Fear of a Black Mermaid

July 9, 2019, 10:00 PM UTC
Halle Bailey Little Mermaid Ariel
SANTA MONICA, CA - JUNE 16: Recording artist Chloe Bailey of R&B duo Chloe X Halle attend the 2018 MTV Movie And TV Awards at Barker Hangar on June 16, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MTV)
Emma McIntyre—Getty Images for MTV

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.”

On Point

Senator Mitch McConnell, who opposed reparations, is descended from enslavers
A team from NBC News put their geneology hats on to discover that the Senator's two great-great-grandfathers, James McConnell and Richard Daley, owned at least 14 enslaved people in Limestone County, Alabama. And according to the 1850 and 1860 censuses, all but two were women. They ranged in age from 2 to 20, and four were identified in the county “Slave Schedules” as “mulatto.” Click through for some fascinating history, intertwined with the Senator’s record on civil and voting rights. Nothing about his take on Ariel, yet.  NBC News

‘The Chicago Defender,’ a century-old African American newspaper, ceases print operations
The bylines read like a who’s who of black history, and the stories it covered, from lynchings, to integration, civil rights and beyond, became an essential record of stories that white-owned media ignored or got wrong. Many believe The Defender’s unique perspective on Northern black life during Jim Crow, became the catalyst for the Great Migration. “It is an economic decision,” says Hiram E. Jackson, chief executive of Real Times Media which owns a spate of black newspapers. “[B]ut it’s more an effort to make sure that The Defender has another 100 years.” New York Times

Where are the wage increases?
The last election cycle saw minimum wage increases approved by voters in a wide variety of local municipalities across the country. But 25 states legislatures, in mostly red states, have expressly blocked cities from upholding the wage increases. As a result, some 350,000 workers have lost a total of $1.5 billion per year, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project. The move hurts women, immigrants and people of color who are disproportionately found in low-wage jobs. “Missouri was one of the most egregious examples of an overwhelmingly white legislature undoing the will of local communities,” a co-author of the report tells race and economics reporter Tracy Jan. “Preemption has been used as a tool to undermine higher wages, protect corporate profits, and cancel the voices of blacks and Latinos.” Washington Post

On Background

Chicago-based business advisory groups are finding ways to help Latinx entrepreneurs
According to the most recent census, there were more than 14,000 Latinx-owned businesses in the Chicago area in 2016, a small but growing economic force. But resources like financing and business training programs, often conducted only in English, remained thin. But two business groups are finding ways to offer counseling and support not only in Spanish, but in the outlying neighborhoods were the entrepreneurs are likely to live. “I didn’t know what steps to take," the owner of a small electrical installation company told the Chicago Tribune, in Spanish. "I didn’t even realize I needed a banking account for my business, let alone how to register my company.” Chicago Tribune

You know it’s working if people are uncomfortable
Atila Roque, the Ford Foundation’s director in Brazil, begins this elegant essay about privilege with his own moment of discomfort. He’d been invited to a members-only club in Rio de Janeiro, and suddenly felt disoriented. “I felt a combination of dazzle and discomfort…it was as if, at any moment, I might be unmasked as someone who didn’t belong,” he said. As a man of color, he’d been given temporary access to a white, privileged space, a clean well-appointed oasis with beautiful views that belie the existence of the impoverished favelas just a few miles away. Progress hinges upon the willingness to make privileged people, like those at the club, squirm a bit, he says. “Privilege is very comfortable. But fighting the kind of inequality that leads to great suffering for so many will require disrupting that privilege, and breaking down some of the barriers that enable and preserve it.” Ford Foundation

Police killings come from a racist culture
Research led by Ryerson University psychologist Eric Hehman (who seems very cool) shows that the unconscious racial biases of white communities informs the culture of racism within police departments, and ultimately to the disproportionate use of force against black people. From this perspective, bias mitigation in the recruitment and training of police officers is not going to help much. The problem is bigger than them. "The context in which police officers work is significantly associated with disproportionate use of lethal force," said Hehman’s team. Click through for the fascinating methodology. The team used data from Project Implicit, a Harvard University-created web tool that measures unconscious biases. More than four million people have taken the tests since 2003. The team focused on results of 1.8 million black and white Americans, narrowed further into geographical regions. African Americans and Latinx are disproportionately more likely than whites to be killed by the police. Pacific Standard


"Burn Hollywood burn I smell a riot / Goin' on first they're guilty now they're gone / Yeah I'll check out a movie / But it'll take a black one to move me / Get me the hell away from this TV / All this news and views are beneath me / So all I hear about is shots ringin' out / About gangs puttin' each others head out / So I rather kick some slang out / All right fellas let's go hand out / Hollywood or would they not / Make us all look bad like I know they had / But some things I'll never forget yeah / So step and fetch this shit / For all the years we looked like clowns / The joke is over smell the smoke from all around / Burn Hollywood burn"

—Public Enemy from Fear Of A Black Planet

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