What’s Wrong with a Black Ariel?


There, I said it. 

I found out through my mom that Lizzo wanted to play Ursula in a live-action remake of the Little Mermaid. I got on social media to catch myself up on all the details of the movie’s casting rumors. Halle Bailey showed up on all my Google searches and it hit me. Disney is going to have another black heroine! Of course I scrolled and surfed long enough to see the negative comments too. 

Why does Ariel have to be black? 

What if Tiana from the Princess and the Frog was white? 

The era of Disney’s live-action and 3D remakes includes more melanin. Will Smith plays the Genie in the live-action Aladdin remake and The Lion King 3D’s Simba and Nala will be voiced by Donald Glover and Beyonce respectively. My mixed feelings come from rebooting, not the casting. There’s nothing worse than rumors and gossip ruining films a ’90s baby like myself fell in love with watching in the dentist’s waiting room.

Taking a step back to show some honesty, I’m not thrilled about Aladdin or the Lion King. They’re great stories but not my favorite. But the Little Mermaid? I loved watching that movie over and over when I was five years old. I even thought that my name was Ariel growing up. Later my mom corrected me (it’s just Errol) and the revelation broke my adolescent heart. 

A name was not the only thing that I didn’t have in common with Ariel. In the 1989 Disney film, the animators portray Ariel as a thin white woman with red hair. Countless times at the swimming pool I tried re-enacting that iconic scene where she hoists her body over a rock while the waves crash against her in the background. In my reflection, however, all I saw was a little black girl with nappy hair. I’d frown at myself and wonder, “Why don’t I look like her?”

First and foremost, a black Ariel raises more than just questions about the self-worth and self-image. Girls of color across the globe have familiarized themselves with Disney’s majority white cast of princesses. Being a minority is something we have to get used to even in the world of fantasy. I do not believe that Disney’s decision compares to HR trying to meet a diversity quota. It’s giving this generation of children a new look at our differences on and off screen. Because finally somebody stood up and argued that what children see on the movie theaters and at home on their TVs impact them. 

Another point that needs addressing: remaking a movie that has a predominately white cast with a colored protagonist is not the equivalent of whitewashing. Having something tailored towards colored people is not the equivalent of reverse racism. The concept of reverse racism finds fault in the assumption that all races have equal footing in history. Any history textbook will show you that that is simply not true. 

Yet ignorance prevails at every corner of the world wide web. When a POC career fair launched here, I went to the website to register but stopped myself upon seeing a comment that stated, “If this had been a white-only career fair, it would be seen as racist.” The color-blind, race-has-no-bounds fallacy has shot down many calls for attention to the lack of representation of nonwhite talent. If a colored person has to argue and fight for a voice then clearly a problem lies in the system, not the other way around. 

I cannot deny my feelings and say that Ariel’s racial identity doesn’t matter because it does. Hollywood and other big film industries normalize all white casts to the point that tokens have no special place on the big screen. We’re not worth looking at unless we’re playing into a stereotype. I hope that in this launch of remakes we see more of the minorities becoming the majority. Children of all races need to be able to see a part of themselves in media.

Trilingual copywriter and translator raising her biracial baby trilingual. I love raising awareness about diversity in the writing world. I'm also a tea snob who talks way too much.


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