Why Black Panther is a lesson in diversity and inclusion

The latest blockbuster based on the heroes of Marvel Comics shows us how equality should be done in the workplace, as Shakil Butt explains

Black Panther, the latest offering in the superhero film genre, excited many with a 97 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes even before it was released. It has become the most tweeted-about movie of 2018 (although we’re still only in February) and is expected to break records.

So what makes Black Panther so notable? In the workplace, racial discrimination and inequity has surfaced repeatedly in numerous studies and research papers. Most recently the CIPD’s report, Addressing barriers to BAME employee career progression to the top highlighted that BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) employees were more likely to find that their identity or background had an adverse effect on the opportunities available to them.

So it is timely – post-EU referendum and with increased racial tensions with the rise of the far right in America and Europe – that Black Panther’s release fell during the US’s Black History Month.

When the character was originally conceived in the 1960s, it was during the peak of the civil rights movement and in one of Marvel's flagship comics, Fantastic Four – and it was the first superhero of colour and of African descent.

After the first black hero, others swiftly followed in his wake, such as Marvel’s Luke Cage and Falcon, while DC Comics introduced John Stewart as a black Green Lantern. Similarly to the world of superheroes, BAME communities need role models in senior management to show that progression is possible so that others can aspire and rise through the ranks.

While not the first superhero movie with a black lead (others include the Blade trilogy, Catwoman, Spawn and Steel), the Black Panther is the first black superhero on the big screen with a big budget, script and marketing hype. The film boasts an impressive black cast, creating role models for multiple generations and underscoring HR’s argument that promoting diversity and inclusion is more than just doing the right thing to do – it also makes commercial sense.

T'Challa – the Black Panther’s alter ego – is a superhuman, genius billionaire, and the king of Wakanda, a highly civilised, sophisticated and advanced African nation. On par with any other hero and an equal with the other Avengers, his backstory breaks previous stereotypes of the African race, which in itself is a great leap forward, as it is often misconceptions around the ‘other’ and perceived differences that hold back equitable treatment in the workplace.

It should be pointed out that the Black Panther character predates the civil rights movement in America (which coincidentally was called the Black Panther party, but has no connection with the comic). Interestingly, for a short period of time, T’Challa went by the name ‘Black Leopard’ as Marvel tried to distance themselves from the political movement.

Having said that, storylines involving the Black Panther evolved, with the Avengers taking on white supremacists; in one storyline, T’Challa even meets Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. In 2018, with white supremacist alt-right groups campaigning for their supporters to purposefully lower the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score, the political messaging is very much still needed.

In response to the white supremacists, Chadwick Boseman, the actor playing Black Panther, has explained he deliberately used an African accent. This is particularly pertinent for BAME communities to see that an individual can be their whole self, without having to hide who they are to fit in – and it’s this difference that makes BAME individuals so uniquely placed to add value in the workplace.

Marvel has continued to push the diversity and inclusion agenda in its comics, having introduced alternatives for main characters including a hispanic black Spider-Man, a female Thor, a latino Ghost Rider, a Korean Hulk, a female black Iron ‘Man’, a female Hawkeye and a black Captain America, as well as the first female Muslim Pakistani Marvel hero, in their own comic named Ms Marvel.

By comparison, in the world of work, diversity and inclusion initiatives all too often default to gender, as it is still an easier conversation to have. Progress with gender is slow but it has made some headway, whereas there is still an imbalance of focus towards BAME equity.

White, male and stale? Pay attention, world! This is how you do diversity and inclusion – not just by having a token character in the supporting cast, but allowing space for difference to rise and take its place as equals among the many.

We don’t need to wear capes to save the world of work from sameness.

Shakil Butt is an HR hero at HR Hero for Hire