Why 'Black Panther' means so much to the black communityMarch 9, 2018
"Black Panther" opened in theaters and sparked excited among many across the country. But for many African Americans and people of African ancestry, this was a time to celebrate a historic movie – Marvel's first black superhero.
The fact that the film takes place in Wakanda – a fictional African nation – gives the movie an extra layer of complexity and highlights the significance of many cultural values for people of African ancestry.
From a cultural perspective, "Black Panther" displays the vibrancy, communalism, spirituality and strength that are often interwoven within the African and African-American communities. In America, we often group all black people together and refer to them as "African American" or "black."
However, as a researcher who studies multicultural issues, I believe that it is necessary to emphasize the importance of distinguishing the diversity among people of African ancestry. The uncanny parallels from the fictional nation of Wakanda to American society seem to help some identify with the characters in the movie. In this way, "Black Panther" transcends cultural lines and provides a unique opportunity for African-American parents to engage in racial and ethnic socialization.
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According to the American Psychological Association, racial and ethnic socialization (RES) have benefits such as providing a strong sense of self and serving as a buffer against racism and discrimination. RES involves teaching children about their racial identity and the world around them and helping them navigate cross-racial interactions. RES can occur through implicit or explicit messages communicated to children. For African-American parents, "Black Panther" provides many teaching moments that can help understand society and inspire hope for a brighter future.
For example, the movie depicts Shuri (played by Leticia Wright) – T'Challa's sister and princess of Wakanda – often in her lab creating technological advancements to improve devices used by the Wakandan people. And there have been initiatives for several years focused on increasing the representation of African Americans in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Seeing this image could inspire many black girls to consider pursuing science and technology as a career. Shuri's character displays how instrumental STEM science is to advancing society and their community.
Many have wondered why "Black Panther" means so much to the black community and why schools, churches and organizations have come to the theaters with so much excitement. The answer is that the movie brings a moment of positivity to a group of people often not the centerpiece of Hollywood movies. Plus, what we know from the research on RES is that it helps to strengthen identity and helps reduce the likelihood on internalizing negative stereotypes about one's ethnic group.
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And "Black Panther" promotes many positive aspects that can parallel America.
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The APA offers several tips that might be helpful for dissecting "Black Panther" and talking with children about their identity (see APA RESilience Tool). When RES occurs, children learn about aspects their own ethnic groups, have higher self-esteem and are better equipped to deal with issues around race. For young children, RES could occur indirectly simply from watching "Black Panther" and seeing people who look like them being represented on screen. For older children, parents can talk about the themes in the movie and discuss similarities that exist in their culture or family.
Using "Black Panther," parents can talk about famous inventors and people who have had a lasting impact on our society. We can all agree that Wakanda is a fictional place, but "Black Panther" is more than just a movie.
Dr. Erlanger Turner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown. His expertise includes parenting issues, race relations, minority mental health and race-related stress. He is also a blogger for the Race to Good Health on Psychology Today and US News & World Report.
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