Writing by Sunny Adcock // Illustration by Ayelen Lujan
Disclaimer: This piece was composed without watching the original 2014 film of the same name, hence, no comparisons between the show and its predecessor were made.
When the trailer for the 2017 Netflix original series ‘Dear White People’ was released in April, I knew this show was one to watch. Added to my Netflix list in a matter of minutes, the trailer for ‘Dear White People’ spoke to every inch of my soul. From depictions of all too common microaggressions such as the good old, ‘what are you?’ question, to downright racist sentiments such as blackface, I knew this show was bound to shake things up. Reactions to the trailer alone ranged from claims of reverse racism to Netflix users contemplating boycotting the streaming service altogether. For the former, I wish you enlightenment and wokeness (although I sincerely hate that word), for the later, I say good riddance!
The show tackles numerous race-related issues of importance and is likely the most relevant show Netflix has produced. So why hasn’t it hit the mainstream in the same way that shows such as ‘13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Stranger Things’ have? Because ‘Dear White People’ doesn’t pander to non-black people nor does it avoid the confronting truths that many white people continue to blissfully ignore. Hence, while ‘Dear White People’ received a 100% Tomatometer score from television critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score sits at a slim 65%. This is likely because ‘Dear White People’ isn’t about a universal college experience (ie. it differs from the typically privileged experiences of cishet Caucasians), it is specifically about a black college experience.
‘Dear White People’ follows a group of black students from the historically black Armstrong Parker House at Winchester University and recounts their struggle to find power, voice, and safety within an incredibly problematic and predominately white institution – a plight all too familiar to people of colour. The show covers a broad expanse of topics, most prominently being race-related issues such as interracial relationships, police brutality, colourism, blackface, cultural appropriation, and identity politics. To the uninformed and unexposed, it’s commentary on race relations within contemporary America may be deemed confronting. However, the power of ‘Dear White People’ lays within its ability to powerfully defy the myth that we are existing in a post-racial society within 10 short 30-minute episodes. This reality is the burden that people of colour have long known and lived with, and chapters 4-6 in particular, render this irrefutable to non-black audiences.
When binging ‘Dear White People’, a particular line stood out to me and left me cackling. This was the line where Joelle, Sam’s (the protagonist played by Logan Browning) best friend, early on in the season stares at her friend and proclaims “You’re not Rashida Jones biracial, you’re Tracee Ellis Ross biracial.” Joelle’s statement resonated deeply with me, a young biracial woman, as it perfectly summed up the nuances of being biracial and yet being perceived as monoracial. In keeping with Joelle’s analogy, I feel it’s important to recognise that I am writing this as a “Rashida Jones biracial” who mostly, albeit not always, navigates the world with white passing privilege. My white passing privilege ultimately shapes my experiences being half-black as different to that of a darker skinned person of colour. Hence, this has undeniably influenced both my experiences and the perspective with which I watched the show and wrote this article.
In saying that, one of the greatest things about ‘Dear White People’ is that while arguably stereotypical, the show excels in its representation of various approaches to activism, presenting a spectrum of contrasting attitudes on race relations within contemporary America. It emphasises that there is no one way to be black nor is there one way to fight against oppression. For example, protagonist Sam White takes on a more proactive and radical approach to dismantling racism (most significantly demonstrated through her campus radio show ‘Dear White People’), whereas her ex-friend Colandrea takes a more passive approach given that her experiences of racism have rendered her world-weary. These two strong personalities are further contrasted with a more militant and incredibly intelligent Reggie, (whose episode 6 Open Mic performance was a definite highlight of the show) and an obedient and high-achieving student-body President Troy who feels pressured to live up to his Father’s image. These students were archetypes who sometimes came across as preachy and exaggerated, yet each of these dynamic characters represented different valuable viewpoints and ways of being black.
That’s why the shows potentially ironic use of the word ‘woke’ – a term derived from African American Vernacular English used to describe the state of awareness gained by an individual who shows interest in social justice issues and who shows commitment to actively fighting against racial injustice within society – was often cringe-worthy despite it being an accurate reflection of a 21st century society where activism is seen as trendy. At times it was hard to decide whether or not its use was satirical or not, particularly as it was mostly said by the black characters in the show. I sometimes felt this impacted the show’s credibility, particularly with the creation of the ‘Woke or Not’ app. However, the continuous use of ‘woke’ echoes the way in which virtue signallers often misuse and appropriate this word to appear as an educated and active ally, when really they’re doing minimum work. Perhaps a comment the show was trying to make?
Conversely, the show makes a clearer statement about colourism and police brutality, specifically, the effects of these issues on black communities. Each episode of the show minus the finale focuses on a particular character and episode four is when we finally see the superficial and innately complex Coco Conners (Colandrea) take center stage. Coco, played by Antoinette Robertson, was for various reasons the most fascinating character in the show. I loved that the producers took the opportunity to really delve into her character, subverting the traditional mean girl archetype. Chapter four reveals that Coco and Sam, in fact, started out as friends before an argument sent them on divergent paths, their conflict due to Sam’s inability to recognise her light-skinned privilege and the way it marks her experiences as vastly different than Coco’s despite them both being black women.
“This perspective on race made the ideological chasm between Sam and Coco deeper than Thane’s grave.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, Colourism was best defined by feminist author Alice Walker as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.” In a nutshell, this means that lighter skinned or mixed black people are typically given better treatment than darker skinned black women because they are closer to the Eurocentric beauty standards that govern our society and therefore have an easier time passing for or assimilating into white culture. Coco’s experiences as a darker skinned black woman meant that “people [took] one look at [her] skin and [assumed she was] poor or educated or ratchet.” Thus, Coco works towards blending in with her white friends, who Sam disdainfully titles “Coco and the Marshmallows”, and finds herself climbing up the social ladder as a means of self-preservation.
Although it would be easy to dismiss Coco as uncaring, flashbacks featured throughout the episode make it clear that this isn’t the case. One of these was a heart wrenching scene where a very young Coco is gathered around her black peers one of which snatches the last white doll and says to Coco, “No, you take the ugly one” pointing to the remaining dark-skinned doll. Experiences such as this made Coco hyperaware of her skin from a very young age, an awareness that Sam hadn’t lived with given her lighter skin. This is powerfully articulated when Coco says to Sam, “You’re the girl who didn’t learn she was black until Beth Wheeler left you out of her second-grade sleepover cause you’d be the ‘only one’”, then explaining that with herself “there is no confusion […] So, yeah, I tone it down, make myself more palatable.” As a viewer whose first impressions of Coco weren’t that crash hot, you can’t help but develop empathy for her after watching chapter four where it becomes clear that her both her hopelessness and tough exterior stem from a life brutalised by racism. There is definitely more than meets the eye with Coco and the show excels in providing her character with substance whilst imparting an important lesson on colourism to the audience.
Another game-changing episode was chapter 5 led by Marque Richardson who played Reggie Green.
Warning: general spoilers ahead.
The episode is fabulously directed by Barry Jenkins who is best known for the 2016 drama ‘Moonlight’, making it no surprise that the episode is one of the series best. Predominately, aside from all of the love triangle mess that I honestly could have done without, chapter five is focused on police brutality and is an incredibly emotional and powerful episode. Reggie is at a party with his friends when he calls a white friend out for singing the “N-word” in a song, his friend immediately grows defensive and an all too familiar confrontation ensues. This scene was beyond relatable as the whole “N-word” debate is one I engage with regularly, as do many black people. Despite it seeming obvious that racial slurs said by non-black people are not acceptable in any situation, there is still a huge amount of ignorance surrounding the use of the word. This confrontation then grew life-threatening when a cop arrives and pulls a gun on an innocent Reggie. This scene is just crazy. I had literal goosebumps when watching it and it’s important that audiences are exposed to these unjust situations because they aren’t fictional, way too many black people find their lives threatened by the police. I also want to commend the show for then dealing with the aftermath of such an event in a way that was authentic and truthful. The discussion of the “public victim” was an incredibly important one to have and Marque Richardson’s acting was brilliant.
The tagline on the promotional posters for ‘Dear White People’ read “bet you think this show is about you” and indeed, I am sure that many white audiences will watch the series and feel enraged. Rightly so? No. As someone who doesn’t at all believe in the idea of ‘reverse racism’ I find it hard to find sympathy for viewers who denied themselves the opportunity to enjoy a satirical and educational piece on race and instead decided to make it all about themselves. ‘Dear White People’ isn’t about white people. Yes, maybe in cases such as Gabe’s (Sam’s white love interest), the feelings of white people were unnecessarily centered in the dialogue surrounding race. However, this show is about young black college students trying to carve out their own space within an institution founded on ignorance and segregation. Although definitely not without its flaws, Dear White People is a coming of age story like any other yet it deals topics that we as a society can no longer turn a blind eye to. As explored by the character Lionel, the truth is often uncomfortable but it’s the most important way to tell a story.
So, I dare you to add ‘Dear White People’ to your Netflix list and make it your next binge-worthy show. Watch all ten episodes and discuss it with a friend. What was most shocking to you? Which character did you like the best? How can we do better as a society? Do we all need to check ourselves? These are all necessary questions that the show puts forth and I’m thrilled that the series was renewed for a second season set to air in 2018, because shows like ‘Dear White People’ help pave the way for change. But it’s up to us as the audience to fully soak up all that’s being laid before us and to keep this momentum going.[share]