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Alien Abductions and the End of White People

For any human who has studied the history of race relations on Earth, the "alien abduction" narrative may sound a little familiar.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #5, May 1993

In these last years of the 2nd Millennium, people all over the globe are reporting that they have met and had substantial interactions with small gray beings who fly what appear to be highly sophisticated craft, perhaps designed for interstellar travel, interdimensional travel or even time travel. The humans who have met these alien beings are commonly referred to as 'alien abductees' or 'UFO abductees' because their meetings with the aliens have seemed to them to have the character of an abduction or a kidnapping. Particularly intriguing is the way different people from a variety of geographical locations report the same kinds of experiences with aliens of similar appearance. While I think no one can say for sure if these abductions are actually happening in reality, the idea of the alien abduction has certainly become a powerful cultural narrative in American film, books, television and the news media. Living in America during the past 50 years, it would be almost impossible to avoid hearing or reading something about UFOs (unidentified flying objects), aliens and the people who report seeing them.

What I find particularly interesting about the alien abduction phenomenon is its historical coincidence with large-scale civil rights movements initiated by oppressed racial and ethnic groups in the United States and throughout the world. These movements, along with a number of international economic and political developments, have contributed to the creation of what former President Bush called 'the new world order'. In the 'old world order' associated with the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, racial and ethnic/national communities became united in historically new ways. Most famously, 'white' or 'Western' people attempted to proclaim themselves the owners of the world; it was against these white people that various 'non-white' tribes and nation-states came together and collectively defined themselves in order to resist the oppression and inequality fostered by imperialism. At present, the post-colonial, post-Cold War era has often been hailed as the infant stage of a truly global culture in which all nations will openly and even-handedly depend upon each other to reproduce life as we know it. It seems to me obvious why, as humans reinvent themselves as a global community, alien beings from an extraterrestrial intelligent culture would suddenly begin 'appearing' to us. Perhaps the easiest way for people to start imagining themselves as a united species is to define themselves against some new 'other' represented by a non-human species, another 'world order' entirely.

While the study of UFOs and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have largely been the object of ridicule by the mainstream scientific community, it was not so long ago that they were deemed serious enough to merit investigation by the Air Force, the United States government and the CIA. During the late 40s and early 50s, Project Grudge, the Air Force's UFO investigation unit, researched a number of sightings involving brightly-lit objects shaped like saucers, boomerangs and cigars. These objects were seen by numerous civilians throughout the United States; they reportedly flew faster and with much more maneuverability than an airplane. Frequently, these objects would land and leave scorch marks behind on the ground or nearby plant life. Project Grudge (later named Project Blue Book) found that most of these sightings were indeed of genuinely 'unidentifiable' objects and that the objects did not originate from any known military power. In 1953, the CIA became involved with UFO investigation when it put together the Robertson Panel, a group of scientists assigned to study the situation. The CIA was most concerned about the possible threat these UFOs might represent to national security. The Robertson Panel found that the UFOs were no threat — the real threat, in their eyes, was the publicity surrounding reports on UFOs. People reporting UFO sightings, the Robertson Panel concluded, might be involved in 'subversive activities' which could undermine national confidence or be linked to Soviet psychological warfare.

Subsequently, the Air Force dedicated its efforts not toward studying the anomalous phenomena, but toward a massive public relations campaign aimed at delegitimizing UFO sightings by offering psychological explanations for them. People had seen too many science fiction movies, they claimed, or people were suffering hallucinations coupled with a 'will to believe'. Although UFO sightings have continued to be reported by people from diverse backgrounds and geographical locations since the early 50s (there were especially intense waves of sightings in 1957 and 1973), no concerted effort to study the phenomena has been granted any kind of substantial recognition or funding until quite recently when Carl Sagan garnered popular support for the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project in 1982. This project involves sweeping the sky for possible extraterrestrial radio signals, and has so far turned up no promising results. Even UC Berkeley is taking part in the SETI research, albeit with little funding and only limited access to resources. Stuart Bowyer, a professor in the UCB Astronomy Department, reports that at UC Berkeley researchers have developed the SERENDIP II system, a piece of hardware which essentially 'piggybacks' related research projects, analyzing any data gathered for possible artificial extraterrestrial radio signals ('The UC Berkeley Program', pp. 215-20 in First Contact, Ben Bova and Byron Preiss, eds.).

The first widely publicized alien abduction case in the United States came in 1966, when Barney and Betty Hill reported that small alien beings with large black eyes had brought them on board a UFO and performed bizarre experiments on them, one of which involved a 'pregnancy test' for Betty Hill. The beings also communicated with the Hills telepathically. Like most alien abductees who have stepped forward and gone public with their stories since that time, the Hills could remember their experience only after undergoing hypnosis. It would appear these beings are capable, with varying degrees of success, of manipulating human consciousness into 'forgetting' an abduction experience. David Jacobs, a prominent researcher of the UFO abduction phenomenon and professor of history at Temple University, has compiled hundreds of firsthand accounts of alien abductions in his Secret Life: Firsthand Documented Accounts of UFO Abductions. In this book, he writes, 'The abductees were, by and large, average citizens...they were Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, white, black, male, female, younger, older, professional, non-professional, married, single, divorced, employed, unemployed, articulate and inarticulate...[and] practically all the abductees said that they were experiencing similar physical, mental and reproductive procedures.' Briefly, as Jacobs reports, these 'procedures' involve what appear to be physical examinations, gynecological procedures, sperm collecting and mental examinations conducted through the aliens' use of telepathy. A vast majority of the abductees report that the aliens are genetically engineering human-alien hybrid children which they show to their human abductees. The hybrids look like pale, thin, mostly hairless humans with enormous black eyes. When questioned by abductees, the aliens refuse to explain why they are doing this, occasionally claiming that it is 'their right'.

For any human who has studied the history of race relations on Earth, this narrative may sound a little familiar. One learns as early as grade school a story about some white people who rode on marvelous ships over the ocean about 500 years ago and discovered that they were not the only intelligent beings in the world. The white people in the ships went to a number of places and found non-white people who they did not understand. Telling themselves these non-white beings were not human, the white people gave themselves permission to use them the way they used other non-human species like animals and plants. The white people forced or tricked the non-white people into becoming workers who would have no choice but to help carry out the reproduction of the white people's own increasingly more complicated 'civilization'. Sometimes the white people would cart away boatloads of the non-white people for use elsewhere and sometimes they would use the non-white people as cheap labor in their own lands. A result of the white people's interaction with the non-white people was the creation of cross-bred children; the African-American population is one of many examples of this effect. In short, the alien beings abducting humans act a lot like those white people acted hundreds of years ago when they found beings like themselves but different, living in ways which seemed nearly incomprehensible to them.

One might say the alien abduction story is too allegorical to be true. It is as if, hundreds of years later, white people are experiencing a return of the repressed — suddenly they are having fantasies in which they imagine themselves victims of the same uncontrollable injustices suffered by non-whites for centuries under Western imperialism. And this seems plausible enough. It might even be true in some cases. But the alien abduction is not just a white person's story. As Jacobs and other UFO researchers like Budd Hopkins point out, people from every racial and class background are being 'abducted'. In fact, the famous Barney and Betty Hill case involved an interracial couple. The alien abduction is perhaps one of the few kinds of social oppression — and most abductees would agree that their experiences have oppressed them — shared by all races, nations and classes together. If the alien abduction narrative is merely fantasy, then this would seem to indicate that one of our basic fears as human beings is a fear of being colonized. This is not a fear specific to any race, class or nation.

A typical 'scientific' work on the subject of alien life in the universe is First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, edited by Ben Bova and Byron Preiss. The blurb on the book jacket asks, 'Are we alone in the universe?' This question essentially suggests that scientists are working from the supposition that we are alone until compelling 'evidence' changes their minds. While the book's contributors are certainly sympathetic to the idea that alien beings might exist, they generally suggest that we can't know for certain until these beings openly 'contact' us or leave behind what UC Irvine physics professor Gregory Benford refers to as a 'calling card', some kind of 2001-like piece of alien technology. Benford, like other scientists, seems to think the alien beings would want humans to know that they exist ('Alien Technology', pp. 165-179, First Contact). The basic principle underlying SETI research is similar: aliens will broadcast radio signals without any effort to disguise or cloak them to remain undetected. Much of the speculation involved in theorizing possible extraterrestrial intelligence is based on astronomy and astrophysics professor Frank Drake's famous 'Drake Equation'. Drake writes, 'The basic premise behind the equation is that what happened here will happen with a large fraction of the stars as they are created, one after another, in the Milky Way galaxy and other galaxies. People unfamiliar with the accepted pictures of cosmic and biological evolution might think the equation is highly speculative; in fact, it is just the opposite, since the phenomena it assumes to take place in the Universe are only those we are sure have taken place at least once' ('The Drake Equation: A Reappraisal', pp. 115-18, First Contact).

If scientists are willing to accept that 'what happened here' will happen elsewhere in the universe, why do they assume that extraterrestrials will be so dramatically unlike human beings that they would desire to be found and ease our loneliness? Human culture, as far as we know, is generally characterized by a strategic secrecy which allows groups to take advantage of and colonize one another. Why should the aliens be different? Drake's Equation directs us to believe in possible extraterrestrial intelligence using ourselves as evidence. If this is so then it seems clear that scientists don't know how to find alien intelligence yet because they, like most humans, don't know human culture well enough. They have forgotten about what happened in human history during the time of 'first contact' between the white people and the non-white people. Scientists are looking for benevolent beings who announce themselves to us. Perhaps they might do better to look for secret beings who steal us away in the night and use us for undisclosed purposes against our will. Although mainstream scientists claim it is nearly impossible that aliens would be abducting humans and breeding with them, I must admit that the accounts I read made sense to me. I thought to myself, 'Well, of course they're raping us and colonizing our minds with telepathy. It's what we would do.'

Let us consider another, even more widely discredited, theory about UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence. A few members of the scientific community and certain elements in the UFOlogy community claim that the US Government has been in contact with extraterrestrials since the late 40s. It has been suggested that the government actually possesses alien space craft and has captured aliens who crash-landed. The government is covering up its secret knowledge by ridiculing and threatening those who attempt to make public the existence of these alien 'visitors'. This theory can hardly be proven true or false without further evidence. However, it certainly seems like the kind of thing the US Government would do if confronted with something uncontrollable and highly organized. In other words, just because the aliens may be a hoax doesn't mean the government hasn't lied to us in similar situations. During the civil rights protests of the 50s and 60s, one of the ways the government attempted to quell social unrest was by pretending nothing was going on or claiming that the protesters were just a bunch of crazy children. This strategy backfired when people across the country began receiving images on television of African-Americans being beaten and menaced with firehoses during peaceful protests in the South. People formerly unaware of the civil rights violations endured by African-Americans were galvanized by these images and a national movement was born. What I am trying to point out here is that whenever the social status quo is threatened by a united group, the US Government's position has always been one of official denial. For the government, the civil rights movement was just a 'fantasy' in the minds of a socially isolated group of people until widespread publicity made it 'real'.

In the early 90s, one might say civil rights movements of the late 50s and 60s have had a substantial effect on mainstream politics, culture and the law. A majority of people in the United States would probably agree that slavery and segregation were indeed 'real' abuses of power. While the plight of African-Americans was once accurately called 'invisible' by Ralph Ellison, it is now quite visible and deemed a force to be reckoned with. What I want to suggest at this point is that minority power and multiculturalism, like the old world order, are predicated upon keeping a particular 'invisible' group of people hidden from sight. The group I mean is white people. This is an incredibly unpopular position to take in a time when white people are often blamed for global injustice. Asking a multicultural society to recognize white people as a marginalized group is perhaps as absurd as claiming aliens are abducting Earth people.

Proponents of minority discourse and multiculturalism claim white people spent most of history recognizing themselves and therefore don't need any more recognition; after all, isn't history written by 'dead white men'? I think the problem with the multiculturalist idea that white people must be stopped like this is that it perpetuates the same old problem of center vs. margin, with the margin coming out a bit whiter this time around. We still live in a divided society, but every race gets to be the people in the center. That is, racial minorities get to occupy the same position white people had in the old world order. As long as we tell ourselves that imperialism was the white people's problem, we make the mistake of thinking that somehow non-white people aren't capable of being just as fearful, ignorant and oppressive as those white people on the ships were centuries ago. Therefore when I say we must recognize white people, what I'm really saying is that we need to recognize the 'white people' in all of us. We are all — white and non-white — capable of taking advantage of each other for power or profit; a non-white ruler can be just as cruel and terrifying as a white one. But as long as the white person bears the burden of guilt for the horrors of imperialism, it will be too easy to forget that imperialist oppression can and does exist without white people at all. The invisible white person in the margin reminds us that oppressive power can exist even when non-whites rule the world.

This is why I think the alien abduction narrative, whatever its 'real' origin, can be understood as a cautionary racial fable for our multicultural times. The moral of this fable is the same one we supposedly already learned from the imperialist fable: when two very different groups experience 'first contact', one group will usually try to dominate the other. When this happens it is wrong and must be resisted. I have already suggested that the aliens, in the alien abduction narrative, resemble white people in a multiculturalist 'revisionist account' of the imperialist narrative. But the aliens are 'invisible' — the abductees barely remember them; members of the government and scientific experts refuse to acknowledge that they exist at all. Official policies on extraterrestrials hold that when they come, they'll give us fair warning and essentially try to befriend us. I would suggest that the alien abduction story, real or imagined, clues us in to the fact that most people on Earth aren't really convinced by the 'official' position of multiculturalism. The multicultural position goes something like this: when the non-whites finally come into their own, they will not be ruthless colonizers like white people were. But the alien abduction story teaches us that what we fear most is that white people are not the only people or beings who might try to take over and rule the world.

And this fear is precisely what multiculturalism makes invisible when it pretends white people were the main problem with imperialism. I propose that multiculturalism look closely at what it means to be a white person in the 90s and admit that white people today have little to do with what it was that made 'white power' so wrong in the past. The danger of associating actual white people with imperialist domination is that it allows everyone to pretend that the end of white people's power means the end of imperialism. These days, multiculturalism teaches us to look for oppression in the wrong places — it's like scientists looking for hyper-technological extraterrestrials with radio receivers. Multiculturalism insists that white people are what is wrong with power today. But isn't this a little bit like the racial prejudice we became multicultural to fight against? If all races are equal and the same, aren't oppressive forms of domination something that non-white people can lay claim to as well? Ignoring 'white people' doesn't make imperialism go away — it just turns the dominant class into something else, an alien society perhaps, or a dominant group which is multiracial.

Furthermore, it seems that as soon as we lose white people in the multiculturalist story of imperialism, we also lose the kind of group resistance associated with non-white civil rights movements. For instance, there is no place in multiculturalism's account of what is 'real' for white people to resist the unfair authority of non-white people. Likewise (to give an extreme example) there is no place in the government's account of what is 'real' for human beings to be ready to resist an extraterrestrial colonizing force. In other words, associating the idea of group resistance with only one kind of group means losing our ability to prepare for historically new situations in which group resistance might be necessary. We leave human culture vulnerable to the same injustices it generated in the past. When we cannot recognize a non-white person (or a non-human being) as an imperialist oppressor, it means we still cannot recognize imperialist oppression period. We forget that what gave white people white power was not the color of their skin but their social values — values which held that society means some must suffer deprivation so others may live comfortably.

The alien abduction narrative is important in all this, especially if humans are only imagining the aliens. For why would humans fear something in their imaginations if it were totally outside their experiences in reality? If the aliens are imaginary, then the aliens are us. Whitley Strieber, the bestselling author of numerous fictional novels, published in 1987 an autobiographical account of his own alien abduction experiences entitled Communion. Concerning the aliens, he writes, 'My impression is that these people, if they exist, are more than a little afraid of us: They are deeply afraid.' This observation brings us back to what might have motivated those white people who centuries ago began abducting non-white people: fear of the unknown and a desire to control that unknown by any means possible. Certainly it was true that in the old world order, it felt better to be a white person than a non-white person, but white people suffered too — from fear. Fear is what made the white people so dangerous. In the new world order, we need to admit that all people can be dangerous. Danger doesn't always wear a white face — it may not even wear a human face. Without recognizing the 'white person' in everyone, we will let down our guard and lose our capacity for (re)organized resistance. What we do not recognize always, at least in human history, comes back and resists us. The non-white people resisted. They were treated with amazing brutality, they were separated from their homes and families and they were told they were no better than animals. And still they resisted. It took centuries, but they did prevail against the white people — they took back their homelands and they slowly forced the white people to recognize them as equals, as members of the same species and the same society. Now there is a new battle to be fought, but it is a human battle. Human beings must recognize the danger they bring upon themselves, regardless of whether they are white or non-white. If we render invisible the 'white person' in everyone, that white person will come back — right back to the white people's old place — in the form of 'aliens', perhaps, who are so like ourselves.

Annalee Newitz is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley. She is co-editor of Bad Subjects.

Copyright © Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.