Who’s allowed to wear a Black Panther mask?
In an interview with BuzzFeed News in the fall, Sterling K. Brown, a star of “Black Panther,” thrilled at the prospect of children dressing up as the title character. “This Halloween, the first time I see a little kid, a white kid, dressed up as Black Panther, I’m taking a picture,” he said. “You better believe I’m taking a picture, because that’s the crossover.”
Chadwick Boseman, who plays Black Panther in the film, had already witnessed said crossover, he said in the same interview: “I’ve seen little white kids dressed up as T’Challa. I’ve seen pictures, and I’ve seen it in person.”
Black Panther costumes — whether the character’s full raiment or just his claws and mask — are on toy store shelves (and, of course, on Amazon). At best, the character get-ups speak to the enthusiastic embrace of a Black superhero. At worst, they could be perceived as an unwitting form of cultural appropriation, which has in recent years become a subject of freighted discourse.
What does that dual significance mean for children? And, perhaps more urgent, what does it mean for the parents who will buy the costumes for them?
“As parents, or even as the people creating costumes, we need to be very aware of what that says,” said Brigitte Vittrup, an associate professor of early childhood development and education at Texas Woman’s University. “There’s not a whole lot of Black superheroes, so this is a really important thing, especially for Black kids growing up.”
Many parents are split on how Black Panther’s Blackness should figure into their children’s relationship to the character. Some argue that placing racial boundaries around expressions of fandom is unnecessary.
“I’m actually wondering now what it might be like for that parent who’s not of color if his kid comes home and says, ‘I want to dress up like Black Panther,’” said Katrina Jones, 39, the director of human resources at Vimeo. “When I look at it, I see no reason why a kid who’s not Black can’t dress like Black Panther. Just like our kid who’s not white dresses up like Captain America. I think the beautiful thing about comics is they do transcend race in a lot of ways.”
Mary Dimacali echoed that idea, explaining that her fiancé’s 7-year-old son, Sawyer, who is white, does not see the film or its characters through the lens of race. Sawyer himself, during the interview with Dimacali, said, “sure,” when she asked if he’d like to dress up as Black Panther.
“For a white kid to be so open and judge based on the character’s story and the personality and history, I think that’s what’s important,” said Dimacali, 29, a social media and marketing manager. “But on the flip side, I think it’s also great to have a Black superhero you can identify and connect to.”
The character’s history is unique. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, Black Panther rules as the king of an African technological utopia known as Wakanda. Untouched by European invaders, Wakanda exists apart from the legacies of colonization and racism. Black history and Black fantasy are central to the character, and the series has brought on prominent Black writers including Ta-Nehisi Coates to deepen its significance over the last 50 years.
Consequently, some parents have felt pressure to hammer home Black Panther’s heroism through the lens of race.
“I’m conflicted,” said Evan Narcisse, a senior writer for the website io9. He is completing “Rise of the Black Panther,” a six-part comic series for Marvel that traces the character’s early history. He has tried to explain some of that history to his 7-year-old daughter, but without delving too deeply into complex concepts like Western imperialism, which she may struggle to grasp.
“You want that white kid to be able to think that he can dress up in a Black Panther costume, because, to that kid, there’s no difference between Captain America and Black Panther,” Narcisse, 45, said. But, he added, it also involves “trying to explain what is special about T’Challa and Wakanda without racism. And it’s like, ‘Can’t do it.’ I couldn’t do it.”
“White people have the privilege of not constantly being reminded of their race in the United States, where white is the majority, whereas as a Black person you don’t,” Vittrup said. She believes that parents in general, and white parents in particular, are reluctant to talk about race with young children. When they do, they often miss the chance to talk about inequality, even though research supports the idea that children develop an awareness of race and difference at a very young age.
Vittrup was careful to add that dressing as Black Panther isn’t inherently appropriative or offensive. The character comes from an invented African country, and to wear his mask isn’t the same as wearing blackface. However, in a moment where even more Black heroes, like Luke Cage and Black Lightning, are finding their way into the limelight, Black Panther’s relationship with the Black community and its history creates an opportunity to teach non-Black children about the Black experience.
“Kids are not colorblind,” she said. “There’s a lot of structural inequality in our society, and kids are noticing that. By not mentioning it, by not talking about it, we’re essentially preserving the status quo.” — (The New York Times)