The Three Times Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Helped Reduce the Race Relations Gap

Leonard Nimoy is dead. WHY!? I feel like the stereotypical woman who throws herself over the casket asking, “WHY, GOD! WHY!” But, as much as I feel like that woman who’s still holding on, this article isn’t going to be a eulogy (or at least, it won’t be a traditional one). I don’t particularly like writing eulogies, so I actually debated a while as to whether I would write something about Nimoy even though I wanted to honor his life in some way. Then it dawned on me to do just that—honor the good he did in life instead of the finality of death. So that’s what I’m doing.

Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is probably one of the most beloved characters of sci-fi period, not just of Star Trek. But, Nimoy did more than just play the logical right hand to Captain Kirk. In many ways, Nimoy embodied his character in real life, working to make the world a much fairer place. That includes working towards equality for everyone. Here are three ways Nimoy (and Spock) helped move America into a much fairer place.

1. Spock brings solace to a biracial girl

NPR and Buzzfeed have already written on this at length, but in a 1960s-era teen magazine, Nimoy had received a letter from a young fan asking for his advice on how to find her place in the world. The girl’s mom was black and her dad was white, and according to her letter:

“…I am told this makes me a half-breed. In some ways I am persecuted even more than the Negro. The Negroes don’t like me because I don’t look like them. The white kids don’t like me because I don’t exactly look like one of them either. I guess I’ll never have any friends.”

She specifically wrote to “Spock” because “I know that you are half Vulcan and half human and you have suffered because of this.” Nimoy eloquently wrote back. It’s a lengthy response (necessary for the type of issue being tackled), but the key part of the response is this:

“Spock learned he could save himself from letting prejudice get him down. He could do this by really understanding himself and knowing his own value as a person. He found he was equal to anyone who might try to put him down—equal in his own unique way. You can do this too, if you realize the difference between popularity and true greatness. It has been said that ‘popularity’ is merely the crumbs of greatness. When you think of people who are truly great and who have improved the world, you can see that they are people who have realized they didn’t need popularity because they knew they had something special to offer the world, no matter how small that offering seemed. And they offered it and it was accepted with peace and love. It’s all in having the patience to find out what you yourself have to offer the world that’s really uniquely yours.”

2. Fighting for Nichelle Nichols and George Takei

Nine times out of 10, if you’re a black female sci-fi fan, you have a special place for Uhura in your sci-fi idol pantheon. I know I do; I even dressed as Uhura for Halloween a few years ago.

There’s stuff can be said about the on-screen relationship between the characters Uhura and Spock, but however you read the relationship between Spock and Uhura, you can tell that there was real-life friendship between Nichols and Nimoy that fueled the on-screen interactions.

There’s a lot of stories about Nichols’ time as Uhura, with the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. influencing her to stay on the show being one of the biggest behind-the-scenes stories to come out to the public. But there’s another story revolving around Nichols’ time on the show that hasn’t gotten a lot of play, and it involves Nimoy sticking up for her to Da Man.

As People states, Walter Koenig (who played Chekov), said to the Las Vegas Sun in 2014 that “[w]hen it came to the attention of the cast that there was a disparity in that George [Takei] and I were getting the same pay but Nichelle was not getting as much, I took it to Leonard and he took it to the front office and they corrected that.” Nimoy also went to bat for her again, and this time, the issue also affected Takei. Nimoy told TrekMovie, “There was also the case where George and Nichelle were not hired to do their voices in the animated series. I refused to do Spock until they were hired. Mr. Roddenberry started calling me the conscience of Star Trek.”

I’m sure there were more moments like this that hadn’t made it to light, because there’s no way actors of color didn’t have other microagressions thrown at them, even on a forward-minded show like Star Trek. But it’s because Nimoy wanted the best for his castmates that garnered him the nickname of “the conscience of Star Trek.”

It’s also why Nichols wrote this on her Facebook page:

I am deeply saddened by the death of my dear friend Leonard Nimoy. But, I also want to celebrate his extraordinary life. He was a true force of strength and his character was that of a champion. Leonard’s integrity and passion as an actor and devotion to his craft helped transport STAR TREK into television history. His vision and heart are bigger than the universe. I will miss him very much and send heartfelt wishes to his family.

3. Spock as an outlet for Nimoy’s own battles with “otherness”

One reason Spock might have hit such a chord with people is because of the times in which he was created and the mindset he was created with. It’s long been established that Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek with the idea of promoting a more peaceful world free of racism, misogyny, and other issues. It could probably be argued that Spock is one of the best culminations of this idea, seeing how he’s half human-half alien, and is completely different, but is respected and loved by his colleagues (even Bones, even if he won’t admit it). But another reason Spock hit home is because of the amount of personal pain that probably informed Nimoy’s portrayal of the character. Nimoy, the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, faced his own share of anti-Semitism, and his own experiences seem to be shadowed in his portrayal of Spock. Slate’s Matt Zoller Seitz elaborated on this point, writing:

“[H]is religious and cultural heritage informed many of his choices from the late ’60s onward. This aspect of Nimoy’s significance has barely begun to be appreciated. It wasn’t until the 1970s, the heyday of stars such as Elliot Gould, Barbra Streisand, and Dustin Hoffman, that Hollywood started routinely allowing Jewish actors to read as something other than generically Jewish or ethnicially indeterminate. Nimoy’s performane as Spock served as a subtle bridge between eras of invisibility and assimilation, and transparency and pride…This is a big part of the reason why the character [of] Spock–a “half-breed,” per Dr. McCoy’s slur, in some ways passing for human while staunchly insisting on his cultural Vulcan-ness–made such a powerful impact on viewers who felt, in one way or another, like outsiders.

He also writes how minorities in particular flocked to the character, including notables like Bruce Lee. Spock’s ability to gracefully handle himself under this type of cultural pressure has always been a lightning rod for many people, and it’s why he’s one of the most beloved characters in the series, and in fiction as a whole. I’ve read that, like a lot of famous people who become known for one particular part of their careers, Nimoy had to come to terms with the fact that Spock was a character that was never going to be overshadowed by anything else. But he came to embrace the character and what Spock stood for. I think part of his turnaround was because of how Spock seemed to be a slave to people who were constantly afflicted by messages about their “otherness.” People who are always seen as “The Other” were happy to see someone like them on screen and see how they dealt with the same issues.

Thankfully, a show like Star Trek provided a lot of “others,” like Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. But if I’m speaking honestly, Spock seemed to touch on everyone’s “otherness” issues in a much different and, arguably, a more accessible way. While Uhura, Sulu and Chekov did expand viewers minds to the possibility of working seamlessly with people of other races, Spock approached the same issue with a clean slate thanks to his abstract heritage.

There would still be people who would attach their prejudices to Uhura because she was black, to Sulu because he was Asian, and to Chekov because he was Russian. But there were no stereotypes to place on Spock because there’s no such thing as a Vulcan.

From that perspective, someone who would be apt to dismiss Uhura, Chekov or Sulu could still learn the same lesson those characters are trying to teach from sympathizing with Spock. They were still able to learn that treating someone without respect just because they were different is wrong. Spock could be seen as the gateway to this person to realize that looking at the other three with a dismissive attitude was also wrong. To me, the ability to approach discrimination and stereotypes as an abstraction is why Spock is so enduring.

With all of this said, I certainly will miss Nimoy. But I’m glad to know that we’ll always still have him around, just by tuning back into Star Trek. Nimoy will always live on in Spock. Through Spock, Nimoy will not only have immortality, but he’ll also be able to keep teaching others about welcoming each other’s differences and treating each other with fairness.

Star Trek still (Paramount Pictures) from Nichelle Nichols’ Facebook page

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6 thoughts on “The Three Times Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Helped Reduce the Race Relations Gap”

  1. I also want to thank you for the lovely write-up. I didn’t know about the letter Leonard Nimoy wrote to the young mixed race girl & it makes me appreciate him all the more. I’m also mixed race and was a little girl when it first came on. I remember thinking that I was finally seeing someone who was mixed like me.

    Like

  2. Thank you for the lovely write-up. I didn’t know about Leonard Nimoy’s letter to the mixed race girl; it makes me appreciate him all the more.I’m also mixed race and as a little girl watched the show when it first aired. I remember thinking that I was finally seeing someone like on TV.

    Again, thank you.

    Like

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