“So, all those people that tweet #notmyariel are probably arguing that if Black Panther necessarily has to be black, Ariel necessarily has to be white.”
Disney has recently announced its casting of Halle Bailey for the role of Ariel in an upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid. The fact that Bailey is black has predictably caused some uproar, triggering a new round in America’s culture wars. This is symptomatic of our culture’s obsession with identity, to the neglect of actual living conditions and growing economic inequality (interestingly, Disney’s own heiress is more concerned about inequality instead of identity politics). It seems that, as Adolph Reed (for the record, an African American author) ironically observes, “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people”.
Although the reaction to a black Ariel was not as hysterical as some media outlets first wanted to claim, it does seem that the hashtag #notmyariel went viral. Are they right to be upset? Let it be said that—in the name of political correctness and over-eagerness to include racial minorities—in the last decade some television and film productions have made weird decisions. For example, Jean Claude La Marre’s Color of the Cross portrays a black Jesus. La Marre does have a point when he says that the historical Jesus was not the blued-eyed Aryan man of traditional Biblical films (he probably looked like this), so why couldn’t he portray Jesus in a darker color? Yet, La Marre takes his poetic license way too far when—in his movie—Jesus is executed for being black, something completely absent from the gospel narrative and totally implausible from a historical point of view (as it happens, as scholar Frank Snowden adequately documented in a famous book, there was little color prejudice in Antiquity).
Some historical plausibility was also sacrificed in the name of political correctness and inclusivity, with the casting of black actor David Oyelowo as inspector Javert in the BBC’s recent retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Although blacks have been in France for a very long time, it is totally implausible that a distinguished police inspector would have been of that complexion. But we may wonder, who cares about historical plausibility? And, even if we do care about it, why should race be the sole criterion? Recently, the HBO series Chernobyl has come under criticism for not including black actors. One could reasonably argue that, quite simply, in that Soviet setting, there were no blacks around. But as some critics have counter-argued, if historical plausibility was already affected by having the actors speak with a British accent, why couldn’t some of them also have a different skin color from the real characters?
I do not think this is a silly argument. Race is a social construct, no more relevant than height in categorizing people. Would I mind if a 6-foot actor played Napoleon, or a 5-foot actor played Abraham Lincoln? I am sure that, despite those height mismatches, these hypothetical actors would have plenty of resources to pull off a good performance. Likewise, I do not see why some darker-skin actor could not play the French Emperor or the American President.
In the case of Ariel, this is even more the case. After all, she is not even human! The risk of historical implausibility here is minimal because, well, this is just fantasy. So, congratulations to Bailey on being cast—and shame on those who tweeted #notmyariel.
But those social justice warriors who tear their vestments upon reading #notmyariel in their Twitter feed have some soul-searching to do. They have fed this monster for way too long. They are upset that white folks are now playing the same identity politics game at which they have excelled for so many years. When considering Disney’s casting of a black actress for the role of Ariel, they are asking white Americans to be colorblind. Race should not matter, and if a black actress plays a mermaid that comes out of a Dane’s fairy tale, so be it. But they want to have their cake and eat it, too. For these social justice warriors, race should not matter—but only to their convenience. If an English-Malayan actor plays a Chinese character in Crazy Rich Asians, somehow that is wrong, because in that case, race does matter.
When it comes to race, social justice warriors send a flatly contradictory message. They tell us we should be colorblind when considering a black actress playing a mermaid from European folklore. Fine. But, if someone genuinely strives to be consistently colorblind, and logically concludes that race should not be an important factor in human relations, then somehow that person is a racist. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a guru of the academic left, calls this “color-blind racism.” Somehow, saying “I don’t see color” has become as bad as saying, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever…”. In fact, in this strange narrative, segregation has become a good thing. Of course, it was a bad thing if some monster like George Wallace defended it, but blacks-only graduation ceremonies, blacks-only college dorms, and so on, are now the hallmarks of a strange new progressivism.
I, for one, was not in the least surprised that Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and I predict he will be re-elected in 2020. Contrary to what some Trump apologists might claim, race is indeed a huge factor in this story. Richard Spencer is not an oddity in Trump country. White identity politics is alive and kicking in America. But, we ought to be sensible enough to ask, how couldn’t it? For many years, all minorities were flirting with identity politics. They were all delighted to have Univision, BET, Miss Black America, and so on. After the initial enthusiasm of the Civil Rights movement and its colorblind ideal, ethnic, and racial identity once again became a fetish in the United States, and social justice warriors had a blast with it. Yet, they requested whites to be the only group not to be race-conscious in the multicultural salad that replaced the melting pot. Oh, the naiveté!
Sure, social justice warriors may have had a point—inasmuch as whites were the oppressors whereas the rest were the oppressed (of course, this narrative is extremely simplistic, but let’s stick to it); whites do not have the right to be race-conscious, whereas minorities do. But, once you let the genie out of the bottle, it won’t go back inside. Sohrab Ahmari (op-ed editor at the New York Post) beautifully explains it thus: “Having been told for decades that the promise of universal rights is a lie, that group identity is all there is to public life, that the Western canon is the preserve of Privileged Dead White Men, and that identitarian warfare is permanent, many in the West have taken up their own form of identity politics. There is logic to their demand for validation When culture only rewards the assertion of group identity (black, female, queer, etc.), the silent majority will want its slice of the identitarian pie. They can do identity politics, too: it’s called white nationalism.”
Black identity politics may be an understandable reaction to centuries of slavery, racism, and so on, but it ultimately becomes a race to the bottom, because like it or not, once an ethnic group hears another group speak the language of identity politics, they will also want to speak it. So, all those people that tweet #notmyariel are probably arguing that if Black Panther necessarily has to be black, Ariel necessarily has to be white. Again, ivory tower scholars such as Bonilla-Silva may reply that Black Panther provides a much-needed sense of dignity to marginalized black communities, whereas whites do not need a white Ariel because they are already privileged, and so on. It sounds nice, but whites are not buying it, and they never will. I wouldn’t be surprised if in this pathetic race to the bottom, whites will eventually claim that they do need this sense of dignity, because long before they enslaved blacks, Cro-Magnons recently arriving from Africa exterminated Neanderthals in Europe (Neanderthals being ancestors of white populations, but not of black populations).
So, while I cannot sympathize with folks who tweet #notmyariel, I do believe that this insanity needs to come to an end, and the only way to do that is by stopping altogether the obsession with race and collective identity. In fact, despite this sad state of affairs, I have reasons to be optimistic. Although, as I already mentioned, requesting representation in a Disney movie and neglecting other more important things is silly, I sense an improvement among social justice warriors. They are requesting Ariel to be played by a black actress, but they are not requesting Ariel to be removed from our literary tradition. A few years ago, this would not have been the case. In those days, social justice warriors chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture has got to go!,” led by a furious Jesse Jackson. They would have said that Hans Christian Andersen (the original author of The Little Mermaid) is a dead white male, and his literature should not be taught to college freshmen. Even worse, they falsified history by saying that Cleopatra was black, and that Greeks stole philosophy from the Egyptians.
Silently, at last social justice warriors seem to admit that the Western canon is valuable and probably deserves more praise than any other in the world. As rude as it may seem, Saul Bellow did have a point when he allegedly asked,“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” Social justice warriors were never really able to answer, and that is why, it seems, they gave up that fight. Their new fight is to have colorblind casts in stories inspired by the Western canon. I can live with that. Hopefully, they will eventually also give up the fight over identity politics and will wisely embrace the universalist ethos that, again, is a legacy of Western tradition.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.