Wakanda, the fictional homeland of Black Panther, is a utopian society for women. They are treated with respect and equality, hold positions of power in the government, actively participate in scientific research and development and have access to all the basic necessities, as the society is economically stable. Again, it’s a fictional place, depicted in the pages of comic books and most recently, on the movie screen. The strong, brilliant women in the film, from Wakandan general Okoye (Danai Gurira) to Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda’s chief scientist and second-in-line to the throne, give little girls everywhere someone to look up to, and something to aspire towards.
Also, they’re black.
That probably doesn’t come as surprise to anyone. This is the first time in the Marvel franchise that a movie has focused on a black superhero, much less had a majority black cast. But the titular character aside, the women of Wakanda are a rare, if not singular, example of black women in positions of power and authority with no white foil.
The movie was released on Feb. 16, in the middle of Black History Month, which is not a coincidence. And though the movie is being lauded by critics and feminists alike, it throws into relief, necessarily so, that black women in America do not enjoy the same freedoms and benefits that the women of Wakanda do.
A groundbreaking study released in January 2017 by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14. This “adultification” of young black girls was recently on full display after an 11-year-old girl was dragged from her home and placed in handcuffs after being suspected of a crime reportedly committed by a 40-year-old white woman, according an article on theroot.com.
From childhood, black girls are made to feel they are less-than, and at the same time, too much; they are punished more harshly, and often for lesser offenses than their white counterparts. They are also more likely to spend time in the juvenile system and be suspended from school.
Only 2 percent of African American women are represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, while women in total make up 24 percent of the STEM workforce, according to a study by Maria Guerra on americanprogress. org. African American women only made 64 cents to the dollar compared to white men. White women made 78.1 cents to the same dollar. The poverty rate for African American women is 28.6 percent. In comparison, the poverty rate of white women is 10.8 percent, according to the same study.
African American mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, and infants born to African American mothers die at twice the rate as infants born to white mothers. These two trends hold true across education levels and socioeconomic status, according to a study by Cristina Novoa and Jamila Taylor on americanprogress.org. African American women experience unintended pregnancies at three times the rate of white women, and have far less access to birth control and medical care. Black women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, such as embolism and pregnancy-related hypertension, than any other racial group, according to Guerra’s study.
African Americans represent an estimated 12 percent of the U.S. population yet make up almost 37 percent of all reported AIDS cases. AIDS has resulted in more deaths among African American women than any other cause (e.g., heart disease, cancer).
Incarcerated at between two and three times the rate of White women, Black women are over represented in the criminal legal system. More than half of incarcerated women were raped or experienced childhood sexual assault before coming to prison, according to a study on VAW. net. The same study found poverty and revictimization were both risk factors and consequences for adult sexual violence. Being poor increased the likelihood of being raped and being raped increased the likelihood of becoming more economically disadvantaged.
Black women are hugely underrepresented in politics. Eighteen black women serve in congressional delegations in 13 states — that’s out of 435 representatives — and 12 states have never had a woman, much less one of color, serve in their congressional delegations. Arkansas is one of those 12 states.
Disenfranchised, impoverished, dying of preventable and treatable medical conditions, and treated from childhood as if their behavior is naturally suspect at all times—it’s a far cry from the freedom of Wakanda, which only seems like a fictional utopia because of the systemic and systematic racism in our own society (space minerals and futuristic
aircraft notwithstanding). Black women are caught in a cycle that only breaks in small ways for a lucky few: racism leads to interrupted education; interrupted education leads to exploitation and poverty, which in turn, often leads to incarceration; for those who attain higher education, earning potential is decreased. Even something as simple as finding adequate healthcare is often fraught.
Those things should not be.
There is no one solution to any of these problems, other than putting an end to racism, which is the root cause. Ending racism seems like an insurmountable task, and it isn’t something that ends overnight. But, it’s possible the answer is provided by the same society that highlights how far we still have to go. Shuri wants to use Wakandan technology to help the rest of the world; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy, wants to open the borders and take in refugees from war-torn and impoverished nations. Both of them exhibit the most important trait for ending racism—empathy. Empathy can be taught. It can be demonstrated. It can be reinforced.