I took my child trick-or-treating for the first time this year. She’s two years old, and my partner and I wavered a bit if we were going to take our daughter out, but she was so freaking cute we decided to roll with it. It was a choice move. But, as we made our rounds through the neighborhood, and later at home as I perused Facebook, I noticed a trend. A trend that made me well-up with some real emotion.
All through my neighborhood, and my Facebook timeline, I saw a bunch of kids dressed up like the Black Panther from Marvel’s mega-hit earlier this year. No big deal, right? It was a huge, blockbuster, action-packed, super-hero movie that everyone loved. Of course kids are dressing up as Black Panther. Right?
But these kids were not only dressed up as Black Panther, they were crazily excited about being dressed up as Black Panther. Still no big deal?
What if I told you most of the kids I saw were white?
Okay… so maybe some of you feel me, but perhaps some of you are still shrugging your shoulders and saying, “So what? It’s Halloween, the movie was dope, kids loved it. What’s the big deal?”
Well, when I saw how excited these young white kids were to pretend to be the black African King of a fictional country in Africa, I wanted to sprint and flip into multiple cartwheels. T’Challa (the Black Panther) is a noble character, a multi-billionaire, and a genius. The movie was almost completely devoid of stereotypes. It was an amazingly fulfilling experience, and to see young kids from the majority excited to be a hero from the minority, is something I never honestly thought I would witness. (And they didn’t even have to wear blackface! *Stares in black sarcasm*)
I’m an ‘80’s baby, which means when I was growing up black heroes were mainly ignored by popular media and most of the white folks I knew—shoot, by most of anyone I knew. No one wanted to dress up like a black super-hero, or play as the black character in a video game, or think a black anything other than an athlete or entertainer was cool. In Street Fighter II, there was Balrog (whack). In Twisted Metal, you had Axel and Thumper (double whack). In Mortal Combat, there was Jax (whack and lame). If the video game wasn’t about sports, people ignored—and sometimes made fun of—the black character(s).
Also, the black characters in video games, or any piece of creative work, usually aligned with multiple racial stereotypes. The black characters were almost always a combination of being incredibly strong, angry, athletes from a sport typically associated with black folks (Balrog was a boxer), former/current gang members (the original Luke Cage story), pimps, slaves, etc. Then there is this whole odd correlation to black characters having powers surrounding electricity.
Even when a black character has some level of authority, there is another character (usually a white male) there to knock him down a few pegs. This trope is referred to as the “Worf Effect” after Worf from Star Trek the Next Generation. Just Google “Worf gets owned” and watch how Worf—a physically imposing character from a race of warrior aliens—gets punked by average white guys, repeatedly.
Now, there were some black heroes I really dug back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, but the problem was that none of them received any real recognition, or a real budget behind their production. Here are a few examples of heroes I liked but never received real recognition for a multitude of reasons:
- Meteor Man was a fun movie, but (1) I have never met a white person who has seen the movie, (2) I’m pretty sure the budget was less than my salary (which is pennies on the dollar), and (3) uh… it was kind of whack, honestly.
- Spawn was dope, but it was a comic for older folks, not kids. And it was a bit out there. The demonic elements to the story kept a lot of folks away, too.
- Blank Man was hilarious, but it stopped there. It was a comedy and not a movie for kids.
- Milestone Comics (a former black division of DC) had some great characters, but I have only met one white person who read those comics and he owns a comic book shop. (Side note: Hardware was a Milestone character resembling Iron-Man, and in the ‘90’s my Dad wrote a mini-series for the character.)
- Blade was dope and might be one of the few exceptions. But… I never heard of the comic until the movie. And the movie, which featured Wesley Snipes, was a rarity in terms of budget and quality, but it was also rated R and largely blocked from family viewing.
- Storm of the X-Men. This super-hero is playing both sides here, because she is an omega-level, a well-known character in the Marvel universe, and has had a role in several large-budget productions friendly enough for family viewing. However, her portrayal in the movies is a discredit to her character in the comics (and some of those X-Men movies were trash!). Storm, in the comics, is one of the core leaders of the X-Men. She is over six-feet-tall, smart, a master of combat, and an omega-level mutant. In the movies, she makes bad jokes, hides during a fight due to fear, and is another example of the Worf Effect.
At this point, some of y’all might be thinking, “Okay, sure there are a few examples here, but that exists for white heroes, too. And, Black Panther has been in the Marvel universe since the ‘60’s? So, what’s different now?”
Yeah, you’re right, if you just look at this on the surface. But when we observe this with a more critical lens it’s clear that the volume of white heroes is so large that a few throw-away characters don’t make a dent in the established tradition of powerful, interesting, and well-funded white heroes. There will always be Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Wolverine. As for Black Panther pre-Ryan Coogler, people largely had no idea who Black Panther was. As a young black comic fan in the ‘90’s, I never really got into Black Panther myself. The character felt out-of-touch, and almost like a pity-play by Marvel. (Side note: Stan Lee created Black Panther to have more representation for positive black heroes, and for which I applaud him; but, the character still felt largely out of touch for many.) T’Challa couldn’t just be a nerdy teenager like Peter Parker with great intelligence, he had to be a king, a genius, a multi-billionaire, and almost flawless. I read the Panther’s Prey series as a kid just to say I gave it a try, but never truly read Black Panther until Ta-Nehisi Coates began writing the series in 2016.
If we dig even deeper into the psychology of how we make sense of black heroes, and why we have historically never truly embraced or lionized these heroes like a Batman, Superman, or Spiderman, my emotional reaction to the young white kids enthusiastically dressing up as Black Panther makes even more sense. In the 1940’s, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, black psychologists who were also married, conducted a now-infamous experiment call the doll test. This experiment has been credited as the piece of research responsible for the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools in the U.S. To summarize, the experiment had two dolls, one black, and one white. Young children, black and white, were asked a series of questions like “Which doll is the smart doll?,” “Which doll is the pretty doll?,” “ Which doll is the bad doll?,” etc. Almost all of the children, black and white, pointed to the white doll for positive traits and the black doll for negative traits. The experiment has been replicated many times (including by CNN in 2014), and the results have always remained consistent.
What this experiment supports (among many things) is the notion of white privilege, specifically that there is an abundance of images and narratives in popular culture affirming the negative stereotypes of black folks, and an abundance of positive images and stereotypes affirming white identity as more desirable. Even if black folks create more well-crafted, positive, black characters (which we have), the characters are not largely adopted by the majority, regardless of how well they are written or produced (how many white comic fans from the ‘90’s do you know that read Milestone comics?).
Enter 2018 and Ryan Coogler’s mega-budget cinematic hit, Black Panther, with a predominantly black cast, a lack of negative stereotypes, and widespread success across the globe. No, this is not the first time a good story with intriguing and stereotype-free black characters has been told, but it is the first time it has been told with such a huge budget, promotion, and through a platform of this magnitude (the Marvel Cinematic Universe). And, it is the first time I have seen so many children in the majority excited to be a black character.
Maybe this is a sign that we are moving closer toward the dismantling of systemic racism. Maybe the young white kids growing up now flipping from couches and trees pretending to be Black Panther won’t have to be convinced that white privilege is real. And maybe, maybe, this is a generation that won’t be lulled into electing a vulgar, divisive, nationalist vowing to take their country back to the “good ole days.”
Or maybe it was just a great movie and the kids are excited.
Only time will tell.