The test’s popularity was bolstered by the arrest of an English teacher in Thailand for sexually abusing his young students. The teacher in question didn’t have HIV and his crimes weren’t committed in Korea, but because the teacher worked in Seoul before leaving for Thailand, the test was able to garner support.
Teachers, in fact, are one of the biggest drivers of the multiculturalism conversation in Korea. “In a bid to respond to globalization, Korea decided to increase its emphasis on English in curriculums, importing 30,000 teachers in the process. Such teachers often teach less than 30 hours a week and have free weekends, are often young and single, meaning they have a lot of time to spend on the internet,” wrote The Diplomat. “They were the first to draw attention to the issue of multiculturalism and to urge Korea to do something to promote a multicultural society, and they were not always polite about it. Still, they can claim credit to be the first to bring the multiculturalism debate to Korea.”
Some headway is being made with regard to establishments who refuse to serve foreigners. In 2017, Indian student Kislay Kumar received a letter of apology from the owner of The Fountain, a bar in Seoul after video of Kumar being turned away went viral. The letter came after Kumar partnered with the Indian Embassy, who raised Kumar’s case to a department of the South Korean government, and the National Human Rights Commission.
“The letter, from The Fountain’s owner Yoo Seung-woo, reads, ‘First I’d like to apologize for what happened last June. I know nothing I can say can address the hardship you experienced, but nevertheless I’d like to convey my regrets.'” wrote Korea Exposé. “Yoo’s letter goes on to apologize for the ‘immature’ handling of Kumar’s case; Yoo also writes that he has learned a lot from the incident and reflected on how to handle misunderstandings between Koreans and foreigners.”
Kumar, who has since found a job in Seoul in overseas sales and marketing for a laser company, said that while the apology encourages him, there’s still a matter of changing people’s hearts. He hopes his case can be a step towards the Korean government finally passing an anti-discrimination law.
“This one incident can make people cautious about their actions, but it can’t change their mentality,” he said. “It has to come in the textbooks. The mind has to be opened and that has to come through education.”
Spurts of multicultural acceptance amid shortcomings
In some ways to the outside eye (like mine), Korea seems like it’s taking one step forward and two steps back with their acceptance of multiculturalism. But Moon told Linda Poon of CityLab that the country is actually making fast strides to cram tons of multicultural knowledge into a society that has been culturally homogeneous for centuries.
“This is a huge social change for a society that has been homogeneous in so many ways for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Moon, adding that the Korean national identity is partially founded on the belief that Koreans stem from a “thousand years of ‘pure’ ancestral bloodlines, common language, customs, and history,” and has more recently been founded on reclaiming sovereignty after 40 years of Japanese colonialism before World War II.
Moon wants people to remember Korea’s short history as a democracy. Moon, Poon wrote, “says Korea is still a very young democracy. And Korea’s immigration issues are complex, given its various categories of immigrants. They’re further complicated by an inflow [of] North Korean defectors, who face discrimination in South Korea, as well. And compared to its older and equally homogeneous neighbor, Japan, which also lacks broad anti-discrimination laws and whose prime minister has publicly rejected immigration despite a shrinking population, ‘South Korea is actually on an accelerated route,’ she said. After all, it took U.S. almost 200 years after declaring its independence to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
In short, Moon is asking us to be patient with South Korea as it figures out its place in a multicultural society. As a nation grappling with a changing social and national identity due to globalization, it shouldn’t be a surprise South Korea is going through what can generously be called a challenging growing phase. But for some, I’m sure, patience is wearing thin. However, with organizations like the Rainbow Chorus, Korea is determined to show itself and the world it’s determined to move in the right direction, regardless of how many mistakes are made along the way. One place where multiculturalism is succeeding is in the “borderless village” of Wongok, which is home to 17,000 residents, two-thirds of which are non-Korean.
While much of Korean multiculturalism is built upon complete assimilation into Korean culture, Moon told Hu that Wongok is actually employing “true multiculturalism…mixing and blending and fusing of different languages, cultures, customs.”
Kim Young-sook, a teacher and multicultural coordinator at Ansan West Elementary School, told Hu the school acts as a place where kids can learn more about each other and their respective cultures. “[In] places with multicultural kids, the kids can interact with each another and get into conflicts with one another and break prejudices.”
Kim also said her interactions with the kids have helped her break some of her own prejudices. “Multicultural people are people that Koreans have to work together with to make Korea into a better country,” she said. “Wongok Village is what Korea will look like in the future.” The lesson the children have taught her, Hu wrote, is that “they relate to one another as peers–not as different peoples.”
It’s this principle that Korea hopes the Rainbow Chorus represents to the world. The country still has tons of challenges to surmount in order to achieve true multiculturalism; even the entity of the Rainbow Chorus itself has been critiqued. In her Seoul Journal of Korean Studies paper “The Rainbow Chorus: Performing Cultural Identity in South Korea,” researcher (and mother of a Rainbow Chorus member) Hilary Finchum-Sung asserts the use of the chorus as proof of South Korea’s multiculturalism is part of the country’s mixed-messaging when it comes to multiculturalism; on the one hand, multiculturalism is becoming more and more discussed in South Korea’s popular media. However, stereotypes about multicultural children and families–that they’re poor and inferior to “real” Korean children–still remain. The Rainbow Chorus could be seen as a genuine outlet for growth and understanding; according to Finchum-Sung, the CMCK was founded by former broadcasting radio announcer Yi Hyonjong and her colleagues after realizing few programs in South Korea catered to children’s emotional and social welfare. But the chorus can also be seen as performative, a PR stunt to showcase a quick and easily digestible version of multiculturalism that plays on genuine empathy as much as it does existing harmful tropes.
However, regardless of South Korea’s failings when it comes to grappling with multiculturalism, a positive message can be taken from seeing a bunch of kids singing in harmony–that actual harmony can be achieved. Choruses have often been used as a way to show an idealized version of humanity; Sister Act 2, for instance, is a film based entirely on the idealistic notion of a group of kids coming together to change their lives and the lives of their community. Like most groups, the chorus is often used to prove people can learn from one another, forget prejudices, and work together to create something beautiful. As a novice to the Rainbow Choir, that’s the message I took from them as I watched them sing their country’s national anthem. After all of the research I’ve done while writing this article, that’s the message I still take away; I am an optimist at heart, after all. In their own way, these children are helping Korea get one step closer towards realizing a more equitable society for all who live within its borders. The message South Korea wanted to send has been heard loud and clear; now it’s on the country to fulfill their promises, especially to the kids who helped them achieve their Olympics goals.♦
Further reading: A snapshot of multiculturalism in South Korea | The Korea Herald
Diversity is a hot topic in all arenas, and that includes the world of forensic anthropology. This week, we’ve had two big revelations hit the anthropological news cycle, and while one finding cements what I’ve thought of as a truth long deferred, the other is a head-scratch.
1. Cheddar Man is revealed to be dark-skinned
In what can only be described as a shock to many who assumed England’s ancient peoples were fair-skinned and engaged in racial politics, the oldest complete skeleton in British history, Cheddar Man (named as such because of it being found in Cheddar Gorge), is actually a dark-skinned man with curly dark hair and blue eyes.
This is what scientists originally thought Cheddar Man looked like:
And this is what he actually looked like:
According to The Guardian, advanced DNA analysis has revealed that Cheddar Man and his ilk weren’t the light-skinned people science believed them to be. Instead, their skin was “dark to black,” which lends even more weight to the scientific fact that all people originated from Africa; Cheddar Man lived in England shortly after humans migrated to Britain from continental Europe at the end of the last ice age, and white Britons today are the ancestors of this group of migrants.
Cheddar Man’s skin color reveals that the genes for lighter skin “became widespread at a much in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today,” wrote The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.
According to scientists, this is what Britons looked like 10,000 years ago: pic.twitter.com/Em7T09ITbZ
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) February 8, 2018
I find this fascinating, not just because of the whole “everyone comes from Africa” thing, but because of how this discovery should change the way we view race and skin color. What should happen is that everyone–especially those with racially prejudicial ideas–take a good look at themselves and realize how meaningless skin color actually is. If tons of white Britons are descendants of this black man, how does this put anyone on a different pedestal from anyone else?
Cheddar Man’s skin revelations should also change the way we see history. Sites like Medieval POC exist to close the gaps in the West’s thought process about how race was conceptualized in the 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19th centuries. But, because of today’s current dialogue about race in history–a dialogue that is laced with stereotypes, racism, and traces of the same pseudo-science that made the Atlantic Slave Trade possible–it can seem hard to open people’s minds up to the fact that darker-skinned people not only lived in what are now white European spaces, but they thrived and, in many cases, accepted by the masses. Race as a construct did enter European society at some point, but our modern thoughts about race are relatively new in relation to the evolution of human society–and they’re erroneous.
As reported in The Guardian:
Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”
Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist at University College London and another member of the project’s team, agreed, saying the connection often drawn between Britishness and whiteness was “not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change.”
What would be cool is if Cheddar Man changes how modern media depicts ancient Europeans and ancient people in general; will this allow for more diverse casting and more in depth storylines, or will Hollywood and British cinema ignore these findings? I hope they don’t, because how cool would it be to see Idris Elba as an ancient European in a period film?
2. Is this Nefertiti the actual Nefertiti?
Another reconstruction making waves is Nefertiti. The Nefertiti we know is the famous bust discovered in 1912, sculpted by the official royal sculptor Thutmose, whose style was decided naturalistic despite him being a part of the highly stylistic and androgynous Amarna Period of Egyptian art. As you can see in the photo below, Nefertiti’s look is defined by a graceful long neck, full lips, a straight, thin nose, and deep tan skin.
This isn’t the only Nefertiti sculpture Thutmose created; a granite statue of Nefertiti showcases the same facial features as the more popular bust.
So, when this new bust was revealed on Today, people naturally scratched their heads in disbelief. This new bust, which was created after scientists compared historical images of Nefertiti with the facial characteristics of the mummy rumored to be Nefertiti nicknamed “The Younger Lady.” But as you can see below, this bust looks nothing like what Thutmose sculpted eons ago.
Not every expert is on board with declaring the Younger Lady is actually Nefertiti. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey project and Research Associate and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, told WGN9 he disbelieves the claim and went into detail as to why the Younger Lady doesn’t line up with what Egyptologists know about Nefertiti’s life. He states a lot in his interview, which I suggest your read in full, but here are the main points.
• The Younger Lady, who was buried alongside other familial mummies in Amenhotep’s royal tomb, is actually the daughter of Amenhotep and Queen Tiye, and is also the mother of Tutankhamun. This connection was revealed through leading Egyptologist Zahi Hawass’ DNA testing of the mummies found in the tomb, including the Younger Lady. According to Johnson, there is “no text” where Nefertiti was identified as a royal daughter. “If she had been a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, it would have been clearly stated in her inscriptions, and there are hundreds of text that survive mentioning Nefertiti with no mention of her parents.”
• All of the sculptures of Nefertiti from the Amarna Period show the same facial characteristics–“a straight nose, heavy-lidded eyes, long graceful neck, and a strong square jaw.” As Johnson states, “The forensically reconstructed face with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes, and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti. That said, they could be relatives.” Johnson believes they could be cousins instead.
• As “the gateway out of the African continent,” Egypt has always had a racially diverse citizenry, and Amenhotep III had many wives who were both Egyptian and foreign, including Caucasian women. But, said Johnson, Nefertiti’s skintone would still be darker than how it’s presented in the recreation. “A brown skin color would have probably been more true to the individual represented, and to her times.”
So with all of this said, what do I think about this bust? I think that, while being expertly rendered, it doesn’t match up to what Thutmose sculpted, and he was actually there during her life. If anyone should know what she looked like, it should be him. Granted, there could be some artistic liberties; some of the characteristics of the Amarna Period include highly feminine features and royalty were usually depicted as youthful, regardless of their age. But Thutmose is notable in that he sculpted the middle aged and elderly as well as the young. He even sculpted an older Nefertiti, depicting the changes her body underwent from birthing children. To be fair, this could have been stylistic as well, to showcase fertility, but if that’s the case, why create the other sculptures, which look true to life?
Another caveat is that perhaps for royalty, Thutmose combined both reality and fantasy. Despite the realism present, there are still stylistic elements that can be found in the Nefertiti bust. The symmetry of the face, for one, could be read as a calculated artistic choice. The huge eyebrows, which might have been painted on the real Nefertiti (since ancient Eygptians filled in and exaggerated their real eyebrows with makeup) add to the symmetry and perfection of the sculpture. It could be that the bust we know and love is just an old-school version of FaceTune. That’s a theory that could be truer than we think, since sarcophogi, such as the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun is also artistically stylized and doesn’t reflect all of what’s shown in the reconstructions of Tutankhamun, as pictured below.
I personally don’t want to believe everything from Thutmose’s workshop was a lie, though. Nefertiti’s beauty was heralded in her time as much as it is now, which leads me to believe there’s more truth to the iconic bust than fakery. If Thutmose captured beauty, then I’m sure she was actually beautiful in real life. The Younger Lady doesn’t look bad, though. I will say from looking at one of the reconstructions of King Tut that the Younger Lady is most definitely his mother. They have the same overbite, jaw structure, and eye socket structure.
To address the skin color issue: Ancient Egyptians’ skintones were clearly documented by artists contemporary to the times. Artists of the Coptic Period engaged in realism when painting subjects such as the subjects depicted in the Fayum mummy portraits, which showcased men and women with dark hair and tan skin.
There are also other reconstructions of ancient Egyptians. Here’s another reconstruction of Tutankhamun published in National Geographic in 2005–this one is a little more favorable to him in the looks department and more closely matches some of the sculptures made of him during his life. In this reconstruction, his skin tone is definitely a dark tan.
Here’s another reconstruction, this time of a woman nicknamed “Meritamun.” The reconstruction includes information gathered from modern day Egyptians, which you can assume includes skintone.
Based on the other reconstructions and mummy portraits, as well as a Google search of images of modern-day Egyptians, it seems like what’s throwing people off is the undertone used for the Younger Lady’s skintone reconstruction. Yes, there were olive-toned Egyptians; with a port empire like Egypt, leading to a cross-cultural mix, there had to have been a myriad of skintones among Egyptians. But the Younger Lady’s undertone is probably a smidge too pink, which lends the eye to read it as “European” or, like how some called it online, “white.” Meanwhile, the other reconstructions, statues, and paintings from ancient Egypt show people with yellow and neutral undertones. While the Younger Lady does have a touch of yellow in her undertone, the pink is affecting how the yellow would affect the overall skintone.
But I actually hesitate to call this reconstruction of the Younger Lady “white.” Again, there were a myriad of skintones in ancient Egypt, and while I have some issues with how much pink there is in the Younger Lady’s undertone, it’s still worth understanding that a woman this color wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in ancient Egypt. She might look “white,” but it doesn’t mean she’d be out of place. If it turns out her skintone was actually this color, undertones and all, her skin also wouldn’t make her any less African.
What do you think about these reconstructions? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
It’s 2018! For many of us, that means fresh starts. It certainly means that for me.
I’m sure you can relate to this, but 2017 was a serious challenge for me. Without a doubt, it was one of the toughest years of my life. Granted, when life gives you challenges, it’s only meant for you to grow. But you can’t deny how hard it is to learn those lessons and deal with the awful packages some of those lessons tend to come in.
If you’re like me and you’re glad you’ve made it out of the fire, congratulations! You’ve endured some tough stuff, which means you’re much stronger than you’ve probably given yourself credit for. You’ve learned some hard life lessons, dealt with unforeseen drama, and found more of yourself in the process. Now that we’re out of the forge of 2017 all brand new, let’s keep 2018 going in the right direction by mapping out exactly how you want your 2018 to go down.
It’s definitely important to keep your goals and life lessons handy because if you forget (and you will), you can easily find and review them to keep yourself on the right path. What I’ve done is make myself a laptop wallpaper that doubles as my 2018 goals checklist. My plan is to update this checklist throughout the year, so throughout the year, my wallpaper will have new goals added or old goals scratched off. (If you’d like to make your own, Canva already has a wallpaper-sized template with several layouts you can choose from, or you can use the blank template and make your own theme from scratch.)
If you don’t want to make a wallpaper or can access your thoughts better in journal form, I’ve made this short 2018 cheat sheet PDF. You can print out the pages and stick them in your notebook, journal, binder, pin them to your wall, or do whatever you need to with them to remind yourself of what you’re working towards and what you’d like to avoid. Click the image to download.
Just as a disclaimer–I’m not a psychologist or therapist. I’m just someone who has learned a lot in 2017 and felt a document like this one will help others jumpstart getting their lives in order for 2018. I’m gonna use this myself, since 2017 wouldn’t quit, even down its last hours.
2018 is a year I hope we can all look to as a time to get out from under our personal rubble and start anew. It’s time to get rid of bad habits, shake off bad influences and prepare ourselves for awesome lives ahead.
What are some of your goals for 2018? Share if you feel so inclined in the comments section below!
I’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and like the majority (save for a handful of fans, who I’ll have words about later on once spoiler fever has died down), I absolutely loved the film. The storyline and its more cerebral themes were amazing and refreshing–as SyFy Fangrrls/SyFyWire contributing editor Carly Lane wrote on Twitter, this is the most cerebral Star Wars film yet–and the introductions of new characters such as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and DJ (Benecio Del Toro) were organic and fun. It’s as if these characters have been around since the beginning.
Rose is also one of the characters that reminded me how little women of color are shown in Star Wars and how I wish I, as a black woman, could have had the same kind of representational experience in this fictional galaxy.
I was excited to see not Rose and her sister Paige, to see representation long overdue. It was gratifying to watch Rose challenge Finn on his planned desertion and to inspire hope in him and the rest of the Resistance. She’s a tremendous force in this film, and I think the film–and the franchise–is better for it.
I’m extremely happy that finally, after an entire two years of back-to-back whitewashing of Asian characters and stories, a big blockbuster film has put an Asian character at the center of its story. I’ve covered so many films that negate Asian characters or recast them as white actors, and there are even some projects I haven’t covered just because I couldn’t bring myself to write about yet another property that just didn’t get what it was doing. But seeing Rose was seeing what films can do when they are created by someone conscientious enough to tackle proper representation.
There was one thing that held me back a bit during my viewing of The Last Jedi—Star Wars has yet to give an African-American female character the same treatment as Rose. To be fair, Star Wars has yet to give a character who looks like me more than five seconds on screen.
Watching Rose kick the film into high gear reminded me of a coping mechanism I’d developed as a child on the chance I was watching a TV show that had no black women as a part of its cast. As a kid, I’d gravitate towards the character who was a minority like me and live vicariously through that character. The first time I remember doing this was as a 5-year-old watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. There was a black man as part of the cast, but no black women. But, there was Thuy Trang’s character Trini Kwan, the Yellow Power Ranger. Trini was my way into Power Rangers, and during recess, when my friends and I would pretend to be the Power Rangers, I would always make sure I got the Yellow Ranger. She may not have been my same race, but to me, she represented me and other girls of color who weren’t represented on the show. As a child, seeing Trini kick butt and be cool helped me formulate my personal voice and worldview. Through Trini, I felt like I could have a place on a show that apparently wasn’t designed for me.
I felt the same way with Rose. Through her, I felt happiness because women of color were finally getting their overdue shot at being heroes. Young girls, Asian girls especially, will be able to see themselves included in a fantastical place like the Star Wars universe. That kind of feeling is one that is unmatched–I felt it somewhat when The Force Awakens introduced Finn (John Boyega) as one of our new Star Wars heroes.
But the black woman is still left out. Despite my love for Rose, what I can’t ignore is a deep, personal longing to see black girls (and grown women like me) represented on screen in a hero they can be proud of. The longing doesn’t stop at just my own race, though; when will all women of color get equal representation in Star Wars? Now that Rose is here, will the Star Wars powers that be realize they owe the members of Star Wars‘ WOC fanbase the heroes they deserve?
Star Wars’ WOC track record
Star Wars having a rough time with representing women of color is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it last year during the Rogue One hype. As I wrote then, women of color are largely absent from the films despite having a larger presence in the books. One character, Imperial Naval Officer Rae Sloane and Han Solo’s former wife, Sana Starros, have important roles in the Star Wars saga. But not only is it unclear if Sana will be portrayed in the upcoming Han Solo prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story, but Rae has yet to make a film appearance in any of the new Star Wars films.
Combine that with the fact that there is a highly sought-after actress that is a part of the films, but is currently stuck playing behind CG and motion-capture. Lupita Nyong’o was a big get for the franchise–The Force Awakens was one of her first acting roles after winning the Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave. But she has been tasked with portraying Maz Kanata, a character who is lively and fun, but is fully computer-generated. All we hear of Nyong’o is her voice.
Before Rose, the most prominent Asian female character in Star Wars was Janina Gavankar’s Iden Versio in the video game Star Wars: Battlefront II. But, like Rae and Sana, it’s unclear if Iden will ever show up in any film or TV Star Wars properties. Ditto for Shara Bey, Poe Dameron’s mother, who does appear in the comic book series Star Wars: Shattered Empire. Women of other racial and ethnic groups, such as Native American women, have no representation at all.
Adding insult to injury is how Star Wars has typically used women of color as WOC-coded sex aliens. As I wrote back in 2016:
Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects. To quote Wookipedia:
“Since female Twi’leks were regarded as graceful and beautiful beings, many of them were forced into a life of slavery at the hands of the galaxy’s wealthy and powerful.”
It’s more than a little disturbing that while women of color are all but absent in the Star Wars universe, they are readily cast as women who are sold into a sexual slavery.
It’s even more disturbing that Oola, the only sex slave coded as a black woman due to the actress, gets killed moments after we see her on screen in Return of the Jedi. There could have been a better outcome for her instead of just being used as disposable eye-candy.
To The Last Jedi co-writer/director Rian Johnson’s credit, he did make it a point to showcase more women of color, particularly African-American women, in scenes. One of the biggest cameos of the film is Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel as a Resistance tech. We see another black woman as a Resistance fighter pilot, and a South Asian woman is also featured as part of General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) ragtag team. Black women and other women of color also feature heavily in the luxurious Canto Bight scenes.
But the scenes that do feature women of color, black women especially, only feature them either in the background or in non-speaking cameos. We never get to intimately know other women are who are Latina, Native American, African-American or South Asian, etc. Much like the lone black woman in Rogue One, we know women of color do exist in this far away galaxy, but we never know them outside of being set dressing.
That’s what makes Tran as Rose even more powerful. Johnson said he cast regardless of ethnicity for Rose, and that opportunity–unencumbered by preconceived notions of what a “Rose Tico” should look like–led Johnson to finding the perfect person for the part.
“We saw a lot of talented actresses of a very broad range–but honestly, it was more about finding Kelly,” said Johnson to The Los Angeles Times‘ Jen Yamato. “There was something about Kelly that had that kind of genuine oddball nature and a real sweetness to her. She has the most open heart of anyone I’ve ever met and I knew that this was going to shine through onscreen. I knew that I was going to be rooting for her in the movie.”
As Yamato wrote, Johnson’s decision to create Rose as a main character and casting inclusively “led to the biggest leap forward for Asian representation Hollywood has ever dared to make on such a large scale.”
Watching Rose on screen provided me with both pride at seeing a woman of color finally take the reins of a Star Wars film, but it also made me a bit wistful that we have yet to see other women of color get the same opportunity.
But where Rose has paved the way, surely others will follow, right?
First Rose, now others
Let’s go back to Solo. This movie is the closest on the horizon, and it’s also the Star Wars can finally break the color barrier. Even though it’s unclear who Emilia Clarke is playing (reportedly, it was a role actresses like Tessa Thompson, Zoe Kravitz, and Adria Arjona tried for as well), Thandie Newton is also rumored to be part of the cast. We have virtually no substantial casting news on this front, so we have to wait until we get closer to the film’s 2018 release date. But, if Newton is a big part of the Solo cast, then she could very well be part of a new wave of diverse Star Wars leading ladies.
Regardless, Star Wars should come to grips with their startling avoidance of women of color. Now that inroads are being made thanks to Rose, writers and directors should continue to make giving women of color a voice in Star Wars a priority. Not as sex slaves and not as CG characters but as the heroes. Hopefully, Rose is the first of many more like her.