Halle Bailey was recently cast as Ariel in the live action remake of The Little Mermaid. What was supposed to be a moment of celebration and praise for diversity turned into a reminder of the foundation in which America is rooted- racism. Within hours of the announcement, trolls took to social media platforms, spewing hate. #Notmyariel shot up the trending topics list after the announcement. One news site posted the headlined listed below where they refer to Halle Bailey as “colored.”
Growing up, I never saw myself represented on the silver screen. Most of the time, I saw white actors and actresses. Nearly all of the Disney movies I’ve watched have been about white princesses and I’ve had to measure myself, my self esteem, and self-worth through the eyes of a white protagonist. This erasure of my identity is nothing new. White actors have been cast in stories that were for people of color (i.e Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra…sigh, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, etc.) The feeling of erasure is something that children of color, especially young black girls and boys, have dealt with for as long as media has existed; this burden has caused trauma; trauma that has been passed on through generations.
How can you love yourself if society erases you? Or makes you invisible? Or teaches you that you’re undesirable?
Research studies have confirmed that black children have a preference for whiteness over their own identities/blackness. In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children. In this experiment, four dolls, identical except for color, were used to test children’s racial perceptions. During that time, there were hardly any black dolls available. Majority of the children chose the white dolls and attributed positive characteristics to them while associating negative attributes to dolls that were black. In 2010, CNN recreated the test (but included white children) with the same disturbing results. Most of the children thought the white doll was nicer.
These experiments highlight the effects of colonialism. Whiteness has been the standard of beauty and this standard is a symptom of white supremacy. When I was growing up, I never questioned why I had white dolls. I normalized it and maybe that’s why I sometimes wished that I had lighter skin. Thankfully, I grew up and I unlearned that way of thinking.
How can you love yourself if society erases you? Or makes you invisible? Or teaches you that you’re undesirable? This erasure is not unique to black communities- it affects all cultures/identities that do not fit into the white ideal. For me, movies like Aladdin, Black Panther, Mulan, Crazy Rich Asians and shows like Speechless, whose protagonist has Cerebral Palsy, are important stories that need to be seen. As wonderful as it has been to see a talented black woman cast in such an iconic role, I’m still left saddened that her being cast is seen as an enigma. Last I checked, Ariel is a mythical aquatic creature that lives in a kingdom under the sea. So why is it an issue that she’s black? Being black in America is full of so many wonderful experiences but sometimes there’s a heaviness to it that is hard to bear.