Why you should care about #BlackPanther and #WakandaWeek

I put Black Panther on my calendar months ago. When they announced the opening date, primed for the middle of Black History Month, I proclaimed that–come hell or high water–I was going to watch it on Friday, February 16.

I lied.

I couldn’t wait: I saw it the evening of Thursday, February 15.

Why couldn’t I, or the other people spending ~$165 billion on presale tickets, wait until the actual release date?

What Black Panther represented was a world in which Black identity was shown in a holistic, loving, and glorious manner. People at the theater were dressed in a variety of prints, jewelry, and leather (with bouree if you really wanted to pay full homage to the double-entendre Panthers). And, while people from all backgrounds are drawn to Marvel movies, the mostly Black audience was present and accounted for on the eve of opening day.

But WHY was this such a big deal? I kept reflecting on the why after my post-movie debriefing with friends.

As a researcher and practitioner who thinks about adolescent development, I couldn’t help but to think about the youth – both in and at the movie. Without giving much away, imagine being a child raised in an environment in which your culture is continuously uplifted, promoted, and shone in a positive light. And, if you do something problematic or irresponsible (because, adolescence), you are not representing your whole group, rather making a poor decision in the moment.

It shouldn’t be hard to think about this environment. By and large, if you are a youth raised in the United States and identify as White, your image is reflected in beauty standards and media representation. Your history is reflected in textbooks and political dynamics. Your mistakes are those of your own and your successes those of expectation. You even have an entire body of literature devoted to your well-being.

The stereotypes depicting other youth within the same environment are riddled with group-based attribution, lack of representation, and deficit-oriented frameworks. Most importantly, the body of literature devoted to these youth evokes dysfunction, maintains a problem-based orientation, and is infrequently mentioned in the most prominent of journals or lectures.

So to be in this meta moment – where the mostly-Black theater is watching a mostly-Black movie about Black genius, beauty, strength, and intellect – I just couldn’t contain myself.

The research on ethnic and racial identity – or the multidimensional and metamorphosing construct comprising both the content and process of one’s beliefs and behaviors regarding race and ethnicity – has continuously linked greater pride in one’s ethnic group with improved psychological, academic, and esteem outcomes. Indeed, a recent viral article from some of my academic sistars demonstrated the connection between ethnic identity and academic performance in Black girls, illustrating the importance of and need for such findings in the literature.

For those same girls, then, to see Black women in positions of power, beauty, and grace in Black Panther, well – the possibilities for their performance in many other sectors are boundless. Oh, and it doesn’t stop at girls (or even Black youth for that matter) – some of our work shows similar findings regarding ethnic identity effects in Black and Latino boys.

Youth’s racial and ethnic identity, as amplified by the characters in Black Panther, can help to buffer them from discriminatory messages in the world WHILE bolstering them with positive messages about their beautiful, rich, and advanced people. And when we don’t take elements like this into account for them, we miss possible factors that can contribute to the growth and sustainable development of ALL youth. If we consider ourselves to be holistic consumers of research on adolescence, wouldn’t it be great to know what leads youth to believe that they can be superheroes in their everyday lives?

So WHY should you care about the littiest (definition: most lit) week in Black History Month? Simply, the adolescents of color in America are depending on it.

#WakandaForever

By Riana Elyse Andersen, PhD

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