Yes, #BoycottStarWarsVII was a troll, but that doesn't blunt its impact

The campaign to boycott Star Wars: The Force Awakens started as a joke to rile people up about racism, but the hashtag became a space for real racist rhetoric.
John Boyega plays Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Disney/Lucasfilm)

The hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII emerged on Twitter even before the latest trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, but the protest against the movie's diverse cast began as a troll. 

Initially, it appeared that people were angry that a leading role in Episode VII, Finn, played by John Boyega, is black. Another starring actor, Oscar Isaac, is Hispanic. 

"The new Star Wars movie barely has any whites in it," read one tweet. Director "J.J. Abrams' political correctness is a code word for anti-white," another said. 

"Let's make #BoycottStarWarsVII trend. It's just another anti-white propaganda piece," read another tweet. 

And the hashtag did trend — in the U.S., Canada and worldwide — by Monday afternoon.

Christina Robins, a writer and activist living in Cambridge, Ont., first saw #BoycottStarWarsVII that morning and started reading some of the complaints against the movie.  

"White genocide? Having a person of colour or a few people of colour as main characters has upset a group of people?" she said. 

"That's what you're upset about? I mean, did you see Star Wars [Episodes] I to III? That's what you should be upset about," said Robins. 

She said that diversity in casting is important in Star Wars movies. 

"Not everyone looks like you, not everyone looks like me. It would be nice to have a wide variety of people you can relate to in a galaxy far, far away," she said. 

As well, she pointed out, the Star Wars franchise introduced smuggler-turned-rebel-general Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, in The Empire Strikes Back back in 1980. 

Robins decided to write a post on that hashtag, reminding Star Wars fans that the voice of Darth Vader was performed by James Earl Jones. 

 

And then, as it goes on the internet, the replies started coming in. 

"Most of the reaction was people liking it and thinking it was funny. And other reactions were people telling me that white people were superior than black people and a lot of racism, just a lot of ridiculous white supremacist racism started coming into my timeline," she said. 

Robins said that some people she heard from on Twitter seemed genuine in their belief that the main roles in Star Wars should be filled by actors of European descent. 

"They think that by having these people, they're taking roles away from deserving white actors, because they're being forced to have diversity in movies," she said. 

It soon came to light, though, that the hashtag didn't originate as a legitimate campaign to boycott the movie, but rather as a troll, a joke to get people on Twitter riled up about racists criticizing Star Wars. In fact, most of the tweets that got the hashtag trending were criticizing, mocking or just drawing attention to it. 

But whatever the origin of the hashtag, the result was plain to Robins. 

"It doesn't matter how the hashtag starts. I think it's how it ends. And if you make a hashtag to troll people and then racist people pick up on it, then that hashtag becomes racist," she said. 

"It's hurtful, too, as a person of colour, having someone come at you and say they hope that your race doesn't exist anymore," she said. "Any sort of racism or bigotry has hurt behind it and meanness behind it."

And 4chan, the anonymous forum where the mock campaign was being promoted, isn't exactly known for its progressive attitudes toward race. 

"You might make up something to troll people, but there's a little bit of truth behind your trolling, and it kinda backfired," said Robins.

#BoycottStarWarsVII ended up being ridiculed and those who held those views genuinely were exposed.

The story reached the filmmakers themselves. J.J. Abrams posted a handwritten note to Twitter Monday night. 

There was also a rival hashtag, #CelebrateStarWarsVII

"I liked the #CelebrateStarWarsVII hashtag because it celebrates the fact that parents are able to buy their kids action figures that look like them," she said. 

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