Fifty years ago last week, the first interracial kiss on American network television occurred. Contextually, the entire situation was strange. The kiss occurred on the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of Star Trek. It was between all-American white guy Captain James T. Kirk and Communications Officer Lt. Nyota Uhura.
Mind-controlling aliens, dressed like ancient Greeks, forced the pair to kiss, an action the actors and producers knew would be controversial even though Star Trek wasn’t a ratings juggernaut at the time. On its own merits, the kiss wasn’t all that sexy or even organic. I place it somewhere between Madonna kissing Drake at Coachella and Michael Jackson awkwardly kissing Iman in the “Remember the Time” music video.
That being said, this episode has been discussed as a watershed moment in American race relations, Hollywood, and television history—when, in fact, it was not. It was nothing more than an expansion of white male sexual desire masquerading as progress, which, unfortunately, has continued on most television programs to this day.
The coverage of the interracial kiss has not been surprising, replete with Star Trek oriented puns and self-congratulatory stories about how many more interracial couples have shown up on television in the subsequent 50 years, and how Star Trek was willing to “boldly go” where other television shows wouldn’t. The reality is much less impressive.
Kirk and Uhura didn’t have the first interracial kiss on television. That had happened before, with kisses between white men and Asian women and in various war shows and movies, not to mention white women playing Native American women in westerns. Star Trek was the first interracial kiss on television between a white man and a black woman. And as any racial or political historian will tell you films, whether porn or mainstream, are only deemed “interracial” when black people are involved or when the penis involved isn’t white. White guys with Asian women, Latina women, and every other kind of women are seldom referred to as interracial films or shows because the default in Hollywood is white men driving the sexual and romantic narratives. In other words, Star Trek only made history by putting white male desire on front street; even the cast notes they didn’t receive one piece of negative mail about the scene 5o years ago. (Whereas today white people are still furious about a Cheerios commercial.)
However, none of this should have been a surprise even half a century ago. Some television journalists have noted the Star Trek episode ran just a year after the Loving v.s. Virginia Supreme Court ruling, which legalized interracial marriage. However, Star Trek’s kiss actually re-enforces the existing racial pecking order more than overturns it. When the prejudice of white men comes up against the privileges that white men seek, privilege always wins out. Remember that the Loving decision legalizing interracial marriage in America was about a white man wanting to live legally with his black wife. I’m pretty sure there weren’t going to be any Supreme Court cases to make sure that Jamal could marry Becky back in 1967.
America has always been comfortable with white men having sexual access to women of all colors. America’s problem has been depicting black men as having equal access to white women, or worse, white women using their own agency to pursue black men. Rather than “improve,” the evidence has shown basic racial inertia for the last 50 years.
Several years ago, I conducted a survey on interracial pairings on network and cable television from 1994 to 2014 for a book project. The result? I found that more than 70 percent of interracial relationships on television in that time period featured white men and black women. Yes, more than 70 percent. The numbers are higher if you include white men with any women of color. On some networks, you are more likely to see white men with women of color than you are to see black couples.
We’re not just talking the big shows such as Scandal (ABC) and How to Get Away with Murder (ABC). We’re talking one-hit wonders such as The Deep End (ABC) and The $treet (FOX), science fiction and fantasy shows like Battlestar Galactica (SYFY), The Flash (CW), and Daredevil (Netflix). The same rubric for interracial relations applies to pay cable shows like Shameless (Showtime), True Blood (HBO), Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO), and Westworld (HBO). The pattern is the same.
This is not a plea for black men to be featured with more white women on television and movies. Far from it. This is a reminder that what is often depicted as “progress” for television and Hollywood is simply re-packaging white supremacy as progress for the naïve viewer and consumer.
If television really wants to break new ground and be revolutionary, how about more television shows with regular, functional African American couples? This is Us ain’t enough. Perhaps some science fiction or fantasy shows where black women aren’t all the color of cocoa butter mixed with Kahlua? Or better yet, a show where black men can be the straight, sexually-active heroes and have relationships with women of all colors and not just for comedic effect? Look, I love Viola Davis. But between How to Get Away with Murder and Widows, I’m tired of seeing her snot-nosed, ugly cry after yet another white man of the week did her wrong.
Let’s see some real progress before we start bending over backwards for a show that didn’t really make the changes that we’re crediting them for. Perhaps in another 50 years, television will actually look like how America actually operates. But if the original Star Trek’s five-year mission was to boldly go where no show had gone before on race relations, I’d say they failed.
The voyages and next generations since haven’t done much better.