The importance of Dear White People
A TV show all about trying to survive as a Black student at a predominantly white university? The narrative is pretty familiar to me, and unfortunately, some of the storylines are not that exaggerated. Dear White People gives us the perspective of being a Black college student. Why? Simply because going to a predominantly white university as a student of color is a whole other world, literally. With a hooking name that received massive backlash from audiences, a provocative storyline and relevant issues – let’s talk about the importance of the Netflix original, “Dear White People” (spoilers ahead).
From the jump, I was surprised by the sheer unapologetic premise of the show. With something as touchy as racial issues, I think that both seasons did a great job incorporating satire and important topics into every episode. With a play on many of the different perspectives that are never shown for Black characters on TV shows, such as the nerdy journalist (Lionel Higgins), the activist (Sam White) and the ambitious girl on campus (Coco Conners), this is one of the first shows I had seen in a long time with such depth and diversity. Not to mention “Dear White People” also did a great job integrating other identities such as the LGBTQ community and African identity within their storylines. A prime example is when the show dedicated plot sequences and episodes to the growth of Lionel’s sexuality, from being shy about telling his roommate Troy that he’s gay, to publicly making out with his head writer in the season one finale. The show also highlighted Coco’s roommate Nia, a lesbian from Trinidad, to explain the rich pride of her heritage and attending college far away from her home. Often times, TV can gloss over Black characters and make us into the submissive secretaries, butlers, or the underrepresented friend in a group of people. This show threw all of those tropes into the trash and I loved every second of it.
Now let’s talk about the issues that arise while the characters are on campus. From the first season’s “blackface party”, which was revealed to be secretly created by Sam to show the clear racism that is infested within the campus, to Sam’s white boyfriend (Gabe) calling the cops, which eventually led to Reggie getting a cop’s pulled on him- I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer amount of material that was covered. Season two begins with Reggie having to attend therapy by request of Troy’s father, the head dean. For many in the Black community, mental health is a touchy subject and I think the show did an excellent job reaching into this piece of Reggie’s character. Infusing the social stigma of therapy with a police officer pulling a gun on Reggie creates hurdles for his character to overcome over the course of the plot. Adding in the backlash that Sam receives her radio show and the rise of the Alt-group on campus, the show tackles real-world issues and is not afraid to talk about things that make many uncomfortable. But you already knew that from the name of the show, didn’t you? These hurdles also remind the audience that for many, these situations are not just new headlines and rallies, they are issues that many people face trying to progress in a world that holds deep-rooted prejudice.
Moving onto another character that resonated with me, Troy. Season one gave us the calm, cool and collected popular student body president who could code-switch without blinking. When the season one finale occurs, you truly see a side of Troy that lay untouched, the ability to not have to perform. For many Black students, code-switching is pretty normal. Everyone does it, many of us without even noticing, because it is necessary for an academic or professional setting. Troy, lost between the two worlds of fitting in with the white jocks and students as well as his Black friends on campus, it is clear that it takes a toll on his character. This is why, in season two, his loss of self is so important. For many Black kids growing up in a predominantly white environment like myself, code-switching is simply exhausting. So, when it finally comes time to examine your place in the world when you are constantly changing your speech patterns, body language and even your laugh, creates confusion. I particularly liked the concentration of this element within the second season because it hit close to home. Constantly feeling like I have to conform to the environment around me is something I have always experienced and though it may not be completely obvious, so have most Black people in an academic and professional environment.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the comparison of the main character, Sam, to her best friend Joelle. Sam, being the fireball that she is as well as the protagonist of the show, maintains the spotlight for most of the plot. Alternating between her radio show and her personal life, the audience is acquainted with Sam’s character and eventually learns about her roots. It’s clear Sam is uncomfortable addressing the topic of her identity of being mixed. Like other biracial kids in the Black community, Sam struggles to embrace an identity that is both Black and white, especially when the world views Sam as Black. With this being said, my favorite episode was actually about Sam’s best friend, Joelle. We viewers learn so much about Sam that Joelle is placed to the side at times during the show. Joelle’s episode concentrated on her and even addressed her feelings of standing in the shadow of her best friend Sam. In this particular episode Joelle reveals her feelings linked to her skin as being the reason for her not having any guys notice her on campus to that of Sam. Joelle, being the brilliant pre-med student with gorgeous brown skin and box braids reveals that colorism had impacted the way she views herself within the world. Though it is just becoming a more well-discussed topic, colorism does, in fact, exist within the Black community. Whether it is the light-skinned heroine with green eyes and bouncy curls who happens to be the only Black character on a show to fill a diversity quota or the fairer-skinned protagonist in a movie who fights against the darker-skinned female villain, it exists. The importance of both Joelle’s and Sam’s inner struggles shows the array of issues that arise for many Black women. No matter light-skinned and biracial, or darker-skinned and the “best friend,” these issues arise from insecurities deep-rooted within the Black community from a history that always pitted the narrative of our identity against us.
Overall, “Dear White People” addressed the issues I, as a Black college student, have seen as well as faced within my own community. There are plenty of topics that “Dear White People” discussed that I did not touch on in this article in addition to issues that are yet to appear in an episode. Despite this, I still immensely enjoyed being able to see the Black community on screen. There are very few shows that give the Black community the diversity and platform it truly needs and deserves, and with the pressure that this show was under to perform that task, I think it did a pretty good job.