Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.

You, Empowered

"Black Panther" and the Importance of Racial Socialization

How the film can help parents talk to their kids about race.

Posted Feb 25, 2018

Last weekend, while sitting in an IMAX theater, eyes glued to the screen as to not miss a second of the Wakanda story, I reveled in the beauty and wonder of Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler and featuring an all-star cast, Black Panther follows T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, a technologically advanced and isolated African nation. The movie, based on the Marvel comic of the same title, is a superhero film like no other, with some critics calling it revolutionary. T’Challa’s identity as the Black Panther is more than a man with superhuman powers, but he is a king whose African identity is central to his purpose and destiny. Watching the movie prompted me to reflect on the theme of identity and how a positive gendered-racial identity is protective for Black youth.

A few days after the movie release, a friend (who is a Black woman and mother of two Black children) shared on social media how she rearranged her son’s schedule to see the film, stating, “I needed him to see himself.” Her statement speaks to the impact Black Panther may have on Black youth seeing such powerful images on screen. Importantly, her statement depicts proactive racial socialization, the process of Black parents transmitting messages (both verbal and nonverbal) about what it means to be Black and of African descent.

Identity Development and Stereotypical Roles

Identity development is an essential marker for adaptive and healthy outcomes for all youth. However, the portrayal of Black boys and girls in mainstream media is often one that invalidates their experiences. For example, the presence of stereotypical roles and images (e.g., angry Black woman, criminal, athlete, entertainer) found in many commercials, television shows, news programs, and other forms of media is a contextual factor that impacts positive identity development. This means that Black youth must negotiate their identity considering the oftentimes negative representations of themselves in the media. Providing youth resources to help them cope and constructively evaluate images they see of themselves in society can contribute to the development of resilience.

Racial Socialization and Cultural Pride

Cultural pride is a sense of positive attachment to a person’s culture of origin and involves knowledge about racial/ethnic/ cultural heritage, history, customs, and traditions. Cultural pride, a core component of racial-ethnic socialization, is protective against a host of mental health and academic outcomes. Racial-ethnic socialization is comprised of several components: (1) instilling cultural pride (2) preparation for bias, (3) promotion of mistrust, and (4) egalitarianism (Hughes, Rodriguez, Smith, Johnson, Stevenson, & Spicer, 2006). The goal of racial socialization is to provide children with a healthy sense of themselves while giving them tools to actively cope with varying forms of oppression. “Black children and adolescents who learn that others may have negative attitude towards them but who have these messages mediated by parents, peers, and other important adults are less likely to have negative outcomes and more likely to be resilient in adverse conditions” (American Psychological Association, 2008, p.3).

Racial Socialization and Related Outcomes

Regarding mental health outcomes, research shows that racial socialization is positively related to prosocial behavior (Caughy, O’Campo, Randolph, & Nickerson, 2003), positive mental health (Shaw & Fischer, 1999), psychological well-being (Yoon, 2004), and reduction of susceptibility to stereotype threat (Davis & Salinas, 2006) for U.S. ethnic minority youth and adults. In one study, Black parents who provided their children with messages about cultural pride also reported less psychological distress for their children (Bannon, McKay, Chacko, Rodriguez, & Cavaleri, 2009). Interventions designed to promote racial socialization in youth have been found to decrease relational aggression, problem behaviors and increase positive racial identity (Whaley & McQueen, 2004).

A lack of positive racial-ethnic-cultural socialization may lead to internalizing negative messages about oneself or ethnic group (i.e., internalized oppression). We know from theories of oppression (Bulhan, 1985; Freire, 1970, 2000) that oppression is predictable and that it produces specific outcomes (i.e., internalized racism, collusion, endorsement of stereotypes). For example, the endorsement of negative stereotypes by Black youth can be considered a form of collusion or “believing the hype."

Implications

Black Panther, in addition to living up to the hype of its potential success, it also counters many popular depictions of what it means to be Black and African. It is a movie, with its strengths and limitations, that provides rich ground for parents and caregivers to have the talk with their kids about race. The film speaks to many important dynamics from what it means to be African versus African American to the strength and determination of Black women. And the theme of colonialism and oppression when the film’s “villain” stated (after which I nearly fell from my seat), “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships [because] they knew death was better than bondage.”

The film also highlights the power of self-determination when T’Challa’s mother tells him, “Show him who you are!” Or when T’Challa’s close friend and love interest, Nakia, tells him, “You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.” And, I think Nakia’s message is exactly what my friend wanted to relay to her children: You are more than someone else’s perception, or stereotype.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” ―Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Selected References

American Psychological Association. (2009). Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents.(2008). Resilience in African American children and adolescents: A vision for optimal development.

Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E. P., Johnson, D. J., Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents' ethnic-racial socialization practices: A review of research and directions for future study. Developmental psychology, 42(5), 747.

Resource for Parents: http://www.apa.org/pi/res