I know what it’s like, to grow up wanting to be white.
I grew up in the early nineties in New Zealand. This was a time when it was normal for me to be the only Asian kid in my class, the only Asian kid on my soccer team, the only Asian kid in a school photo. My friends always looked at me curiously when I brought fried rice and dried seaweed for lunch. I was never bullied for it. In fact, my friends loved tasting the “funny” lunches I took to school. But I knew from the youngest age that I was different.
As you grow up, that can mess with you more than you realise. When all your friends are white, and all the cool people on TV are white, and all the billboards have white faces, and all your teachers are white, and the leader of the country is white, it just makes sense to want to be white. No five year old enjoys being an outsider. Even the first girl I had a crush on was white. That’s because I didn’t have much of a choice; every girl in the school was white. I still remember, watching the Bruce Lee biopic when I was eight, and feeling a wave of relief when I saw he married a white woman. I thought, phew. If Bruce Lee had a crush on a white girl, I guess I’m allowed to as well.
Luckily, I had a very smart mother. She could see the future. So she made sure to teach me self-love. She raised me just Chinese enough to know where I came from, but just Kiwi enough so that I wouldn’t feel like an outcast. I played Asian sports, like badminton, but also European sports, like cricket. She cooked us Chinese food like noodles and wontons, but also white food, like spaghetti and mashed potatoes. I was always connected to a Chinese element and community, so at least I knew there were other people in New Zealand that looked like me.
I think the first movie that taught me Asian people could be cool was Rumble in the Bronx, with Jackie Chan. Before that, the only Asian people I ever saw on TV were token characters, like that kid in The Goonies. So when I saw Jackie Chan whooping ass in that movie, I was like wow, Asians can actually do cool stuff too.
That’s what we do when we’re kids. We’re still learning about the world, so we look to the world around us. If the rich and powerful people are white, we grow up with thinking that’s how it should be. If all the teachers are white, we notice that too. If all the criminals in the movies are black, it’s the same thing. I have no trouble admitting that if I’m at a gas station late at night and two black people walk up to me, I would feel somewhat alarmed, but if two white people walk up to me I’d barely think about it. That’s because I learned to be that way from television, movies, the news. The funny thing is, I’ve never had a black person do a single bad thing to me, ever. In fact, they’ve probably given me the deepest and most selfless hospitality I’ve known. I’ve only been stolen from once on my travels, and it was a Thai housekeeper. I’ve only been attacked once, and it was a white European. If I based my feelings on actual experiences, I should feel the safest in the company of black faces. But I don’t.
This is the power our televisions and books and movies have. They shape our perception, regardless of our reality.
Which brings me to my next story. This isn’t something I talk about much, but I have a student that I sponsor in Tanzania. I visit her every year, and obviously after seven years we’ve grown a close friendship. She’s a bit like the little sister I never had. I’m always conscious of her privacy, so I’m just going to refer to her as Sis. When I visit Sis and her family during the school holidays, I spend every day with her and her baby brothers. I try and encourage them to be studious, like my mother always did with me. When we first met in 2011, none of them could speak English. Now, the four of us can sit and talk for the entire afternoon, while they ask me about all the things that kids like to ask about.
During our time together I like to teach them through a variety of mediums: Music, film, writing, even photography and drawing. But improving their English is always paramount, and I find film – to hear and see words being spoken in normal conversation by other people – is one of the best ways to learn.
The problem is, I’ve never been able to find a film to watch with them. I don’t want them to watch movies where every superhero looks like a white foreigner and every criminal is a black person that looks just like them. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why that’s a bad idea. I know – because that’s the world I grew up in. I loved watching movies as a kid, but I grew up in a world where all my heroes were white. Superman was white, Batman was white, Spiderman was white, Mitchell Goosen was white, Charlie Conway was white, Terminator was white. It was also a time in movies where all black people were thugs, and Chinese people didn’t exist. So that’s the world that built itself around me: White people were good, black people were bad, Chinese people stayed quiet in the background. This isn’t a coincidence. We learn from our environments.
Every year I’ve been to Tanzania, I’ve felt eager to give these kids the joy of watching movies. But what movie could we watch? Where was the movie where the heroes had dark skin like them? Where was the movie where the stars had hairstyles like them and clothes like them? Which movie had an African-looking person that was saving the world, doing something good, being loved? Where was the movie where a black person was being great without the help of a white savior?
The only movie I could think of, from my entire childhood, was Space Jam.
So, I never introduced them to film. Over the last seven years, I’ve just refused to show them movies.
Last year during my visit to Tanzania, I suddenly thought of one. I was flicking through Youtube and was reminded of a movie – The Karate Kid. Not the original, the latest one, with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. I thought about it. The “star” was black. The “bad guy” was Chinese. The girl was Chinese. It wasn’t perfect, but it could work. I took my laptop up to the village the next day, and we watched it together.
There is a scene in this movie, where Jaden meets the girl for the first time. His hair is braided, and she asks, “Can I touch your hair?” before feeling it and then giggling.
I saw Sis smiling during this scene, and if you’re black, or spent time in Africa, you’ll know why. Hair is a big deal over here. African hair is thick and rough, so it’s often braided for hygienic and cosmetic reasons. You will find most young girls actually grow up with shaved heads because of this. Moreover, African women are often taught their hair isn’t attractive. I know several women who work for international companies and they are required to wear “European style hair” wigs every day. Just imagine – if white people were told to cover their natural hair and wear afro wigs to work, because it looked more professional. It would be preposterous, the white world would halt to a stop. But that is what black women go through every day. The scene in the movie was subtle, but important. Yes, this is a movie about people just like you.
Unsurprisingly, they all loved that movie. They talk about it all the time. It was because they related to it. Because the main character looked like them.
There is another scene in this movie, where Jaden’s character visits a Chinese temple and learns how to do the “Art of the Snake”, a particular style of kung fu. Sis spent hours the next day watching “Art of the Snake” videos on Youtube on my phone. When I told her there were other styles, like “Art of the Tiger” and “Art of the Monkey”, it opened the Pandora’s box of kung fu videos until she used up my entire data package. Later when I asked her what sports she wanted to play this year, she said “I want to learn kung fu, the art of the snake.” When I asked her what instrument she wanted to learn she said, “Art of the Snake!”
This is the power things like film, books and music can have on children. It’s how they learn about the outside world, and that determines how they see themselves. Just a single film or book can make them believe they’re a superhero or a criminal. Our media shapes the ideas and beliefs and dreams of entire generations.
When I first saw the Black Panther poster, I already knew it was going to be huge. But I didn’t know it was going to be “global phenomenon” huge. It is a shift I have seen happening in culture around the world since I started travelling, and have been excited about it, although I didn’t think the world was quite ready for it yet. But apparently, we’re getting close. Tipping points take time to reach, but you’ll get there eventually, if you push long enough.
This is much more than just a movie with a black superhero. We’ve already had those before (cough, Catwoman). Those don’t count. It is easy to take a white movie and put a black face on the front. Black Panther doesn’t just show a black face, it celebrates black love, black pride, black culture, something one of my heroes, Muhammad Ali, tried to do for so many years in his lectures, despite being silenced and vilified.
Look at this photo. The women warriors of Wakanda have shaved heads. The princess of Wakanda has a shortly cropped fro. I’ll tell you why this is important: For centuries the universal standard of beauty has been long, straight, flowing hair. These standards infiltrate all cultures, which is why even black celebrities like Beyonce, and Tyra Banks, and even Michelle Obama straighten out their afros or wear wigs (yes, they wear wigs). But what does that tell the young girls of Africa who grow up with shaved heads? It tells them the world doesn’t think they’re beautiful. That their natural hair isn’t good enough. That it should be hidden. But this movie tells them different. Think of the girls who have Black Panther as the first movie they ever see. That is going to be a different generation. A powerful generation.
This movie has been built from African roots. The kings and queens in the movie have proudly African hairstyles and African accents. The heroes are wearing clothes and jewellery from African designers, inspired by African tribal styles and colours. The good guys are black. The bad guys are black. Wakanda is built and ruled by blacks, and is not the armpit of the world, but the most advanced nation on earth. Think about what that tells young black kids about their future. It’s a movie I can finally show them where they are celebrated, where they will feel included, where they can see that people who look and sound just like them can be superheroes too, and save the world.
Self love needs to be taught. I know this well. If you learn to love everything about yourself, everything is possible. But it is not taught expressly. It’s taught in the things we see and hear, the subtle messages in the world around us. Things like songs. Movies.
This next generation of Africans need to be shown that dark skin is beautiful, afro hair is beautiful, their features are beautiful, that black faces deserve to be on cereal boxes and billboards. They need to grow up knowing there are superheroes with eyes and lips and noses just like theirs, that red carpets can be filled with entire casts of movie stars that look just like them, that everything about their homes and their lives and their culture is magical and something to be proud of. This isn’t just true for blacks or Africans, but for children of all minorities. If you haven’t understood the buzz around this movie, this is the place it’s coming from. Because I have been waiting literally years for just one movie like this that I can show these kids. And seven years and maybe 2,000 Hollywood films later, it’s here. This isn’t even about me – I’m a Chinese kid from New Zealand. But even I know how much we need it. For the people that this movie actually represents, one can only imagine how long the wait has been.
This is only the beginning. My goal is not, and never will be, to have kids grow up with only black role models or only white role models. If we’re going to show our kids movies, give me every colour, give me a rainbow of superheroes so I can teach them love for all. Black Panther is the beginning, but how far can we go? Will I have an Asian Spiderman to show my kids one day?
Let’s hope so.
Until then, let’s all be a part of this, and teach the young (and old) that excellence comes in all the colours of the world.
Love you all, and enjoy the film!