The second half of the third season (TV seasons are weird these days) of The Expanse, which wrapped in late June (thanks, Amazon, for making sure it was a season finale instead of a series finale), begins with a seemingly innocuous detail about one of its characters. It’s a detail communicated not by what is said but by how actor Dominique Tipper says it. Without getting too much into the details of the plot, for either the shows or the books upon which it is based, Tipper plays Naomi Nagata, a native of a region of the solar system known as The Belt. The Belt’s population is descended from early colonizers of the region around the asteroid belt and outer planets. They’ve developed their own customs, patois, and even physiological differences arising from spending their lives on space stations and in low gravity. The crux of the first six books and much of the series is the growing rift between Belters and Inners—residents of Earth and Mars who consider themselves First Citizens, their planets the center of the solar system, and the Belters an exploitable source of labor whose grievances are just the grousing of a bunch of ungrateful upstarts. Since Earth and Mars also can’t get along with each other for very long, Belters find themselves ground between two titans (sometimes while actually on Titan).
Naomi lives with a foot in both worlds, a Belter by birth, proud of that heritage, but one who has become attached to a rogue ship, the Rocinante, otherwise crewed by Inners. Her relationship with her fellow crew members, including an on-again off-again romance with captain James Holden (Steven Strait), is rocky at times. Even among these people she loves and who love her, suspicion and prejudice can creep in. It takes Naomi to point out how often the default consideration for making a decision is how it will affect Earth or Mars, with the Belt often excluded—not out of maliciousness, but simply because no one is used to considering it. When Holden does something for Earth, or when pilot Alex (Cas Anvar) thinks of Mars, it’s not regarded as unusual. But when Naomi speaks up for the Belt, even to people who consider themselves sympathetic to Belters, it’s often regarded with surprise and, at times, even a sense of betrayal. They work through it, but it’s never easy. Naomi is forced time and again to be not so much a person as a walking “teaching moment” in the same way that, for instance, black men and women are expected to constantly, patiently point out when someone who thinks they’re not racist is, in fact, being racist.
At the midpoint of season three, Naomi has left the Rocinante to become chief engineer on a Belter ship, the Behemoth, the foundation of an ascendant, independent Belter government struggling to be taken seriously. I didn’t even notice, at first, what Tipper was doing until someone else mentioned that she suddenly had a thicker Belter accent than she’d previously had. This discussion, on a board full of smart but not culturally diverse people, centered around people like me—who grew up in one region with a distinct accent but live in another with a similarly distinct accent. Sometimes the one comes out, sometimes the other. But it’s never because I feel obligated to do it; it just happens. There’s more going on with Naomi’s accent. I was reminded of another show, Issa Rae’s Insecure, about two black women (and, to a slightly lesser degree, one black man) forced to navigate the nuances of different-but-overlapping aspects of their lives.
Rae plays Issa Dee, a black woman employed at an otherwise white charity working with primarily black kids. Her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), is the only black woman at a successful L.A. law firm. Issa’s boyfriend is a tech wiz and programmer between jobs (when the series begins), dreaming of starting his own business. But because he’s black, he gets few opportunities beyond Best Buy. All three are forced to live dual lives. There are expectations for how to sound and behave in the “white” world and another set for how they behave in the “black” world. The show frequently explores the frustration, confusion, and anger the trio experiences as they are forced to constantly shift between these two sets of expectations: the way one speaks and dresses, and the unfair burden of being the only black person in a setting, which means you suddenly represent all black people.
It’s the same situation in which Naomi finds herself as she bounces between the Rocinante and the Behemoth. Away from Belters, she is often the only Belter in the room; everything she does is every Belter and everything any Belter does is her (but almost always only if it’s bad). There’s a similar episode of Insecure in which Orji’s Molly is overjoyed to see another black woman at the law firm, until it becomes clear that everything the new woman does is suddenly Molly’s responsibility. At the same time, Molly feels responsible for the woman, and for teaching her how to be, bluntly, “less black” in the office. If the new woman screws up, Molly screws up because, hey! Both black people, right?
Naomi frequently finds herself forced to be the representation of the entire Belt. But it’s not just a case of putting on an act among the Inners and being more natural among Belters, or of Issa and Molly being able to “be themselves” among black friends after a day spent masquerading for whites. Issa and Molly feel pressure to “be black” for black friends to prove they haven’t abandoned who they are to fit in better with white culture (and never mind that they may have genuine interests that cross cultures, or are considered the property of one or the other). Similarly, having friends among Inners means when Naomi is back among Belters, she feels pressured to be even more Belter, to prove she hasn’t betrayed her roots. Just as the Inners regard her as all the Belt and side-eye her when a Belter anywhere “misbehaves,” when the Inners do something nasty to the Belt, Belter eyes turn accusingly toward her. She gets it from both sides, and that must be exhausting.
Insecure explores the way minorities are expected to be the de facto corrective measure for well-meaning white people, politely pointing out racial and cultural missteps while always remaining cool, maintaining their patience and temper, and giving white friends and colleagues the benefit of the doubt. If you’re black, you must always be wary of white feelings. It’s the same as when Naomi has to point out the unconscious assumptions and prejudices among her friends on the Rocinante. She’s forced, again, to be the “teaching moment” for everyone—except maybe Amos (Wes Chatham), whose brain doesn’t exactly work the same as everyone else’s (there’s a reason that, while Holden is Naomi’s boyfriend, Amos is her best friend).
A good many well-meaning white people (WMWP), myself included, who slip into expecting a black friend or a woman to “keep an eye on me and let me know if I’m fucking up.” It’s well-intentioned, but it’s unfair to make them about me, to expect the black people around you to endlessly put effort into making you a better person without losing their patience. That must be infuriating, especially since they probably get it from multiple people in a day. Part of reforming ignorance is accepting criticism without getting defensive, but another part is accepting that, if you’re white, minorities aren’t there purely to help you be better. If you’re a man, women aren’t there to be your constant course corrector. They have their own lives to deal with, same as everyone else, so maybe stop dumping the burden of improving yourself on them, and be empathetic when they get fed up with it and lose their temper.
Tipper’s way of expressing the duality by dialing up or down her accent, is a subtle but powerful way to express the unfair split personality forced upon minorities who, by simple function of day-to-day life, must maintain different sets of self to the point where one can easily lose oneself. The Expanse is full of complex characters of different genders and different races played by a talented, diverse cast. Starting with the books, the intention was always to counter the white-washed look of science fiction with a diverse cast. The show consciously and carries over the sentiment into the casting. If Bobbie is a 6-foot-tall Samoan, then by golly they’re going to find a 6-foot-tall Samoan to play her. Holden may be the key to the plot, but he does not succeed without the team. In many ways he’s the least-developed of the ensemble. Dominique Tipper, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Frankie Adams, and season three additions Cara Gee and Elizabeth Mitchell are the core upon which the show is built.
And while I love Bobbie Draper (who, as a Martian with Earther friends, shares with Naomi a need to be two people), determined Drummer, foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala (I cannot wait for Shohreh Aghdashloo and Cara Gee to bounce exasperation off one another), and Reverend Doctor Anna Volovodov (a character I did not care for in the books), Tipper’s Naomi Nagata is particularly and keenly the most interesting to me. There was a scene, last season I think, in which she’s afforded a rare moment to just relax and have fun, and that scene of Naomi/Tipper (who began her career as a dancer) cutting loose on the dance floor is still the most delightful and heartbreaking moment in the entire series.
The Expanse is, ultimately, a story about the tortured path to understanding, to cooperation, and to acceptance. The path to unity always places the greatest burden on minorities. They have to fight endlessly for every scrap of territory, bleed for decades for even the tiniest of victories. All the majority has to do is not be fucking assholes, but that seems beyond the capacity of many. Season three of The Expanse ends with an event of cosmic wonder and looming portents of danger, but what I really wanted by the end of season three was for someone to get Naomi a spa day. Let her spend a few hours, either alone or with Amos, Issa, and Molly, not having everyone’s expectations, assumptions, and prejudice piled on her shoulders.
Thanks, Keith. I was hoping someone would write about Naomi’s accent. Nice piece.
Thanks, and you are most welcome.
I disagree with most of what you’ve said. Belters are just as racist and narrow-minded as Earthers or Martians, just as entitled, and just as malicious. Alex was also the ‘only Martian’ on the ship, but you don’t see him whining about Mars, at least not to remotely the level Naomi does. During the discussion as to what to do with the Protomolecule, Alex was for giving it to Mars, but accepted the majority decision to just destroy it due to how dangerous it was. Naomi, however, decided not to consider what the others thought, and went behind their backs to give the Protomolecule to the Belt. For someone whose voice goes ‘unheard’, she is the one who willingly decided not to give a damn about the option of the others.
Oh, and at one point, she cruelly says that Earth should have a large part of its population killed so they’d know what its like. She’s no better than the others. In fact, she’s certainly worse a person than Holden or Alex.