Woke Kids on Campus: Netflix’s <em>Dear White People</em>

Woke Kids on Campus: Netflix’s Dear White People

Justin Simien’s television adaptation of his movie, Dear White People, appeared on Netflix in April to considerable fanfare and controversy. The satirical series about racial struggles at the fictional Ivy League school, Winchester University, earned a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. The trailer also attracted its share of white Americans on social media miffed about the title. Some thought the title was racist. Others called for a boycott of Netflix, which, much like the boycott of Starbucks in 2015, never got off of the ground.

Unfortunately, for those of us experienced with anti-racist campus politics, the title may be the most subversive aspect of the show. This does not mean Dear White People is not worth watching. Director Justin Simien and the show’s writers use the protagonists to pepper their viewers with some snarky, and rather serious, riffs on microaggressions and racism. It addresses the threat of police violence and includes a sustained rhetorical assault on folks critical of black protest. The show also highlights intra-racial tensions around politics and skin color (colorism). Yet, within this satirical meditation on identity, “wokeness,” and the reactionary politics of the “alt-right,” I am not sure if we learn anything new in the first season.

Dear White People centers around one incident — a blackface Halloween party. Each episode, with the exception of the final show, tells the story about this incident from the perspectives of each main character — Samantha (Sam) White (Logan Browning), Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), Gabe Mitchell (John Patrick Amedori), Colandrea (Coco) Conners (Antoinette Robertson), Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), and Reggie Green (Marque Richardson). All of the characters (black besides Gabe) orbit around biracial militant student activist and provocateur, Samantha White. White and others are politicized around the shooting of 17-year-old Caleb Jones and the acquittal of his killer. White uses her “Dear White People” radio show to chastise white students for their racism and black peers for not being “woke.” However, Sam’s group of friends question her commitment to a militant pro-black politics when Gabe — a white male film graduate student — reveals himself as Sam’s lover via an Instagram post.

Logo for the Netflix Original series Dear White People. (Wikipedia | WP:NFCC#4)

As The Root’s Jason Johnson points out, all of the characters embody a particular outlook on identity and politics. Gabe represents the well-meaning, yet insecure, white ally who actually may resent his social and political standing among black students. Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson), unfortunately, is reduced to being Sam’s sidekick (more on Joelle later). Coco embraces a respectability politics. She aligns herself with Winchester University Dean Fairbanks (Obba Babatundé) to address racism on campus. Troy Fairbanks is the privileged black son of Winchester’s Dean. He represents a superficial, “Barack Obama”-type character, whose involvement in student politics is a charade to please his father. Reggie represents masculine black militancy. He lives, breathes, and sleeps revolution. He’s constantly pushing to keep Sam and others engaged politically, until a traumatic incident in episode 5 (directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins) forces him to reckon with the internal pain of racial violence.

Lionel Higgins may be the real protagonist in the series. He makes the longest journey in terms of character development, both wrestling with his sexual identity, and struggling to find his place socially and politically. He finally finds his voice through writing a series of newspaper articles on race relations. However, director Justin Simien misses a crucial opportunity to explore Lionel’s refusal to identify with any particular sexual label.

Winchester’s black student community is also divided, mostly around politics and class. A major lesson for the viewer is that black politics, in itself, is often a form of coalitional politics. Tensions around how to respond to an incident at a Halloween party spill out into the open, as Troy’s group, Coalition for Racial Equality (which plays on the real civil rights group, Congress of Racial Equality), proposes a town hall meeting in contrast to the protest favored by Sam’s Black Student Union.

Negotiating the tensions between politics and protest is further embodied in the rivalry between Sam and Coco, who at least initially, are friends. They developed “Dear White People” as a way to communicate their frustrations with microaggressions and explicit racism in their daily lives. They split, however, over how to actually deal with campus life and politics. Coco argues to Sam that her light-skinned privilege allows her get away with her provocative politics. And while Sam positions herself as the arbiter of “wokeness,” Coco reminds Sam and others that her authenticity comes from her dark skin and rough upbringing.

Coco confronting Sam in Dear White People. (Adam Rose/Netflix)

Some have argued that this rivalry is a reflection of colorism — the privileging of light-skinned over dark-skinned black folks. This isn’t necessarily a false assumption, considering how Coco is positioned as a collaborator with those in power. The irony of that charge is that Coco seems to know exactly who she is. She is rather transparent about her politics and identity, whereas Sam is less sure about her own politics and personal life by the end of the season. Coco and Joelle appear as the most self-confident characters on the show.

Dear White People is also a comment on white reactionary politics, or the “alt-right.” A character named Kurt Fletcher conceives of the blackface Halloween party. Fletcher is portrayed as responsible for organizing racist gatherings in the past. Throughout the series, Kurt tries to counter Sam’s and the BSU’s militant racial politics with a provocative politics of his own. His magazine, Pastiche, publishes an issue “edited by the black student union,” that accuses them of censorship. Kurt, like many folks opposed to black activism, tends to view Sam’s politics as solely rhetorical and opportunistic, even as he seeks to capitalize on her rhetoric. Like some members of the “alt-right,” Kurt falsely casts himself as a white victim to Sam’s anti-racist politics.

The show also satirizes the concept of “wokeness,” another term for a progressive political consciousness. Obviously, the metaphor and its underlying meanings are not new. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. implored likeminded folks to “remain awake” in the midst of revolution in 1967. Spike Lee’s character in Do The Right Thing implored listeners to “Wake Up!” However, “woke” has now morphed into a buzzword, which Simien portrays in the show. Sam’s “woke or not” radio bit shames other black students. Reggie’s app, which adopts the same theme, turns political consciousness into a game by allowing students to decide who is the most politically aware and then ranking them. What is ironic about Sam and Reggie, however, is that their preoccupation with who is woke, and who is not, conceals their own internal struggles around their politics and identities.

There are some glaring weaknesses in the first season of Dear White People. I won’t rehash some of the shortcomings around the show’s outdatedness, colorism, and the contention that it appeals to white guilt, since several critics have outlined them in other reviews. The Ringer’s Hannah Giorgis is right to assert that the character development in Dear White People is wanting. Joelle may be the most glaring case. She’s the most understated of the protagonists, and represents a clear example of black women performing the emotional labor for the movement, even at the expense of her own desires. Joelle plays Sam’s sidekick and Gabe’s counselor. She is attracted to Reggie, but he is too busy brooding over Sam to notice. Yet despite Joelle’s prominent role in the series, there is no episode centered on her in season one.

Director Justin Simien presents Dear White People at Sundance in 2014. (Punktoad/Wikimedia)

In an interview on the hip hop podcast, The Combat Jack Show, Simien said that he would address some of the loose ends and origin stories that they left out of the first season. One can only hope that the writers deepen some of the characters’ portrayals, and follow up on some of the loose ends in a second season. Providing deeper dives into the lives of neglected characters, and offering more of a glimpse of how the external world shapes campus politics would be a welcome addition in the next season. In the era of Trump and the growth of the “alt-right” presence on college campuses, Dear White People may be able to speak more directly to our ongoing national political crises, debates around “identity politics,” “free speech,” and the specter of authoritarianism. I could envision a humorous plot centered around the debate within various black student organizations on how to respond to Kurt’s attempt to invite a certain “alt-right” speaker to Winchester. Our unpredictable and volatile political moment certainly offers the writers of Dear White People a bevy of issues to choose from in season 2.

Further Reading

Chang, Jeff. We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation. New York: Picador, 2016.

Giorgis, Hannah. “‘Dear White People’ Doesn’t Know How to Reckon with 2017.” The Ringer. May 3, 2017.

Honey, Minda. “Dear White People’s Biggest Success? Getting to Grips with Colorism,” The Guardian. May 1, 2017.

Johnson, Jason. “Can We Talk About This Thing Troubling Me About Dear White People?” The Root. May 11, 2017.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.