tl;dr: No, not everyone’s a racist for not being happy. But yes, everything’s about race.
The Ariel Debate
Yes, yet another writer is posting an article about the current Ariel debate. Which let’s be honest, has just devolved into a grudge match about race. But many are sidestepping discussion on the complexities of race and how it affects this situation and all others. So, I’m attempting to do so.
When I first heard the news that Halle Bailey was going to play Ariel in the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, I was excited. Being someone into movie news, I knew for months that there was a chance that Ariel would be played by a black actress. I just thought that Zendaya was going to be that actress. But being a light fan of Bailey’s, I was still satisfied.
Unfortunately, the conversation quickly changed into arguments about race and appropriation. Except, no one actually wants to talk. They just wanted to yell that each side is wrong (as people do on the internet). I tried to mind my own business, despite the fact that every other tweet and Facebook post is about this debate. But eventually, while leaving the theater after seeing Spider-Man: Far From Home, I got a text from a friend asking my thoughts on the issue. And I apparently had a lot to say, as I wrote two pages worth of thoughts.
I’ll try to sum those up for you below.
For White Ariel
My main issue with this entire conversation is the unwillingness of both sides to see each other’s perspective. Either side is labeling the other as evil for not agreeing with them. Those who oppose the Ariel casting are racist, and those who are for it are appropriators.
On the idea of casting a black woman for the role, I get the disappointment. Ariel is one of the most iconic Disney Princesses. Changing her race changes her being to some people. And you know what? That’s ok. A change in race does incite a change in perception/representation and some people may be upset about it. The liberally minded don’t have to raise their internet pitchforks at someone’s natural reaction.
It is not illegitimate for gingers or white people to be bummed that this live-action Ariel will be represented differently. Just as LGBTQ people get upset when Marvel characters aren’t depicted as they were in earlier material, white people can be upset that the live-action Ariel isn’t depicted as she was in the last Disney version. The silencing of white perspectives and feelings and labeling it as racist is oppressive and counterproductive.
Also yes, there is a double standard that black people are allowed to take iconic white roles for the sake of diversity and representation. While I am constantly writing about the need for diversity and inclusion for this site and others, it does not escape me that black people are given more permission to play white roles as if it’s an unquestionable right.
For Black Ariel
That said, there is a reason for that double standard. You see, there are fewer black roles in comparison to white ones. One example that I love is that there are two jars. One is mostly full and one is half full (or less). Take from the full jar and it still has a lot. Take from the half jar and you have less than half. As such, it’s understandable that society sees taking from the full jar and giving to the half jar as better than the other way around.
Of course, someone will get mad no matter what.
But there’s another argument to be made in favor of a Black Ariel. The original Ariel appeared in a book by a Danish author, but Disney’s animation turned the location to a Caribbean locale. Yet, the only black voice or caricature was the crab Sebastian. Everyone else was voiced by or was visibly shown to be white. Perhaps this live-action version of the film is going to correct that by casting the mermaids (and maybe even the humans) as black. Or perhaps, it will be a diverse mix (as we see with Melissa McCarthy’s potential casting as Ursula).
What is undeniable is that Black people, and all minorities for that matter, are increasingly frustrated. We are tired of the lack of movies about us, starring us, and supporting us. For instance, list how many Black gay characters in tv series and movies that you can name. Now, create a list for how many White gay characters come to your mind. The casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel is a triumph for her and for Black people simply, and gigantically, because a black person is taking center stage.
Racist Thoughts & Racist People
But let’s be real, there’s more going on with this situation than just pro-White Ariel and pro-Black Ariel. This casting has highlighted the need to talk about race and racism (especially in America). Because you see, we’re still under the guise that race doesn’t affect every aspect of our lives and that we are not all capable of racism.
In my mind, racism is on a spectrum or sliding scale. We’re all a little racist and can all be a little racist. But when we hear the words racism/racist, we often think of the extremes. Nazis, the KKK, dudes with tiki torches spitting in your face. But just as Avenue Q sang decades ago, “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.” And I’ll use myself as an example.
In May, I visited my old college campus Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which is the first Historically Black College/University in the United States of America that was founded in 1837 before the emancipation proclamation and before it was legal to teach black people. I was visiting for the big Alumni block party but got there early. So, my friend and I sat in the car and listened to music.
During that time, I noticed three black men walking through the parking lot. Eventually, they walked up to a car near us, opened it without unlocking the door, and started poking around inside. I watched them from the corner of my eye and later said to my friend, “Did they just open that car and take something?” My friend asked me how I didn’t know if it was their car (frankly, I didn’t). He then said I was just being racist. And while I immediately wanted to reject the idea, I took a second and realized, “You know what? I probably was.”
Racism Is A Sliding Scale
Honestly, the moment wasn’t a good color on me. But at the very least, I’m happy that I could own up to it. The problem with race talks today is that no one wants to own up to the fact that we can all be racist.
Racism works in many ways and you can do/say/think something racist without being a terrible person. Casual racism exists. The key here is recognizing if someone is saying/thinking something racist or if they are racist. One is redeemable through conversation, the other is too far gone.
Take these two Facebook posts I saw yesterday, one is a clear racist act and the other is someone who is possibly fueled by racist thoughts but isn’t racist themselves. The Ariel drawing to the left was made to be demeaning and cruel (even if thought of as a “harmless joke”). Meanwhile, the melanin post was more of the subtle racism. Having those subconscious reactions based on race and then trying to justify the dislike with the sun/melanin argument. That person needs to have a conversation, not to be silenced as inept or outright wrong.
But the problem is, these two very different cases are being thrown together as acts of irredeemable racism. In the past few days, I’ve seen people painting everyone against the Ariel idea as a racist/evil person. They then act like they have the moral high ground and are completely in the right.
But in all honesty, this conversation around Ariel and around race is a mixed bag. This is not an “either/or” situation. Instead, it’s a conversation where everyone has feelings and perspectives that need to be recognized before even talking.
Ariel And Race In America
There’s a hidden depth of stuff going on with this Disney casting that many aren’t considering because they believe they’re right and the “other side” couldn’t have opinions or perspectives that have some truth to them. That’s the real problem here, we need to recognize where others come from and the lives they live, or we’ll just be barking at the wind.
If nothing else, this casting announcement is a teaching moment. It reaffirms that we need to empathize with each other. Not outright agreeing with people, mind you, but trying to understand and listen. And second, we need to realize that race and racism are still factors in our lives. They work in varying ways in a lot of what we do.
And until we can recognize and talk about that, we’re just gonna be a bunch of people yelling at computer screens. And who does that really help?