Novelist Rick Riordan, recently announced that the Disney+ “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” show that is under production has cast its Zeus and Poseidon.
Black actor Lance Reddick will portray Zeus. Reddick is a great actor, striking in appearance with the kind of memorable voice that calls James Earl Jones to mind.
This will likely mean little to those who have already criticized the new show for “race-bending” the characters of Grover and Annabeth Chase.
Race bending involves changing white characters into characters from African, Latin American, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Indigenous backgrounds. Things got so bad that Riordan had to personally defend Leah Sova Jeffries, the actor cast to play Annabeth.
Recent controversies over race bending have not been limited to teenage demigods, though.
Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” generated backlash over including Black and Brown hobbits and elves into Tolkien’s canonically white world.
Middle Earth has some darker-skinned peoples, but they are restricted to villain roles. People upset about Black hobbits seem to have little to say about the colorism in Tolkien’s work.
Though mermaids do not exist, their “correct race” has also become a subject of heated debate. The half-fish hero, Ariel, has been cast as Black in the upcoming live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.” The meltdown that has ensued is as predictable as it is comical.
It is tempting to dismiss these reactions as silly, but they are deadly serious.
Popular culture is a battleground where the contest between racism and antiracism is being waged. The stories we create and consume shape who we are and the futures possible for us. Understanding what gets some so upset about Black hobbits can help us address the deeper issues involved.
One way of understanding negative reactions to race bending on screen is that it is connected to a broader backlash against social change considered “anti-white.”
An extreme version of this phenomenon is described as “White replacement theory” (WRT).
Jason Stanley and Federico Finchelstein describe the forms WRT has taken historically and its influence on current events in the United States and globally. This includes the racist politic violence of recent years.
A seminal text in the WRT tradition is Madison Grant’s 1916 book, “The Passing of the Great Race.” This book warned against the threat facing the superior “Nordics” of being “replaced” through intermixing with inferior races like Blacks and Jews.
WRT is becoming increasingly mainstreamed through political discourse and right-wing media personalities like Tucker Carlson.
Most of the people criticizing race-bending gods, hobbits, or mermaids have likely never heard of WRT. Yet, many of their comments could have been lifted straight from the pages of WRT literature.
These comments reflect a general mindset that echoes WRT without people consciously embracing its ideas. I call this “white replacement paranoia.”
You do not have to believe in WRT to think, feel, and act as if you do. Some are experiencing race bending as white replacement. It is not surprising that they react so strongly to it.
Race bending on screen is becoming the norm. Backlash against this will be the norm as well. A better understanding of where the backlash is coming from can help people to more effectively discuss and counter it.
Dr. Phillipe Copeland is a public scholar of teaching and learning and a clinical associate professor at BU School of Social Work. His personal mission is to achieve a world without racism. He pursues this mission through teaching, scholarship, and service focused on antiracist education and social change.
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