Following on the heels of its success as a film in 2014, indie social satire/comedy Dear White People is back as a Netflix original series. With its lens firmly trained on millennial race relations in America, contained in the elitist microcosm of an Ivy League college campus, the conversation remains as tough, loaded and darkly comic as the original film. Created by Dear White People director Justin Simien, with some episodes directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, Queen Sugar producer and director Tina Mabry and Silicon Valley director Charlie McDowell, Netflix’s Dear White People is coming at us hard with the talent and topical applicability to our own daily lives.
With race relations between millennials prominent as the thesis of Dear White People, it becomes necessary to understand why it’s specifically important for viewers of all racial backgrounds to tune in. We millennials may like to think we’re woke. Dear White People carefully and skillfully skewers that and exposes a lot of still-insidious racial issues simmering in the culture of one generation. The things that Dear White People gets right about millennial race relations isn’t exactly a list of good things, but it’s necessary that we talk about them.
Oh, and even though you can stream Dear White People right now (seriously, go stream it), I’m gonna warn you anyway: spoilers ahead.
“Race is a social construct”
In the first episode, protagonist Sam is a film major and a DJ at the campus radio station. On her show, also titled Dear White People, she drops some serious truth bombs about the way the white population of her school treats the black population. Following a heinous blackface party at a mostly white fraternity house, the truth bombs go nuclear. Angry students call in, and one loudly claims that “race is a social construct.” Sam is quick to scoff at this statement.
You’ve heard this statement before, friends. It’s a statement that attempts to neutralize any discussions of race that have the potential to get too heated. It can negate the feelings of a person of color attempting to speak their piece about a racially charged issue. Worst of all, it masquerades as an argument rooted in academics, but really, it’s just a tone-deaf argument that can gaslight someone. Seriously, stop saying it. Whether or not race is a construct, it does and should matter in our society, so we need to keep talking about it.
Fetishizing people of color
In the film and in the Netflix series, the inciting incident for the racial tensions on the fictional campus of Winchester University is the blackface party. In the opening scenes of the first Netflix episode, we see this party in gross, gross detail: white kids have smeared some dollar store brown paint on their faces and donned athletic jerseys, big chains and wigs, and overdrawn their lips, and they mimic stereotypes of black culture. The scene is a gut-wrenching parallel to something that constantly happens on college campuses today.
IRL, we millennials are still faced with how white people fetishize black culture and appropriate it for their own purposes. Often willing to embrace the aesthetics without understanding the cultural significance behind something specifically linked to a non-white community, young white millennials still have a big lesson to learn about cultural awareness and sensitivity. It may suck as a white viewer to see those opening scenes in Dear White People, but you better take note, white millennials: Don’t act like this. Ever.
Being the token black friend
One of Dear White People‘s main characters is Coco (full name Colandrea), who is quite noticeably the only black friend in her group. Coco appears unfazed by it. After a lifetime of wanting to be seen as beautiful, normal, readily acceptable in the popular crowd, Coco struggles with suppressing her blackness in order to fit in. While she loosens this control around her freshman bestie and future nemesis Sam, the pressure for Coco to remain likable among her female white friends is often real and present. During one particularly cringe-worthy scene, the cultural divide between Coco and her white friends becomes very real when they ask her if it’s racist that they’re only attracted to white guys. Another friend jokes that she has a sex toy she calls “Idris” because of its color and its size. Groan.
First of all, it’s absolutely real and good to be friends with everyone. What Dear White People is skewering here is white millennials’ inability to see that race is present in a friendship and that being friends with someone doesn’t excuse racially insensitive remarks. White kids don’t get a free pass to ask their black friends weird or invasive questions about black people and black culture. That’s not how it works.
The spotlight’s on institutional racism and microaggressions
Just because we lived through eight years of an Obama presidency, it does not mean we live in a post-racial society. Not only is it ridiculous to think that one man could erase generations of institutional racism, but it’s weird that millennials — we, the woke folk — would operate under this assumption. All talk of Obama aside, the idea that racism couldn’t exist at a prestigious institution like Winchester University is a notion some students, black and white alike, operate under. Additionally, the black students of Winchester are not immune to the underhanded ways a predominantly white Ivy League school has sought to keep them down. How, you ask? Putting them in one dormitory when white students noticeably get their pick of a variety of dorms. Serving food like watermelon and macaroni and cheese in the all-black dorm. Or, in one very chilling scene, watching a campus security guard pull a gun on a black student when he doesn’t show his student I.D. despite the fact that his friends are saying he’s a student. These, as well as microaggressions like white students asking to touch black students’ hair or asking where they’re “really” from, all serve as real-world examples of just how ignorant millennials can be as well as the racist ways that institutions operate.
It’s possible and necessary to be an ally for black millennials in 2017
All right, I know I’ve spent a majority of this article highlighting what some of you may feel are only sore spots. Others may be nodding in approval. Dear White People was divisive from the day it was announced, so I’m not surprised if I’ve got you feeling some type of way about how this show is tackling millennial race relations. You know what, though? Dear White People also makes it clear that if you are a millennial, especially a white millennial, you need to watch this show and wake the hell up. Putting “woke” in your Twitter profile or tweeting out articles about Black Lives Matter is not going to be enough now. The former is a cop-out; the latter is a decent start. But white millennials are going to have to start showing up, getting educated and really (really, really) getting culturally and racially aware right now. It’s not wrong to be aware of race; it’s wrong to not be an ally for those people of color who really need your support right now.