Just Appropriate

‘Dad?’ youngest asked. The street was empty and he was holding the dad’s hand. A rare treat in these one-child school runs

                ‘Yes,’ the dad replied.

                ‘Am I Wakandan?’

                The dad looked down and frowned. ‘Wakandan as in Black Panther Wakandan?’

                ‘Yeah, Wakandan. Am I from Wakanda?’

                ‘No. You’re from Grimsby.’

                Youngest frowned. ‘But I’ve got blue lips.’

                ‘No, you haven’t.’

                ‘Yes, I have.’ He slipped his hand out of the dad’s and used all ten of his fingers to pull his bottom lip down as far as it would go. ‘See?’ he said, or sort of said. It actually sounded more like ‘Schlee?’

                ‘What?’

                ‘It’s blue.’ Or, ‘Itsch chloo.’

                ‘No it isn’t.

                Youngest let go of his lip. ‘It is. I saw it in the mirror. I’ve got a blue lip on the inside like the Wakandans. I’m Wakandan!’

                ‘Ah.’ The dad was slowly catching up. They had watched ‘Black Panther’ the night before and all of the boys had been very taken with it, but youngest had been spellbound by Black Panther’s antics. ‘Well, I suppose there is a bit of blue there.’

                Youngest was triumphant. ‘Wakanda forever!’ he yelled, and he thumped his chest.

                The dad smiled as he watched youngest run at a hedge and whip his hands at the sticky-outy bits, his fingers curled into claws.

                His smiled slipped. Youngest turned just as the dad stopped smiling. ‘What?’ he asked.

                ‘Well,’ said the dad, ‘it’s a bit…’

                ‘What?’

                ‘Nothing. It’s fine. I was just thinking it might be a bit of cultural appropriation.’

                ‘What’s that?’

                ‘When you take things from other cultures and make them your own.’

                ‘What do you mean?’

                ‘Something that’s made by black people and then taken by white people.’

                Youngest’s mouth formed into a shocked ‘O’. ‘Are you allowed to say black?’

                ‘Of course you’re allowed to say black.’

                ‘So, T’Chala is black?’

                ‘Yes.’

                ‘I wanna be black.’ He spread his arms and formed his hands back into their Black Panther claws and struck a pose.

                The dad paused. ‘Erm…’ All three of the boys had practically lived in various superhero suits when they younger. Eldest had mostly been Spider-Man, middle Batman and youngest had been an eclectic mix of Iron Man, Superman, Scooby Doo and either of the Mario brothers. Black Panther was not on any of their radars but if he had then they’d have wanted a Blank Panther suit and the dad would have gladly bought one and enjoyed watching them play.

                ‘Why can’t I pretend to be black?’ the youngest asked.

                ‘It just seems a bit wrong.’

                ‘Why?’

                ‘Because it seems a bit patronising. And if pretending to be a black superhero might be cultural appropriation then pretending to be black so as to be black culture’s only popular superhero is definitely cultural appropriation.’

                ‘What do you mean?’

                ‘Well, we’ve had all these Marvel movies with more superheroes than you can count and all of them have been white, yes?’ Youngest nodded slowly. The dad knew that it was something the boy had never considered, something that few, if any, children ever considered, and he felt mean for pointing it out. ‘So, all these white heroes and then one black one comes along and you want to be black. It’s like you’d be taking something away.’

                ‘I wanted to be Mario as well,’ youngest pointed out.

                The dad nodded. ‘True.’

                ‘Could a black kid dress as Spider-Man or would that be just approtiationing?’ Youngest had emphasised ‘black’ as if it were a new word he had never used.

                They were near to school now and the crowds of mums glanced over at mention of a black kid as if there might be one hiding in the bushes. The actual black kids didn’t bat an eyelid.

                ‘Appropriating. No, that’d be different.’ Without even realising it, the dad had lowered his voice.

                ‘Why?’

                ‘Spider-Man is just a kid in a mask with powers, he could be black or white. Black Panther is the king of an African country that keeps itself secret from the rest of the world, the white world. He’s black. Black Panther is black, the clue’s in the name. It’s wrong to pretend you’re black just to be the Black Panther.’

                ‘So next Halloween I couldn’t dress up as Black Panther?’

                The dad paused again. This was a tricky one. He suddenly missed the good old days when questions were no more complicated than why was the rain wet. ‘You could. Of course you could.’

                ‘But I couldn’t pretend to be black because then I’d just appro-prate?’

                ‘Yes,’ the dad said, nodding with a confidence that was entirely faked and so distracting he didn’t even try to correct youngest’s pronunciation.

                Youngest looked up at the dad, his expression confused but patient, as if the dad were talking his nonsense again. ‘I’ve still got a blue lip.’

Not knowing what else to say or how to say it, the dad nodded, sighed just a little and smiled.

As they rounded the final corner youngest didn’t say anything more except, ‘Bye.’ He walked away, stepped into the playground and found his friends.

                The dad eyed the black one and tried not to think about any awkward conversations youngest might start.

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