Making White Characters Black Isn't Progress—It's Pandering. And It Insults Black Fans Like Me | Opinion

Sunday's episode of the HBO hit series "The Last of Us" was supposed to be a great one. All the others have been great thus far, earning the show plaudits from viewers and critics alike as the best video game adaptation of all time. I, too, had been enjoying the show—unsurprisingly; The Last of Us video game is my favorite video game. But I was deeply disappointed to see the latest episode feature a white character from the game, Maria, played by a Black actress.

And this despite being Black myself. I simply object to using the race of an actor as a sign and standard for what constitutes progress. It's an insult to my community—both to the long-fought struggle for representation and to the recent successes on that front.

Think about it: Disney made not one but two "Black Panther" films. "Black Panther," a comic book series about the (Black) leader of the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world, was brought to the big screen on two separate occasions—something that would have seemed like a pipe dream to Black people in the 60s. That was some serious progress.

Yet after that massive milestone, Disney decided that what we needed was the token representation of palette switching, announcing a Black Ariel in their live action remake of "The Little Mermaid," out in May of this year.

We are told our little sisters are jumping for joy across the nation because of this, that Black moms are telling their children it's so great that Disney gave us this amazing bounty of mana from on high. Videos across the internet show little Black kids celebrating that "a princess looks like me" as if that's some kind of gift.

Yet there are hundreds of stories of real Black princesses Disney isn't making films about. One of my favorite characters is Mami Wata, a water spirit well-known in West, Central, and South African folklore. She's like Ariel, but better: She can possess people, she has kinky, curly hair, and sometimes abducts her followers.

She would make an amazing Disney heroine! Why choose to race swap an existing story about a historically white character from Danish folklore instead of investing in a real Black one from African lore?

In other words, Black Ariel is a step backward from Black Panther.

Rutina Wesley plays Maria
Rutina Wesley plays Maria in the HBO hit show The Last of Us. The character in the game that the HBO show is based on is white. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

People argue that "The Little Mermaid" is a mermaid and her color shouldn't matter. But if changing the race of a character is ok because race isn't relevant as so many have said, then why make the character Black at all? As soon as you do that, you've literally made race important enough to change it.

Moreover, if the tables were turned, you can bet they would care. One of the best episodes of "The Last of Us" shows the beautifully tragic story of the characters of Sam and Henry, who are Black in the game. Now imagine that suddenly they were white in the show—because apparently race doesn't matter. There would obviously be a huge backlash to such a decision.

Imagine if Marvel's Blade, the historically-Black vampire hunter, became a pasty-white British man; they'd rain down fire and brimstone on Kevin Feige.

Pushing for Black actors playing white characters while insisting race doesn't matter is rank hypocrisy.

Making a white character Black is not progress. It's pandering.

What's more, you create more division by doing it—which means that instead of progress, this habit is creating more of the very problem it claims it's solving.

Too many deluded people are acting like these race-swapped characters will break some kind of ground, as if Hollywood just freed the slaves with their benevolence. It's sickening. And it's got to stop.

It's insulting to Black fans like me. We deserve better.

Alex Miller has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Independent, and is also featured in the anthologies "The Byline Bible" and "The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook." You can follow him on Twitter @oneheart1city.

The views in this article are the writer's own.