BIPOC kids can be the heroes, the fighters who push back against impossible odds. We, too, should be the stuff of legends and prophecies.
This time around, Riordan stressed that the TV casting call was inclusive because showrunners were looking for “the best person who can embody the character we all know and love from the books.” For a moment, Percy Jackson could, in fact, have been anyone—even one of us.
Throughout five wildly successful books, several short stories, and even more spin-off book series, Percy was the quintessentially relatable hero. The son of a single mom and the mythological Greek god Poseidon was inventive, courageous, and good at kicking butt. He snarked his way through minotaur attacks and gorgon battles with an effortless wit that us awkward kids lived through vicariously.
Beyond that, what defined Percy’s character was his unflinching loyalty. We knew he would do the right thing, even if it meant the ultimate sacrifice. It was what made him a hero and what we desperately imagined ourselves to be. It didn’t matter that I was brown and Muslim. In every way that mattered, I was Percy Jackson.
When I got older, I realized that being brown and Muslim meant that often, people might look at me less like a hero and more like someone they want to do random security checks on in airports. More like a villain.
At fifteen, a little girl told me she was worried about her family seeing that I was her camp counselor. They think people like you are bad, she said. They think our Muslim neighbors are scary.
Later, I went to business school, lustrous and prestigious and dripping with condescension. There, I got used to being underestimated: Maybe someone better at English should lead the group project? I wrote a news article for a local paper and received personalized hate mail telling me to drop out of university: Why did you come to a Western country if you wanted to keep wearing hijab?
BIPOC kids can be the heroes, the fighters who push back against impossible odds.
Being brown and Muslim never held me back from from identifying with Percy as a kid. I’d been drawn to his personality traits and experiences, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with his race. And then, the older I got and the more racism I experienced, the more relatable Percy somehow became.
Yes, Percy’s demonic middle school teacher turned out to be a literal Fury sent from Hades, but he still knew what it felt like to be constantly alienated, underestimated, and singled out. Percy wasn’t just inventive and loyal and capable and courageous. On their own, those traits might not have distinguished him from the countless other protagonists that populated middle-grade fantasy series.
What set Percy apart was the fact that he was a hero, but people in the regular world around him vehemently refused to see him that way.
Percy grew up lower-income, and he didn’t fit in at the private school he’d been sent to. He was used to adults expecting the worst of him, and he dealt with classes he couldn’t excel in because his ADHD and dyslexia never received accommodations. When he struggled on tests, he received punishment instead of support. To the rest of the world, from the classmates that taunted him to the teachers that singled him out, Percy was “trouble.”
Numerous studies and reports discuss the role that implicit racial bias plays on the academic outcomes of students of color, particularly Black students. Evidence shows that Black students are more likely to receive harsher academic discipline, including higher rates of suspension and expulsion. Similarly, research indicates that the behavior of students of color is more likely to be perceived as problematic compared to white students.
All of this is just a footnote to the countless lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in school settings, from microaggressions to outright hate crimes. The tapestry these stories weave makes it abundantly clear why BIPOC readers can feel a singular affinity with Percy’s experiences in school. For fans of color, Percy Jackson was a mirror of not just the heroic traits we aspired toward, but of the assumptions and stereotypes that the rest of the world was constantly pushing on us. He knew what it felt like to be the villain the second you entered a room.
I’m not saying that Rick Riordan wrote Percy Jackson as a person of color. In fact, I’m fairly certain he didn’t even think of it. But the inclusive casting announcement acknowledged an equally significant fact: An audience’s response to a piece of media can shape its meaning just as much as the text itself.
The mere existence of the TV series is a testament to the power of fan response. It’s been given new life beyond the widely disappointing films due to a massive online fanbase of now-adults, who campaigned on Twitter until Disney+ gave it a series order.
The recent casting announcement that both major supporting characters would be played by young BIPOC talent is absolutely thrilling. I’m so excited for young Black and brown kids—all kids, really—who will have a Black Annabeth and an Indian American Grover to look up to. I’m not understating the importance of this casting, and I am truly excited to see it.
But there is a distinction to be made between supporting roles and the lead. When I saw the announcement, my heart leapt for a moment. Even now, as an adult, representation is still a rare-enough experience that it was hard to believe. But I also know it doesn’t mean the same thing that casting a BIPOC lead does. It’s well past time for studios to bring people of color to the forefront.
We are eternal side characters, extras, and sidekicks. And even there, the rare instance of BIPOC casting is met with concentrated outrage and racism. After it was announced last month that young Black actress Leah Sava Jeffries will play Annabeth, she faced a deluge of racist bullying and harassment—despite not even being cast in a lead role.
I can’t count the number of incredible fancasts I’ve seen in an era when BIPOC leads were scarce. With Percy, there were Polynesian kids and Black kids and Latine kids and Indian kids and more, all of whom could be linked to his backstory in beautiful and painful and utterly powerful ways. But this possibility was as fleeting as it was joyous. Now, fans of color will have to reckon with the reality that once again, we were not “the best person” to embody the role. And as exciting as it is to see a new young actor with a bright future ahead take on the role, it’s also bittersweet.
I think back to the kid I was in the 2000s—sprinting across the playground, charging down invisible beasts, not knowing what was in store for the years to come. My heart hurts for her and for all the other BIPOC kids who will meet monsters in the world around them too soon. For twelve-year-old Leah Sava Jeffries, who is facing monsters on the internet right now. These kids are fighting very real battles, and I wish they got the chance to see themselves for what they are: heroes.
BIPOC kids can be the heroes, the fighters who push back against impossible odds. We are more than best friends or helping hands, more than love interests or comic relief. We, too, should be the stuff of legends and prophecies.
I’ll be tuning in when the Percy Jackson series hits screens, and I have no doubt that I’ll enjoy it. But I will still be holding on to a Percy Jackson who looked like me, and I know that many other fans out there will be too.
In the absence of on-page representation, BIPOC readers have written ourselves into the spaces between the words. In doing so, we developed our own canon. Percy Jackson did not become a person of color when the open casting call was announced in April 2021.
In our minds, and through our art, and on our playground battlefields, he’s been here all along.
Sakeina Syed is an award-winning writer and freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Her writing can be found in The Globe and Mail, Vice News, Stylist Magazine, and others. During both working hours and spare time, she can be found asking questions.