The Touching 'Black Panther' Hashtag Inspired by a Mother's Eight-Year-Old Son

Black Panther Still 15 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Kayla Sutton created #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe after her son explained why he was so excited for the film: "He's like the coolest in all of the comic books and all of the stuff. And he's Black like me."

Black Panther is inspiring a lot of good on social media — from campaigns to help people see the movie to celebrations of its cultural significance.

A key part of the social media outpouring sparked by director Ryan Coogler's film is the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe, which celebrates the release of Black Panther by opening a dialogue with fans about why this film isn’t just another Marvel movie to them. Responses have included the opportunity for Black kids to view themselves as heroes, seeing a Disney princess who reflects themselves, like Shuri (Letitia Wright), or watching darker-skinned black women in the forefront in various roles.

The hashtag was created by Kayla Sutton, director of online marketing for Black Girl Nerds, a well-regarded genre news site that highlights diversity in the geek sphere — and has become a popular destination for women of color to celebrate geekdom.  

As a proud Afro-Latina mom of an eight-year-old autistic son, Sutton has been a staunch advocate of media that's representative of her son and other children of marginalized communities. She sounds wistful when talking about her son’s excitement about Black Panther, noting that he gets excited every time a promo for the film comes on.

"I said, ‘Hey, why are you excited for the movie?' Because it was just curious to me, because for him he's young, he's Black and autistic. I feel like he has a unique perspective on the world and he always has," Sutton tells Heat Vision. "He's like, 'He's awesome, he's like the coolest in all of the comic books and all of the stuff. And he's Black like me.’”

It was her son who inspired her to make the hashtag the next day, Feb. 6, for BGN. She asked her colleagues to engage in the content — but soon it grew far beyond the staff using it. It becoming a trending topic as well as a Twitter moment by the afternoon. But more than that, many fans from the casual to committed, provided emotional and personal stories centered around representation in media.

The level of support overwhelmed her, with Sutton admitting it's "just blowing me away with the response that it has gotten.”

BGN  boasts 144,000 Twitter followers and is known for its strong fan engagement. Sutton has played a key role in the brand's success, so she isn't new to the whole “my hashtag trended” thing. Of course, there's no simple formula for a winning hashtag like this one. She says she doesn’t want discussions on social media to feel forced, but she does put serious thought into the objective of the hashtag and its desired effect.

“I think about my audience, how can [the hashtag] reach across everyone. Of course at BGN we want it to hit a certain amount of people, but I feel like if we can make it inclusive to everyone, because that's what we're all about, right?" she says, noting she hopes the hashtag can resonate beyond BGN target audience of women of color. "We're excluded so much, and yes, we're excited for black women, but we're also about inclusivity. And so for me that is my number one rule is that we can be inclusive to everyone.”

Sutton also finds it important to make the content entertaining, from the design to the questions asked to followers.

Outside of the part-time work she does for BGN, the success of the #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe has inspired her to actively look to do this type of work full-time.

“My ‘Clark Kent’ job as we call it, is online marketing specialist, and it’s very niche for the market that we work in,” she explains. “But popular content is where my heart lies, and being able to have a pulse on what's trending. And I think I have that, so social media marketing and content creating when it comes to writing as well, that's where I'm trying to push myself up next.”

For Sutton, the best part of this roller coaster was giving people the proverbial microphone to share their stories of being seen in this film. She says #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe can serve as a reminder that pop culture can influence entire communities for the better or the worse — and that Hollywood decision makers should ensure that the marginalized voices are represented in the projects they greenlight.

“The gift that I could have gotten from this whole thing is that it did make people emotional, it did make people think, and actually be able to put their feelings out there for what this has done for them.”

Here's Sutton's son back in October, when he went viral for a hashtag about Star Wars representation: 

Joi Childs is a brand marketer, sarcasm enthusiast, film journalist and podcaster for Black Girl Nerds. You can find her on Twitter (@jumpedforjoi) tweeting about the intersection of marketing, nerd and tech.