American Turban

Has Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Singh been “whitewashed”?

A watercolor painting of the Star Trek character Khan Noonien Singh that appeared in the original series episode "Space Seed" in 1967. (source: Wikia Expert Showcase)

A watercolor painting of the Star Trek character Khan Noonien Singh that appeared in the original series episode “Space Seed” in 1967. (source: Wikia Expert Showcase)

When I was a child, the mere singular mention of the word “Sikh” on a television show only strengthened my bond with a science fiction franchise that I maintained through its incarnations in film and television for decades.

In 1967, the science fiction television show Star Trek introduced a new character named Khan Noonien Singh, who, according to Wikipedia, is “a genetically engineered superhuman from India who once controlled more than a quarter of the Earth during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s.” This unusually named character — with a Muslim surname as his first name and a Sikh surname —  was identified by a historian during the episode as “probably” a Sikh man from northern India:

Other than his darker skin and last name, the only other evidence of this character’s ethnic origin that is presented to the audience to support the historian’s conclusion is a watercolor painting (as above) depicting Khan Noonien Singh in a Sikh-style turban. Thus, the identification of Khan Noonien Singh in this way became significant, especially to me as a child who would watch Star Trek re-runs religiously during the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán, the character would appear again fifteen years later as the main antagonist in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (which, as a child, was one of the few movies I remember watching in a theater).

The selection of the name Khan Noonien Singh was not random. In fact, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had another purpose for this character that was beyond the television show:

During World War II, [Gene Roddenberry] had a friend named Kim Noonien Singh; after the war Kim disappeared, and Gene used his name for some characters in the Star Trek series (Khan Noonien Singh from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Noonien Soong from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987)) in hopes that Kim might recognize his name and contact him.

Gene Roddenberry would never hear again from the real Noonien Singh despite his use of characters with a similar name to somehow elicit contact from his long lost friend.

Fast forward to today, the latest extension of the Star Trek franchise, called Star Trek: Into the Darkness, opened this week in theaters across the country. In this second film of the modern-day reboot of the franchise, Khan Noonien Singh has reappeared as the chief antagonist, and as with the rest of the cast, is much younger than his previous incarnation from the original series or as in Wrath of Khan. However, unlike previous movies, the new Khan Noonien Singh is a white man, played by actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

This surprising turn of events did not escape notice of the website RaceBending.com, who see this revision of the character as part of a general trend to “whitewash” characters in television and film. Blogger Marissa Sammy goes on to express disappointment with the rebooted Khan Noonien Singh:

It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what?

Cumberbatch and Montalbán as Khan (source: RaceBending.com)

Cumberbatch and Montalbán as Khan (source: RaceBending.com)

Certainly, Star Trek has never been without diversity in its casts of actors, but this change appears significant. On the other hand, perhaps not casting a South Asian or brown man as a genocidal villain has a silver lining for those of us who fight stereotypes about our ethnicity every day, but if this is so, it tells us about the state of race relations in this country.

And, perhaps the significance of the diversity displayed on Star Trek was only so to those for whom representations about diversity in depictions of the future was important. However, when this diversity is so easily shed, one wonders about the implications and the messages sent to young audiences who look for signs of validation and acceptance by the mainstream.

Read the full article from RaceBending.com here.

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45 comments

  1. I wonder, considering that Benicio Del Toro was supposed to play Khan, would you feel the same sentiment? Or would you have found that a bit more acceptable? I ask because the same questions crossed my mind in the midst of my confusion.
    I will admit, when I found out who John Harrison was (during the actual character reveal), I did have a twinge of disappointment. However, I could not deny the fact that the role was well cast. He is a brilliant actor and he served the role mightily well. It is kind of how I felt about Uhura in the first film. I wish that Abrams had cast someone who wasn’t considered “exotic looking” (which is what is acceptable and comfortable to the mainstream) or borderline ethnically ambiguous (and particularly, someone who actually identifies as being black — not just when it’s convenient). Come to think about it, I’m surprised that Naveen Andrews wasn’t considered, or even Cliff Curtis (though he’s of Maori descent). There are options, but as we see, it’s not about staying true to the narrative, it’s about the appeal.

    • When they cast Cumberbatch the character should have remained John Harrison, it’s as simple as that. It’s an easy rewrite.
      Casting Del Toro isn’t a lateral move, it’s also racist. It’s not the 1960s anymore, whitewashing a character established to be a Sikh Indian is unacceptable. Either they should have found an amazing South Asian actor and given him some massive Hollywood exposure or they should have given up on the idea of using Khan.

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  3. An article in The New Yorker also provides another interesting examination of the Khan Noonien Singh character:

    “Some Trekkies may fret that Cumberbatch looks or acts nothing like Montalban, which is true, aside from the two actors’ unearthly elocution. But that incongruity rests fairly nicely atop an original incongruity, which was that Khan, nominally a Sikh from northern India, was first played by an actor who was born in Mexico City. Montalban’s only gesture toward regional identity on the TV series was a hard-to-place hairdo and an odd Hindu-like power prayer. By the movie in the eighties, those were thankfully abandoned, and he sported a bright-white Joan Jett coif and had become so singularly strange as to be nothing other than Khan-like. Cumberbatch’s alabaster Khan is a little jarring, then, but race and ethnicity in “Star Trek” have always been murky, mostly in a good way. What is more worrisome is that this Khan has taken on what might by now be called a Cumberbatchian asexuality, which is at odds with Khan’s magnetic sensual appeal, the source of his power. This new Khan, we are told, is better at everything than his un-engineered human enemies, but unlike Khan 1.0, he is not likely to seduce anyone. “

  4. According to the writers, they weren’t fully committed to calling this character Khan and much of the script was written with the idea that he might be some other criminal mind from earth’s past. It was also suggested that Khan “might” have had plastic surgery to fully assume the identity of John Harrison. I’m not buying it. Khan had a passion, charisma, and eloquence that this character lacks. And then there’s the British accent…

    • theo

      Seamus was making a comparison and you dodged it. What Seamus said is valid, why is there no uproar to other racewashing?

    • theo,

      It wasn’t a dodge. It was simply that I did not discuss Superman in this post nor the character Perry White (of which I am unfamiliar).

      In the case of this Star Trek film, a character with the name “Khan Noonien Singh” who was characterized as a Sikh from India, with various references to that ethnicity (including the turban), and that was played by a non-white actor, was completely changed to become a white man with an English accent. The original ethnicity was stripped from the character.

      In the example of Perry White in Superman, please describe the context of the “racewashing” — were past references made to this character’s ethnicity that have now been removed with the casting of a black actor for the role?

    • Jordo

      I don’t know if you are aware or not but taking away a role from a race that barely gets enough representation and is incredibly difficult to get jobs in this business is not the same as giving a minor character in a completely different franchise’s role that in the source material would normally go to a race that has a much less difficult time getting a job to someone of a race that has been oppressed and pushed to the side for decades. In more simpler terms: white people get jobs easier and are put everywhere so giving a minor role that was white to a black person is not the same as taking away a Sikh/Indian person’s major role to a white person that has no problem at all being represented or getting jobs.

  5. mike

    ^ yes, i think PErry White has been blackwashed, and im all for cultural diversity… but at least keep the character the same race as the creator and previous incarnations have depicted rather than throw the minority a bone.

  6. E. Diaz-Belot

    Being fair, Ricardo Montalban was a great actor and he is to be credited for making the character of Khan as memorable as he is. This has nothing to do with him being of Mexican descent. He was just a superb and very talented actor. I feel the actor who portrayed Khan in the new Star Trek movie has much of the same traits as Montalban. He is a very talented actor, has great screen presence, he’s physically imposing and his rendition of the Khan character is believable and very much at par with Mr. Montalban’s. The fact that he is white didn’t bother me and in fact being honest I didn’t really notice his skin color. I was too busy being entertained.

    • But imagine being an Indian and watching a white man playing someone from your culture. As someone of mixed Chinese descent, I have a limited ability to switch off my tendency to be offended when say, Marlon Brando, Mickey Rooney or Emma Stone play East Asians. When a character is clearly defined as being of a certain ethnic background, you don’t barge in, say “Oh we are above casting by race” and then hand the role to a white man.

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  8. I think choosing BC as Khan is a good choice. He’s a remarkable actor. As for ‘whitewashing’, the Star Trek franchise had been applauded for ‘crossing the line’ many times so why is it strange to bring a white guy, named him Khan and make him a terrorist? What would you guys think if the new Star Trek team had instead chose an Indian or darker skin guy to play the part? There would probably be more uproar. And there goes ‘American-hates-Arabs’ slogan again (tho it would have nothing to do with Arabs).

    • So don’t make him Khan! Zachary Quinto screaming and Leonard Nimoy offering some contrived advice are not worth pissing people off for whitewashing a character. There’s nothing about Cumberbatch’s portrayal that evokes the leonine sensual majesty that made Khan stand out in “Space Seed.” Yes, BC was good in his own right, but if he’s not recognizably Khan, just make him John Harrison and avoid pissing everyone off!

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  10. If you look at all the pictures of Montalban in “The Wrath of Khan” he is not all that dark. If someone could do the research on the makeup technigues, I bet you would find that in the episode “Space Seed” his skin was darkened to look East Indian. So what is the difference in using a Spaniard to portray Khan or any other nationality but East Indian. Would people have been happier if they had simply darkened Cumberbatch’s skin?

    • The difference is the almost 50 years since it was rampantly acceptable to cast laterally for the role of a South Asian with an actor from Mexico.

  11. JH

    It’s interesting. I’m a big fan of BC, though I wouldn’t call myself a Cumberb****. I think he brings a sense of great intellectual menace and physicality to the role. One of the main reasons I was so excited about seeing Star Trek was because of BC. Having said that, it does feel like Hollywood likes to “whitewash” lead ethnic characters. For example – Angelina Jolie was used to represent an Afro-Cuban. Couldn’t Jada Pinkett Smith have been a better choice? Or using Jane Seymour to represent a Hindu (read Indian) princess? When there is an ethnic character, especially a female character, you can almost see the “whiteness” of the ethnic beauty. Halle Berry wouldn’t be as popular if she had more traditional Afro-features.

    To people who raise the point about using black actors to play traditionally white roles, please consider that at that time (Superman), media was created for white audiences. Blackface was popular. Using an ethnic character was taboo unless it came in the form of a “happy smiling negro” woman who wanted to serve you pancakes and syrup. To put it bluntly – white audiences weren’t interested in hearing the stories of other peoples at that time. Any spoken or unspoken desire for “the good old days” is frankly nauseating and insulting to all the people who were marginalized (i.e. not white males).

    Now – if hollywood wants to attract an audience, it needs to start considering the global audience and engaging with them. The simplest way is to cast more minorities in movies. That accounts for much of the smashing success of “Fast and the Furious 6”. So – to put it bluntly – get used to seeing more minority actors taking part in more pivotal roles. (Eagerly awaiting Idris Elba in Pacific Rim…) Don’t worry – invariably the leads are still white caucasians. The great white man shall continue to charge forth

    • I understand, but Hollywood may be doing this from a perceived business perspective. They may see only 13.2% black in America but 77.7% white. All English-speaking countries I know of are majority white, hence why they cater more to that audience. They should realize, as more movies are portraying love interests and other characters, that the majority white audience has no problem with portraying other races and ethnicities.

  12. As a life-long Trek fan, I found Into Darkness to be derivative and disrespectful of its source material. Come on–why would an Englishman be Khan, a Sikh from India? (And I do think Benedict is a great actor–he was just miscast in this role.) Watch the original film “The Wrath of Khan” and you can see where the Abram’s production falls into the pit of snarky parody. It was like, “I know how desperate Star Trek fans are to see another movie, so I’ll just throw bits and pieces they liked from the former films into a pot and stir it up and serve it to them with a coating of special effects. They’ll buy it and we’ll all be mega-rich!” It’s that horrid attitude of the script that sinks Into Darkness. I felt sorry for the wonderful cast to have to say some of the lines they had to say… No respect for the characters at all were evident in that script. Really, next time find some actual Star Trek fans to write a decent screenplay and direct and produce it, Paramount!

  13. mellymell79

    I greatly disagree with Cindy (above). I thought that Abrams’ handling of Star Trek canon was masterful. Because this reboot exists in an alternate timeline (something essential to a ST reboot, otherwise we’ll just be watching the same stories with new actors), it was necessary that changes exist in relation to how they wound up finding and reviving Khan, etc. I think the references to how the original played out, with its changes, was not only NOT disrespectful, but payed homage to the mastery that was the Khan narrative. Now, I do agree that although BC is a great actor, he shouldn’t have been cast as Khan. For a show that prided itself on diversity and bucking the tide, I think that an ethnic person should have been chosen, particularly one for whom the name “Khan” wouldn’t seem so misplaced.

    • Sorry but I just have to disagree with one point. .You stated his handling of the Star Trek cannon was masterful? How can be it masterful when he Abrams has repeatedly in multiple forms of media mentioned how much he disliked Trek in the first place. Hell, look up his Daily Show interview where he floors John Stewart talking how how much he can’t stand and won’t watch anything Trek. And that shows. To quote LeVar Burton in a recent Q&A at Steel City Con, “These are nice movies, and entertaining, but I’m waiting for them to say something. Star Trek has always been about making a statement. I’ve even asked him (JJ Abrams) when he was going to find a voice.”

  14. Akuma Matata

    So when they reboot Batman years from now and they cast a Chinese guy (from China, complete with broken English, not American-born) and rename the character Bruce Wang then NOBODY — especially White People — will complain, right?

  15. Pingback: Ben Kingsley dons turban, beard, in role of Sikh for forthcoming film | American Turban

  16. Mark

    You do realise that someone from England is more likely to have Indian blood in them than someone from Mexico, whose only similarity would be the colour of their skin. There are many anglo-Indians across the world and are over a million. Is it more offensive to be less offended by the actor having darker skin with no connection to the Indian culture than by someone who comes from a society that does?

  17. Jodi

    Mixed emotions on this. On one hand, I was annoyed by white Kahn, as well. On the other hand, I never thought ol Ricardo looked even a little bit Indian… Sikh or otherwise. I find it almost as annoying when Hollywood thinks.. “meh, all brown people look alike… someone call that Nepalese descent guy who always plays cubans, and ask him if he wants to try playing an Inuit.”

    • I hear ya, it’s disappointing when so many people want jobs to hire Zoe Saldana and put her in blackface to play Nina Simone, but then it’s Hollywood. They look for star power to push vehicles.

      I was annoyed by white Kahn as much because he wasn’t good looking as I was by his color 😦

  18. Both khans should have worn turbans and a beard in the shows. On a similar note, Atreyu from Neverending Story was played by a white actor (same kid from Battlestar Galactica) rather than a Native American in the original.

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  21. The original Khan was not just super human in strength, vitality and intelligence. The character as written was virile, sexually magnetic, i.e. handsome ! The cold, goth white icy looks of the new Khan miss the mark. Ricardo Montelban was obviously not Sikh nor Indian. I don’t think he had to be. He’s an Actor. Not just an actor, but the best actor for the part, he had leonine grace, superb delivery and exotic accent. Cumberbatch was not the best choice for the part because he came off as sub human/inhuman not superhuman

  22. Johann Wilkerson

    So, racecasting white over anything / whitewashing is bad because Star Trek, and casting any other race over white is not applicable because we’re only talking Star Trek here, and no other incidents, like casting Will Smith as Jim West, which is totally OK because Robert Conrad should never have been white to begin with.
    Got it.

  23. Pingback: Quick Fact: Gene Roddenberry devised the names for his characters Khan (Khan... - Quick Facts

  24. scoey

    Most of my white brothers and sisters are lost in most of this thread. A lot probably agreed with the racist accusation commenting about Perry White in Superman. They think racism works in reverse, not understanding for an instant that casting a character, whose only physical attributes supported by text are that he is a middle-aged male, can be capably played by a middle aged man of an ethnicity other than the one originally depicted in film or TV. There is an argument to be made that Perry White’s ethnicity as caucasian was established VISUALLY in Superman comics. But for decades now, comic book writers have addressed issues of race eloquently, candidly discussing how institutionalized racism, white-biased racism, was the norm through the early history of comics and comic creators have indeed been on the forefront of “colorizing” the comic universes, using their artistic license, both by creating new characters of color, or by flat out changing a character’s ethnicity, or gender or orientation for that matter.

    As a believer in animal rights, I hope to see a non-human species represented as a hero, perhaps another simian, a canine or feline, or one of superior intellect such as a cetacean or a porcine life form, perhaps genetically or technologically enhanced to communicate with humans and give our cohabitant species a voice, at least symbolically until it’s possible in reality. We are extremely close to being able to establish two-way verbal communication between non-primates and humans. We’ve already broken that barrier with all the other great apes. I’m considering learning to sign and living with a group of bonobos.

    Perhaps you can see my perspective is beyond matters of human skin color. It makes the discussion none the less relevant. We need to understand, once and for all, that humanity needs to come to grips with the past before it can move into a more egalitarian future. This includes appropriate recognition of the hatchet job done on history by nearly every “surviving culture” and especially the “dominant cultures”. We have, collectively as a species, annihilated entire species, entire ethnic variations,entire languages and language groups, and entire cultures, either through murder or encroachment and to live with ourselves afterward, we had to concoct fictions to justify our fear, our xenophobia, our bigotry.

    These fictions gave license to dominant cultures to continue to oppress, in a myriad of ways, the people they could no longer get away with simply exterminating as they once did with impunity. Now it is time to reverse the damage, heal the wounds, and come to a new understanding. Americans, particularly the shrinking white population, need to recognize the deep wounds that understandably linger from slavery of African-Americans, genocide of native Americans, and generally the imposition of white supremacist ideology on the nation. Turks and Russians likewise need to recognize, as the Germans and Rawandans have, the more recent episodes of genocide in their history, and cultures world-wide need to examine their pasts, realizing that all our ancestors had blood on their hands, at one time or another, for the least noble reasons.
    Maybe when we’ve all come to terms with our past, Klaatu will allow us to move forward into the future. If we don’t, then Klaatu, verada nicto! And good riddance!

  25. Marty Readling

    He may have been a Singh, but he was no Sikh! No follower of the Sati-Gurus would try, or want to rule the planet. He might have taken control of the Khalsa, created the land of Sikhistan, centered on the Punjab, and led it from the Golden Temple, but the whole world? I just don’t see it.
    As an American of European extraction who has been drawn to Sikhism, by it’s philosophy, and the lives and teachings of the ten Gurus, I’d love to have the option of living in a majority Sikh nation. I can’t think of a more physically secure, liberty rich, and peaceful environment.

  26. Trisha

    I have to agree with the earlier comment about being a racist if you are complaining about the actor who played Khan being white yet you are not up in arms over other characters having their ethnicity or gender changed to ‘diversify’ a cast of characters. You were given an example of this in the character of Perry White, yet chose to ignore it as a ‘minor’ character so it didn’t matter. Okay, well then, how about Thor (Changed in the comics from a man to a woman) or Ironman (changed from a white adult male to a black teenage female in the comics). Or if you wish for that to ‘not count’ because it was in the original source material but not in the movies, how about Nick ‘God of all Spys’ Fury! Look it up. Nick Fury was a white male that served in World War II prior to being changed to a black man in the Ultimates universe. Yet, once again, no one is claiming that this move which was carried over to the Movies was racist.

    The simple fact of the matter is that one set of rules needs to be followed. Either it is acceptable to change the race and/or gender of an established character no matter what ethanicity/gender the character was and later became or it is not. Pick one and stick with it instead of only wanting to follow an ideology when it is useful to your side.

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