Why “Dear White People” is our best look at racial politics on U.S. campuses

Adam Rose/Netflix

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.

Advertisement

“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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
3 months 1 week ago

Why does America Magazine allow people to be described by the
colour of their skin ?

Is that not a foundational point for those who wish to classify people as
belonging to this "race" or that and thus use such a classification
to justify discrimination ?

Antonio, I am darker than you and I am willing to bet that I grew up
poorer than you and worked harder in my youth than you did. How
much Cotton did you pick, how many heads of Lettuce did you harvest ?
I don't go around referring to people by the colour of their skin and I
don't find America to be a "Racist" country, why do you use that term
so freely ?

What America does, without any shame and will continue to do is
discriminate against the Poor. Yes people of "colour" are more likely
to be Poor in America than those who are not in terms of percentage"
but there are numerically far more Poor "Whites" than any other "Colour",
yet when was the last time America magazine 'spoke' for those people ?

Who paid for your education at L-M-U ?
Either you, your relatives and/or a scholarship(s)
which demonstrates that America is not the "Racist" country
you so quickly, easily, and all too often say it is.

J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

To use race or color is only for getting votes. The Democratic Party has no positive agenda for the people so they must scare or shame people into voting for them and one way is to call the opposition racists. It is why there is a constant publishing of articles on race here at America, the magazine, which in reality is a political magazine. None dealing with the actual problems, the causes or how to solve the problem that exists.

Ellen B
3 months 1 week ago

This wasn't an article on politics but since you went there... is it a positive agenda to say that food stamps & school lunches starve the souls of the people accepting food stamps & school lunches? (Paul Ryan, Republican). What about ACA, so-called "Obama Care"? Is that a positive agenda? Because the majority of Americans think it is. What about putting common-sense gun regulations BACK in place? Positive agenda? Once again, most Americans are for that. I'll stop now but caution you against sweeping statements such as "no" positive agenda.

J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

This wasn't an article on politics

Did you read the headline? Every article on race on America, the magazine, is about politics this one just spelled it out in the headline.

is it a positive agenda to say that food stamps & school lunches starve the souls of the people accepting food stamps & school lunches? (Paul Ryan, Republican).

I suggest you find the actual speech and come back after reading it. Ryan has the better take on this. and has much better social and economic objectives than the Democrats.

What about ACA, so-called "Obama Care"? Is that a positive agenda?.

The ACA is a complicated policy with some very good parts but it also has some very negative parts. Happy to discuss it but this article is on race. For example, do you know what the Medicaid expansion is and the effects of it on state's budgets. The Democrats had a chance to get a worthwhile health care policy but rejected it and passed it on party lines. You might ask why they did that?

What about putting common-sense gun regulations BACK in place?.

Please tell me what common sense gun regulations should be put back in place? A very complicated issue but America has some very tough gun control regulations in places with lots of gun violence. Now this gets close to race as an issue since it is mostly blacks that are killed by guns.

I still cannot find anything positive in what the Democrats are recommending Again this article is on race.

I suggest you read Thomas Sowell.

J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

Another misleading article on race.

White Europeans went to South and Central Americ, nearly all became an economic disaster. Whites went to North America, it became an economic miracle.

The difference is not color of skin but culture and ideology.

an honest conversation about race that we should seek to emulate.

No author on this site wants an honest conversation about race. It would be too uncomfortable for them.

Bob Hunt
3 months 1 week ago

Mr. De Loera-Brust writes, "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."

No. One is simultaneously among the least privileged on campus and among the most privileged among all peoples in the entire history of the world.

We will never move beyond racism so long as people are continued to be required by cultural pressures to regard themselves and others first and foremost according to their racial/ethnic identity and what privileges that identify scores for them. This used to be a requirement placed on minorities in the U. S. by "dear white people." It is now a requirement placed on everyone by "dear social activists."

This is not progress.

Annette Magjuka
3 months 1 week ago

This article is valuable because it states the lived experience of the author. Racism is real. White privilege is real. It is time for white people of conscience to face these realities. We can start by listening. Also, universities should work much harder to increase admissions of a diverse student body so that young adults can learn from one another at a pivotal time in their lives. "Dear White People" is valuable because it explores what life is like for a marginalized group on a majority white college campus.

Mike Theman
3 months 1 week ago

I attended one of those elite universities about thirty (cough-cough) years ago. What I was surprised by, even back then, was that, in great part, the Black students ate only with Black students, there was a Black fraternity and an on-campus residence reserved for only Black students.

The Black students' decision to separate themselves from the White students (there was no Whites-only dorms), even before starting their freshman year, suggests to me that the issue is not how the Whites engage with Black students - I, and no doubt all of the other White kids from privileged upbringings, were encouraged from our very tender years to treat everyone the same regardless of the color of their skin - but how Black students were taught by their parents.

I'd suggest that the conversation that needs to be had is that as long as a culture continues to reject assimilating with other cultures, it is going to have a different experience from the wider culture. Indeed, we've all heard the stories of the outright rejection of so-called "White culture" by Black people. The problem is that that "White culture" is not "White" except for the fact that a lot of White people participate in it. And so do a lot of Asians. Indeed, on the most elite campuses, so-called "White culture" is dominated by Asians.

Advertisement

The latest from america

I have found myself for the first time truly afraid of what it means to ask and to allow my children to be part of the church.
Kerry WeberAugust 15, 2018
Cardinal William H. Keeler in May 2009. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) 
A Pennsylvania report accuses Keeler of covering up sexual abuse allegations while serving as bishop of Harrisburg.
Associated PressAugust 15, 2018
With her appeal to emotion, Gadsby reminds audiences to see the vulnerable, resilient human being behind the humiliated stand-up comic.
Allyson EscobarAugust 15, 2018
Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, are pictured during the 2017 Catholic convocation in Orlando, Fla.  (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
“Our first job is to listen, to be empathetic,” said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for the Protection of Children and Young People.