Justice

'Dear White People' Isn't Just Black and White, It's Making Overlooked Identities Seen

May 1st 2017

By:
Shonitria Anthony

The Netflix show "Dear White People" (based off eponymous movie) premiered on Friday April 28.

Ahead of its release, there was a lot of buzz, and a heaping of racist Twitter outrage over “Dear White People,” stemming from the launch of its trailer — which included a "trigger warning." Some labeled it "reverse racism" — which isn’t a thing by the way — saying that if Netflix had a show called “Dear Black People” it would be labeled racist.

 

 

“Netflix announced a new anti-white show ('Dear White People') that promotes white genocide,” alt-right social media user and former writer, Tim Treadstone, wrote in a tweet shortly after the show's date announcement premiered in February.

"To see the sheer threat that people feel over a date announcement video featuring a woman of color (politely) asking not to be mocked makes it so clear why I made this show," filmmaker Justin Simien wrote on Facebook in response to the outcry from critics, according to Rolling Stone. "I want those who are chronically unseen in the culture to feel seen. And I want those willing to extend empathy to experiences unlike theirs to understand their humanity more deeply."

To those who actually watched the show and didn't cancel their Netflix subscription, they were able to see the show for what it really was: a platform to not only elevate black voices but black stories, experiences and identities, while explicitly shouting into a megaphone that not all black people are the same.

The show picks up where the 2014 film left off, but seeing the movie isn’t required in order to follow the plot, which follows student and radio show host Samantha "Sam" White, played by Logan Browning, on the fictitious, predominantly white Ivy League campus of Winchester University.

Viewers are able to watch each episode unfold through the eyes of different protagonists, bringing to light different vantage points and identities: woke bae and the counterpart of Sam, Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), former friend of Sam, Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson), legacy kid and student body president Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), white bae aka Sam's boyfriend, Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) and rising journalist Lionel (DeRon Horton). There are spoilers beyond this point.

While all the characters are noteworthy — viewers get to see the film's lead characters like the hyper-masculine Troy as he deals with his overbearing father's high expectations and get a glimpse at a pre-woke Sam with a press and curl — Lionel and Coco, who weren't really at the center of the plot in the film, were truly fleshed out in the show. 

The richness of having a dark skin woman and gay black man as protagonists allowed several issues to stand out. It was satisfying to hear Coco call out Sam's "light skin privilege" and see her go through relatable black experiences, like getting her first weave and patting her head after it was installed.

While Coco was portrayed in the film as a bougie wannabe who rocked wigs, weaves, and contacts to assimilate and leave behind her Southside of Chicago roots, it was revealed in the show that Coco was actually the homegirl you loved to hate. While her former friend, Sam, of mixed race and a suburban upbringing was shocked and then drawn to activism because of police brutality against people of color, Coco's way of coping was turning inward and making herself successful so that she could make a difference by being the difference.

Coco knows that as a black woman with dark skin things will always be tougher for her, but she's fighting the system from the inside all while rocking a 32-inch weave that she eventually ditches by the end of the season.

Indeed, "the idea that light-skinned blacks hold a higher standing than dark-skinned blacks is still a large point of contention in the black community," the Grio reported. It's colorism at play, which exists not only within the black community, but it's also been used and reinforced by white society for hundreds of years against black people — especially black women — with the belief that dark skin was just unworthy and not beautiful. A study of imprisoned black women in North Carolina by Villanova University found that "light-skinned women are sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts."

 

Along with Coco, the most soft-spoken character, Lionel, had one of the most moving moments in the show.

It was never-racking to watch a black man come out to his roommate, Troy (whom he also had a crush on) while he was cutting his hair — the most sacred part of black masculinity — shirtless, as we're waiting for Lionel's rejection. But Troy's reaction was the exact opposite, he shrugged it off and their friendship remained in tact.

The depiction was refreshing: here was a straight black man not running in the opposite direction of his gay black roommate after coming out to him. 

 

"That was my experience. I was in love with a straight guy, which I think is a sort of rite of passage for every gay man, and when I told him about it, he was so kind. I wanted to show other aspects of black masculinity than this knee-jerk reaction against homosexuality," Simien told Vulture, before adding:

"Gay people are always mocked, that’s always the narrative. That’s not every black man, especially not millennial black men. Maybe a part of me wanted this to be an example to other straight guys watching the show: You can just do this instead and still be straight. You still get to have sex with women even if you’re friends with a gay guy."

The show has tons of laughs and millennial-centric moments, too, with the most eye-opening moment in episode five, which was directed by "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins, where a house party goes wrong.

It's a situation most black people have found themselves in, at a party with your white friends and then comes on a hip-hop song with the N-word getting dropped left and right — you wonder, will someone slip up and say the word in song? In this episode, the answer is yes, which results in a huge disagreement between Reggie and his white friend.

The police arrive, and viewers are harshly reminded that Reggie's blackness can be a death sentence when the campus cop pulls his gun on him demanding for his student ID. It's sobering, as onlooking party-goers are forced to confront that even a student as smart as Reggie is seen as less than human because of the color of his skin in the eyes of police.

"It’s a system in place. When this country was founded, black people were slaves, so we’ve chiseled away at the foundation but it’s still there."

“Racism, in my opinion, is bigotry plus power. It’s not the same as bigotry or prejudice — which are terrible, by the way — but what Sam points out in that first episode is that jokes about white people don’t actually affect their everyday lives. Jokes about black people have systemic consequences that are not made up; they’re statistically proven and true," Simien told Vulture.

"It’s a system in place," he continued. "When this country was founded, black people were slaves, so we’ve chiseled away at the foundation but it’s still there. We’re still carving out an area for us. I thought it was an interesting perspective for anyone willing to hear it from a black point of view. What is the difference? Why is white racism not real? Sam didn’t get a chance to articulate that in the film."

"Atlanta," "Insecure," and "Black-ish" are all applauded for taking on racial issues and making them mainstream. "Dear White People" joins the pantheon and adds a layer by bringing forward different black identities to the mainstream, and making things not so black and white anymore — shedding light on those different intersections that makes America the true "melting pot" it prides itself on being.

"We're all gonna need country-wide counseling therapy after this show," Logan Browning said jokingly to Rolling Stone. "America, it's gonna be time for group therapy. File on in."