In an interview with BuzzFeed News in the fall, Sterling K. Brown, a star of “Black Panther,” thrilled at the prospect of children, black and white, dressing up as the title character. “This Halloween, the first time I see a little kid, a white kid, dressed up as Black Panther, I’m taking a picture,” he said. “You better believe I’m taking a picture, because that’s the crossover.”
Chadwick Boseman, who plays Black Panther in the film, had already witnessed said crossover, he said in the same interview: “I’ve seen little white kids dressed up as T’Challa. I’ve seen pictures, and I’ve seen it in person.”
Black Panther costumes — whether the character’s full raiment or just his claws and mask — are on toy store shelves (and, of course, on Amazon) in anticipation of the film’s Feb. 16 release. At best, the character get-ups speak to the enthusiastic embrace of a black superhero. At worst, they could be perceived as an unwitting form of cultural appropriation, which has in recent years become a subject of freighted discourse.
What does that dual significance mean for children? And, perhaps more urgently, what does it mean for the parents who will buy the costumes for them?
As parents, or even as the people creating costumes, we need to be very aware of what that says,” said Brigitte Vittrup, an associate professor of early childhood development and education at Texas Woman’s University. “There’s not a whole lot of black superheroes, so this is a really important thing, especially for black kids growing up.”
Many parents are split on how Black Panther’s blackness should figure into their children’s relationship to the character. Some argue that placing racial boundaries around expressions of fandom is unnecessary.
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“I’m actually wondering now what it might be like for that parent who’s not of color if his kid comes home and says, ‘I want to dress up like Black Panther,’” said Katrina Jones, 39, the director of human resources at Vimeo. “When I look at it, I see no reason why a kid who’s not black can’t dress like Black Panther. Just like our kid who’s not white dresses up like Captain America. I think the beautiful thing about comics is they do transcend race in a lot of ways.”
Mary Dimacali, 29, a social media and marketing manager in Rockland County, New York, echoed that idea. She does not believe that her fiancé’s 7-year-old son, Sawyer, who is white, sees the film or its characters through the lens of race. Sawyer himself, during the interview with Ms. Dimacali, said, “sure,” when she asked if he’d like to dress up as Black Panther.
“For a white kid to be so open and judge based on the character’s story and the personality and history, I think that’s what’s important,” she said. “But on the flip side, I think it’s also great to have a black superhero you can identify and connect to.”