The Black Panther Problem

I’ll be honest here.

I didn’t want to go and see Captain America: Civil War. I don’t why I didn’t, I just didn’t.

And also, I was concerned about Black Panther.

I was concerned that they were going to do him wrong. Because sometimes Hollywood can really fuck up representing other cultures, especially ones that are often considered to be a subject of controversy in American culture: e.g a black man.

Because sometimes in movies, a black man is just there to be a black man just a skin color added into the background so that brownie points (no pun intended) can be appointed to the movie. And these characters, they have no struggles, no thoughts, no evolution of self. Sometimes they will come with a singular character attribute, but rarely are they more than just some skin pigmentation that might say a few lines every now and then.

I walked into that cinema thinking that I was going to leave with the same political rage that I usually do. But I didn’t.

Because he was amazing. The Black Panther was amazing, and more than that, he was a character. And I was so ready for him to just be a cardboard cut out with a tape-recorder strapped to his cardboard lips. And he wasn’t and it was great; realizing that he was being treated as a legitimate, recognizable character with hopes and dreams and flaws and struggles.

And racism isn’t gone just because Black Panther wasn’t fucked up, and he’s going to get his own movie, of course it’s not. But at least there is progress being made. At least there is something to show that even though it’s slow going and takes time, there something is happening.

And it just might be something good.

And, because I loved him so much in the movie, I looked him up on Tumblr. A rookie mistake. Because most of the posts were dominated by things like this:Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 10.45.22 pm.png

And I worry about things like this; I worry about it a lot. More than I worried about Civil War, I worry about this. Because on one hand it’s a classic case of ‘we saw him first’, but unfortunately it’s a lot more serious than that because it involves centuries of abuse and discrimination. And posts like this were everywhere, an attempted defense. And on one level, I can understand it. Here is this one black character that it’s anyone’s goddamn sidekick, or love interest, or a villain. Here is a character that looks like me, and he is kicking goddamn butt. And I think if I had been deprived of that all my life I would be protective of it also.

But I’m white.

And I really, really wanna talk about T’challa because he’s a great character and I want to talk about him. But I don’t want to talk about him because he’s black. And in some ways, these posts make that the most important thing about him. And that’s just degrading.

And I wanna know whether it’s okay to call them on it, because it happens. People who have been treated so badly that they believe it is their right to treat others badly. Because I don’t know whether it is.

Because I don’t think that vengeance should be a thing and I don’t think that generalizations should be a thing, and I don’t think that attacking people or telling them they can’t talk about something because of their skin color should be a thing.

But I’m white.

So I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to tell anyone.

I’ve thought a lot about those men who go onto twitter and attack feminists and say ‘Not all men’ and I hate that because that’s not the freaking point… but they are technically right. Not all men. Not all white people.

Not all of anything really.

Because when referring to any large group of humans, there’s always going to be people who you are insulting, even when they are on your side.

And I feel like we should work on that.


  1. Chris · May 8, 2016

    There’s a really good essay on Panther that is really worth reading. It can be found here:

    You mentioned that looking up Panther on Tumblr was a rookie mistake–you are right! There are lots of nerd havens outside of Tumblr that I would bet are a lot more welcoming to any and all who share a nerd love for their favorite character. And certainly after seeing Panther in Civil War he is going to have a lot more fans, and not just black ones. Nobody should (or can for that matter) take way another person’s right to comment on a fictional character.

    But, I want to offer a slightly different perspective on T’Challa. You say: “And I really, really wanna talk about T’challa because he’s a great character and I want to talk about him. But I don’t want to talk about him because he’s black. And in some ways, these posts make that the most important thing about him. And that’s just degrading.”

    The thing is, you may not want to talk about him because he’s black, and that may not be the most important thing about him to you, but for many people who have been denied seeing this kind of character who looks like them, the fact that he’s black is the thing that matters most. Yes he is noble, graceful, powerful, intelligent, honorable, confident–but we see white characters portrayed this way all the time in comics and on screen. To put it bluntly, if T’Challa were white he would just be another character. It’s because he’s black, and because we so rarely see that representation of blackness on screen, that he’s special and why so many people want to keep him as their own and be free of any commentary by non-black people. As I was driving home from seeing the film, I thought about just how great it was to see Black Panther on screen, and how much that meant to me as an adult who grew up reading comics, and how much that might mean to little black kids who have NEVER seen anything like him on screen. His blackness is not all that he is, but his blackness is essential to who he is. This is one of the seeming paradoxes of representation. It’s not just that he’s black that matters, but his being black is at the core of who the character is. If you removed that from his character, he’s just another dude. He could just as easily be Namor, or Thor (rulers/kings in their own right). It’s not degrading to talk about his blackness and how it matters, because we need to acknowledge how all characters are “raced” but also because the dearth of black superhero representations means that his blackness makes him a special kind of character. Erasure of his blackness, or pretending it doesn’t matter or exist is the exact wrong tactic. It’s kind of like the colorblindness assertion of the supreme court in the U.S.–if we just don’t talk about race then it will cease to matter. Panther’s blackness is not all he is, but to ignore it is to pretend that race doesn’t matter in “real life” or representation. Race may in a lot of ways be a made up category, but its effects are as real as can be.

    There’s a lot more that could be said, but it’s also important to remember note that discussions about the film rarely focus on Captain America’s whiteness (At least in the films. In the comics, the current Falcon as Cap stories and the storyline where the original super soldier serum was tested on black subjects are another matter). Discussions of the film rarely talk about Iron Man’s whiteness or Thor’s (except when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall). There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that whiteness is typically seen as “normal” by viewers and hence it’s not seen as necessary. Nobody can tell you not to talk about Black Panther, but without the “black” he’s just another dude in tights. We have a lot of those guys already.

    • clem2000 · May 8, 2016

      First of all, I would like to thank you for actually attempting to answer my questions, and making it clear where I went wrong, I really appreciate it. Sometimes when questions are asked, they can simply be dismissed into an abyss of racist comments.

      What you said about how little whiteness is seen in the white characters, but when a black character happens, that is really important, reminds me of something I once saw. I can remember where I saw it, but it made a lot of sense at the time ‘being colourblind might sound nice, but it prevents you from seeing what’s really going on.’ And thank you for calling me on it, because I would not have seen that on my own. Perhaps it is because all my life I have been able to turn on the Tv and see someone who looked just like me. But thank you also, for doing it in a way that took my questions as questions rather than a passive attack. Thank you for your lovely, and educating response.

  2. Chris · May 8, 2016

    No problem! Let me know what you think of that Panther essay. There are plenty of smart people who love comics and want to talk/write about them in a way that’s inclusive. You just have to look in the right places!

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