Race, the American pastime, and ‘The X-Files’ twenty* years later

*okay, 17 years for this episode, 24 for the series overall

I hope you’ve seen The X-Files, because it is a bit beyond my time constraints to catch you up on this series. It’s on Hulu and Netflix (but Netflix declined to put title cards or subtitles, so have fun); enjoy.

I want to talk about the superb season six episode “The Unnatural,” a lower deck episode taking place 52 years before the present (1999) day. IMDb’s synopsis goes like this:

Mulder uncovers a story involving a Negro baseball player in the 1940s who played for a minor league team in Roswell. When in a photograph he sees the Alien Bounty Hunter it is assumed that Josh Exley, the baseball player in question, might just be alien himself.

I don’t believe in spoiler alerts because a piece of media is objectively terrible if a single piece of information can spoil the entire thing, but if you’re one of Those People, spoiler alert (you can also read a fan transcript of the entire episode here):

When Arthur Dales finally puts together what Exley is (an alien), he realizes why Exley chose to present as a black man when trying to blend in and integrate into human society: as a member of a marginalized class rather than a dominant one, he would in some ways be less scrutinized and would avoid the sort of fame that might cause him to reveal his secret unwittingly. Or, as Mulder describes it,

Let me get this straight: a free-spirited alien fell in love with baseball and ran away from the other non-fun-having aliens and made himself black, because that would prevent him from getting to the majors where his unspeakable secret might be discovered by an intrusive press and public…

This is foreshadowed during the episode’s cold open, when he remarks to the opposing team’s catcher, “I don’t want to be no famous man–just want to be a man.”

As I noted, this is a lower deck episode, so it’s really just a quick way of giving us some extra insight on the show’s greater mythology about aliens and the time they’ve been on earth preparing for colonization. But it also offers a lot to think about as far as “honorary” racial group membership, neoliberal attitudes about colorblindness, and the appropriation or occupation of black bodies, so it’s especially interesting after seeing “Get Out.”

A major element of the series’ mythology is that aliens are seemingly immortal (unless executed) and unaging, and they can “occupy” anyone’s body not by possessing it but by shapeshifting into an identical copy of it. This is how Exley is able to shift from alien form into young, adorable Jesse L. Martin. So in this way they violate all humans’ rights to bodily autonomy, and given that it’s a television show made in America for network television, that means most of the time the aliens impersonate white people. But in “The Unnatural,” it’s different, because they’re not posing as others just to obfuscate or hide evidence or to throw red herrings in our protagonists’ ways–there is an alien who, for reasons unknown (aside from that he likes baseball and people wouldn’t take kindly to a non-human joining Little League), decides to join a society and take on its burdens and struggles as his own, even though he’s only been “human” for five years. In “On Being White…and Other Lies,” James Baldwin notes that identifying as white is, “absolutely, a moral choice” (n.p.), while being black is something placed upon you. So what does it mean for someone to choose to be black? (Looking at you, Rachel Dolezal.)

Actor Amandla Stenberg (they/them) has a now-infamous video about how anti-blackness extends to appropriating and repurposing black culture and divorcing it from black struggle: “What If We Loved Black People As Much As Black Culture?” Exley is something in between. He jumped into the black community without being invited or forced into it, but since joining, he has accepted the struggles with them–including a KKK bounty on his head (“keep baseball pure!”). Do we give him credit for that? Or is it just as bad as Dolezal?

As an athlete, even in the minor minor leagues, Exley enjoys higher status than your average black man. This is why, when the KKK comes for him, the Roswell police department orders protection. That’s how we get Arthur Dales, a plucky young (white) cop who treats Exley with deference that could be part authorial oversight (since it’s not strange to see people insert anachronistic or guilty “I’m totally not racist!” moments into historical fiction) and part class-related: public servants are lower on the social ladder than baseball players. Dales, until he becomes friends with Exley, always uses “sir” when speaking to him.

He also, however, introduces himself as police protection and gives us this:

Dales: “I really don’t have an opinion on Negroes–or Jews, or Communists…or even Canadians and vegetarians, for that matter. But I cannot stomach the murder of a man of any persuasion or any color being flaunted and solicited in my town. Not on my watch.”

We’re meant to understand Dales as one of the good white people out to do the right thing, but he gives a classic example of neoliberal racism in the form of colorblindness. He may as well say he doesn’t see color. However, a short while later, he gets to know the team while traveling on their bus, and he passes a certain test:

Exley: “Hey, Officer Dales, you a decent man, ain’t you?”

Dales: “I try to be.”

Exley: “Well, the fellas feel like the umps would treat us better if you got us eight more uniforms like these to play in.” (indicates the police uniform)

Dales: (laughs) “Yeah, you could change your name from the Roswell Grays to the Roswell Black and Blues.”

(The joke seems not to have gone over well. Long nervous pause where all the black team members gather threateningly around YOUNG ARTHUR DALES, then they all start laughing and someone slaps a hat on YOUNG ARTHUR DALES) -from transcript

It’s one of those “you can say ‘nigga,’ but can I say ‘nigga?’ What about ‘nigger’?” kind of moments.

So I think we can conclude that Dales is not exactly woke, but he’s not a jerk, and he’s trying. It’s not his fault that he can’t actually learn about what it really means to carry around a black body when he discovers that Exley, in fact, only rents a black body; he doesn’t own it. (I’m reminded of the particularly applicable episode of the deeply problematic “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in which Titus realizes that he’s treated better in a werewolf costume than he is as a black man.)

But Exley. What is Exley? In trying to work out how this might relate to whiteness as property (Harris), I’m at a loss. He has declined property that he was not exactly entitled to, being non-human, but that he had access to. Does that make him a hero? Does that mean he’s allowed to consider himself oppressed? Does that make him a hypocrite? Should he have decided to be white because it’s rude to take on the black man’s struggle without “earning” it? Does he diminish racial realities by easily slipping in unnoticed and enjoying what he sees are benefits (invisibility, lower status) of black identity?

It seems he struggles with this as well. Part of the episode’s arc is about the Alien Bounty Hunter (that is the character’s name throughout the series–remember, there’s also a character named Cigarette Smoking Man, and he remains so even after we learn that he has an actual name, which is C.G.B. Spender, which is frankly sillier than Cigarette Smoking Man, but I digress) coming to bring Exley home because he’s jeopardizing “the project” by integrating himself into human society more than necessary and without ever working for “the project” (colonization). This confrontation, it seems, is what it takes for Exley to become woke:

Exley: I had a talk with my relative. A good talk. He made me understand reason, Arthur. Family’s more important than any game. So… I got to go home.

Dales: You still consider them to be your family?

Exley: Of course I do. Who you think my family is?

Dales: I don’t know. Your team?

Exley: Don’t get cornball on me, man. Next thing you’ll be telling me is I owe it to all the little kids to break the home-run record, or I owe it to the black folks who think I’m one of them, to make it to the majors or I should just keep playing out of some meaningless human concept of pride or loyalty.

Dales: I don’t know, Ex.

Exley: We don’t think like that, man. We may be able to look like y’all, but we ain’t y’all. You know the big thing that separates us from you?

Dales: What’s that?

Exley: We got rhythm.

Exley recognizes that people are counting on him to mean something for black people. That black people, even as individuals, always carry their group with them, whether it’s being asked to give the Single Black Opinion in the board room or to achieve at the highest level in whatever field. It seems that here is when Exley realizes that he is appropriating an experience that does not rightly belong to him, and that he may not just disappoint people but actually damage their fight for equality if he is found out just when he is in a position of elevating or inspiring his chosen community. Minority exceptionality, already a problematic concept, is hurt even more if you can say, “Well, look, he wasn’t even black! That’s why he was so great.” #eugenics

So that’s all well and good, except that the episode wants us to see this as a tragedy. Adorable li’l Josh Exley doesn’t get to play baseball anymore because his mean daddy figure thinks he’s slumming it with people less than him. We’re meant to see the Alien Bounty Hunter as the evil bigot (he literally rides in as a member of the KKK and is himself outed as an alien when his sheet falls off–the big Moral Lesson here is that KKK members are so bad because they’re not human, so don’t worry, fragile white people; you’re not so bad!), Dales as Atticus Finch, and Exley as the poor thing caught in the crossfire (Boo Radley? I make a point of not wasting my precious time reading white savior tales, so I’m basing this on cultural savvy and having seen the movie twenty or so years ago–all I know is it’s not Scout, and I don’t know the names of any other characters because I don’t care). Exley is just a nice boy who wanted to play some baseball, and Mulder’s wry synopsis observes.

Kind of like the moment on the bus when Dales is initiated into the club of White People Who Are Sometimes Allowed To Make Racialized Jokes, one of Exley’s final statements to him plays with racist standards in a way that confuses the power balance and social hierarchies even more:

Exley: You got a pretty good arm on you, boy.

“Boy” is an obvious reference to the southern (Exley is “from” Macon, Georgia) white insistence on calling even the oldest black men “boy” to subjugate them. But who is the socially superior person here? Dales knows that Exley is not actually black. But which is better, human or alien? And since Exley is obviously playing with the fact that Dales has already showed his deference and respect for him by flipping racial, not species, hierarchies on him, is it just a jab at him for being a white guy? It’s hard to say.

I’m struggling with this, because I think I need to find this episode problematic, but it is also Such. A. Gem. as far as television is going. The dialogue, the match cuts, the hilarious way they explained the lack of availability of the actor who played Arthur Dales in past episodes…it’s all fantastic. But I don’t know what to conclude from everything that’s happening racially, only to recognize that it’s happening.

What do you think this episode would look like today?

And now I’ll leave you with this, in case any others of you are forever attached to Scully and Mulder:



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