Why “Dear White People” is our best look at racial politics on U.S. campuses
When Netflix announced the release of the first season of “Dear White People” in 2017, the backlash was as fierce and overblown as it was predictable. Many claimed the series was racist toward white people, and some threatened to boycott Netflix. The controversy over the show’s existence demonstrated the Americans’ inability to speak (or listen) honestly about race, which turned out to be appropriate publicity for the show. More than anything else, “Dear White People” is about our inability to speak or listen to each other.
The series, which released its second season on May 4, is an adaptation of a 2014 film by the same name. Justin Simien, the writer and director of the film, is an executive producer, director and writer on the show. The Netflix version follows the same characters, in some cases played by the same actors, and many of the plot points remain the same. It is not so much a remake as a remix, and the show benefits from having more time to explore individual characters.
“Dear White People” is set at a fictional university with all the marks of an Ivy League school. The “house system” around which much of the social life and conflicts of our protagonists revolve is reminiscent of Harvard. Most everyone here is left of center, and all are, by their very presence on campus, among the privileged. Yet that does not lessen the incidence of racial conflict. Instead, it seems to amplify it.
The ways in which people of color relate to each other when navigating majority-white spaces is something that white people never get to observe.
I recognized the dynamics of racial conflict at this small, private and predominantly white university. I was a campus racial warrior myself, and one of the leaders of the Latino activist student group at Loyola Marymount University, a small, private and predominantly white Jesuit university in stark demographic contrast with its host city of Los Angeles. It was surreal to watch the show’s comedic take on racial incidents on campus even as I was in the midst of dealing with such incidents myself. (Like me, the producer of the film, Effie Brown, is an alumnus of L.M.U.’s School of Film and Television.) I am not African-American, yet I can relate to the strange dual consciousness of being part of an underrepresented racial group at an elite four-year university: One is simultaneously among the least privileged on campus and among the most privileged in your ethnic community.
The inciting incident of Netflix’s “Dear White People” is a party with a blackface theme thrown by a group of white students. This is all too common: California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo is the latest school to face such a controversy. The show rightfully mocks the white students who partake in these activities, revealing them to be not outliers of blatant bigotry but part of a mainstream culture of otherwise responsible young people determined to have a good time at any price, as long as someone else is paying for it. Racist attitudes persist among the most educated and affluent, even at institutions of higher education.
Despite the title, the show does not spend much time with white characters. Instead, it explores the relationships of students of color with each other. This is where the show feels most fresh and new. The ways in which people of color relate to each other when navigating majority-white spaces is something that white people never get to observe.
For activists of color like me, “Dear White People” uses comedy to invite self-reflection.
The show’s satire trains its sights on the absurdities of today’s campus activist “woke” culture. While fears of a “free speech crisis” on campus are, in my opinion, overblown, it is true that there are social benefits and costs to one’s identification (or not) with progressive identity politics. As the somewhat stereotyped Kenyan student puts it: “It is like you Americans would have no identity if not for your near-constant outrage! I know so much about what you don’t like; what do you all like?!”
Even if many of the campus activists in the show, as in real life, fixate on every slight and perhaps even relish controversy, there are sobering reminders that racism is very real. The show’s most moving and tense scene sees an argument between a black student and a white student interrupted when campus police arrive and hold the black student at gunpoint. Tellingly, it is not one of the show’s bigoted students who calls the police; it is the show’s main white “ally,” who believed he was helping. These are reminders that activism is more than extracurricular activity and that while being political might be a choice, being black in a racist society is not.
Why does all this matter? Only a tiny portion of the country’s population ever attends an elite college. Why should the rest of us care about what goes down on campus? Well, top schools often shape this country’s government, culture and business. More important, elite colleges and universities are worth exploring as places where there is ostensible equality between racial groups. Since university students of color are relatively privileged on college campuses, they become an interesting a place to explore racial dynamics: Any conflict comes with relative parity. An undocumented Mexican farmworker is unlikely to ever call out the white farmer who employs him on a “microaggression.” But if the daughter of the farmworker and the daughter of the farm owner end up in the same dorm, there will certainly be a whole lot of privilege to be checked. That is a good thing. And even if it makes some uncomfortable or can even be taken too far, it is the result of an all-too-rare racial power dynamic in society: one that approaches equality.
“Dear White People” remains perhaps our best look at racial politics on campus today. The show gets into the nitty-gritty of campus life, where students’ politics must coexist with their personal relationships, and sacred principles must endure alongside collegiate stupidity. For activists of color like me, “Dear White People” uses comedy to invite self-reflection.
How should white viewers receive “Dear White People”? Think of it as the beginning of a genuine letter, a real desire to communicate. With the divides around race and politics in our society as fraught as ever, the show, in its often absurd and genuinely funny way, is a call for empathy and an honest conversation about race that we should seek to emulate.