Of Red Shirts: The Saga of the Minor Character in Someone Else’s Epic

“Remember Mortimer, there are no small actors. Only small parts.” — from the play, “The Fantasticks” (end of Act 1)

Much to my parents’ and black community’s surprise, I found friends among my peers in my private, predominately white elementary school. That’s fine for children, said some of the elders at my black Pentecostal church. For even before the civil war, white children played with the black slave children, they would say. However, these elders would say in hushed tones, once the children became of age, those friendships were impossible. And so it will be with you, the elders said, as I came of age in the early 1980s. Some boundaries, the elders said, are impossible to cross.

In college, some of my roommates who shared my theologically conservative upbringing were skeptical about my secular peers, especially my friends who were neo-atheists, and, in come cases, Wiccan wannabees. My conservative friends were fine with having relationships with “non-believers,” as long as I was trying to convert them to Christianity. Other than that, my religious friends said, these relationships were impossible and would eventually fade once the superficial boundaries of dormitories and classes ended with graduation. Some boundaries, my friends said in quiet, prayerful tones, are impossible to cross.

Much to my delight, while having dinner with two college friends in the early 1990s, we realized that our friendship had lasted more than ten years. We marveled at how our college-era acquaintanceship had evolved into lasting friendships. We were from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and all of us had grown up in communities that cautioned us against alliances with the communities that we each represented. During that dinner, we talked about how we were able to cross the impenetrable boundaries that we had been raised with, the fences that were supposed to keep us within communities often defined more by who we were not than who we happened to be.

At first, we thought we had been friends because we were able to forgive each other. We had other close friends in college, some of whom we assumed we’d be friends with for the rest of our lives. However, disagreements, busyness, distance and shifts in ideology ended many of those relationships. Despite our ability to forgive each other for various clashes, this did not seem to define why we had managed to remain friends into adulthood.

Perhaps we were friends because the world had changed so much that the boundaries of our childhood were no longer applicable. Those ethnic and class boundaries that once confined us to a station in life were now looser. A shared college degree from the same institution also leveled our playing field. We found that we had arrived on the doorstep to adulthood with more baggage from college than from childhood. Perhaps we were surprised at how four years at the same institution created new bonds that now redefined our communities of origin. The old fences of ethnicity and religion still mattered; however, four years in the same place created new alliances and boundaries.

And in the new communities formed by this common experience of college, we discovered that we as a group of friends shared something that barely registered in today’s multicultural discussion. This “something” is probably what gave us that additional comfort level with each other. The best way I can describe this “something” is that my friends and I all come from ethnic and religious communities that had once been on someone’s list for being wiped from the face of the earth. Now, this aspect of our identity is not the kind of thing you introduce yourself with; hello, my great grandparents were once forcibly detained in some manner (concentration camp, reservation, ghetto, sexual, ethnic or religious discrimination laws, immigration status designations) for some difference deemed dangerous by the majority culture. Although these nineteenth and twentieth-century atrocities are rarely discussed in polite company, even among Jews, African Americans, and Native Americans, this legacy of oppression still defines these communities. These narratives of communal and shared oppression are often talked about among close family members and friends. The stories of pain are spoken in whispers over dinner and drinks, often while reflecting on the latest news of some genocide, somewhere in the world. Our whispers tell stories where our family members were not the main characters, but the secondary, unnamed cast members, the corp, the nameless masses, the expendable people who were not important to some oppressor’s major plot point. And this aspect of our identity as the secondary character in someone else’s story of glory and power is a powerful moniker.  For the lack of a better metaphor, this aspect of our identity as someone else’s minor character is like being the doomed “Red Shirt” character in a popular television series.

The Red Shirt character is a colloquial reference among fans of a 1960s era television science fiction program. In Star Trek’s opening scenes, two or three of the lead characters (often wearing yellow or blue uniforms) would land on a planet, accompanied by one or two characters wearing red uniforms. Within the first ten minutes of the show, generally someone wearing a red uniform died, and her or his demise introduced the central conflict of the episode’s plot. So, at the beginning of the episode, if someone appeared in a red shirt, you knew that this person, no matter how likeable, competent, or regardless of how much this character connected for the moment with the yellow and blue uniformed lead characters (often the stars of the show), this Red Shirt was toast.

When I first walked into my private, white religious school as a sixth grader, an African American from the inner city, my classmates probably looked at me with a mixture of shock and pity. They had designated me a Red Shirt in their meta-narrative of their educational experience which was suppose to result in a high school diploma, the gateway to college, business or some kind of suburban success. This suburban success would elude me, the new black kid, because, I was slated to eventually suffer some kind of fate early in the narrative of our shared school experience. This new black kid, they might have thought, is probably a nice person, but the poor girl is doomed. She’s probably a future welfare mom, I imagined people would think, or, perhaps they thought I would become a member of the service industry that would help cater to someone’s suburban success. I remember being treated politely, but eventually, people stopped reacting to me at all. I became invisible; maybe my expected short and irrelevant existence was too much to bear. As a Red Shirt, I could not be an equal in a community where the white children were groomed for the leadership and privilege that no minor character could acquire. My presence was merely to be a prop, or a token of their kindness. Eventually, for the convenience of the plot, I would be dismissed, either in actuality or existentially through being ignored and rendered invisible. I suppose this is much better than being wiped off the face of the earth. Then again, there is not much difference. Either way, I was being removed from the plot.

Perhaps the warnings about crossing boundaries to make friends came from the reality that if you are the designated Red Shirt in someone’s narrative, the initial camaraderie could quickly devolve into the experience of genocide on a personal or communal level. The warnings were quite accurate, and there was wisdom in not becoming too comfortable with your friends until you understand where you fit into someone else’s narrative. Being a Red Shirt created insanity, psychosis, neurosis, paranoia, addictive behaviors, all related to the strangeness of knowing that you are the extra, easily disposable character, in someone else’s epic narrative. It’s probably why so many marginalized people end up being designated the “crazy” Red Shirt person. As part of the elimination process, the crazy Red Shirt person is blamed for their own negation, thus relieving the main characters of guilt and insuring their roles as heroes in their own meta-narratives.

So, in an effort to find true friends and avoid insanity, I heeded the warnings, I made friends cautiously, and tried to live out my own meta-narrative where I was the lead character and conquering hero. I had not planned on the narrative’s transformation. The change started after college in the 1990s, when my Red Shirt status expired and was replaced with a new narrative shaped by the shared experience at an institution that treated me not like a minor character, but as an equal with my peers. My new uniform after graduation was not red. I was no longer the character whose demise was required by the plot of the larger narrative. I had become a productive member of society with a college degree and thus no longer a threat to the meta-narrative of US culture…sort of.

While I enjoyed this new narrative status, I found that most of my friends felt similar about their former Red Shirt status. The Red Shirt status crosses ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries, as was also the case with the science fiction show. I remember taking comfort that it was not always the black character who died in the first ten minutes, but it was the Red Shirt character, who might be a man or woman, or a black or white or Asian character. The Red Shirt status of non-existence was an equal opportunity position.

For my friends (whom I have known for almost 25 years), this former Red Shirt identity was often a coat that hid our original ethnic and religious attributes. For some, the assimilation process was adopted in an effort to stay off the Red Shirt list. For others, assimilation was adopted as part of living out our own personal meta-narrative while ignoring the majority culture’s efforts to assign us to the role of the doomed Red Shirt (like, for example, attending college and gaining access to networks of privilege). I found that beneath the surface of my friend’s skin lurked Catholic guilt, habits honed in former British colonies, a hidden ability to dance rhythmically shaped by a Celtic heritage, or perhaps a secret and unexpressed taste for kugel, bratwurst, and kimchi.

I vacillated between the paranoia of being someone else’s minor character in their major culture epic narrative and my new found identity outside of my previous Red Shirt status. As I grow older as an African American, I must not forget my Red Shirt reality, that in someone else’s meta narrative, I am not suppose to exist. I must hang onto the sane part of my paranoia as a reminder that someone’s meta-narrative once required my demise. This paranoia is not needed to keep me safe from false friends or tokenism anymore. What I hope is that by remembering my former Red Shirt status, I won’t absentmindedly write my own meta-narrative that assigns the role of the Red Shirt to some kind, jovial, and unsuspecting person out of convenience or in a delusionary attempt at some kind of suburban nirvana.

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