TWITTER/THEMARYSUE

With people finally giving more attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the systemic oppression of black people, many of us are asking how we can inform ourselves about racism, and specifically anti-blackness. We should be pleased to learn that a good place to start is to watch a show readily available on Netflix – Dear White People.

The foregrounding of anti-blackness in the student experience, and a cast that is made up of mostly black actors, is hard to find elsewhere on television. The show follows Sam White (Logan Browning), a mixed-race woman who is president of the Black Student Union at a predominately white, fictitious Ivy League university, Winchester. Through her radio show Dear White People, Sam aims to alert her fellow students to the racial issues still at play in a university that mistakenly thinks it is ‘post-racial’ – to ‘articulate the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority’.

After a trailer for Season 1 was released, some Twitter users accused the show of being racist towards white people, and called for a boycott of Netflix. This, according to the creator Justin Simien, arguably reiterates the point of the show, and the need to educate people. Life imitates art: in the show, a character describes how ’people just don’t get how you can have a show called Dear White People and then complain about a [blackface] party called ‘Dear Black People’’. Sam’s response says it all: ‘Reverse racism? Really?’

"The show exposes everyday racist behaviour in a variety of ways, distinct from the more overt racism of the blackface party"

The blackface party is an important event in the show. It is organised by the white makers of Pastiche, the university’s satirical magazine, in response to Sam’s radio show. The Facebook event for the party is initially shut down by Winchester administration, but Sam hacks in and sends out the invite anyway as a ‘social experiment’, to see how many white students think it is acceptable to wear ‘black bodies as costumes’. After hundreds of students attend, Sam reveals her involvement, describing the party as a wake-up call to Winchester that it has a racism problem. An alt-right anonymous Twitter user writes ‘Dear Black People, tell me again how attending an elite Ivy League = oppression?’, and this embodies the view of many who think that racism against black people does not happen. By ensuring that the blackface party goes ahead, Sam brings to the surface the racism that is simmering underneath, for all to see.

The show provides a mesh of multiple perspectives on the blackface party. We get the differing views of Sam as a mixed-race activist, a black gay man reporting for the newspaper, and a black woman who tries to assimilate with her white friends and ignore race. It is important that we are confronted with the disparate experiences, nationalities and priorities of students within the black community; as well as the ongoing discussions of how best to address racism. The Black Student Union favours the protest and rally approach, while the Coalition of Racial Equality wants to engage in talks with the university Dean.

TWITTER/MAUSTERZ

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, another central focal point of racism in the show is the example of police brutality that it features. At a party, a campus police officer points his gun at Reggie (Marque Richardson), a black student, demanding that he see Reggie’s ID as he does not believe that he is a Winchester student. This scene explores important trends in the treatment of black people at the hands of police: weapons used against unarmed suspects; the assumption of black people as criminals; and the subsequent trauma experienced by those who survive police brutality.

The show exposes everyday racist behaviour in a variety of ways, distinct from the more overt racism of the blackface party. Indeed the police officer is first called to the party because Reggie is arguing with his white friend who refuses to stop rapping the n-word in a song. There is also the touching of Afro hair without permission and comparing black people’s appearance with that of celebrities whose only common feature is blackness. A white man says to Reggie, when they are arguing, ‘are you gonna hit me?’, perpetuating the stereotype of black men as violent. A white woman states that the problem with black women is that they need to learn to ‘lean in’, showing the lack of intersectionality in white feminism.

"The show exposes everyday racist behaviour in a variety of ways, distinct from the more overt racism of the blackface party"

Sam, on the radio show Dear White People, illustrates that these less overt forms of racism, along with jokes and comments, should not be brushed off as harmless. Together with blackface, they reinforce stereotypes and tropes of dehumanisation of black people and ‘enforce an existing system’. Sam explains how the casual behaviour that supports this system of anti-blackness directly perpetuates the problem of police brutality, as white police officers ‘staring down the barrel of a gun at a black man don’t see a human being’.

Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), Sam’s white boyfriend, embodies the show’s exploration of white privilege. It is revealed that he is the one who called the campus police at the party where Reggie was held at gunpoint, worried about the escalating argument between Reggie and his friend. This shows that Gabe does not recognise his white privilege: as a middle-class white man, he has never had to worry about being the victim of police brutality himself, and so he does not consider the possibility that Reggie’s safety is at risk when police are called.

Gabe also expresses his shock at the blackface party: ‘In 2017 I can’t believe something like this could happen’. Though Gabe means well in denouncing the racist party, his disbelief is offensive to Sam’s friends, as it reveals that he is completely unaware of the reality of the persistent oppression of black people in 21st century America. In defence of his decision to call the police on Reggie, he says he ‘couldn’t have known what was gonna happen’; but if he had educated himself about the realities of institutional racism, he could have known. And without understanding how racism operates, or his own white privilege, Gabe cannot be an effective ally for the black students at Winchester, which frustrates us as viewers.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Anjali Gupta reflects on her experience of race at school.

The multitude of different aspects of racism that Dear White People engages with, in its unapologetic addressing of issues that many people still do not want to talk about, makes it clear that racism permeates all walks of life. In particular, the way it exposes implicit biases and less overt forms of racism is crucial. We are reminded that racism is not limited to Confederate-flag-bearing white supremacists, but that insidious forms of it, that often go unrecognised, are rife amongst educated people in elite universities.

Sponsored links

Partner links