"Here's how great it is to be white — I can get into a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin' awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege! Black people can't fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like, 'Hey anything before 1980, no thank you, I don't wanna go.'"
Modern European society is legally and officially an egalitarian environment for all ethnicities; most fiction writers suggest that the sci-fi future will be even more so. But if time travel ever becomes an institution in the future, some parts of the past may not be safe for all people to travel to. In particular, the use of Africans as slaves on plantations in The Americas and Arabia in the period c.1600-1870 and the establishment of European protectorates (puppet-governments) over the entire continent of Africa from the 1870s 'til the 1980s lead to Africans being thought of as intrinsically inferior to non-African peoples - the last regime to espouse the inferiority of African peoples was only toppled in 1990. It's safe to say that this period of history casts a long shadow over present-day Africa and the African diaspora in The Americas in particular.
Imagine being a black man and traveling to a place and time when all blacks were second-class citizens (e.g. 1950) or slaves (e.g. 1860) and had to carry papers to prove otherwise, or where they were likely to be lynched for using the wrong public toilet or being in the wrong neighbourhood. Similar issues exist for other peoples too — a non-Chinese of any sort found in China during the Boxer Rebellion would be beaten to death in short order. Likewise, being a Semite, Roma, Slav, or homosexual and traveling to Nazi Germany (or any Nazi-occupied area, for that matter) is a really bad idea, unless you want to experience a very, very nasty death. If they go to these dangerous time periods anyway, expect repercussions. Women in many eras and places will have similar issues, although to a lesser degree — the culture shock of a less modern and/or liberal society may be a plot point.
How realistic (at least, to the extent that a story about time travel can be rooted in realism) this trope is varies. There is no use pretending that racism did not exist, but the levels and expressions thereof have varied wildly throughout history — it is not cleanly divided between the dangerous Past and the accepting Present.
Note that one should be careful not to generalize, as bigotry was never universal even in eras when it was at its height. Hillsdale College was a 'liberal-arts school' (i.e. university) in the 'Great Lakes' area USA State of Michigan that admitted women, Jews, atheists, and Africans as students before The American Civil War - a big deal given that the USA did not ban slavery until the very last months of the Civil Warnote so as to hamstring the economies of her rebellious states and decide forever the ultimate fate of slavery, the uncertain and controversial future of which had been a big factor in starting war.
Frequently subverted for laughs with a Discriminate and Switch — e.g., nobody cares that you're a black woman, but wearing trousers?!?
Compare Black Vikings, Politically Correct History. Also Eternal Sexual Freedom.
open/close all folders
One arc of JSA saw some of the team sent into the 50s to the time of the original Justice Society. The black Mr. Terrific had some unpleasant experiences in the pre-Civil Rights era, like being forced to change train cars, but took it rather stoically. And then, just to rub it in, he fights a KKK chapter who manages to get a noose around his throat.
In Yoko Tsuno's last story involving time travel, Monya points out that it's easier to walk unnoticed in medieval China without Yoko's European friends. A little odd, because usually the whole gang traveled, but now they have so many extra members that there is a sufficient team without them.
When the Runaways have an adventure in 1905 New York City, Xavin—a Skrull (shapeshifting alien) whose default human form is a teenage black lesbian—sticks to an adult white male form for most of the adventure. Also, Nico encounters some racism and Caroline is nearly raped when she goes sight-seeing since a lone young woman must be "asking for it" (the would-be rapist got an energy blast for his troubles). Interestingly, Victor doesn't face any troubles despite being a Hispanic falling in love with a white girl.
One of the Justice League one-shots had a story where Steel and Wonder Woman are sent back in time to the year 1574. In order to hide their true identities, Wonder Woman poses as a pirate, while Steel is forced to pose as an African slave.
Inversion in the Winter Soldier: Winter Kills one-shot. Bucky Barnes (who is from the 1940s) uses the term "pansy" as an offhanded insult, and Kate Bishop of the Young Avengers calls him out for being homophobic. He clarifies that he meant it as an insult for wimpy men, not gays.
Timeline: In the movie adaption of Michael Crichton's novel, one of the time travellers gets killed by 14th century Englishmen (who are at war with France), due to his French accent. This is a bit odd, considering that British royalty actually spoke a French dialect at the time in Real Life, and French accents change over time, so a modern-day Frenchman wouldn't necessarily sound anything like a 14th Century Frenchman.
Variation in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes. Zira and Cornelius are talking apes from the future, where their kind rule the planet. When they travel back in time, they're in 1970s USA, where humans rule and apes are wild animals, resulting in them being taken to a zoo and assumed to be normal animals until they reveal their secret.
Men In Black 3 features this. Agent J is warned before he goes back in time that the 1960's, to paraphrase, "weren't the best time for... you guys". Minutes after arriving in 1960s New York City, the time pressed J steals a (rather nice) car to head off the villain's plot, after being thrown the keys when mistaken for a valet. Predictably, two white cops stop him along the way to his destination, leading to humorous results.
J: Just because you see a black man driving a nice car does not mean it's stolen! Well, this one is...
Averted in Black Knight. Martin Lawrence's character Jamal ends up in Medieval England and isn't treated any different from a white man, although he gets annoyed at frequently being called "Moor". In fact, the big problem people have with him is his attitude. Of course, he starts being treated much better after he accidentally names himself as the messenger of the Duke of Normandy. Any of his oddities are attributed to him being a "Norman". Then again, it was All Just a Dream - or was it?.
Octavia Butler covers the perils of time traveling while black in the 1979 novel Kindred - the black protagonist goes to 19th-century Maryland to meet her ancestors, one of whom is a white slave owner. Drama ensues.
In To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, the time-travel research division at Oxford contains a black student and a South Indian professor. The plot of the book involves everyone else in the department being forced to do far too much time travel for their own health to satisfy a rich donor's demands in researching the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. Those two celebrate their good luck, as they can't do much time-traveling into pre-1940s England for safety reasons.
Inverted in Andre Norton's The Time Traders series, where both the titular organization's agents and their Soviet counterparts are sent on undercover missions in different areas and eras of history (and their cover identities composed) specifically on the basis of their racial makeup. Not only is conspicuous behavior avoided for fear of the usual Butterfly of Doom, but because word of it in history books would alert the enemy to your position in time.
The book A Wish After Midnight sends a girl back to the Civil War.
Pretty much the entire point of Harry Harrison's A Rebel In Time. White supremacist goes back in time to help the South win the Civil War, and a black FBI agent decides it will be a snap to follow the killer back to antebellum deep south. When the slave owners of the era see his high quality clothes and hear his 20th century New York college educated accent, things proceed pretty much as you'd expect under the circumstances.
In Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, only one of the three time travellers sent to change the result of Columbus' first encounter with native Americans is the appropriate race for the culture that they will be dealing with (and none of them are white). In the end, one character, a black woman, has to overcome a lot of prejudice to win over the natives, but she eventually succeeds while another, a middle-eastern man sent to sabotage one of Columbus' ships, actually uses his race to the mission's advantage, revealing himself and allowing his Heroic Sacrifice to unite the crew against the "Muslim enemy". Even the Mayan going back to visit the Mayans is a foot taller than the Mayans of that time, making him stand out.
The Muslim is explicitly stated as being white. It is only when he speaks Arabic and declares himself a Turk that his race becomes an issue...
The "foot taller" part helps, as his goal is to convince the natives that he's a messenger of the gods.
Tunnels Of Treachery plays with this - the two previous books both involved white kids going back in time using the Moose Jaw tunnels, and when their Chinese-Canadian friends do so, they get a very different reception.
Averted in S.M. Stirling's Nantucket series: Capt. Alston, an African-American Coast Guard officer, is assumed, by the Bronze Age people she encounters, to be a respected Nubian warrior chief. Of course, many presume she is a man until convinced otherwise.
In Time Scout, Women cannot be scouts. Period. When Margo insists, she ends up tortured and gang-raped by downtime Catholics and is almost burned at the stake. They can be guides. Guiding and scouting are wildly different professions; guiding is a fairly safe if high-compentence profession strictly limited to well-explored times and places where a woman can learn to blend in. Scouting is an extreme-risk profession where one is operating without a net and guides all but guaranteed to die horribly. The race issue is never brought up.
Played with in The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman. Sophie — who is white in 1960 — goes back in time to 1860 and is instantly assumed to be a slave thanks to her tan and frizzy hair.
Averted (and lampshaded) in the 1632 series. Two black characters from twenty-first century America are both doctors, and this is readily accepted by the seventeenth-century Europeans, who assume they're Moors (who were far and away the most trusted physicians of the time, with the possible exception of Jews). The only issue is that they're father and daughter and it takes the down-timers some time to be convinced of the daughter's qualifications as she's a woman.
It is mentioned in the first Time Wars novel that while the Temporal Corps recruits women, they are often limited to support roles in missions as not many time periods have frontline female fighters.
Played completely straight in Jon Birmingham's Axis of Time trilogy, where a Multinational Taskforce from the 21st century is transported by a Negative Space Wedgie to 1942. A good number of crewmembers from the "uptimer" ships are either black or Asian. In fact, the "temps" are incredulous to find out that the "uptimers" put a black woman in command of a warship. One of the main characters is a black Marine, who jibes as a "temp" named Dan Black about racism. Dan shuts him down by pointing out that in his father's household, anyone who used the N-word would be sorry. The liberal views of the 21st century clash hard with the "normal" views of 1940s America. To this end, Admiral Kolhammer gets FDR to declare an area in California as a Special Administrative Zone, where the laws and customs of the 21st century are the norm. J Edgar Hoover is determined to shut down the Zone, claiming that it's amoral. In response, Kolhammer tries to expose Hoover as a closet gay.
Played straight with women in Scott Meyer's Off to Be the Wizard. It's fairly easy for men who discover the file and travel back in time to pretend to be wizards/sorcerers/fakirs/shamans/etc. in the past. However, any woman who tries to do the same usually runs straight into the Burn the Witch! attitude of most of history. Thus, most women end up traveling to the 4th century BC to the city of Atlantis, a Lady Land built in the Mediterranean as a safe haven for sorceresses. Averted with wizards named Tyler (black) and Eddie (Asian). They choose to live in 12th century England. When asked, Tyler replies that he claims to be a Moor. The locals then assume that he has either converted to Christianity or is powerful enough not to care. Eddie pretends to be a sorcerer from the Far East named Wing Po, despite his heavy Joisey accent. Either way, being a powerful wizard means that the locals won't dare touch them or complain about their non-whiteness.
Martha Jones (who is black) tends to get away with this for the most part, though her trips are rarely to the distant past and when it is, the issue will be addressed.
"The Shakespeare Code" had Martha worried about being sold as a slave, but the Doctor assured her this wasn't actually an issue. In reality, there actually were some black people in England, none of whom were slaves, and the dialog was actually meant to teach kids that England wasn't entirely white in the 17th century.
The later "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood" two-parter (set in 1913) had Martha's race subtly addressed as nobody believed a woman, let alone a poor minority woman, was capable of being a doctor. Martha got a Crowning Moment Of Awesome proving her extensive medical knowledge to one such doubter.
The original novel that the episode was based on starred companion Bernice Summerfield, who ditches her skirts about twenty minutes into the adventure in favour of her regular trousers. This gets her into a lot of trouble.
The early Hartnell series sometimes avoided this by having the female characters dress as men. This happens in The Crusade and The Smugglers. The Massacre, meanwhile, has no female companion until the very end (which is set in the present day).
In the First Doctor book The Plotters, the Doctor dresses his female companion as a boy again, only to end up finding this has exactly the opposite intended effect when she attracts the attention of a lecherous old gay king who sets about trying to woo her.
Also in the Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures episode "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith," when Rani goes back to the 1950s looking for Sarah Jane.
Rani: "Yes, I get it, ethnic person in the 50s!"
Some of the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels have this become a bit of an issue for Anji Kapoor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, she's treated as exotic and mystical but not outright abused. Wearing a sari helps; too bad she hates wearing saris. Fitz Kreiner, who's white and British, gets almost as much trouble for stuff like his lower-class London accent.
Rose also gets called out in the episode "Tooth and Claw" by Queen Victoria herself and several other characters who repeatedly describe her as being naked, due to the short overalls and tights she wears through the episode.
Inverted with the First Doctor Big Finish Doctor Who companion Oliver Harper, who is worried about time travel due to being a gay man from the 1960s, when homosexuality was illegal. Steven Taylor, from hundreds of years in the future, hadn't even thought about this and finds the idea of people discriminating against someone for their sexual orientation faintly surreal.
In Torchwood, Jack Harkness and Toshiko Sato are stuck in 1940s Cardiff, and Tosh expresses some very real concerns about being Japanese and in WWII.
Amanda's black roommate in Lost in Austen points out that she can't go through the door because she's black.
An third season episode of seaQuest DSV, the titular sub ends up in the 60s during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Commander Jonathan Ford (a black man) takes a team to the surface. They "borrow" a car and take it to their destination on the shore. On the way, they pass by car full of young men. They arrive to the beach only to see the other car pull up behind them and the guys getting out with baseball bats. Ford suddenly notices a "No blacks allowed" sign and remembers his history. Plus, he was in the same car as a white woman, which only pissed off the 60s guys more. Luckily, all of the team members are military-trained, so a bunch of punks with baseball bats is not a threat.
Averted but discussed in the Stargate SG-1 episode "1969". The hippie calls Teal’c “brother” and insists that he ride up front with him. The hippie is making a point of showing that he's not racist, unlike a lot of his contemporaries.
Subverted in a Chappelle's Show sketch, where "Playa Haters" go back in time and shoot a Southern plantation owner.
Done with space travel rather than time travel on the original The Tomorrow People, when the characters visit a planet of Human Aliens. As there are no dark-skinned people on that world (or at least that part of it), a black character from Earth isn't able to accompany her companions in public.
Averted on the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Time's Arrow," where the android Data is sent back in time to late-1800s San Francisco. His Starfleet uniform gets more attention than his albino-pale skin and yellow eyes, and he's able to pass without trouble by telling everyone he is from France. (It helps that, having a perfect memory, he can speak perfect French.)
Also averted without explanation in the case of Geordi (a black man), who only has to hide his anachronistic VISOR, and Guinan, a black-looking Human Alien who lives in that time and lives a high-class life.
Cited on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as a reason Sisko doesn't want to participate in a holodeck program set in 1962 Las Vegas — even if the program doesn't recreate racial discrimination, as that just makes it an unjustified romanticization of a troubled period.
This trope was the center of an early Quantum Leap episode, where Sam ends up in the body of a black man, in the past. Sam nearly gets himself into hot water immediately by trying to sit down in a cafe and order a meal.
Contact magazine, based on the 3-2-1 Contact TV show, had a recurring segment involving two time-traveling teenagers. One installment had the (presumably white) American kids get in trouble when they ended up in Japan during World War II. In Hiroshima just before the bomb was dropped, no less.
Stand Up Comedy
Comedian Louis CK points this out when mentioning how great it is to be a white man. A white man can get into a time machine and go just about anywhere at any time and be welcome. If you're black, you wouldn't want to go anywhere earlier than the 1980s. On the other hand, he wouldn't want to go into the future, since Karma's coming to bite the white man... hard.
Alonzo Bodden, a black comedian, made the same point about American nostalgia.
You know why black people don't understand the Republican party? It's simple; they're always talking about the 'good old days'. We didn't have any good old days! 'Hey, remember the back of the bus? You could always find a seat on the back of the bus.'
"1886. I couldn't handle going any farther Down then. I was young. Playing the slave was not something Evana was ever going to do."
World of Warcraft uses a Fantastic Racism variation of this trope: player races that were not a part of the Alliance prior to the Third War are given a race-lift while running certain instances in the Caverns of Time, so that they avoid attracting unwanted attention.
Of course, many of World of Warcraft PC races weren't even known to exist until sometime during or after the Third War, including the Worgen, Tauren, Night Elves, and Pandaren — who weren't even discovered by the larger world until the aftermath of the Third War, and remain an obscure and little-known race by the start of Mists of Pandaria — so some of it is less unwanted attention in the form of overt racism and more in the form of "What the hell are you, and why are you here?"
A similar disguise is used in Mists of Pandaria to explain each faction taking part in Scenarios featuring the other faction's leaders. Well, sort of; the in-character explanation is that the characters are listening to/participating in a sort of historical record.
Partly done in the War Of The Ancients trilogy of novels, where the three time travelers all come from races that weren't around 10,000 years ago (or, at least, aren't known to the Night Elves). Rhonin, a human, is seen as a pale, mutated elf. Krasus is a red dragon but his humanoid form is that of a High Elf. He is the most accepted, although his pale skin gets strange looks. Broxigar is an orc. Since orcs are not native to Azeroth and wouldn't show up in that world until thousands of years later, he's just seen as a big, green brute. It's also implied that seeing Brox would inspire Mannoroth to seek out others like him and corrupt the original orcs later.
In one episode of X-Men, a few alternate-universe versions of the X-Men travel back to the 50s to save the younger Professor Xavier from a time-traveling assassin. They all talk at a cafe, and the owner gets pissy about the fact that Storm and Wolverine (an African and a Caucasian, respectively) are a couple. Naturally, this makes Wolverine completely flip out.
What, didn't he notice that Wolverine radiates "don't fuck with me" vibes?
Chris Sims: At the same time, shouldn’t this dude have been worried when these people walked in and two of them were dressed like characters from a Fallout game and one of them was CARRYING A GIGANTIC GUN? I will say, though, that I do like the idea of a dude being so racist that the laser shotgun isn’t as big a problem as interracial hand-holding.
Not surprising given that the X-Men are one big metaphor for racism and prejudice. Though Storm is more amused than offended—after facing persecution her whole life for being a mutant, she remarks that plain old fashioned racism is almost quaint.
Amusingly also something of an inversion, as this also gets them mistaken for beatniks, resulting in a patron with beatnik sympathies siding with them in the ensuing brawl.
Family Guy episode "Road To Germany". Mort, who is Jewish, accidentally activates Stewie's time machine and is set to Poland on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Stewie and Brian go back in time to rescue him. At one point they need to pass as Nazis themselves, and having Mort the walking stereotype in tow proves problematic. At one point, they tried to pass Mort off as a Catholic priest. And then he's asked to give someone their Last Rites.
Averted in the Transformers Rescue Bots season 1 finale "It's a Bot Time"/"Bot to the Future". No one says anything at all about Frankie's race or gender. This is justified, since Rescue Bots is a children's show and the scientists that meet her have bigger things to think about.
Not actually time travel, but a similar idea: for those who want to research their family history, they'll probably run into trouble after a few generations if they aren't of English descent. Why? Because most other countries (particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe) didn't keep detailed records of births and deaths until the late nineteenth century, and even today, that's only a handful of generations ago. (As in the number of generations can be counted on one hand.) On the other hand, Eastern countries did keep records for a long time, but if you don't live in an Asian country yourself, you probably can't read them. Thus, in the English-speaking world, if you aren't of WASP descent on at least one branch of your family, you're out of luck if you want to trace your ancestry back far.
Doesn't work for pre-Henry VIII England either, as it was his Chancellor Thomas Cromwell who ordered that every (then still Catholic) priest in England make a record of all the births and deaths in their parish. They were rather leery of the idea at the time, because they (rightly) suspected it would be used as a way of determining the extent to which certain districts ought to be taxed, but the idea's more than proven its worth in the times since.
Would not be, contra the Louis CK quote, an exclusively white thing, since ethnic mobility was quite low for most of history. Try being anything other than Japanese in Edo Japan, for instance.
Past a certain point in history, it would be practically inverted. White people lived on a region of the world's second smallest continent. For the rest of the world, travelers would need to be people of color.