Fear of a Black Mermaid

July 9, 2019   |   By Ellen McGirt

From Fortune:

It should have been a simple dream come true. 

Nineteen-year-old Halle Bailey, one half of the sister singing sensation Chloe x Halle, has been tapped to play the lead in the live action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

“After an extensive search it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice— all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role,” said director Robert Marshall, Jr. in a statement to NBC News.

But Bailey is black. So the seaweed hit the fan.

“ARIEL IS WHITE WITH RED HAIR!” said the cultural police in a never-ending stream of online complaints, some fairly racist. 

Bailey had plenty of defenders, including entertainment heavyweights Kerry Washington, Chrissy Teigen, Zendaya, and Ariana Grande. Jodie Benson, the original voice of Ariel in the 1989 animated film was asked about it on stage at the pop culture mega-convening, Florida Supercon. “We need to be storytellers,” Benson said. “And no matter what we look like on the outside, no matter our race, our nation, the color of our skin, our dialect, whether I’m tall or thin, whether I’m overweight or underweight, or my hair is whatever color, we really need to tell the story.”

Indeed we do.

The idea that a fictional mermaid should forever remain a white girl because Hans Christian Anderson, her creator, was white, and Disney presented her as white in the past, is a tough one to defend in the modern age.

“Brandy [who played Cinderella in a 1997 film version] walked so Halle Bailey could swim,” tweeted entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon.

But just because the outrage doesn’t track, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t deeply felt.

There are more than just Euro-centric notions of beauty at play, though they remain powerful and difficult to dismantle. It’s also that white people can experience anguish, even unconsciously so, when they lose the societal benefits attached to whiteness.

An anti-bias facilitator and educator named Val Brown posted some research on Twitter that helps illuminate this phenomenon. She's a treasure, by the way. Her online discussion forum for educators #ClearTheAir, regularly tackles thorny topics on inclusion. Follow her here.)

The paper was by Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pedagogical theorist, researcher, and instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison called Just What Is Critical Race Theory and What’s It Doing In a Nice Field Like Education?

In the piece, Ladson-Billings reviews existing research on race theory, in the hopes of identifying information that would accelerate racial reform in her field of education. The need for the work was affirmed during the early days of her quest; she describes experiencing marked hostility when presenting working versions of this paper in peer-reviewed settings. Why are you talking only about race? What about gender? That sort of thing. 

While the entire paper is worth your time, Brown flags one section as particularly instructive. Ladson-Billings cites a study which asked white college students whether they believed things were better for Blacks in this day and age. The answers were mostly yes. Then the students were asked if they would be willing to change place with African Americans. None would. And then this: 

"When asked what amount of compensation they would seek if they were forced to "become Black,’ the students ‘seemed to feel that it would not be out of place to ask for $50 million, or $1 million for each coming Black year.’"

An interesting twist in the fictional case for reparations.

“According to [the study]: And this calculation conveys, as well as anything, the value that white people place on their own skins. Indeed, to be white is to possess a gift whose value can be appreciated only after it has been taken away."

Suddenly white Ariel isn’t just a mermaid anymore.

The debate about the Disney production continues to rage on, though sadly, without critical race theory context. The closest we may get comes from Freeform, Disney’s teen channel, who weighed in with an intelligent response on social media. 

“Yes. The original author of 'The Little Mermaid' was Danish,” they sighed on Instagram. “Ariel...is a mermaid.” You know, a fictional creature. “But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Ariel, too, is Danish. Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black.” They even had some smart things to say about the red hair, too.

But ultimately, they put the responsibility back where it belongs, though not in the same way that Ladson-Billings might.

“So after all this is said and done, and you can’t get past the idea that choosing the incredible, sensational, highly-talented, gorgeous Halle Bailey is anything other than INSPIRED casting that it is because 'she doesn’t look like the cartoon one,’ oh boy do I have news for you… about you.”