This article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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From pilots to mermaids, representation matters

Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA/AP
American singer Halle Bailey arrives at the Variety 2022 Power of Young Hollywood Celebration in Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 2022. Ms. Bailey will star as Ariel in the upcoming live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.”
Trudy Palmer
Cover Story Editor

What difference does a Black mermaid make? A lot if you’re a brown-skinned girl taught by tradition that princesses, heroines, and such are always white.

Earlier this month, Disney released a trailer for its live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” coming out next year. There was predictable backlash about Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, being Black, but, for me, that paled in comparison to videos of little girls’ surprise and delight at seeing an Ariel who looks like them. It reminded me how much representation matters – even in the realm of make-believe.

It matters in real life, too.

I still remember the moment I realized that a Black man could be a commercial pilot. (Women of any race weren’t being hired back then.) I was a teenager, flying to and from a boarding school several times a year. I had flown before then, too, and gone to the airport plenty of times to drop off or pick up family and friends. In all those years, I had seen and heard only white pilots.

Then one day on a TWA flight, when the pilot welcomed passengers over the intercom, I could tell by the tenor and rhythm of his speech that he was Black. There was no dialect or Black vernacular. He simply sounded, unmistakably, like my dad and uncles and other Black men I knew.

I was floored.

I’d never given a moment’s thought to the issue until then. Grass was green, the sky was blue, pilots were white. Until one wasn’t. 

The realization didn’t change my career trajectory; I had no interest in learning to fly. But it did teach me how insidiously what we see can limit our sense of what we can be. 

Nowadays, I’m pleasantly surprised if the pilot on my flight is Black – only 1.6% of commercial pilots are – but I’m not shocked. I’ve known since high school that it’s feasible.

From pilots to mermaids, representation unlocks a world of possibilities. 

This article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 09/21 edition
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