First, let me start by writing something I’ve probably written a dozen times on white privilege and supremacy: Whiteness is the default for social and cultural normalcy in America. This stands true despite the fact that white American “culture” is generally pilfered from all the non-white cultures that surround it (music, dance, slang, food, etc). For all of American history, white people have been overwhelmingly represented in every pillar of our popular culture. From TV to film to broadcasting, let’s be clear on one thing: No racial demographic has ever been more catered to than white people.
When white people talk about what many of them call “forced diversity” in Holywood, I like to point out a little thing I call “forced whiteness.” Forced whiteness isn’t as simple as changing the race of a character from the race in the source material. Forced whiteness is the systematic racial gatekeeping that has ensured white people will always be placated and will never want for representation. It was an uphill battle for movie studios to become confident that they could sell a movie with an all-Black cast—because white people needed to see themselves on the screen. It continued to be an uphill battle for anyone to consider that Black leads and predominately Black casts in big-budget action films could be a thing—because white people needed to see themselves on the screen. So, for the vast majority of the history of our entertainment industry, and even now, actors of color have been boxed out of the virtually limitless buffet of diverse roles and acting opportunities that white actors have always enjoyed—because white people needed to see themselves on the screen.
So, over the weekend, a trailer was released for the live-action rendition of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” starring Black actress and singer Halle Bailey as Ariel. And, of course, the trailer’s release has re-opened the floodgates and put us under the sea of white tears we were already put under when it was first announced Bailey would be playing the lead role a few years ago.
This comes on the heels of the white nerd meltdown over Black elves and hobbits (or Harfoots, actually) in the new TV series Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, as well as the Black Valyrians in the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon.
It’s almost as if these people can suspend their disbelief long enough to immerse themselves in worlds full of dragons, sorcerers, immortal people, mermaids, trolls and giants—but they draw the line at the existence of melanated people because that’s not how the white author described their white characters in their all-while fantasy source material. Or maybe they’re just racist.
So, now it’s time for me to address the arguments of disgruntled white people who have their Avengers underoos all in a bunch over Black people playing traditionally white characters.
What if white actors played Black characters?
White people’s go-to argument is that Black people would throw a fit if T’Challa was White’Challa in Black Panther. (To be fair, Wakanda is the ultimate gated community, and I’m sure they have some kind of Wakanda 911 service to call when they see outsiders barb-e-queuing in un-designated parts of public parks or whatever.)
So, first, there’s the obvious counterargument—a Black Ariel doesn’t change the story to “The Little Mermaid” but making a white man king of a well-rescourced African nation turns Black Panther into a colonizer story. It changes things—like, a lot.
Side note: Look at this racist display of illogical caucasity here…
Secondly, if we started changing classically Black characters to white characters, all we would be doing is taking roles away from actors of color—who already struggle for opportunities to play non-stereotypical roles and roles that veer outside the box of rom-coms and low-budget dramas—and giving them to white actors who already enjoy so much diverse representation that they completely take it for granted.
Why not just come up with original Black characters instead of race-swapping white characters?
I mean, Hollywood absolutely should do more with original Black characters, but it’s still a point that ignores reality.
Take the comic book genre for example. Black comic book characters have existed for literal decades. Cyborg, Icon, Bronze Tiger, Bishop, Vixen, T’Challa, Storm, Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Statik Shock, Mr. Terrific, John Stewart, Vixen, Monica Rambeau—the list goes on and on. Some of these characters have been around since the late ’60s and early ’70s. And yet, in all that time, only two major live-action movies from Marvel or DC have starred solo Black leads (Blade and Black Panther). And only two major live-action TV series from Marvel or DC have starred solo Black leads (the short-lived Black Lightning and the even shorter-lived Luke Cage). Most of these programs came to us within the last decade.
So, why do you think that is if all we have to do is come up with original Black characters?
Actually, here’s a more relevant question: Do you think a new movie with a Black mermaid would have a chance at doing the same kind of numbers and get the same exposure as a live-action version of an iconic classic like The Little Mermaid? And should white actors be the only ones to be offered roles in the remakes or screen versions of iconic classics just because the source material was created at a time when everything was overwhelmingly white by design because white people needed to see themselves on the screen?
Go woke, go broke.
“Go woke, go broke” has been a rallying cry for white people who think their personal contempt for intentional diversity means programming that promotes the effort will cost TV and film studios profit. First, there’s no evidence that there’s any truth to that idea, and plenty of evidence that shows the opposite is true. Also, the entertainment industry is still a capitalist-based industry. Why would networks and studios continue to push for diversity if it was losing them money? Some of y’all really would do well to stop letting your racism cloud your common sense.
And it is racist. The fact that white people think the mere presence of non-white leading actors or predominately non-white casts even constitutes “woke” (even by their gentrified definition of the word) shows their blatant racism.
But, here’s the thing: We should just let resentful and privileged white people die mad about this. There’s nothing they can do to stop the diversity train at this point, so why should we even care what they think?
The only thing that should be important to us as Black people is how our children respond when they see themselves in a superhero or Disney princess.
Our Ariel is Black, and may those who don’t like it continue to backstroke in their salty white tears.
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