Like many science fiction nerds, Star Trek was my formative introduction to the genre. Good sci-fi holds up a mirror to the world, and in Star Trek I found a fictional world in which I could see myself. For me, this is not something that happens often.
I have occulocutaneous albinism—in other words, I am an albino. Thanks to an inherited genetic mutation, my body does not produce melanin, meaning I have pale white skin and hair, and I also have very poor vision: I can just about manage the first two lines on an eye chart.
When you have a condition like this, you don’t often see reflections of yourself in the media. But, growing up, when I watched Star Trek I could follow the story of Geordi LaForge, a blind man who used assistive technology to be the chief engineer of a star ship, or of Worf and Data, two characters who looked physically very different from their colleagues and had to navigate the complications this caused them. In short, Star Trek gave me the types of role models I couldn’t find anywhere else.
I’m not the only one to have been inspired by the diversity of Star Trek’s casting. When a young Whoopi Goldberg first saw Lieutenant Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise in the 1960s, she was shocked. “There’s a black lady on the TV”, she shouted to her mother, “and she ain’t no maid!”. In Star Trek’s dream of a utopian future there was a place for all people, even when on earth some of these people were facing outrageous discrimination and racism.
I’m convinced that my early love of Star Trek nurtured in me not just a love of science fiction, but of science, exploration and curiosity. I didn’t become chief engineer on a star ship (unfortunately), but I have just finished a PhD in biology, which involved at least one adventurous trip into the jungle to collect insects. Fortunately, no red-shirts were lost on this away mission.
So it was to my unfettered delight that, after a 13-year hiatus, the Star Trek franchise has made a triumphant return to the small screen. The first episodes of the new series have set a tense, intriguing tone, and the programme’s egalitarian tradition has been maintained in its diverse casting and characterization. I guess I’m a bit biased, but I’ve really enjoyed the first few episodes, and I’m excited to see where the series will go. Despite this, about halfway through the first episode I was confronted with an unpleasant but all-too-familiar surprise.
We cut to the dank interior of a Klingon base. The head Klingon is searching for a volunteer to perform an unsavoury task, and his Klingon minions seem reluctant. But then, from a darkened corner, out slinks Voq, a Klingon with paper white skin and red eyes, who volunteers himself. He is clearly supposed to be an albino. He is mocked: called worthless, unworthy, a freak. He proves himself loyal and capable by burning his hand in a brazier, and pulling it away unburnt.
We’re clearly supposed to infer some backstory from the way Voq is portrayed—specifically that he is a freakish outcast, potentially mad, fanatical and evil. And his physical appearance as an albino is supposed to convey this to us.
This description may sound familiar to you, because it appears frequently in film and literature. It has been referred to as the “Evil Albino” trope. You might recall Silas, a very literal example of the Evil Albino from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (who is even more impressive as a villain when you consider he did his murdering while, like, blind). You may also remember others, like the stalker from The Bodyguard, the Twins from The Matrix series, the White Witch from Narnia. It’s a long list. The American National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) lists over 70 occurrences of an Evil Albino character in film in the last 40 years, and versions of the trope have been widespread in popular culture for a long time.
Subtle variations exist—take for example how J. K. Rowling indicates Voldemort’s descent into evil by making the character progressively paler and paler, before finally giving him red eyes, just so you know he’s really evil. When characters with albinism aren’t evil, they are frequently portrayed as freakish, and are the subjects of mockery and ridicule, like Whitey from Me, Myself and Irene. I’ve never seen Me, Myself and Irene, but OH BOY did I hear a lot about that character when I was younger.
This is part of a wider problem in film and popular culture in general. Disability, deformity and physical difference are often used to signify villainy. Broken-ness on the inside is visually illustrated with ‘broken-ness’ on the outside. And attitudes like this can spill out of film and television, contributing to the continuing fear of people with disabilities in society, and discrimination against them.
But there’s something even more sinister about the ‘Evil Albino’. As you can see from the examples above, the stereotype has common associations with magic and sorcery: the unburnt hand, the evil witch, or the Dark Lord. In cultures throughout the world, albinism has frequently been associated with witchcraft and magic, and this has led to discrimination and horrific violence against people with albinism—which is not only ‘still happening’ in the 21st century, but is actually intensifying. Violence against people with albinism in Africa has been widely reported, particularly in Tanzania, where it is believed potions made from their bones will bring wealth. To be clear, cultural perceptions of albinism are leading people, including young children, to be torn limb from limb. Right now. In 2017.
So I hope you’ll forgive me if I get really fucking angry when I see magic evil albinos rocking up on my favourite TV shows. Given its history, given its utopian view of the future, given the impact that role models and representation can have on young viewers, I can’t help but think that the creators of Star Trek can and should do better than this.
If sci-fi is a reflection of the world, then right now it looks like no one can imagine a future in which albinism is acceptable. I can’t help but think of children with albinism who, like me, get their introduction to science fiction in Star Trek, and see this reflection. Maybe I’d be less annoyed if anyone could name me one fictional character who was, like, just a person with albinism. Not evil, not magic, not a freak seeking acceptance. As far as I know, this doesn’t exist—can you show me one? Please?