‘Dear White People’ is not perfect, but it’s revolutionary

Writer Mandy Harris Williams takes on Netflix popular (and a bit controversial) series about race relations on a fictional all-white campus.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

(Note: Article contains spoilers.)

Reviews of Netflix’s new series Dear White People have been quite positive, yet some viewers disagree with the overwhelming majority and have taken gripe with the race-centered comedy drama, which follows a group of black (and one white) college students as they respond to a campus blackface party.

Some of these said critics argue that the storytelling caters to white viewers, and that the characters represent static Black activist stereotypes. While such criticism is understandable, these are strategic choices made by DWP creator Justin Simien. The “white audience” is a relevant force in the storyline, and the tension that spills out from these Black activist stereotypes–and their impact on real life activists–is a necessary part of the plot.

In spite of the criticism, there’s no denying that the show’s distinct approach in portraying how students of color navigate primarily white institutions. The series uniquely exemplifies the multi-avenues in strategies for pursuing racial justice. Structurally, everybody gets a turn and everybody suffers some consequences for how they set out to live their most free Black life. Dear White People also takes on the topic of coming of age (personally, and in relationships) from the perspective of the activist and/or upwardly mobile Black woman, across shade and class.

For these reasons, DWP is groundbreaking, whether it’s a perfect show or not.

The series opens with a quote by James Baldwin: “the paradox of education is that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” Baldwin and DWP’s Simien, are writers who interface(d) with whiteness frequently; with teachers, in travels, in professional and educational institutions. They understand the oppressive nature of whiteness in these circumstances, but they also understand how this oppression occurs without white people at all.

Blacks suffer insult from whites, but also rejection within their own community. This is a recurring theme throughout the series. Although the show is called “Dear White People,” and it deals primarily with moments where Black students interact with white students, it’s not for white people. It’s for Black people who are in similar scenarios. Just as Baldwin’s many essays in white publications continue to offer catharsis to Blacks who read them today, Simien’s series addresses whites directly, but isn’t exactly for them.

DWP has many familiar moments for those who attend or work in PWIs. I remember my first African-American studies course, trying to decide whether I was more of a Malcolm or a Martin, more of a Booker T. Washington or a W.E.B. DuBois. Young Black people are uncertain of exactly how they want to fight “the man.” We’re not sure how much time we should spend in activism, we’re not sure what form it will take, and we’re not sure how to cope with all of the emotions it conjures up. College students don’t make for perfect activists and many of the characters in DWP aren’t sure how to exercise their activism, while still figuring who they are as young people. This vulnerability makes for relatable characters, even though they’re not the most admirable.

In the first episode, we meet several Black student organizations. Each represents a type of Black activism. There is the Black Student Union, characterized by Samantha “Sam” White’s leadership and Reggie’s take on Malcolm X; the African American Student Union, a coalition of Coogi and cardigan wearing students who seek to root out the direct source of injury rather than blaming moderate white friends; Black “AF,” or Black American Forum, a Black arts approach that advocates for slam poetry, direct action and social media campaign.

And then there’s the Coalition for Racial Equality, run by the dean’s son, Troy, and treasurer, Coco (Sam’s former roommate), a conservative group well established among the Winchester administration, known for their diplomatic, if not ineffective, attempts to petition for justice with the school’s higher ups. The main characters’ drama not only represents tension in the story line, but infighting among the different kinds of activist groups.

Structurally speaking, DWP shifts perspectives and story focus among the main characters, and although the plot revolves around Sam’s radio show and instigation, her feelings are not necessarily most important in driving the plot, nor is she necessarily likeable. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that we can’t trust Sam’s perspective to be reliable or truthful. The show centers Sam, Lionel, and Coco twice, while giving Troy, Reggie, and Gabe (Sam’s love interest) each a chance at guiding the narrative. There are perspectives that seem to fall by the wayside: I yearned for more from Joelle’s character, which would have done much to quell concern that Coco earns attention only through enormous personal sacrifice.

Sam White, the show’s central character is intelligent, selfish, fearless, funny, a little bit shady and insecure. But ultimately she’s endearing, if not a little pitiful. It’s hard not to cheer on Sam as she takes down the white Winchester community. However, it’s difficult to watch as she ignores her own light-skinned privilege. One of Sam’s major conflicts is that she has fallen for a white person, despite the obvious tension this presents with her political views. Sam toils over embarrassment and feelings of hypocrisy as she tries to make sense of her romantic attractions despite her social and political agendas.

Part of the brilliant dramatic tension of DWP comes from its characters trying to live up to uncertain standards of “ideal wokeness,” when their realities and base instincts come into play: being half white, wanting to be liked, interracial romance, or enjoying melodramatic Scandal spoof, “Defamation.” College students, especially, are likely to overcommit to a persona they’re not yet sure about: isn’t this why the show works so well?

For dark-skinned women, some of the more empowering moments comes in episode four, which follows Coco’s perspective. Coco and I are not of the same upbringing, nor do we make the same choices, but I had never seen (on-screen) a beautiful, dark-skinned woman with such unquestionable intellectualism and ambition. She is more than just a sassy bit character; a type of dark skinned woman we see all too frequently on television, with little storyline and all too many slapstick and ignorant one-liners. She is a romantic interest with a complicated plot.

We see her rejection from both the white and Black communities based on skin color, and her interaction with white friends who often annoy and offend her. We witness costly and painful beautification routines she puts herself through, despite no lack of political awareness. And of course, I’ll never forget the scene where she gets head from Troy, an Obama-like, respectable stud while smoking a golden-wrapped joint. Witnessing this feels far more liberating than say, “you is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Episode four of Dear White People is a revolution in the representation of dark women in popular storytelling.

This sort of television, not just symbolically diverse, but an in-depth look at how these sort of interracial encounters affect the lives of the characters, is still rare and important. The last episode presents a perplexing climax as legitimate Black concerns are silenced and shouted over; personal interests redirected well-planned strategies for protest; and yet another Black man winds up in handcuffs, while everybody sits down to watch brain-dulling television to numb the pain. Simply put, Black students don’t win the war in this season of DWP.

There is, however, one exception to this losing streak. Most Black filmmakers don’t get a second chance beyond anything besides blockbuster success, but Justin Simien, through absolute determination to give this story its due, restructured an alright movie into a great TV show.  

Where white filmmakers can make costly mistakes and try again, Black filmmakers don’t get the same luxury. Blacks must always work twice as hard and fail never. It is a victory, not just in execution, but in quality, which is a testimony to the power of Black writers and audiences alike, as well as the practice of revision.

With novel structure, new perspectives, and unlikely rearrangement, Dear White People makes history. Here’s to hoping a second season furthers the winning streak.

Mandy Harris-Williams is an educator, essayist and artist living in Los Angeles. She blogs at mandythinks.com