Hey Van Jones, Can My White Kid Dress Up As Black Panther for Halloween?

Teaching kids about race is really tough, especially when they just want to wear a cool mask.

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Black Panther is one of the highest grossing and perhaps the best Marvel superhero movie ever made. It’s more than just a movie, it is, as Lisa Respers France writes, a movement. One of the many reasons is that it has transcended the genre is that it depicts an African nation, Wakanda, untouched by colonialism, and an African hero, T’challa, largely untouched by condescension. Saying it’s meaningful doesn’t do it justice, but there have been many wonderful think-pieces about why the movie is important and this isn’t one of them. This is an attempt to answer what is both a trivial and difficult question: Should I allow my white son to dress as a black superhero?

Come Halloween, my six-year-old son — who hasn’t seen the movie because he’s literally scared of everything – will want to dress up as T’challa. I know this because I know him and also the unstoppable force of Marvel marketing. I also know this will make me uneasy because I know myself and that I have mixed feelings about this — well, maybe not that mixed.

One of the most astute things I’ve read about the film came from Van Jones, the author and CNN contributor who wrote, “This film is a godsend that will lift the self-esteem of black children in the US and around the world for a long time. It shifts the understanding of where the power of African-descended people can come from.”

Luckily, Van was a scheduled guest on The Fatherly Podcast so, after we had pretty much wrapped the interview, I posed my question to him.  I have to say I was surprised by what he said. But, before we get to what that was, let me explain my own unpopular opinion.

I don’t think my white son should wear a Black Panther costume this Halloween. In general, I don’t think white children should wear Black Panther costumes for Halloween. My thinking is this: Black Panther is more than just another superhero film. It is a meaningful and important moment for people of a specific race.

Reading Charles Pulliam-Moore’s piece on The Root,  “You Have to See Black Panther in a Black Movie theater to Really Understand It” put that into context for me:

Black Panther’s online hype is a force to be reckoned with, but it doesn’t quite capture how profoundly moving it is to see rows full of little black girls and boys staring up in wonder at the Dora Milaje while they’re kicking ass and taking names. They saw themselves on-screen in Black Panther’s heroes and its villains, and I saw myself in them—young and vibrant and inspired by the very idea of futuristic, distinctly African blackness destined to save the world from itself.

Black Panther, then, is not for white people — even well-meaning allies and children unaware of the context — to Rachel Dolezal. A white child dressed as Black Panther might not represent a provocation, but does represent blithe appropriation. Ignorance, whether it stems from youth or carelessness, is not an excuse. 

What Pulliam-Moore, and many other African-American writers have described,  should be enough to inoculate readers and watchers and humans generally against the facile argument that Black Panther is just like any other superhero — the whole “If a black kid can dress up as Superman, why can’t a white kid dress up as Black Panther?” bit. That argument is easily dismissed using comic book and blockbuster demographics. Van and I agree on the stupidity of that point. That said, we don’t agree on the costume issue.

 “Obviously, it’s ridiculous to say that, when you’re a black kid in a white world and the only heroes available to you are white, it’s the same as when you have one black superhero and white kids dressing up as him,” Van told me. “When you’re a minority subgroup surrounded and outnumbered and beleaguered, the choices you make are different kinds of choices qualitatively and otherwise.”

But Van is fine with my kid slipping on a catsuit. “Generally,” he says, “to have kids identify across those lines seems like a good thing.” Anyway, the father of two boys (like me), he posits that my boy is just too young to grapple with the ramifications of 400 years of systemic oppression. “At what point do you want to have a conversation with your kids? It’s easier to have with a 10,11, 12 year old,” he says. “You don’t want the first conversation about race to be about something they want to do and they can’t.”

But he also added that choosing when to have a conversation about race with my child is itself a privilege. “The age appropriateness of conversations about race is a question black parents have to think of all the time,” he said, “and it’s good that white parents are now thinking about it too.”

That said, I’m still not going to let my kid dress as Black Panther, even if I don’t come out and tell him the reason why. Part of reckoning with white privilege is realizing that there’s stuff that you want to do and can’t. It’s learning that “But I want to!” is not the final and winning argument.  And if that seems a bitter lesson to offer, I think that might be what makes it worthwhile. Years later, in therapy, I’lll explain to my son that I dashed his Halloween dreams in order to fight white privilege.

Van’s approach is more expansive and more nuanced. I mean, he’s a guy whose book is called Beyond The Messy Truth, so he’s comfortable in the gray zones.  Plus, as he tells me, “You’re going to be the kid’s parent for a very long time.” In the end, come October, I’m almost certain I’ll cave and let my son dress as Black Panther. But when asked what he is, I’ll teach him to repeat after me, “I’m dressed as White Privilege. Trick or treat!”

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