Earlier this month, online retailer ThinkGeek released their newest set of nerdy family car decals. These stickers, often found on suburban SUVs and minivans, depict family members as cartoons. ThinkGeek’s sets include zombie families, superhero families, characters from the Star Wars franchise, and now original Star Trek characters and aliens, too. Fan excitement over this new product quickly turned sour when customers noticed that the decal representing Lieutenant Uhura had the same head color as Spock, Kirk, Scotty and the rest, despite the fact that the character is Black. This same set of decals includes a number of alien races, including a blue-skinned Andorian and a green Orion slave girl. There’s even a brown Tribble in the mix. Why, customers asked, do the aliens have the right skin color but not Uhura (or Lt. Sulu)? And how did ThinkGeek make such a colossal and obvious mistake at a time when controversies over whitewashing are particularly prominent in geek culture?
The problem is rooted in the kind of cluelessness without malevolence that underlies the majority of microaggressions people of color deal with every day. In a conversation with ThinkGeek spokesperson Steve Zimmerman, he assured me that the offense and misrepresentation were not intentional. “That’s just not how we roll.” The designers and CBS reps were more focused on how to make the Starfleet uniforms stand out.
“Originally we had no colors at all in much the style of our other family car decals. The color was added to the uniforms...[and] many drafts later either Star Trek or CBS asked for colorization of some of the non-human races to show their uniqueness.”
So far this makes sense. With the exception of the zombie decals with blood red highlights, ThinkGeek’s sets are black and white. However, they also all depict white people. The decal designers applied this same template to the Star Trek set, thinking only of skin color when it came to the aliens.
“…no human is the shade depicted, be they Caucasian, Asian, or African-American.” Zimmerman wrote in a follow-up email. “We opted to not see the humans as their colors and focused on the defining aspects of Star Trek.”
Now we come to the crux of it. The idea that the default human is White is pervasive in mainstream American culture. Despite the claim made in ThinkGeek’s official public statement that “the original design is intended to focus on the unique and distinct TOS uniforms and not the differences found in the human characters,” the designers made each of the Enterprise crew distinct in some way beyond their uniforms—different hair, different props, pointy ears. That consideration just didn’t extend to skin color.
That it happened matters a great deal. Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura was a groundbreaking character on a groundbreaking television show. She served as an inspiration and a role model for generations Black people, from little girls who grew up to be actresses (Whoopi Goldberg said Uhura was the first Black woman she saw on TV who wasn’t a maid or a housekeeper) to little girls who grew up to be astronauts (Mae Jemison, the first American Black woman to go to space, started down that path because of Uhura) and many more of us in-between. That she is Black is important. Having her racial identity erased, even in a medium so minor as stickers for your SUV’s back window, is still a huge problem.
The Star Trek decal set is currently listed as out of stock. ThinkGeek doesn’t plan to order more until there’s a decision about the redesign sometime in the next few days or weeks. “We want to make sure this is done right and respectfully, so we don’t want to rush,” Steve Zimmerman assured me. The parties involved are “absolutely looking into changing” the character designs for Uhura and Sulu. Whether Uhura will end up with a brown skin color, or a black face outlined in white (common to other decal designs), or another solution may not be known until after the holidays are over.
Whatever choice they make, the underlying problem of 'White=standard, normal, default' still needs addressing. Perhaps this experience will help the designers and decision-makers at ThinkGeek re-think their unexamined assumptions. They’ll have to, because geek culture is not distinct from or untouched by the mainstream, and issues like this will arise again.