As a Psychologist in the area of children’s racial attitudes, I often find myself traveling back in time to when I was a child learning about race. We learn about the status of racial groups first from our parents, and then from society (peers, teachers, toys, and MOVIES). One of the first movies I ever remember seeing with a majority Black cast was, The Color Purple. My grandma used to love to watch this movie, and I loved to sit up under her all day. I have vivid memories of seeing how broken down the characters looked, the dysfunctional dynamic of the relationships in the film (particularly between the Black man and Black woman), and how everyone looked like me and talked with that southern twang like my Grandma. While The Color Purple was an amazing film, it further highlighted the stereotype that African-Americans are inferior, dysfunctional, unintelligent, and UGLY. While the adult brain can understand that the experiences in the movie are the result of years of oppression in America, the child brain is still trying to figure out his/her identity and how that identity fits into the world that they live in.
In contrast, last weekend I took my 4 ½ year old to her first movie experience to see Black Panther (pictured below with her cousins). She had the opportunity to see a majority Black cast that was powerful, had FUNCTIONAL relationships (community and the Black man and Black woman), intelligent and beautiful. Before the film she had developed an obsession with superheroes (particularly Wonder Woman), and it saddened me to watch her love these characters so much, yet not be able to see herself in them. After seeing the film, I can now hear her running around the house with her sword shouting, “I’m Black Panther” or “I’m powerful and strong like Nakia!”.
When I was a child, my parents told me I was smart, beautiful and strong and gave me books to read about positive examples of African-Americans. But I knew society didn’t think the same by how I saw us portrayed in the media. That is a lot for a young child to handle. Two opposing thoughts: 1) your parents think you are great and 2) society doesn’t think your group is great. The young brain has a hard time understanding two opposing thoughts at once. We need to save these difficult conversations about our history for when they are older, already have positive racial attitudes and their cognitive abilities are more advanced. My research has shown that discussing our oppression and low status in society with young children in an attempt to prepare us for racism further contributes to what is called a White Bias, preference for those with lighter/white skin because they are valued in society. Our children need messages that line up with each other, all telling them that they are valued from parents, books, the community and MEDIA.
I’m grateful for the film Black Panther, because this type of media makes it so that I don’t have to explain to my 4 ½ year old that I think she is beautiful and strong, but society doesn’t think so because they don’t show it on the big screen. Unlike my first movie experience, she got to see society portraying us (and not just one of us, a whole entire cast of us) as AMAZINGLY BROWN.