I must have been a girl of no more than four years old, walking hand in hand with my mother through an urbanization on the outskirts of Madrid, when a girl my age looked at me and exclaimed with admiration “look mom, a Black woman!” The mom in question panicked. face and made a remark to her daughter, asking her not to call me It is, that I was just a “brunette”. My parent was quick to snap her out of her mistake and confirm that the creature was right, I was black.
This, instead of calming her, caused her to grab her daughter and run off without a word, leaving my mother and I with a terrible sense of unease. I often remember this little episode because it perfectly illustrates what black girls growing up in the Global North systematically perceive and absorb from their environment throughout their existence. Surely if we asked this mother today she would make it clear that she is not and never has been racist, but that day she taught her daughter a lesson: if calling someone black is cause for condemnation, it is because black is an insult , and be, shame.
I never ran into her again, but I have no doubt that, like me, by the end of her childhood, this girl was able to confirm that her mother was not wrong, that being black was not cool at all, and as the greatest aspiration in life was to become a disney princess (that was my case from age three to more or less nine) you could now have straight hair and be blonde (or at least pale) because if not, you dreamed of a bucket. So when I saw a compilation of videos this week of black girls reacting to teaser on Live (which is when Disney can’t come up with new ideas and decides to remake with a human cast what it already produced in cartoons a thousand years ago) by Little Mermaid I was very excited.
Shortly after it was announced that Halle Bailey would be the lead actress in Disney’s new Little Mermaid, thousands felt deeply and irrevocably hurt, their childhoods (now long gone) shattered and everything they believed in destroyed. These supposedly functional (white) adults, who in no way represent the film’s intended audience, were quick to defend Ariel’s honor against the attack that caused her to be played by an actress nothing more and nothing less than black.
The debate, which is far from over, was reignited months later when the first images were released of Bailey performing one of the iconic songs from the film (in an often loud voice, by the way). There was no lack of arguments to justify the outrage of the main character’s skin color (of course, they are all listed after “it’s not because of racism, but” or “I’m not racist, but”): yes, fidelity to the original story (that Disney already went through the triumphal arch in the first movie without causing any scandal) that if this is an insult to the 1989 drawing (everyone knows that animations are very sensitive and their feelings can be easily hurt) that if the Danish mermaids are white (poor Sebastian the crab must be freezing in the North Sea since he’s from the Caribbean, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone) and long and other nonsense, each one more ridiculous trying to disguise logical conclusions from what are actually prejudices.
Frankly, the debate about the historical accuracy of a movie that talks about people living under the sea isn’t even worth discussing. Anyone who thinks it’s more believable that a lady with a fishtail lives (and sings at the top of her lungs) underwater than the fact that the lady is black is just plain racist. End of discussion.
In any case, of all the arguments, the one that caused me the most discomfort and the least laughter was the one used by those (also white adults, by the way) who argued that this was no big deal, that this is capitalism washing its face and that you should play along with Disney in celebrating it. It is obvious that the entertainment industry is not run by anti-racist activists and that whatever they do is for the sole purpose of making more and better profits. But that doesn’t negate the importance that from 2023 millions of girls in the world will be able to identify with one of their heroines because it’s like them, because it was created with them in mind, because they, finally, exist.
Also that many others who will not look like Ariel will look in awe at black girls walking down the street and no matter how much their mothers tell them not to call them It isthey will be sure that the Disney princesses are also black and that It iscool.