Title Aside, ‘Dear White People’ Is About Much More Than Race
Netflix’s new series Dear White People was controversial before its 10-episode season was even released. From the moment the first trailer was posted, detractors attacked the series, calling it racist. But now that the series has finally arrived, it has proven to be a smart, witty and nuanced story that satirizes both sides of the racial divide.
In many respects, Dear White People is a misnomer for the show. While it does frequently skewer whiteness and highlight the problematic ways of white people, the majority of the show is focused on its core black cast. To that end, the show is less of an attack on white people and more of an examination of the lives of those behind the movement. From the roots of its outspoken leaders to those trying to carve out their own slice of acclaim in the discord, every major character is explored.
In its criticisms of whiteness, DWP largely pulls from the content of the film, with its central character Sam White fighting for equality on her ivy league college campus. The first episode plays out like a condensed yet slightly altered version of the film, reintroducing us to the characters and outlining the challenges black people face on campus. There is the racist blackface party, the distant and hands-off faculty, and the all-black yet diverse occupants of Armstrong-Parker house who face it all. And just like in the film, the episode’s major twist is that Sam is dating a white man.
From there, the series departs from the film’s framework and takes a much more critical of look at blackness. Anyone who evokes slavery as a first line of defense is questioned, as if to say “we’ve heard all this before.” And in an unexpected turn, the show gives voice to a white man’s struggle to be the “good ally” as he has to weather being the minority in the room and swallow insults and his own objections. It’s not quite what you expect from a show titled Dear White People, but it is deftly executed.
This is done while being careful not to be judgmental of its characters. As they betray their significant others, lie, cheat, steal and operate under questionable motives, these details are provided only to create fully formed and flawed characters.
This is DWP’s strength. The show builds a foundation off of hackneyed stereotypes and then gives us an insightful look at the person behind the stereotype. For Sam, much of her persona was revealed to be an intricate creation meant to appeal to those who initially shunned her. For Troy, he is a tortured soul who rebels in secret against his pedigree. Coco’s unyielding ambition is a desperate attempt to overcome her povertous beginnings. And Lionel’s drive for journalistic notoriety is his own struggle to feel important.
Though only footnotes in the overall season, some of the most intriguing interactions are those between Sam and her boyfriend’s circle of friends. They are woke white folks, down to join a protest and well versed on the sinisterness of white privilege. Yet, they are unapologetic about their painfully apparent whiteness. Sam, who makes the fullness of blackness her full-time job, is notably comfortable in this circle. These moments are some of the few where she does not have to be “on” at all times and can truly relax.
The episode that has received the most unanimous acclaim has been “Chapter V”—directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins—which centers Reggie, played by Marque Richardson. A small disagreement at a party over the n-word leads to him being held at gunpoint. It is the only episode of the season that keeps its focus on serious subjects. While the episode does an excellent job of capturing the terror of that moment, both for Reggie and for everyone else in attendance, it is how Reggie reacts afterward that is most important. In public, he puts on a brave face and claims that he is fine. But the moment he is back in the solitude of his dorm room, he is broken and crying on the floor. That image is symbolic of the everyday struggle black men and women face. We must carry hurt, pain and rage through our everyday lives while at times only dealing with them in private.
The show also delves deeper into other topics including the shortcomings of institutions, the meaning and purpose of protest, and sexual identity. These subjects are handled with both care and bluntness, seriousness and humor. And with that tough love combination, Dear White People achieves a level of realness that other entertainment vehicles fall short of. It provides the conversation-starting openness people need. Once again, this is not what is expected of a show purported to be about race, but this only proves how important the series is.
In the end, the question is, “who is DWP for?” Is it for white people, intending to educate them on people different from themselves and expose their wrongdoings? Or is it for black people to more clearly see themselves and break away from the stereotyping we inflict on ourselves? I submit that it is both. This deep dive into the aspects of black life that are commonly not explored helps non-blacks to see our humanity and pushes black people to accept our own imperfect humanity.