When racism shows up in fandom, it becomes an issue that everyone has to deal with, but the burden falls hardest on fans of colour. While social media support is great, and videos addressing racism are even better, it’s simply not enough. Something’s got to change.
In late May, Lucasfilm released the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi and held its premiere at Star Wars Celebration, the first of the franchise’s official conventions since 2019. Fans were thrilled to see Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen return to square off as Kenobi and Darth Vader in a continuation of their era of the Star Wars universe. They were joined by new cast members, including Moses Ingram, who stars as one of Kenobi’s main antagonists.
While many fans were enjoying the new show, some disappointed viewers felt that Obi-Wan Kenobi didn’t live up to their expectations. Instead of sitting with that and moving on to the next show, an outspoken minority spewed their outrage at newcomer Ingram and her character Reva, the Third Sister. Ingram almost immediately received hundreds of racist comments, death threats, and insults on her personal social media channels over her existence as a Black woman in Star Wars in the days after Obi-Wan Kenobi hit Disney+. But, this time at least, Lucasfilm responded — and fast.
We are proud to welcome Moses Ingram to the Star Wars family and excited for Reva’s story to unfold. If anyone intends to make her feel in any way unwelcome, we have only one thing to say: we resist. pic.twitter.com/lZW0yvseBk— Star Wars (@starwars) May 31, 2022
In the wake of Lucasfilm’s public support for Ingram, the series’ success was overshadowed by negativity. When McGregor publicly denounced racists, trolls turned to “review bombing” — the target act of filing negative Rotten Tomatoes user scores to lower the series’ rating on the wildly influential review aggregator site — out of spite. Meanwhile, fans are hopeful that Lucasfilm is finally ready to take some real steps towards safety and inclusion. In a series of email exchanges with Gizmodo in the wake of Lucasfilm’s vocal support of Ingram in the face of racist backlash, Star Wars fans of colour told us how they feel about the studio beginning to step up and actively defend its talent from racist attacks — and what they think should be done to navigate the racism, misogyny, trolling, and bad faith interactions with the franchise and its stars.
“I’m heartbroken over what happened to Moses Ingram,” one fan, D. Foster, told Gizmodo, “and sadly I can’t say I’m surprised.” Foster is a fan of colour who has been watching all the drama go down on the Star Wars sidelines. “Unfortunately, some ‘fans’ are not happy with [diversity] and have chosen to express themselves in harmful and inappropriate ways.”
Ingram responded to the comments in an Instagram story on May 31, mentioning that Lucasfilm had pulled her aside before the series aired and told her to expect to see racist vitriol. She thanked the people who were standing up for her, and addressed those who were attacking her. Afterwards, there was an outpouring of support for Ingram on social media, and for many fans from marginalised communities, the social media stance from Lucasfilm felt incredibly important.
“Lucasfilm and other members of the Star Wars family stepping up and defending Moses Ingram is a monumental step forward and that is accountability,” Stephanie and Angela, writers who have worked on Digital Spy’s Screen Sisters series, said. “Addressing such a sensitive matter on their platform makes a huge difference instead of doing nothing at all and leaving Ingram to suffer alone in silence.”
Nguyên Lê, a freelance film critic, added that the response from Star Wars was refreshing to see. “What people don’t seem to realise, willingly or otherwise, is how vulnerable actors with minority backgrounds can be or feel, especially in today’s style of cultural coverage where every detail can be shaped into a big scoop or week long talking point.” He wrote that when “a bigger party” speaks out in the actor’s defence, “that’s a sign of safety and consideration.”
But nobody is willing to let Star Wars rest on a single tweet. Many fans told Gizmodo that although the explicit condemnation of racism is a welcome and necessary step forward, there’s still a long way to go towards protecting fans of colour, much less providing a welcome and safe space for nonwhite fans. “I’m glad that they’re now more direct in condemning the racism that Moses Ingram is facing,” said a fan who wished to be identified as JS, said. “But I can’t help but feel that it’s also a little too late.” JS stated that because of the lukewarm way that Star Wars handled racism in the past, attackers are now currently emboldened. Sequel trilogy stars Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega, Jar Jar Binks actor Ahmed Best decades before them, and even onscreen transmedia talent like The High Republic Show’s Krystina Arielle have been attacked with impunity, and Lucasfilm’s response ranged from demure to radio silence in comparison to the strong stance in defence of Ingram. “What’s stopping them now?” Lê added. “It’s a shame it took [Star Wars] until now.”
Another fan, Holly Quinn, explained how awful it was to see the joy of success taken from John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in particular. “Lucasfilm can stop running away from it, though. It can stop appeasing racism by, for example, allowing Finn’s Force plot to be dropped after The Force Awakens and cutting Rose almost entirely out of The Rise of Skywalker.” She pointed out how ignoring the issue at the time of these prior racist outbursts has led to bigots feeling emboldened. “Shifting to its comfort zone of white characters in the lead and characters of colour on the side, as happened in the sequel trilogy, reinforces the fandom’s racism,” Quinn continued. “Lucasfilm can’t do that with Reva. She has to stay a major character no matter how much the fandom complains about her existence. It needs to follow through this time.”
Many fans spoke to Gizmodo about their grief with the abuse around Boyega and Tran. “The company’s silence felt like a betrayal,” Kelli Nakamura said. Filmmaker Shahab Zargari stated that she felt like “they should have done similarly against the racist outpouring toward John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran.”
The disappointment and frustration fans of colour feel is palpable in all the statements we received. They are faced with a franchise that has, for at least the past two decades, consistently put actors of colour on the front lines of the fandom’s ire and stayed quiet when they received racist backlash. “Seeing the bigotry that John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran faced was horrific,” Sydney McIntyre said. “Sadly at the time, the [bigoted] voices were louder and there was no condemnation from people that could have spoken up, and it was left to the actors to do.”
This part of fandom–the racist, bigoted part that has been left unchecked on the internet for years–had become known as “the fandom menace,” an already embarrassing moniker that was eventually adopted as a rallying cry and platform for gatekeeping trolls. Many fans of colour made reference to the fact that the fire of racism, hate, and horrible commentary is coming from inside the house that Star Wars itself built, but Lucasfilm has failed to take actionable steps to douse it out. “In the end what [Star Wars] did was to allow these groups to feel legitimized, making them feel like it’s ok to harass not only the actors but also the fans who love the characters,” explained one fan, JS. “Speaking from experience as someone who frequently cosplays as Rose Tico, [where I get] horrendous and sometimes borderline incomprehensible racist replies to some of my posts.”
The fact that things are changing speaks to the fact that fans of colour are leading the fandom reckoning. Lucasfilm can no longer plug its ears and look away as both the fans and the stars are demanding answers and accountability. “I think Lucasfilm has realised that from a marketing perspective, leaving John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran to fend for themselves against actual death threats was a bad look,” Karama Horne, writer, critic and founder of theblerdgurl, told Gizmodo.“And in 2022? we’re not having it.”
There’s a sense from fans that Star Wars needs to take responsibility for the fandom, and take some ownership for what is being said to their stars. While this seems unusual, the fact is that Star Wars knows that this happens to their actors of colour — Ingram said as much herself when she revealed the racist messages she was receiving. But if Lucasfilm wants to truly stand against racism, and not just engage in performative political theatre, the studio must actually do something about how people respond to its stories.
“If [Lucasfilm] actually wants to stamp out [racism] they have to name and shame the voices perpetrating this political project, call them out and disavow them permanently,” a fan who asked to be identified as Paracelus said. “[The studio should] say in plain terms what values Star Wars represents and tell those ‘fandom menace’ people that their money and input… is not valued or needed.” Both-sidesism was denounced in many of the emails Gizmodo received. Printing shirts that read “Star Wars Is for Everyone” as an exclusive for Celebration 2022 wasn’t a good look to some, considering that such a broad statement included the racist bigots who emerged after Kenobi’s initial release. “There’s no reason to try appeasing both sides,” said Austin Taylor. “[Star Wars is] realising they’ll just create a very toxic and unsafe space for fans if they do so.”
Horne agreed, demanding a more active response from Star Wars going forward. “The franchise needs to create a division to handle the problem full time, not just when a movie or show drops,” she added. “Investigate those who send the litany of hate filled messages and threats to actors like Moses and hold them accountable. There need to be real-world consequences for their online actions” Nakamura likewise wants Lucasfilm to commit to learning from these incidents. “The company must ensure equitable representation both on and off screen. [Star Wars] should hire consultants to specifically evaluate storylines and character arcs in terms of representation and racial formation.”
“It would be appropriate to emphasise how much Black culture, and for that matter, Asian culture… influenced Star Wars to begin with,” added Christian Angeles. “There are a lot of ignorant fans.” It’s common knowledge at this point that George Lucas originally wanted Toshirō Mifune to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars, and that the movie took heavy inspiration from the Akira Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress. It’s hard to imagine how important that could have been, how different the fandom might be if Mifune had accepted the role, and Star Wars’ connection to cultures beyond the white, Western perspective made all the more explicit from its earliest days. But at this point, can racists and bigots who say they love Star Wars count as fans at all? In their bigotry, such people are attempting to erase vital touchstones that built the foundation of stories they claim to love. The fact is, that there would be no Star Wars without the contributions of artists of colour and global culture.
But should this kind of culture shift to address toxic elements of the community just be on Lucasfilm? For the fans we spoke to, the work of education and anti-racism often takes place in shared spaces of discourse in the moment that toxicity bubbles to the surface. “The role of the fans in all this is to call out and stand up when and where we can,” added Foster, clearly delineating that there are places to make valid criticism of any media but firmly setting boundaries against harmful gatekeepers that embolden the worst kinds of reactions. “We have to hold each other accountable and not let a small group speak for such a large and vastly diverse fandom.” Paracelus explained. He said that if death threats and slurs were being spammed onto social media in order to incite conflict that more action should be taken. “We need to make fandom an unwelcome space for people like that, and it’s easier if Star Wars is leading the charge.”
Zargari agreed. “The anti-racist fandom must continue to stand their ground in the face of the gaslighting and name calling in support of their favourite actors, writers, directors, and characters.” Nakamura added that often, the burden of re-education falls on non-white fans in these scenarios. “Instead of shutting down these conversations, I recommend that non-BIPOC fans listen to these criticisms and uplift the voices of marginalised fans.”
A personal message from Ewan McGregor. pic.twitter.com/rJSDmj663K— Star Wars (@starwars) June 1, 2022
It really shouldn’t be on the shoulders of people of colour to endure such racist harassment, and then have to teach others why it’s bad. That applies to fans in the community, up to the actors themselves. That’s part of why it was so important to see McGregor speak up during a time when Ingram should be able to enjoy the monumental accomplishment of her starring role in the Star Wars universe. While fandom has to learn from the worst of itself, there are clear steps that Lucasfilm can take to help support underrepresented fans and creatives. The Screen Sisters added that “hiring more POC and women will only help our growing fanbase,” for example. By expanding inclusivity and representation across all areas as it slowly has done in recent years, Star Wars has an opportunity to be a force for change for fandom by facilitating chances for marginalised folks behind the scenes to thrive just as much as their more privileged contemporaries. But many fans, including Lê, also want Lucasfilm to continue to be anti-racist in its messaging. It’s not enough to tweet once or twice. “I think the best thing right now on the production front is to keep providing protection and fostering a safe environment throughout the show’s existence — not just during filming but also as it’s being shown.”
Foster agreed. “I think that going forward, Lucasfilm should continue its new approach of drawing a line on where they stand. The stance that racism, sexism, and other forms are bigotry have no place in the Star Wars fandom.”
Star Wars is about finding hope and resistance in an unsafe system. For many fans of colour who just want to enjoy Star Wars, racism and bigotry in the fandom only reinforces the fact that rebellion often comes with an emotional toll on the most marginalised. But there is, as always, hope for a better future, and a better fandom. It’s on all of us. After all, Taylor said, “you can’t have a Star Wars celebration of your community if most are afraid to even show up.” The call is out there. Fandom and Lucasfilm alike must stand up for fans, actors, and creatives of colour.
“[Star Wars Celebration] encapsulates the best of what this fandom can be,
Foster concluded. “It brought tears to my eyes watching so many happy fans exist in such a fun positive space… we have to fight harder than a group of rebels on the Forest Moon on Endor to keep it fun and safe for everyone.”
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