I grew up in a world without Tiana. In my youth, all the princesses were white. This dearth revealed the western world as regarding princesses like it did Christmas, only worth adulation when white.
The sole exception was Jasmine from Aladdin.
Jasmine had brown skin and thick black hair, so my childhood eyes saw her as bearing the aesthetics most similar to my own.
Jasmine, though, wasn’t my shero; she was merely the most interesting to look at.
Not having black representation in the early years of my childhood encouraged creativity. I wrote stories with black girls as the lead, not seeking to find myself, but to write myself into a world that wished to cast me as a spectator.
Nevertheless, whether created or consumed, representation means a lot to a child, as it helps etch together their dreams, and becomes the foundation for whom they become. To like Jasmine was the closest thing to choosing the black doll, but for black kids looking to find themselves in an anti-black world, the result is too often a loss that births a lost identity.
Tiana, who debuted a decade ago in Disney’s The Princess in the Frog (2009), offers the black girl an ability to find herself in the white-washed world of Walt Disney. To some, this movie marked a step in the right direction. Regardless of the sentiment, the movie was certainly a step, a step toward using the black body to ensure the black child remains vested in white representation to determine their worth.
The current contention surrounding a “black Ariel” reflects said vestment.
The social media world exploded this week when reports that Halle Bailey, a 19-year-old black actress, would play Ariel in an upcoming project. Many people from the black community appeared elated that a black actress would play Ariel. Contrarily, the African adjacent seemed to be angry and dismissive to the upcoming project. In short, the African adjacent launched the hashtag #notmyariel, vowing not to support the film, while those of African descent expressed interest in the film for the opposite reason. This tension revealed a vestment in representation on both sides. On one hand, the tension showed the African adjacent’s espousal to segregated representation. On the other hand, this tension exposed the contemporary diversity project as masking a stagnant segregationist ideology that affords the black community a pseudo-liberation engendered through black casting.
The original Ariel, though a cartoon, cast a fair-skinned white woman with blue eyes and red hair as its lead. The film seemed more of an allegory about the migrant (Irish, German, Polish, etc) white assimilating into American culture. Specifically, The Little Mermaid reads more of a “coming into whiteness tale” non-parallel to the black experience. Ursula, the film’s villain, evokes a caricatured version of the black collective summoned to the margins of the world, a fact illustrated by Ursula’s literal placement in the sea’s underground.
I provide this assessment to state that casting a black lead in an initially racist film seems more like damage control, in addition to yet another celebration of black women applicable or exoticized by western beauty standards. Additionally, given the not-so-subtle racial undertones of the film, there is cause to question why any black person would want to be a part of the film, or support any contemporary adaptation.
Casting an Ariel of African descent does not make the little Mermaid a black narrative.
The hashtag #notmyariel should have been perpetuated by the black collective because whether Ariel is black or not, she remains a product of white creation designed to execute a white agenda. The black Ariel functions similarly to black faces solicited to diversify white space physically.
These faces lead many off the cliff of a contemporized present that is only disparate from the past in date. Specifically, seeing a black face in a white space deflects many from creating their own. Casting a black lead only reflects capitalistic creativity. Meaning, a black Ariel does mean that black lives matter; a black Ariel implies that black lives matter when equating to white currency.
Furthermore, turning white princesses black only festers an inclusionary narrative that perpetuates cyclical disenfranchisement. Creation affords linearity and linearity marks significant strides toward liberation.
A black Ariel doesn’t solve racism, if anything the deflection she brings gifts racism a venomous continuity.
Moreover, this is #NotourAriel, not our story, and quite frankly, as a collective, this is not our battle nor our victory.