Instead of viewing Black Panther’s success as an opportunity to complain about something that is lacking in our communities, non-Black people of color should appreciate the work it took to create something of its caliber.
By Sanjana Lakshmi
It’s been a few weeks since “Black Panther” came out, and its reception has been deservedly overwhelmingly positive. Ryan Coogler’s film is more than just another superhero movie: it is a blockbuster film that centers the experiences, cultures, and strength of Black folks in a way we have rarely, if ever, seen before.
However, one particular response to the film by non-Black people of color has bothered me: the idea that we need to react by saying “where’s our Asian-American superhero movie,” or “where’s our Latinx superhero movie” (note that the latter doesn’t usually imply that they are looking for afro-latinx representation). All people of color deserve media representation, but this is not a constructive critique of ”Black Panther”; these concerns were rarely, if ever, raised during the decades of primarily white superhero movies. The fact that these questions are being posted in reaction to a successful Black superhero movie that is breaking the box office is no more than thinly veiled anti-Black racism.
“Black Panther” was not simply handed to the Black community. Black folks fought for this movie. Media representation of the Black community has been historically stereotypical, if not offensive and racist, from caricatures to hyper-sexualization. Wakanda’s portrayal as a technologically advanced and successful African nation untouched by the devastation of colonialism and imperialism is groundbreaking in itself, and the movie’s depiction of Black women stands in contrast to the stereotypes that have been pervasive in our media.
These long-awaited portrayals, and their positive reception, need to be celebrated. This is not the time for non-Black people of color to be saying, “what about us?” Black directors, producers, writers, and actors have been fighting for this kind of representation for decades. Black Panther’s success was not an easy feat.
It is important to note, too, that there is an extraordinary amount of anti-Blackness in non-Black communities of color. In the South Asian American community, anti-Blackness comes in many forms: the billion-dollar skin-whitening industry, the attacks on African immigrants within the South Asian subcontinent, the model minority myth, and overt as well as subtle colorism. This only scratches the surface of entrenched racism within one non-Black community of color—all of this while Black communities have historically not only supported, but actively fought for the rights of non-Black people of color.
Often, non-Black people of color in the media are problematic in their grappling with media representation. In the episode “Indians on TV” in Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None”, Ansari’s character, Dev, states that “people don’t get fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about Black people or gay people.” This is just one example of non-Black people of color viewing our struggles and successes as things that need to be compared against the struggles and successes of Black folks. Dev’s statement was steeped in ignorance; the hypervisibility of Black folks on-screen does not necessarily mean that the portrayals are positive, nor does it mean that Black folks are “winning” some sort of competition when it comes to representation, particularly when anti-Blackness is still rampant in our communities and on our streets.
Non-Black people of color first and foremost need to focus on confronting our own anti-Blackness, rather than utilizing Black success as an opportunity to push forward our concerns about how our communities are treated and represented. By placing Black success in opposition to, for example, Asian-American success, or even more simply, by framing Black representation in opposition to the representation of non-Black communities of color is not productive. It places attention on ourselves, when this is a moment to be celebrated as a positive representation of Blackness in the media.
Later this year, the DC universe’s “Aquaman” will be coming to theaters, and I have already seen Twitter threads and posts wondering if the hype for “Aquaman” will equate to the hype for Black Panther. Again, this is not productive: “Aquaman” needs to be celebrated as representation for Pacific Islanders, but does not need to be compared against “Black Panther”. Black folks put in the work that led to Black Panther’s success, and Pacific Islanders are putting in the same work. These movies should not be framed in opposition due to their representation; they should both be celebrated.
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A lack of Asian representation should not be a critique of Black representation, nor is it a problem with Black representation. “Black Panther” defies the typical superhero story: it makes digs at colonialism and whiteness; it is set in a country untouched by imperialism; it celebrates Blackness first, foremost, and center. Instead of viewing Black Panther’s success as an opportunity to complain about something that is lacking in our communities, non-Black people of color should appreciate the work it took to create something of its caliber.