While there is an established history of superhero characters having their ethnicity or gender changed, each specific episode tends to create a small uproar (and not just among the fanfolk). For example, Nick Fury was changed from white to black (with Samuel Jackson playing the character in the movies). As another example, a woman took on the role of Thor. I am using “ethnicity” here rather than “race” for the obvious reason that in comic book reality humans are one race, just as Kryptonians and Kree are races.
Some of the complaints about such changes are based in racism and sexism. While interesting from the standpoint of psychology and ethics, these complaints are not otherwise worthy of serious consideration. Instead I will focus on legitimate concerns about such change.
A good place to begin the discussion of these changes is to address concerns about continuity and adherence to the original source material. Just as, for example, giving Batman super powers would break continuity, making him into a Hispanic would also seem to break continuity. Just as Batman has no superpowers, he is also a white guy.
One obvious reply to this is that characters are changed over the years. To use an obvious example, when Superman first appeared in the comics he was faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings. However, he did not fly and did not have heat vision. Over the years writers added abilities and increased his powers until he became the Superman of today. Character background and origin stories are also changed fairly regularly. If these sort of changes are acceptable, then this opens the door to other changes—such as changes to the character’s ethnicity or gender.
One rather easy way to justify any change is to make use of the alternative world device. When D.C. was faced with the problem of “explaining” the first versions of Flash (who wore a Mercury/Hermes style helmet), Batman, Green Lantern (whose power was magic and vulnerability was wood) and Superman they hit on the idea of having Earth 1 and Earth 2. This soon became a standard device for creating more comics to sell, although it did have the effect of creating a bit of a mess for fans interested in keeping track of things. An infinite number of earths is a rather lot to keep track of. Marvel also had its famous “What If” series which would allow for any changes in a legitimate manner.
While the use of parallel and possible worlds provides an easy out, there is still the matter of changing the gender or ethnicity of the “real” character (as opposed to just having an alternative version). One option is, of course, to not have any “real” character—every version (whether on TV, in the movies or in comics) is just as “real” and “official” as any other. While this solves the problem by fiat, there still seems to be a legitimate question about whether all these variations should be considered the same character. That is, whether a Hispanic female Flash is really the Flash.
In some cases, the matter is rather easy to handle. Some superheroes merely occupy roles, hold “super jobs” or happen to have some gear or item that makes them super. For example, anyone can be a Green Lantern (provided the person qualifies for the ring). While the original Green Lantern was a white guy, a Hispanic woman could join the corps and thus be a Green Lantern. As another example, being Iron Man could be seen as just a matter of wearing the armor. So, an Asian woman could wear Iron Man armor and be Iron…well, Iron Woman. As a final example, being Robin seems to be a role—different white boys have occupied that role, so there seems to be no real issue with having a female Robin (which has, in fact, been done) or a Robin who is not white.
In many cases a gender change would be pointless because female versions of the character already exist. For example, a female Superman would just be another Supergirl or Power Girl. As another example, a female Batman would just be Batwoman or Batgirl, superheroes who already exist. So, what remains are cases that are not so easy to handle.
While every character has an “original” gender and ethnicity (for example, Captain America started as a white male), it is not always the case that the original’s gender and ethnicity are essential to the character. That is, the character would still make sense and it would still be reasonable to regard the character as the same (only with a different ethnicity or gender). This, of course, raises metaphysical concerns about essential qualities and identity. Put very simply, an essential quality is one that if an entity loses that quality, it ceases to be what it is. For example, having three sides is an essential quality for a triangle: if it ceases to be three sided, it ceases to be a triangle. Color and size are not essential qualities of triangles. A red triangle that is painted blue does not ceases to be a triangle.
In the case of superheroes, the key question here is one about which qualities are essential to being that hero and which ones can be changed while maintaining the identity of the character. One way to approach this is in terms of personal identity and to use models that philosophers use for real people. Another approach is to go with an approach that is more about aesthetics than metaphysics. That is, to base the essential qualities on aesthetic essentials—that is, qualities relevant to being the right sort of fictional character.
One plausible approach here is to consider whether or not a character’s ethnicity and gender are essential to the character—that is, for example, whether Captain America would still be Captain America if he were black or a woman.
One key aspect of it would be how these qualities would fit the origin story in terms of plausibility. Going with the Captain America example, Steve Rogers could have been black—black Americans served in WWII and it would even be plausible that experiments would be done on African-Americans (because they did for real). Making Captain America into a woman would be implausible—the sexism of the time would have ensured that a woman would not have been used in such an experiment and American women were not allowed to enlist in the combat infantry. As another example, the Flash could easily be cast as a woman or as having any ethnicity—there is nothing about the Flash’s origin that requires that the Flash be a white guy.
Some characters, however, have origin stories that would make it implausible for the character to have a different ethnicity or gender. For example, Wonder Woman would not work as a man (without making all the Amazons men and changing that entire background). She could, however, be cast as any ethnicity (since she is, in the original story, created from a statue).
Another key aspect would be the role of the character in terms of what he or she represents or stands for. For example, Black Panther’s origin story would seem to preclude him being any ethnicity other than black. His role would also seem to preclude that as well—a white Black Panther would, it would seem, simply not fit the role. Black Panther could, perhaps, be a woman—especially since being the Black Panther is a role. So, to answer the title question, Black Panther could not be white. Or, more accurately, should not be white.
As a closing point, it could be argued that all that really matters is whether the story is a good one or not. So, if a good story can be told casting Spider-Man as a black woman or Rogue as an Asian man, then that is all the justification that would be needed for the change. Of course, it would still be fair to ask if the story really is a Spider-Man story or not.