Mermaids Aren’t Real, But the Racism Is

I’m 32, and I’ve never grown up with a Black Disney Princess

Michelle Saahene
Jul 9 · 4 min read

The past several days my timelines have been flooded with racism towards Disney’s decision to cast a Black girl, Halle Bailey, as Ariel the mermaid. That decision instantly set of anger and rage from an alarming amount of white women…over a mermaid. It’s as if they are tying Ariel to their actual identity, and now that she isn’t white, it’s completely shattered their dreams of becoming a mermaid in real life. Maybe there’s been a surge of fluoride in our drinking water that’s causing irrational behavior. It’s most likely a serious case of white fragility. Off the top of my head, I can count six white Disney princesses. I can count only one black princess, and this is after 49 films Disney has made since 1937. We finally were blessed with Princess Tiana in 2009, when I was 23. Little white girls have been represented far more than little black girls from hair, to makeup, to Disney princesses and beyond.

My favorite Disney princesses growing up were Pocahontas and Jasmine. I’m Ghanaian-American and dark skinned, so even though I couldn’t necessarily look at these characters and see myself, it was the closest thing to representation little me was going to get. Growing up in nearly all white Palmyra, PA, not only did I not see myself represented on TV when it came to my Afro-textured hair or my skin tone, but I didn’t see dolls my color or any makeup my color. I didn’t learn how to do my makeup until adulthood when my shades were finally available. Products for my hair were always in a small section, the “black section” of stores, away from all of the other hair care products. (Yes, black hair care products are actually segregated in stores.) Very rarely did I see a black Barbie in the stores, so I was forced to play with a lot of lighter-skinned dolls. It made me feel like I wasn’t as important as the white girls. What other conclusion was I supposed to have drawn? For every shade of white girl there was makeup. The hair care aisles were lined with products for their texture, all in one section. There was no shortage of white-skinned dolls at the toy stores. And of course, they had almost all of the Disney princesses! Pocahontas and Jasmine meant the world to me. It felt like we were only a few movies away from making a princess that looked like me! But as we found out, it wouldn’t be until adulthood that I would see that come true. But by adulthood, I had moved on from Disney and was dealing with lack of representation basically everywhere else.

When someone makes the statement that the little mermaid should be white, they are telling two truths. First, they are exposing their own racial bias and intolerance. In the movie, Ariel had a black mermaid friend. These people know that obviously a mermaid can be any color. Since a mermaid isn’t real, she/he can be blue, white, black, purple, teal, clear, gray, orange. But they want Ariel to stay white and remain the star of the movie. They are likely the same people who would say “Why do black people make everything about race?”, yet here they are triggered by a fictional character. They might say, “I’m not racist, but… Ariel should really be white.” The latter part of that cancels out the former. Do you understand the hypocrisy? They are grown women throwing temper tantrums over a fictitious character, not realizing they are advocating for white supremacy. They are totally unaware of just how much they are represented everywhere else.

This brings me to the other truth that all people of color have been saying since forever: representation matters. The people who are complaining don’t understand that they have leaned on validation of representation. They can be anything from a super-shero to a mermaid. But when a small change is made, when we say “We want to be mermaids too!” they are having an actual crisis within their bodies. What about the emotional crisis of little black and brown girls who have had very little representation? These people are so triggered they have completely forgotten about women like me — women who have never had representation in their every day lives, let alone in Disney as the main character their childhood. These people, so blinded by their own privilege, are unable to empathize, be rational, or see the hypocrisy in their response.

To those women who think Ariel needs to be white: is this the example you want to set for your kids? Fight for white and no one else? Do you want to teach prejudice to your children? That’s what you are doing. Is white supremacy what you truly want to align yourself with? That is the sentiment you’re displaying. Are you a Christian? I’m 99% sure Jesus would set you straight. Racism is so deeply embedded, it shows up in our every day lives. Adding a black Ariel isn’t taking anything away from you. It’s adding diversity and representing the reality of a growing, diversifying America. If that is a problem for you, racism and white supremacy lives deep within you, and you have a lot of soul searching to do.

Michelle Saahene

Written by

Speaker, Cofounder, Activist, Global Citizen

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