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Black Panther and the Power of Representation

This post continues our blog series regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit:

By Shaakira Parker (Graduate Intern, APA Children, Youth, and Families Office)

Hopefully, by now everyone has seen the movie Black Panther! The blockbuster movie received a lot of attention on media outlets leading up to its premiere, but its overwhelming success has been unprecedented. The smash hit has gone on to become the third biggest (unadjusted) domestic grossing movie of all time with over $700 million in domestic box office and the biggest comic book superhero movie ever. Celebrities bought out theaters, paying for children, especially Black children in underserved neighborhoods, to go see Black Panther. In fact, people went to see it multiple times after the movie’s premiere!

Now you may ask, why all the excitement about Black Panther?

  1. Well for one – the movie includes a majority Black cast, which is unusual in Hollywood.

  2. Two – not only is the cast majority Black, but the cast also includes varying shades of skin color, with dark-skinned Black males and females represented in lead roles.

  3. Three – the director, Ryan Coogler, is a young Black man from Oakland, California.

  4. Four – people of color are represented positively throughout the movie.

All the points mentioned above are important to consider when talking about race/ ethnicity, socialization, and representation, especially for developing children and adolescents of color. Although, it is important for parents to sit and talk about race and ethnicity with their children, it is not the only source of racial socialization they are receiving. Children and adolescents are also receiving messages about their race and ethnicity from the media and from conversations with peers, which contribute to the formation of their racial/ ethnic identity (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2017).

Far too often, when children see themselves in the media whether via social media, the news, or in television shows and movies, people of color and Black people in particular, are portrayed:

  1. stereotypically – as the help or as comic relief;

  2. negatively – as criminals, thugs, or penetrators of violence; or

  3. in supportive roles – as sidekicks and background characters (Martin, 2008).

This means that young Black and Brown children are not seeing people that look like them in positive leadership roles – being superheroes, saving people, showing agency. Furthermore, youth can internalize these negative and/or stereotypical representations of people within their racial group, which can affect self-esteem and resilience against discrimination and racism.

Representation matters

It is important for identity development and self-concept for children and adolescents of color to see positive examples of people who look like them represented in the media and popular culture (Ellithorpe & Bleakley, 2016). Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory explains how children learn through observing and modeling others, which can include children modeling characters and behaviors seen in the media.

Furthermore, according to Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Racial and Ethnic Minority Youth – A Guide for Practitioners, when youth have a positive view of their racial and ethnic identity, it acts as a protective factor by increasing their self-esteem and buffering against racism and discrimination; therefore, reducing or protecting against psychological distress and improving mental health.

However, Black Panther is changing the conversation. And it is not just Black Panther. Television shows such as Blackish, (which features a Black family navigating everyday life in the suburbs), and Black Lightning, (which features a Black family learning to be superheroes in their neighborhood), are changing the way children see themselves portrayed in the media. Now young Black girls have more options for dressing up and role-playing characters that look like them, like the Dora Milaje – Wakandan female warriors.

Due to the technological advancements shown in Black Panther, where Black people were at the forefront of science, there has been a renewed interest in STEM fields and the representation of minorities in these fields. Disney has donated $1 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to create STEM innovations and classes in several underserved cities.

So perhaps, after seeing Black Panther, parents and caregivers of African American children can sit down and have a conversation with their kids about race and ethnicity.

Some talking points include:

  1. Give them positive affirmations about what it means to be Black in today’s society and why positive representation matters.

  2. Ask your children about how they felt after seeing the Black Panther movie?

  3. What scenes were their favorite and why?

  4. Are there any characters from the movie they can relate to or identify with?

  5. Share with your children how you felt watching Black Panther and your takeaway from the movie.

  6. For older children and teens, you can discuss major themes, such as:

  7. intersecting identities;

  8. identifying with African roots versus being African American;

  9. the lasting effects of slavery and colonization in the United States;

  10. the roles of Black women in today’s society and the variety of roles Black women portray in Black Panther.

For more information and guidelines on how to speak to children and adolescents about racial and ethnic socialization, visit APA’s RESilience Parent Tip Tool.


Dill-Shackleford, K., Ramasubramanian, S., Behm-Morawitz, E., Scharrer, E., Burgess, M., & Lemish, D. (2017). Social Group Stories in the Media and Child Development. Pediatrics, 140(2), S157-S161.

Disney Donates $1 Million to Youth STEM Program in Celebration of ‘Black Panther’ – The Walt Disney Company. (2018). The Walt Disney Company. Retrieved 7 March 2018, from

Ellithorpe, M., & Bleakley, A. (2016). Wanting to See People Like Me? Racial and Gender Diversity in Popular Adolescent Television. Journal Of Youth And Adolescence, 45(7), 1426-1437.

Martin, A. (2008). Television Media as a Potential Negative Factor in the Racial Identity Development of African American Youth. Academic Psychiatry, 32(4), 338-342.

Working Group for Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Racial and Ethnic Minority Youth- a guide for practitioners. (2017). American Psychological Association. Retrieved 7 March 2018, from


Shaakira Parker is currently a graduate intern with the American Psychological Association’s Children, Youth, and Family, Public Interest Directorate. She is a first-year, second semester, graduate student at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, and is pursuing a Masters of Public Health with a concentration in Community Oriented Primary Care. Her interests include children and minority mental health, stigma in mental health, the intersection of psychology and public health, and health disparities. Shaakira spent the 2016- 2017 school year working as a pre- school teacher in Georgia, which has furthered her interest in children’s mental health and its effects on education. During her studies, Shaakira has worked on projects about Black adolescent boys and improving their well-being; as well as looking at food deserts and health outcomes in Ward 7. After finishing her masters, Shaakira is hoping to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

Image source: Marvel Studios

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