I was on reddit this morning and came across a post about Nyota Uhura, a character on the original Star Trek television series. The post was a TIL about this:

“Nichols planned to leave Star Trek in 1967 after its first season, wanting to return to musical theater.[6] She changed her mind after talking to Martin Luther King Jr.,[7] who was a fan of the show. King explained that her character signified a future of greater racial harmony and cooperation.[8] As Nichols recounted, “Star Trek was one of the only shows that [King] and his wife Coretta would allow their little children to watch. And I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face. And he said, don’t you understand for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.””

I would have to do more research about the context of Star Trek and possibly the public reaction to Nyota Uhura as a character, but I immediately thought about the power of future thinking when I read this. I like to think that Nichols was able to be an equal role character in the show because the show was about the future where powerful social influences and a tyrannical majority hold less power. The audience is invited to imagine a world they all perhaps want, a world with less racism and more equality. Because the rest of the world is already vastly different from the current world and is highly imagined, it becomes easier to accept change.  There is also a notion of hope at play here. Proposed futures can stand as “signifiers” for a better future, a future we as designers can mold and remold to express different values. People can recognize these values and attach hope to them, hopefully integrating them into our daily lives. Indeed we have seen just this phenomena through media in the past 50 years. Art of all kinds has helped promote better futures, specifically, and the point of the original reddit post, through helping minorities gain a voice by subverting existing powerful normative structures.

This could raise some interesting questions. If there were normally racist television viewers who preferred African Americans to be in “black roles” but in the case of Star Trek seemed not to mind an equal role played by an African American, what kind of work is being done by that racist viewer? Is his racism momentarily suspended permitting him to see a black person as an equal? If so, why?  An easier question is to question why one of the first equal roles for a black person (and a woman too) was in a science fiction genre in a time when both women and people of color were marginalized.

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