A few weeks ago, while scrolling through Twitter, I saw yet another analysis of the new controversial hit Netflix show “Dear White People.” Since its release, it seems as though I have seen dozens of reactions, some expressing praise for the show’s authentic and brutally honest perspective, others critiquing its perpetuation of “generalizations” and refutation of the show’s themes regarding the Black-American experience. However, there is a striking difference between the analysis I stumbled upon on Twitter and the dozens of other critiques I have read throughout the past few weeks. The tweet read, “I think “Dear White People” the Netflix series is based on a University of Michigan-like campus.” I instantly re-tweeted and liked it. Here’s why.

“Dear White People” focuses on the lives of various college students attending Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school, and follows several racially charged incidents, including a blackface-themed party, racial profiling, micro-aggressions and problematic relations with campus police. The show offers insight to the unfolding of these events through multiple perspectives; Sam, a radio host and leader of the Black Student Union deemed “radical,” Troy, president of the student body, and Lionel, writer for one of Winchester’s newspapers, and various others. 

Now you may be wondering, “What in the world would a show like that have to do with the University of Michigan?” Quite frankly, if you have to ask, then you are one of the people Sam is addressing each time she begins her radio show with the statement “Dear white people,” highlighting an instance in which an individual exhibits totally uncultured behavior, excessive lack of intercultural competence or unenlightened thought. Let me break it down.

1. The term “micro-aggressions” is defined as “the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group.” In recent years, micro-aggressions have festered and bubbled like infectious sores on college campuses. They are depicted frequently throughout “Dear White People,” and I couldn’t help but notice that some of the same ones displayed on screen eat, sleep and breathe on the University’s campus. For example, I cannot even begin to tell you the amount of times I’ve gotten the “So … what are you?” and “You’re mixed with what…?” questions since my freshman year from members of Black and white communities alike. Or, the immediate assumption that I only listen to rap music. By the way, I am Black, and unbeknownst to many, I still bump the Jonas Brothers.

2. Michigan is much more segregated than you would imagine. Though there isn’t a historically Black residence hall which serves as a haven for the Black community as reflected in “Dear White People,” you will find that most parties and various other social events/aspects of social life on campus are distinctly segregated — as I once found myself at a party in which a congregation of only Black people packed themselves in the basement of a house, and everyone else (majority the white community) remained upstairs or outside. It becomes easy to fall victim to the unspoken understanding that as a member of a specific community you should only participate in social groups/events that reflect its likeness.

3. Winchester, the fictional university depicted in “Dear White People,” is an Ivy receiving significantly large endowments from various donors who actively participate in campus policy, politics and decision making. In 2016, the University of Michigan found itself ranked 7th on U.S. News “10 Universities with the Biggest Endowments,” just falling shy of $11 billion dollars. As the plot unfolds in the show, it is clear that the dollars donated to Winchester speak much louder than the calls of action voiced by the student body. It is safe to say our campus has encountered similar experiences like this in which the politics of administration and the money associated with it often overshadow real campus ongoings.

4. The epicenter of “Dear White People” is the response of students to a blackface party and racial profiling at the hands of campus police. As I am sure everyone is aware, in recent years there have been countless racially-charged incidents at the University — some of which seemingly go unnoticed. For example, the ever-constant cultural appropriation when it comes to Halloween costumes, or even Central Student Government elections in which a candidate proclaimed in a promotional video to be “the white George Washington Carver.”

5. Depicted in the show, resistance in the forms of organizing and protest serve as ways for all members of the student body to express their concern regarding incidents on campus. As for the University, the same can be said. For example, this was seen through the Being Black at the University of Michigan (#BBUM) movement, which gained national traction in 2013, or even now — Students4Justice.

The University of Michigan does not prove to be the only institution that parallels “Dear White People.” In fact, dozens of universities across America experience the same occurrences. So that poses the question, are the writers/producers and creators of the show wrong for creating such a controversial title from which many take offense? Or right for using a proactive title to capture the attention of audiences in order to highlight the experience of Black students at predominantly white institutions? I believe the answer to this lies within the end of each episode. In every closing scene, the actor/actors stare directly into the lens, locking eyes with the viewer, as if they are speaking directly to us, asking the question, “So what do you think?”

So, what do you think?

Stephanie Mullings can be reached at srmulli@umich.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.