To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Dear White People and the African-American Struggle

When I noticed that Dear White People was out on Netflix early this summer, I was immediately intrigued by the title. It seemed so unapologetically political and direct. With Dear White People, this is exactly what you get: black voices unapologetically fighting for equality and sharing their experiences of life in a world where their skin colour is still seen as a social disadvantage. Set in a prestigious university, the show follows the lives of black students as they deal with racial issues in this seemingly idyllic “liberal” setting.

Beginning with an ironic narrator telling us that he has been chosen for his “ethnic but nonthreatening” voice to set the scene, we are brought to the event which sparks outrage on campus: a blackface party organised by the university’s satirical magazine. Each episode then follows the life of black students (with one exception) in the days following this event and their reactions to this stark proof that racism is “alive and well” in their college.

One of my favourite things about Dear White People is that it’s set in an Ivy League university. A common trope of TV and filmmaking are black characters who are “street smart” but in no way academically inclined, and it’s a refreshing change to see a TV series put black intellectuals in the spotlight. The show itself draws attention to society’s lack of interest in and appreciation of black minds when Reggie remarks that black faces are only celebrated on campus in relation to football, where the students’ minds are being beaten to mush. By contrast, the show gives us insight into young black intellectuals’ take on contemporary black issues and the rhetoric surrounding them.

The show also highlights the difference between white and black experience when it comes to being in positions of power. Troy, the university’s first black student president is constantly under pressure to be the perfect representative. His father, the dean of the university knows the difficulty of convincing people to put a black man in a position of power imparts this knowledge to his son on election day, showing that there has not been much change in attitudes to black power between the two generations. Even today, a black person has to work harder, and appear perfect in order to convince people to give them power.

 We are also given several examples of things turning sour when white characters are called out on their racism, starting with the white student body’s reaction to Sam’s radio programme. Although Sam uses her show as a platform for expressing her feelings about important events related to rascism on campus, most of the white listeners only hear that they are being attacked, as opposed to listening to Sam’s lived experience and trying to understand why she is so upset. Her disappointment in her fellow students is even seen by some as being divisive. For example, one white male student patronisingly telling her that “we need to come together at a time like this”.

However, the most powerful instance of white people acting defensive is the aftermath of Reggie telling his friend Addisson not to use the n-word. Instead of just accepting his friend’s request out of respect, Addisson complains about having to censor himself, and makes comparisons between the two of them which just don’t work given society’s racial power balance. Essentially, white pride on campus is so fragile, that any criticism of a white student’s conduct, even if it is hurtful to POC students, is unpalatable and met with backlash and accusations of reverse racism.

Ironically, the show itself has caused a huge amount of controversy, been called racist, and even incited calls to boycott Netflix and cancel accounts. Even the comments section in the Independent article quoted above are full of anger at Netflix for streaming such a show. And this was just after the first trailer was released. So the radio programme’s controversy is reflected in real life, showing just how accurate the show’s insight into race relations is.

The blackface party at the beginning of the show, and the climax of the film Dear White People (on which the series is based) reflects reality: the credits of the film show pictures of real-life blackface parties from various universities which are held in high regard. As a recent example, an article written about the University of New Hampshire earlier this year exposes blackface, uses of the n-word, and numerous other instances of racism happening on campus as Sam and her friends do at Winchester.

At the end of the day, my favourite thing about Dear White People is that all of its characters are unique, three-dimensional people. While characters like Sam, Reggie, and Troy are all freedom fighters, they are also college students who make mistakes, misjudge people and sometimes act on selfish impulse, as opposed to being oversimplified symbols of liberation. Luckily, despite all of the backlash, Dear White People has been renewed for a second season, and the fight to “wake up the campus”, and in turn our society, continues.

For more about Dear White People and its ideas, read this article by its creator, Justin Simien!

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