Rebels, Kanan Jarrus, and the Race Factor

As the last episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars find their way into the light of day, one era of televised Star Wars comes to a close and a new one dawns. The Clone Wars are over, the Empire has risen, and the dark times are upon us as Star Wars: Rebels prepares to premiere this fall. Slowly but surely, we’re learning what Rebels has to offer the Star Wars universe, including a cast of characters that appears as diverse in origin and personality as they are of ethnicity.

While the creative team behind the new series first tempted fans with images of the new villain—an Imperial Inquisitor, a chalk-white and black armored member of the Pau’an race—and showed off the cantankerous little astromech droid named Chopper, our first real look at the flesh-and-blood heroes of Rebels came in the form of the Jedi-in-hiding Kanan Jarrus. Kanan’s story is a familiar one to fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe: a Jedi who escaped Order 66 flees into the unknown, growing distant from the life he’d led in order to evade the dangers of the Galactic Empire’s Jedi purge. What separates Kanan from the likes of Dark Times’ Dass Jennir or Coruscant Nights’ Jax Pavan, is that Kanan, whom early reports posit as the unofficial head of Rebels’ group of protagonists, appears to be a leading man of color.

His deep brown hair, warm tan complexion, and a voice provided by Freddie Prinze Jr.—a multiracial actor of Puerto Rican heritage, perhaps best known in the voice acting industry for his prominent role as Mass Effect 3‘s James Vega—have all contributed to many fans’ suspicions that Kanan Jarrus is intended to be a latino man. Taking to Twitter, Eleven-ThirtyEight attempted to shed some light on these suspicions, bringing the question of whether or not Kanan had been intentionally designed as a person of color to Lucasfilm VIP Pablo Hidalgo. Hidalgo replied with a simple if unclear response: “Not to suddenly sound like Colbert, but I’ve always just thought of him as Kanan.” Not long after, Hidalgo tweeted again on the subject, saying “I’ve seen people tweet wildly different supposed racial ancestries for Kanan Jarrus…which I think is a good thing.

While Hidalgo’s comments could be praised for allowing every individual to take away from Kanan the answers they find most meaningful to them, for a number of fans these tweets are simply frustrating. Star Wars, as both a film franchise and a universe born of sometimes seemingly endless multimedia, has had no lack of heroes who are white human men. Studies have shown that this lack of diversity in fiction, this ubiquity of white male heroes, can have a significant and detrimental impact on the self esteem of young girls and children of color. It’s not unreasonable for the millions of people of color, who stand side by side with their white peers as equal members of the Star Wars fandom, to hope to see a hero who they can identify with on the personal level, who looks and sounds like them, and in whom they can see something of themselves. They deserve that same feeling of inclusiveness. Star Wars truly should be for everyone. I don’t believe Hidalgo or anyone else was being asked to nail down Kanan’s exact racial makeup, applying percentages or labeling analogous nationalities. But asking for confirmation on whether or not a visually ambiguous character is indeed intended to be something other than another white male—a simple yes or no as to whether Kanan is a person of color—is, let’s be honest, not asking for a lot.

Part of the problem is the element of fandom itself, which while it can be a grand collective of wonderful people sharing and discussing what they love about a thing together, it can also be laden with toxicity and peppered with prejudice. The magic of the internet is, after all, that it gives a voice to everyone, everywhere; the downside, of course, is not every voice is one worth hearing. A look across the internet’s many social venues reveals that the story of Kanan’s debut and reception was a multi-faceted one: some people loved him immediately, some people thought his design was awful or that a Jedi character was out of place so close to the original film trilogy. And while some marveled at the prospect of having a leading character who was a man of color, others balked.

There were the innocuous comments like “Does his race really matter?” and “Who cares about his skin color? It’s his character that’s important!” Wonderful sentiments each, but ultimately if benignly ignorant of the social scaffolding that still places non-white characters at a disadvantage in mainstream media, as well as the need for representation among an audience filled with often overlooked people of color. Worse, however, were the accusatory and the insulting: “You’re just projecting, stop it,” one person said, “Star Wars doesn’t need your PC trash” said others in one fashion or another, and “He doesn’t need to be black…“—as though that were the only alternative to being white—”…to be a baddass, people. Go watch Roots and stop trying to take Star Wars from white people.” was the response of one all too memorable commentator on Facebook which I had the personal displeasure to witness.

So, you see, when fans turn to people like Hidalgo, many aren’t just hoping for answers, they were hoping for a shield. They wanted to hear that it wasn’t just all in their heads, that they weren’t projecting. They wanted to hear that there was actually someone who represented them in this new series, and that they wouldn’t need to squint and tilt their heads to see themselves in a new Star Wars hero. They wanted to stand up proudly in the fandom and assert their feelings without fearing venom and fire for daring to think that a man of color could lead a Star Wars show.

Now, I don’t mean to make Hidalgo out to be some sort of villain for not wanting to wade into what must seem like dangerous waters for someone who is a notable and scrutinized public face of the Star Wars franchise these days. He’s also a man of color, himself, and sadly just as open to hateful denigration as non-white fans, should he take a position the anonymity-bolstered bigots of the internet dislike. His position is an understandable one, if not necessarily an agreeable one. However, in the time since I first began to type this piece, a new member of Star Wars: Rebels‘ heroic cast has been officially unveiled to the public: the lovely but tough young Mandalorian woman by the name of Sabine. With her dark hair, eyes that are shaped just so, and the golden undertones of her complexion, Sabine triggered a similar response as Kanan from a fandom that saw her as an Asian woman. Others, though, insisted that her features were too alien, and her skin too yellow; maybe she was a Mirialan like Barriss Offee, they suggested, or Hylo Visz. In all fairness, aside from Visz’s traditional Mirialan facial tattoos, Sabine does bear a passing resemblance to the infamous smuggler from The Old Republic, but enough of one to make her not human?

Again, Eleven-ThirtyEight took to Twitter in search of some word from the folks behind the scenes, calling upon Lucasfilm employee Matt Martin for clarification. In response, Martin definitively stated that Sabine was not a Mirialan at all, going on to note “And that’s a poor comment on society that people assume she is.” Question asked, question answered, and unlike Hidalgo’s approach, Martin’s response was anything but unclear. He also raises an interesting point as well: at this point in the Star Wars franchise’s history, which is considered more unusual to see in a prominent role, a female alien…or a human woman of color? And what does that say about Star Wars and its fandom?

To me, it says that we need protagonists like Sabine. We need a powerful young Asian woman to stand for the oft-neglected Asian women in the vast and diverse Star Wars audience. To light a new fire in the hearts of young Asian children, and little girls of all sorts so that we might share Star Wars with them. We need a character who takes us back to the Mandalorians’ roots as an omni-inclusive culture of soldiers after the singularly white, nordic group The Clone Wars brought to television viewers. And we need a protagonist like Kanan, a strong man of color in whose heroics a wide range of fans can see a reflection of themselves. We need a character that can inspire fresh awe in young boys of color, someone who can show them that they too can be the heroes of a galaxy far, far away.

(Editor’s note — it’s worthy of note that shortly after this article was published, Pablo Hidalgo himself confirmed for us that all three human leads in Rebels are indeed intended to be of mixed racial heritage. His original comment can be seen below. – Mike)

17 thoughts to “Rebels, Kanan Jarrus, and the Race Factor”

  1. Great thing to cover. If people need to ask, than it’s a problem. Period. Star Wars fans and Trekkies can band together against Twihards, as George Takei asked. They can also band together to put women into the kitchen, “correct” LGBTs, etc.

    Of course, there is the problem of most Asians in Star Wars coming from one planet, or so I’ve read. Like this group of identical humans from said planet:

  2. I think Hidalgo needs to be cut some slack here. Is it perhaps wanting a bit too much to want such specific racial demarcations when those are an entirely… Earthly… thing? Just within the Star Wars universe itself, what does it mean to be “white” or a “person of color”?

    A lot of our denotations of race are social constructs – why should Star Wars have to directly and overtly address those constructs? It works well as a subtle thing. Han Solo’s old friend Lando had a different skin color — do you need a stuttering Princess Leia saying, “but… but… he’s black!” Or maybe just not noting the color of Mace Windu’s skin (at least in film) or the fact that Bail Organa’s actor is Puerto Rican is a fairly good start.

  3. Eric – in universe, it makes perfect sense not to comment on diversity.

    It’s out of universe when people have an issue. There’s no reason NOT to say “yes, this character was intended to be a person of color.” That’s all people are asking for, really – defined representation.

    1. And there’s a difference between saying “Kanan isn’t white” and saying “Kanan is a quarter Puerto Rican, a quarter Greek, one-eighth Maori…”

      1. But I guess, even still in Star Wars, No Irish Need Apply!

        The villains are all Brits… there ought to be plenty of Irish in the rebellion, but do we see any? Nope.

  4. Didn’t realize that my two tweets would fuel such insight or analysis. So here is an answer: Yes, the human leads are all multiracial. Neither the subject matter nor the reactions of any online communities give me pause in stating as much.

    1. Thank you so much for that, Pablo. We all appreciate where you guys are going with the show, and even moreso that you can be up-front about it. Keep up the great work.

      PS – overanalysis is what we do here. 😀

  5. Really good article, a lot of important points being addressed here that really needed addressing. As a POC fan myself, Ms Moretti knows what she’s talking about, and props to her for actually wading into the shithole that can be fandom sometimes for quotes.

  6. I found this article via Tumblr, and I’ve got to say, it’s spot on. I’ve been a Star Wars fan all my life, and the sad fact is, Star Wars really is overwhelmingly white. We’ve had a lot of great stuff trying to change that (big shout outs to Legacy, Republic Commando, Knight Errant, and their authors/illustrators) but the EU is one thing and getting that kind of representation onscreen is huge. As someone years’ worth of fandom interaction, I also know that it can be extremely difficult to express that without getting smothered with “well meaning” passivity and outright racism. You’re always supposed to be happy with whatever you get. So seeing definite depictions of people of color in Rebels and getting explicit confirmation is a powerful thing that lets me hold my head up a little higher as a Star Wars fan.

    Thanks Eleven-ThirtyEight. And thanks Pablo Hidalgo, Matt Martin, and Mia Moretti.

  7. saw this up all over tumblr last night, loved it, and wanted to let you know here. looking forward to reading more from your site in the future.

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