Author’s note: I acknowledge that this article is written from a place of privilege. I’ve tried to draw from anti-racism best practices, but please feel free to give me your feedback. In this article we use Black and White as racial identifiers with the understanding that those groups are amorphous and difficult to define. For more information on the journalistic conversation happening regarding how we identify race, check out this link from the Poynter Institute.
Like a lot of people, I’m excited for the release of Black Panther, the film that’s already rated at 100 percent fresh by Rotten Tomatoes and sold out for opening weekend in many theaters around the country. Although I won’t get to see for a few weeks, I am thrilled at the attention the film has received.
However, my excitement pales in comparison to the excitement of the Black community, especially in the online spaces I tend to occupy. We’ve had roughly 500 superhero films since 1920 and most have featured very standard casts of characters. Remember last year, when Wonder Woman made women everywhere lose their collective bananas?
Black Panther is going to be that AND MORE. While Blade, Shaft, Luke Cage, Hancock, Spawn, Catwoman, and a handful of others have featured Black protagonists, none have been of the profile of T’Challa, King of Wakanda. Like many superheroes, Black Panther’s predecessors are rebels and outcasts. T’Challa’s regality, and his supporting cast of ridiculously strong Black women along with Wakanda’s status as an unconquered country makes Black Panther different.
Sadly, many Black fans have already reported backlash against a film that isn’t even out yet. One already deleted Facebook group was encouraging people to sabotage the release by jeering during the film. Another called for the film’s banning because of its glorification of the Black Panthers. Other racist imagery and content has proliferated other online spaces including, of course, 4Chan. This image (trigger warning), shared on a friend’s Facebook prompted this article by literally waking me up at 3am.
The backlash will surely continue after the film is released, and if you are a liberal or moderate White person, it’s possible your browsing habits will select out these things. Our online echo chambers are primed to isolate us from things we find disagreeable through our clicks, likes, and shares. In real life, harassment often happens when a potential ally’s back is turned. The crazy raving person who openly harasses in public is far rarer than viral videos would lead us to believe, saving their vitriol for places like parking lots and hallways where they think they can isolate and terrify the person.
So, as Black Panther comes out, what can White people do to support our fellow fans to whom this film is not only exciting, but groundbreaking, monumental, and important? Odds are, all you have to do is show up. Dollars speak louder than ratings and reviews, so going to the film will help tell executives that films with rich representation has support in our fan community. So, the best thing you can do is show up! But, just in case, I have, as always, a short list:
Don’t be a know it all
Even if you’ve followed the comics since 1966, know every property of Vibranium, and can name every superhero team T’Challa has served on; now is not the time. A lot of non-nerdy fans are going to be drawn to this film, so you don’t need to “well actually,” anyone to show them your worthiness. Just go to the film!. Cheer, fist pump, and seat dance. Your presence is enough. If someone asks you a question, or if you want to strike up a conversation, try “what did you like?” Or “are you a comics reader?” If someone asks you for a recommendation, or a piece of trivia, go for it, but no one wants to be Wakandasplained.
Don’t dress up
Yes, we’ve all marveled (tee hee) at the costumes, and of course the film’s opening night showed us the heights of Afro-centric fashion but, if you are a White person, please do not dress up (yes even if your Black friend said it was okay, and even if your dashiki was hand-woven in Africa and bought through a fair trade organic online store that shoots peace, love and rainbows whenever you wear it). If you really want to show your fandom, officially licensed merch, (Her Universe anyone) is the way to go.
Be armed with counters
If after seeing the film, people in your circle decide to push back against the film’s blackness, guess what? That’s your time to SHINE little nerdlet. Feel free to note that Black Panther is a long standing member of the Avengers (first appearance, 1968). You can also mention that this film carries a similar Black to White ratio as the previous Marvel films have White to Black. Feel free to mention the diversity of the cast which represents people from around the world including Kenya, Britain, and Mexico.
Do your own homework
Don’t understand a reference? Don’t get a song choice? Wonder why a character is portrayed a particular way, or if something is “authentic”? There’s already a raft of information online regarding the film. Google it. Don’t put the burden of explanation on the Black people around you.
Know when to step up
Let’s say it does happen. You’re at a theater and someone decides to start harassing a person of color that you don’t know. It can be terrifying, especially in our current divisive climate, to put yourself at risk. Part of privilege is the freedom to decide that something is not your business. However, doing nothing is being a bystander; and victims of public harassment report feeling incredibly alone when people just “mind their own business.” In my view,no self-respecting geek should ever stand by while someone else is bullied. So, how can you stand with someone without robbing the person of their own voice? Here are a few ideas:
This is when a White person speaks for a Black person without their consent. If the person being harassed is handling it, show solidarity by mirroring body posture, making strong eye contact with the harasser (academically called, “the stink eye”) and standing near the person being harassed. Nonverbally show that you are listening. You can also video the incident with your phone so that if for some reason, the management would try to evict both parties, you have evidence.
If a harasser is bullying someone and that person clearly needs help you have a number of options. I suggest a brief, direct callout. “Hey man, not cool, huh.” Sometimes that statement is enough to deter people as they realize they were heard and are being watched. However, it can trigger them to come after you. If they start yelling at you, stay calm. DO NOT RAISE YOUR VOICE. DO NOT SHOW ANGER. “What you are saying is hurtful, please stop.” Focus on the person’s behavior as much as possible. “If you continue, I’m going to have to get the manager.” Use formal wording and assume you are being recorded as well. Remember your job is to diffuse, not escalate. Keep your body language relaxed and open with your hands in plain sight. Ihollaback, an anti-harassment organization has some great ideas on being a “badass bystander.”
If direct confrontation is not your thing, and if the person being bullied seems to be alone, or in need of help (yes this is a judgment call-do your best), you can use the same technique taught in Europe to combat Islamaphobia. Walk up next to the person and say, “Hey, Angela (or Michael)?” Oh my gosh! I haven’t seen you in forever. How are you?” Stand or sit next to the person and make eye contact and smile. There is an unfortunate history here that sometimes White people confuse Black people with each other, so I would address the attacker, “excuse me,” and then ignore them pointedly, so the person being harassed knows this isn’t an actual mistake.
Don’t expect cookies
It’s possible your help could be rejected. It’s possible, you won’t get a thank you (harassment is traumatizing and shaming). If you make a mistake, say the wrong thing, or step in when you shouldn’t, just apologize and step away. Being patted on the head is not the point. The point is taking a stand and doing the right thing. Also, if you didn’t do anything, please don’t make a point to say something to the person after the fact. “Man what that person did sucked.” They are well aware racism sucks.
This can seem SUPER scary for those of us who are introverted, and, like me, hate conflict. You might even make a mistake. That’s okay. But it’s how we can all walk the talk, and be there for each other. Odds are, none of this will happen, and your movie going experience will be awesome, but just in case, it’s good to know a few heroic techniques.
So, go forth, enjoy the show, and Wakanda Forever!
Special thanks to Anyta Wilson, Leigh Kolb, Joe Kohlburn, Matthew Higel, Carolyn Noe, Fox Smith, and Marissa Draper for their contributions to this article.