George Takei, the pioneering Asian American “Star Trek” actor and LGBTQ icon, said massive anti-racism protests this month show the US is “making progress” on diversity, but warned the pandemic is renewing deep-rooted prejudices.
Speaking to AFP ahead of his address at the University of California Los Angeles’ virtual commencement Friday, Takei said the tens of thousands marching over George Floyd’s death in police custody inspired confidence in the next generation.
But — drawing on his childhood in US wartime internment camps, and decades trapped in the closet due to Hollywood homophobia — he urged youth to stand firm on minority rights.
“We are making progress, but that involves active participation,” he said.
“As a society, we are moving, inching forward.”
The star best known for playing Sulu in the original “Star Trek” has spent decades campaigning for social justice.
At 83, he is not marching this time, but the protests remind him of the 1960s, when he met Martin Luther King, Jr. after performing in civil rights musical “Fly Blackbird.”
“He said, thank you very much, and especially you, as an Asian man — I was the sole Asian in that cast, I usually was back then,” said Takei. “There weren’t other Asians involved in the civil rights movement.”
Now, with young people of all backgrounds marching against racism, Takei praised the next crop of activists.
“You, the infinitely diverse hi-tech class have the whole of human history, the glorious and the ugly, as your launching pad,” he said later in his UCLA address.
“Stretch as far as you can,” he added. “Boldly go where no one has gone before.”
– ‘Categorized as aliens’ –
But, speaking to AFP, Takei warned the coronavirus pandemic is exposing racism beyond prejudice against the black community — such as against Asian Americas, fueled by President Donald Trump’s references to the “Chinese virus.”
“In the New York subway, an Asian American woman was spat at… in Texas, an Asian American family was stabbed by this person, because they ‘brought the virus to this country'” he said.
It serves as a painful reminder of the years Takei’s Japanese-origin family spent in World War II internment camps in the US.
“My history is being repeated again, in this day and age, because of this pandemic,” he said.
“I was born right here in Los Angeles, California… we’re Americans,” he said. “And yet, we were categorized as aliens simply because we look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Soldiers with bayonets on their rifles forced Takei’s family from their home and into “barbed wire prison camps.”
“I don’t mean to compare my background with the graduating generation, but they have uncertainty in their lives,” he said.
– ‘Torturous’ –
The coronavirus has also meant Pride parades set for this weekend commemorating the “Stonewall riots” have largely been scrapped.
The June 1969 riots sparked by repeated police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, proved a turning point in the gay rights struggle.
Takei expressed regret at remaining “silent” on LGBT rights until he was spurred to come out by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of same-sex marriage in 2005.
He had feared losing acting jobs — “Star Trek” was canceled in 1969, the same year as Stonewall, leaving him in need of work.
“I was closeted most of my adult life… that was torturous. I wanted to speak out,” Takei added.
Ironically, the cult actor said coming out has increased his job offers, including multiple cameos as himself in sitcoms such as “The Big Bang Theory.”
But issues of racism, police brutality, and a row involving Harry Potter author JK Rowling this week in which she was accused of transphobia, serve as poignant reminders of the progress still needed, said Takei.
“The root of this kind of bias is all the same, whether it’s race, or race combined with war in our case, or by gender identification, it’s the same,” he said.
“It’s hate — irrational hate.”