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Making Spiritual Sense: On Racism

“Little Avery gasps and becomes completely entranced by the trailer. She puts her hand over her heart and says, “I think she’s brown.” Absolutely beaming, the young girl declares, “Brown Ariel is cute.”[1]

Earlier in September, Disney released the trailer for the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid. And immediately, social media was inundated with precious videos of little black girls excitedly discovering that the new Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, looks like them. Now this release was not without detractors. Adriana Diaz reports in her article with the New York Post the following, “Detractors’ comments have been tainted with racism expressing their disapproval of Bailey’s casting, noting that the original 1989 animated movie “The Little Mermaid” portrays Ariel as being white.”[2]  And how ironic that the popular song from The Little Mermaid entitled a whole new world has still yet to be realized.

What does this response say when the story’s hero does not resemble the dominant culture? Do we still have a normativity of privilege on what color the skin must be to be a legitimate hero in the U.S.?

I would like to address these troubling questions by sharing a personal story of a person I call my hero.

Have you ever had a day that profoundly shaped who you are and how you see the world? I think everybody does, whether they realize it or not. I came home after school with some friends, and we all sat at the kitchen table. And like most middle school-aged boys, we didn’t pause as we stuffed our mouths with snacks. 

Unbeknownst to me my father had come into the kitchen behind me and would not be treated as the hero I had come to love.  The person sitting across from me had a direct view of my dad. And with a stuffed mouth full of cookies, he said, “See, Fraser, I knew you were rich.” And I put my head to the side and asked, “What are you talking about?” “See, I knew you were rich because you have a butler!” “I have a what?” And he nodded to look behind me, and I turned around, and there was my father taking in the whole conversation. I quickly turned back to my friend and said, “Butler! That’s my father!”

I still can’t fully explain the look on my dad’s face, but it was a pain I had never seen from him before. It was a lifetime and generational pain of growing up Black in America. It was more painful than witnessing him with a broken limb, open heart surgery, fighting cancer, or losing a loved one. I will never forget that look. It profoundly shaped my understanding of how the dominant culture saw my father, not as a hero simply based on the color of his skin.

The term code-switching is a linguistic phenomenon describing how dual-language speakers switch back and forth between their native language and the one spoken by the majority. However, code-switching has grown to encompass a set of behaviors beyond multilingualism. Code-switching can describe how a member of an underrepresented group (consciously or unconsciously) adjusts their language, behavior, and appearance to fit into the dominant culture.

I don’t recall what my dad exactly said as he exited the room, but it was a well-rehearsed code-switch superpower to navigate moments like this.  A response that the dominant culture consciously and unconsciously forces persons of color to make when the hero of the story does not look like them.  

I have never forgotten that moment. It opened my eyes to the reality that then and now, we have an underlying normativity of privilege on what color the skin must be to be a legitimate hero in the story. And for the first time, I realized my hero was often not seen as the hero based on the color of his skin.  And at that moment, I realized the courage my hero had to endure daily as he practiced the superpower of code-switching so that he could be seen and heard as a father, husband, son, and human being. It was his superpower to combat racism, diversity, and privilege.  A supper power that drained him of being the hero he should have been seen as.

I mean, just think about how historically in almost every comic book, tv show, novel, textbook, and movie, the color of my hero is not represented.  The dominant culture has shaped an image of normativity in a culture that shapes and perpetuates us to think of who a hero should represent, look like, and behave like.

So, return to the kitchen table with me and reflect on the following idea. My father’s apparent material success and achievement didn’t matter at that moment because, across that table, privilege, and prejudice could not see my hero as a father but as a butler.  Not as a homeowner but as a house servant. Not as an entrepreneur but as an employee. 

So, it is hard when you encounter the kryptonite of racism your hero struggled daily to overcome.  And it is sad to hear from the mouth of a child’s bias, racism, or ignorance because we realize it is not something they are born with but instead born into. In many ways, they have been nurtured by culture and social environment towards these conscious and unconscious biases of privilege. To continually see the hero of the story only looking like themselves.  As a nation and people, we must be reminded of the admonishment in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

I hope for a better future when our childish ways give space for all of God’s people, regardless of color, to be heroes recognized and celebrated.

Little Avery’s prophetic outburst of her Arial, “She looks like me!” echoes the heart of Jesus celebrating the diversity of His children as heroes in His Kingdom story.  And maybe we can all be a part of that world. 

[1] Adriana Diaz, “Little girls’ reactions go viral amid 1.5M dislikes on ‘Little Mermaid’ trailer.” New York Post, September 14th 2022.

[2] Adriana Diaz, “Little girls’ reactions go viral amid 1.5M dislikes on ‘Little Mermaid’ trailer.”

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