As the white mother of two children of color, I can't truly understand my kids’ experience as minorities. But I know how much Halle Bailey's casting as the lead in The Little Mermaid live-action film means to them.

By Molly Pennington
(left) Taylor Hill—FilmMagic/Getty Images; (right) Disney—Moviestore Collection Ltd/ Alamy

My Disney-obsessed 7-year-old daughter gathered glitter glue, sequins, gel pens, and pulled out the big, blank canvas she'd been saving for a special project. On it, she drew tons of mermaids. They turned out beautifully with shimmery tails and long, beaded braids. She drew them all with brown skin, just like her own. And all the black mermaids are seen smiling while floating out amid the undersea flora. I know she wouldn't have been this inspired to celebrate mermaids if I hadn't shown her Halle Bailey's picture.

When I told her the actress had been cast in the new The Little Mermaid live-action film, excitement zipped across my daughter's face. She peered at the new Ariel on my phone screen. Her smile was pure joy: "She looks just like me!" As a white mother, I can't truly understand what my daughter of color goes through, but I know this is a really big deal for her.

She showed the same excitement many aspiring artists felt after the news broke about Bailey's casting. Fan art started trending on Twitter, and I scrolled through the images with my daughter and my son. They inspected the pictures of beautiful black mermaids as we huddled around my phone. "That one's cool," my son said about an Ariel with locks in her hair.

Then my finger accidentally slipped to Twitter's trending tab, and #NotMyAriel was at the top. I jerked the phone away. "Mom!" they both said startled and annoyed. I couldn't let them see the negative side that was also trending.

Along with some overwhelming support, joy, and celebration, the backlash against the casting has been virulent across social media. I was trying to show my kids something positive and necessary. Yet, so close to that beauty, was ugliness, rage, and hatred from folks who simply could not imagine a black mermaid.

My children, like all kids of color, know about racism because they experience it in small and large ways each day. I know my attempts to swipe away from the negativity is futile.

Being white, my kids’ experience as minorities isn't something I can relate to. But I do recognize how much comfort they feel when they see positive images of black people in movies and television. My son, now 11, was around 8 when he started pointing out stereotypes. "Why is the black man always the bad guy?" he would ask. I remember how excited he was the first time he saw a commercial with an interracial couple that resembled his own parents. He's mixed, black and white, and his younger adopted sister is black. I know how much reassurance it brings them to see diversity represented in the larger world they see on screens. That's why a black Ariel is so important.

Molly Pennington and her family. Courtesy of Molly Pennington.

Why kids need influential role models of color

A study from 2011 found television exposure has a negative impact on the self-esteem of children of color. The researchers credited that to the “lack of representation” in the industry. Newer research shows that when it comes to the representation of racial and ethnic groups both the "quantity and quality of portrayals" also impacts viewers. “Negative characterizations prompt shame, anger, and other undesirable emotions,” explains the study published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication in 2017.

My son often refuses to watch when he sees negative stereotypes on screen, sometimes leaving the room in anger. Even sitcom reruns from a few years ago strike him as insensitive toward minorities. And my daughter always gets excited when she sees a black girl on screen or in books. She's longing to see her story told, and like all children, she craves fun, powerful heroes she can identify with. Right now, because of Bailey, that's a mermaid.

Disney princesses have always captured my daughter's heart. Like so many little girls who came of age with Frozen, she identified with Elsa, her moods and her power. She dressed up in the ice blue gown and sang "Let It Go" (over and over and over!). She was also delighted by Belle from Beauty and the Beast. "She's my favorite princess because we both love books," my daughter opined, "and because we will never marry Gaston."

But she was only 4 when she first questioned her own hair and skin color and how it related to her princess role models. "Can I still be Elsa?" she asked, worried. I tried to reassure her that she had Elsa's strength and Belle's smarts, and that she can be whoever she wants. Yet, her beloved dress-up sessions still left her questioning how her own race and identity fit into what she perceived as a white-skinned world. She never took to Tiana from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, perhaps because the movie opens with the young black heroine as a servant's daughter who then spends considerable time as a frog before opening a restaurant. They shared the same skin tone, but my daughter didn't share Tiana's passions. She prefers ice palaces and vibrant, fantastical powers.

Bottom line is kids need to see positive role models who look like them. When the character is popular, like the fairy tale archetypes in Disney films, it's that much more thrilling when they're also black. And representation is good for white children, too; consuming frequent negative stereotypes of racial minorities can contribute to the formation of racist ideas and harmful beliefs.

A black actress portraying Ariel is a step in the right direction. A new black hero mermaid princess has arrived to capture my daughter's imagination and that of our larger culture.

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