Movies - Khan Noonien Singh Whitewashed - Criticism Of Star Trek Into Darkness | SIKH PHILOSOPHY NETWORK
  • Welcome to all New Sikh Philosophy Network Forums!
    Explore Sikh Sikhi Sikhism...
    Sign up Log in

Movies Khan Noonien Singh Whitewashed - Criticism Of Star Trek Into Darkness

Randip Singh

May 25, 2005
United Kingdom
Hi Guys,

Looks like they've whutewashed the bad boy Sikh of the Star Trek series, much to the annoyance of trekkers and Sikhs. I must admit, I'm annoyed as well:

<header class="entry-header"> Has Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Singh been “whitewashed”?

</header> 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, 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:

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 here

Randip Singh

May 25, 2005
United Kingdom
Another article on this:

Star Trek: Into Whiteness

May 9, 2013
If there’s one thing that most fans of Star Trek will agree on, it’s the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show — and, more optimistically, for human society — was predicated on the idea that all life is valuable, and that the worth of a person should not be judged by their appearance. Much of this was done through the old sci-fi trope of using aliens to stand in for oppressed groups, but Star Trek didn’t rely on the metaphor; it had characters who were part of the ensemble, important and beloved members of the Enterprise crew, who were people of colour. It had background characters who were people of colour. And, here and there, it had anti-heroes and villains who were people of colour … one of whom, Khan Noonian Singh, became well-nigh iconic.
And who is now being played by white actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the new JJ Abrams reboot movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness.
<dl id="attachment_5948"><dt></dt><dd>Cumberbatch and Montalbán (as Khan)</dd></dl>​
We’re all cynical and jaded enough to know the standard dismissal when it comes to matters of media representation: Paramount Pictures and most film studios are not interested in diversity or visibility, they only care about the bottom dollar. Star Trek as a franchise is too much of a juggernaut to affect with boycotts. There are too many people who love it, who love those characters and that world, and will go to see the movie. And for some of these people, this devotion to the idea of a future where even South and East Asian men get to pilot a starship and love swashbuckling, where Black women make Lieutenant on the Enterprise and actually get the boy, will be trivialized and eroded and whitewashed when the most formidable and complex Star Trek baddie becomes a white man named Khan.
<dl id="attachment_5950"><dt></dt><dd>TOS Khan looking at a watercolor of himself. Yes, he’s wearing a dastar (Sikh turban)</dd></dl>​
It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalbán was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. 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? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.
Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. This happened with the character of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, as well as ‘Miranda Tate’ in The Dark Knight Rises, who ended up being Talia al Ghul but played by French actress Marion Cotillard. This practice is well in effect in Hollywood; and after the negative press that was generated by angry anti-oppression activists and fans when Paramount had The Last Airbender in the works, studios are wising up. They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released — Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line.
So the studio has now found a way to keep it secret and underhanded. was there for most of the production of The Last Airbender, and were even able to correspond with Paramount Pictures about it. This time, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, their hiding and opaque practices has managed to silence media watchdogs until the movie’s premiere.
As I said, this racist whitewashing of the character of Khan won’t affect how much money this Trek movie makes. And I’m happy that the franchise is popular, still popular enough to warrant not only a big-budget reboot with fantastic actors but also a sequel with that cast. I’m happy that actors I enjoy like Zoë Saldaña and John Cho are playing characters who mean so much to me, and that they, in respect for the groundbreaking contributions by Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in these roles, have paid homage to that past.
But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.
And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.
What an enormous and horribly ironic step backwards. For Star Trek, for media representation, and for the vision of a future where we have transcended systemic, racist erasure.
<dl id="attachment_5947"><dt> </dt><dd>“Who is your favorite villain?” ; Actor John Cho (Lt Sulu) answers.</dd></dl>​

Create an account or login to comment

You must be a member in order to leave a comment

Create account

Create an account on our community. It's easy!

Log in

Already have an account? Log in here.

Shabad Vichaar by SPN'ers

peace.jpegThis week has been super busy so I want to focus on something that I aspire to - spiritual peace and control of emotions. 1st line is...

SPN on Facebook